Lust and murder in the Cape Colony


Lust and murder in the Cape Colony

MAX DU PREEZ tells the story of a young woman in the Swartland in the early 1700s, her abusive husband and her slave lover. She was the first woman to be sentenced to death at the Cape.


FRANS Joosten was born around 1670 in Lippstad in Germany. In an effort to escape crippling poverty, he joined the Dutch East India Company (VOC) as a soldier and was sent to the Cape. That didn’t mean much improvement to his quality of life, and in 1693 he became a farm worker with the hope of becoming a free burgher. In 1706, he was allowed to rent 51 hectares in the foothills of the mountains between today’s Tulbagh and Wellington with the promise of full ownership if he paid regularly.

Joosten’s farm was on the edge of the Land van Waveren, as the Dutch called the Tulbagh valley, and thus on the extreme perimeter of the Dutch expansion. When governor Willem Adriaan van der Stel first allowed free burghers to settle there, he declared that there were no Khoekhoen in the area, only a few San/Bushmen. The truth was that the land belonged to the Cochoqua. They were a nomadic group, constantly travelling to where grazing was best, and must have been closer to the west coast at the time.

Marie Mouton was the daughter of a French Huguenot, Jacques Mouton, who arrived at the Cape in 1699, nine years after her birth, and was given the farm Steenwerk, about 50km north of Joosten’s farm. Very few burghers lived in that region in the early 1700s and they all knew each other.

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Maria, as Marie was called by the Dutch speakers at the Cape, was illiterate but according to references at the time quite refined and attractive. Frans was an uncouth and often violent man, earning him the nickname Schurfde (rough) Frans. He also had not learnt to read and write.

Frans was probably the only bachelor in the region at the time and in 1706 he married Maria, then only 16 and thus 20 years younger than him. They lived together on his farm, now called Bartholomeusklip. (The farm has retained the name but is today an upmarket nature reserve and lodge near the Voëlvlei Dam and Hermon railway station, not far from Riebeek-Kasteel.) In 1709 their first son, Jacob, was born and the second, Francois, in 1712.

Frans was successful enough to buy two young slaves. We don’t know their real names — the colonial authorities and slave “owners” didn’t think slaves were worthy enough to record their names — but they were called Titus van Bengale (he was from Bengal in India) and Fortujn van Angola. Titus was six years older than Maria and Fortujn a few years younger than her.

Let’s add one more name, then we have all the dramatis personae of this sordid yet heartbreaking tale: Pieter van Madagaskar, a slave whom Frans had bought from a neighbour but had not yet paid for; he befriended Titus and Fortujn and was hanging around Bartholomeusklip.

It is the afternoon of January 3, 1714. Frans and Maria’s neighbour, Isaac Visagie, arrives at Bartholomeusklip to enquire whether they have any news of one of his slaves who has deserted. As he approaches the homestead, he hears a shot fired. Frans isn’t at home; Maria explains that he went out to herd the cattle and perhaps he was the one who  fired the shot. Isaac says he’ll return a little later to see him, but when he gets back there is still no sign of Schurfde Frans. Isaac hears Titus calling out to Frans outside the house. He leaves after midnight.

A day later the word starts spreading among the burghers that Frans has disappeared. Did a leopard get him? Did a runaway slave or perhaps a San/Bushman hunter kill him? Eventually, Maria travels to Stellenbosch to report that her husband is missing and magistrate Nicolaas van der Heuvel starts his investigation.

It’s a few weeks later, early February 1714. Heemraad (a local councillor assisting the magistrate) Jacques Theron visits Bartholomeusklip, where Maria is running the farm and looking after her two boys, on his way to Tulbagh. He witnesses something that he finds unacceptable and this leads to a twist in the case: he sees three male and two female slaves with Maria inside the house eating bread and drinking wine.

He asks Maria why she is treating slaves with such familiarity, and Maria responds that they are visiting her slaves and it is Saturday after all, not a working day.

Theron reports this to Van der Heuvel, who agrees that it is fishy and unacceptable behaviour and orders Theron to formally question her about her husband's disappearance. The questioning takes place on a neighbouring farm and is attended by two other members of the heemraad, Jacob Leever and Martinus Berg. Maria tells the men what she said before: Frans told Titus to clear the area where the wheat is threshed while he rounded up the cattle, then he vanished.

Pieter van Madagaskar now enters the drama. A week or so before Frans’s disappearance, he and a few other slaves decided to flee the VOC’s jurisdiction and walked further north. On the day of Frans’s disappearance, they rob a farmhouse and steal some sheep from the Khoekhoen who then attack them, whereupon the slaves return to their owners and get arrested.

Pieter is locked up in the Castle and charged with desertion and stock theft. Van den Heuvel hears that Pieter was at Bartholomeusklip just before Frans’s disappearance and has been telling other slaves that he knows what happened.

On April 27, the magistrate travels to the Castle to interrogate him with members of the Judicial Council in attendance. But Pieter is schtum. He says he never told stories about Frans’s slaves killing him, although he did hear neighbour Dirk Bronski’s herdboy spreading stories like that. (Bronski was Pieter’s previous “owner”.) He says the other slaves forced him to desert with them, but he returned because he did nothing wrong.

The rumour mill is working overtime in the free burgher community, with salacious stories about Maria’s relationship with her slaves. In early May, the magistrate orders his men to take Maria, Titus and Fortujn to the Castle for interrogation. On the evening of May 15, the party stops over on a farm at Tygerberg. Maria further shocks the officials when she buys wine for Titus and Fortujn and asks that they join her at the fire.

Maria tells the interrogators of the Judicial Council the same story she’s told before, but this time adds that Pieter van Madagaskar could be her husband’s murderer. She says Pieter and Frans had several violent arguments and Pieter once threatened to assault Frans. Maria is then allowed to go home but the two slaves remain in custody in the Castle’s Dark Hole, a dungeon with no windows where suspects were tortured.

Titus confirms under interrogation that Pieter has threatened Frans, but maintains his own innocence. He says he went looking for Frans at the time and all he could find was a footprint, possibly of a Khoekhoen.

It is May 28 and the interrogators recall Pieter after gaining more information. Pieter cracks. He signs a confession, saying Titus first asked him to kill Frans, and shortly afterwards Maria told him if he murdered her husband, she would buy him from his “owner” and free him after three years. Pieter says he refused, saying he had nothing against Schurfde Frans. The next day, he says, Fortujn told him Maria had sent him with the news that Frans was out looking for cattle and it was a good opportunity to kill him. Pieter says he refused and left the farm.

June 22. It’s Fortujn’s turn to be interrogated, and by now the investigators have serious questions. He denies that Maria asked him to approach Pieter to murder Frans, but confirms that Pieter told him that Maria promised to set him free if he killed her husband. Under further interrogation, when Pieter is brought into the room with him, he eventually confesses that Maria indeed sent him to tell Pieter that Frans was out in the veld and that it would be a good time to kill him.

And then Fortujn, only 20 at the time, makes a revelation that confirms magistrate Van den Heuvel’s suspicions and all the gossip among the free burghers: Maria and Titus are lovers.

June 28. Titus is back in the interrogation room. He stridently denies that he has had anything to do with Frans’s disappearance — in fact, he says, Frans once told him to shoot Pieter.

But Titus cannot deny his relationship with Maria. He says she asked him several times to sleep with her and he refused, but then she got into his bed and so the relationship started about three years ago.

Sex between a European woman and a slave was regarded as a heinous and godless act at the time, although sex between European men and slave women was quite common — quite a number of European men married slaves after they were manumitted. Magistrate Van der Heuvel and the men of the Judicial Council are now even more determined to solve the murder and punish the guilty.

At his next interrogation, Titus breaks down. On the day in question, he says, Schurfde Frans came home and went to sleep. Maria hit her sleeping husband with a log. He fell out of bed and was dead. Titus says he and Fortujn then dragged Frans’s body to the wheat field near the house and buried him in a porcupine’s burrow.

July 5. Members of the Judicial Council travel to Bartholomeusklip to question Maria on the latest information. She now tries to implicate Titus, saying she heard a shot fired on January 3 and when she went to the house she saw Frans lying on the ground with Titus standing nearby.

The investigators find Frans’s remains in the porcupine burrow and take Maria back to the Castle. They now know Schurfde Frans was murdered, but which one of the three suspects who blame each other — Pieter was by now excluded — was the murderer? Magistrate Van den Heuvel feels the only way to get to the truth is to torture the suspects and, according to the custom of the time, the governor decrees that this can be done.

An extraordinary turn of events makes this drastic step unnecessary. On August 13, a man sent by Van den Heuvel to check on the cattle at Bartholomeusklip, Hartwich Hinrich Ritters, stops over at the farm Vleesbank to talk to Aletta Rousseau, who is looking after Maria’s two boys. She tells him that five-year-old Jacob has told her in great detail how his father was murdered. Ritters questions the boy  and this is the story that unfolds:

His parents had an argument on January 3. He saw his mother running away and his father following her. Titus then grabbed a rifle and shot at his father, but missed. The two wrestled, then Fortujn hit his father over the head with a heavy log. His mother came out of the house and told Titus and Fortujn to hide the body behind the house. She made Jacob swear that he would never tell anyone what he saw.

August 16. Officials of the Judicial Council read the boy’s statement to his mother. Maria breaks down and confesses. She has indeed had a sexual relationship with Titus before and after Frans’s death. Her marriage was unhappy and in nine years Frans gave her only one dress to wear, she says. Six months before her husband’s death, she discussed murdering her husband with Titus and later also asked Pieter van Madagaskar to kill him.

Maria confirms everything her son told Ritters. On January 3, her husband threatened to beat her up and she ran away from him. Titus shot at him, then Fortujn hit him over the head. The two slaves finished him off where he lay in a pool of blood. She indeed asked them to bury him and told the two men that if they never talked about it, nobody would find out.

Hearing all this and after some time on the rack, Fortujn also confesses to his part in the murder. He confirms that Jacob was with him that afternoon and witnessed his father’s murder.

August 30. Sentencing day.

It is hard to understand now how a court could impose such utterly barbaric sentences, but this was not uncommon in Europe and elsewhere during the early 1700s. Brace yourself:

Maria, guilty of encouraging the two men to murder her husband, of obstruction of justice and of consorting with a black slave, is sentenced to be tied to a pole just outside the Castle. Her face is to be scorched black, she is to be strangled to death with a cord, then her body is to be exhibited publicly until it is consumed by birds.

The practice of blaker, the blacking of the face with burning straw, was an old European punishment for heresy or witchcraft. In Maria’s case, it was punishment for having sex with a black slave.

During her interrogation, one of her questioners was recorded as saying, when Maria said she didn’t think there was anything wrong with sleeping in the same bed as Titus: “Could she deny that this behaviour had provoked a contemptible slave to have carnal intercourse with her and that she had gratified her foul and godless lust with him?”

The sentence is executed on September 1, 1714.

Titus isn’t that lucky. He is to be impaled alive in a seating position; meaning he is forced onto a sharpened pole, entering his anus and exiting his neck. After his death he is to be beheaded and his right hand is to be chopped off. His head and hand are to be nailed to a pole and exhibited on the boundary of his master’s property.

The official scribe of the Castle reported the death of Titus thus on September 3: “The slave Titus, mentioned above, died about midday, having lived in his misery about 48 hours; something horrible to think of, to say nothing of personally beholding the misery. It is said that four hours after his impalement he received a bottle of arrack from which he drank freely and heartily. When advised not to take too much lest he should get drunk, he answered that it did not matter, as he sat fast enough, and that there was no fear of his falling. It is true that while sitting in that deplorable state, he often joked, and scoffingly said that he would never again believe a woman. A way of dying lauded by the Romans, but damnable among the Christians.”

Fortujn is to be tied to a cross, his right hand chopped off and all his limbs broken with a heavy instrument (radbraak). After his death, his head and hand are to be exhibited next to those of Titus.

Maria Joosten was the first white woman to be condemned to death at the Cape.

Love didn’t work out well for her.


(Much of this information come from Barend Toerien's book Die Wegraak van Frans Joosten (Protea) and Nigel Penn's research: AJA02590190_691 (

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