Survivance - Huda Tayob - Unconfessed Architectures

Unconfessed Architectures

Huda Tayob

“It is one of the many once-beautiful houses from which the glory has departed, and a warning to care for those that yet remain. The fine old gates of Boshof are left to us, and at the time of writing there still lingers an outbuilding with a graceful gable.” Dorothea Fairbridge, Historic Houses of South Africa (London: Humphrey Milford, 1922), 69.


June 2021

Gender-based violence in South Africa is often referred to as a silent pandemic, yet one that is widely known. In the first five days of the national lockdown in April 2020, 2,230 gender-based violence cases were reported, 30% more than previous years. Newspaper headlines on June 16, 2020, Youth Day, read: “Murders of South African women as lockdown eases sparks online campaigns.” 1 Pumla Dineo Gqola and Gabeba Baderoon, among others, argue that we need to understand this contemporary violence within longer histories of the violent coupling of gender and citizenship in South Africa. Gqola asks us to think of gender-based violence in South Africa not as a moment, but rather as a “language.”2 In this move, she points to an understanding of gender-based violence as systemic and structural, related to long histories of subjugation from Apartheid to colonialism and slavery.

Slavery in the Cape Colony was officially the central form of social, cultural, and economic organization from 1658 to 1834. People were captured and enslaved in Mozambique, Madagascar, Malabar, India, and south-east Asia primarily, as well as from indigenous Khoi and San communities, and transported to the Cape to work on settler plantations. In contrast to the Atlantic middle passages, slavery at the Cape was largely portrayed as “mild” up until the 1980s. This supposed “mild” nature was emphasized in a range of popular texts, cookbooks, and paintings which often depict idyllic scenes of pastoral farm living on what are effectively plantations.3 In contrast, Baderoon draws on John Mason’s research into the Office of the Protector of Slaves to argue that slavery in the Cape enforced a system that exposed women involved in domestic labor to serial violence and systematic sexual abuse.4 This representation of slavery as “mild” has become a means to evade the deep histories and hauntings of the violence that were enacted, and of the inheritances of slavery in contemporary society and space.

These deep submerged histories and hauntings are, however, evident in tracings, slippages, and holes in narratives and archives documenting slave-owning houses in the Cape. In the context of slave histories, Gayatri Spivak draws attention to the impossibility of a full representation or record, particularly in relation to the female as subaltern, who was not in a subject-position from which to speak in the first place.5 Yet, rather than seeing the inability to know fully as disabling, she suggests recognizing how fiction operates as history in the service of power, and points to how epistemic violence operates through academic borders.6 Architectural histories of the early Cape, then, can be read both against and along the archival grain and fictional narratives, to allow for stories to emerge around, above, and beyond the inherited material histories of sites where the material and linguistic hauntings of these violent pasts is ever-present.

Dorothea Fairbridge, Historic Houses of South Africa (London: Humphrey Milford, 1922).


Cape Dutch Architecture

The term “Cape Dutch Architecture” most commonly refers to the white-washed and stuccoed homesteads built in the Cape Colony between the 1650s and 1810s, the period when the Dutch were the main rulers of the Cape. These houses, usually characterized by a thatched roof, an entrance stoep, a veranda, and a dominant central gable, were generally situated in slave-owning plantations. Groot Constantia, a large plantation and homestead close to Cape Town, was declared South Africa’s first national monument in 1936. This moment marks the “beginning” of architectural history in South Africa. The foundations of this origin moment, however, are laid in the preceding years, with the publishing of what are generally considered the “first” architectural histories of southern Africa which chronicle, name, and construct “Cape Dutch Architecture” as significant.7 Particularly notable among these early texts are Alys Trotter’s Old Cape Colony (1903) and Dorothea Fairbridge’s Historic Houses of South Africa (1922). While the case of Groot Constantia was formed and spurred by a revivalist movement which was short-lived, the declaration of Groot Constantia as a national monument arguably led to the predominance of Cape Dutch architecture as a venerated style and area of study, up until the 1990s. References to the pristine white-washed walls and barn-like constructions continue to be dominant tropes in architectural education in South Africa today.

“Typical Plan of Farm Houses: Slave quarters were usually formed in courtyard behind.” Herbert Baker Collection UCT (BC206 Unbound Album).

In the early twentieth century, these houses were written into a fictional genealogy of manor houses belonging to landed gentry. This history is fictional, in that many of these simple farmhouses were remade as “manor houses” in the revivalist moment of the early twentieth century. Gables, for instance, were often a later addition to many houses, and in this revivalist moment, many features of the houses deemed inauthentic were often removed, and the house remodeled to reflect their supposed “ideal state.”8 These reconstructions were widely acknowledged, yet understood as necessary interventions.9 Central to this re-scripting is the dual practice of narrating slavery as “mild” alongside the concurrent erasure of the presence or contribution of slave labor to these homesteads. As Kathryn Yusoff argues in relation to geology, “origins configure and prefigure the possibility of narratives of the present.”10 The origins of architectural history in South Africa establish a material, aesthetic, and discursive space, inscribed with a relationship of power. Despite being slave households, very rarely are these houses considered in relation to the longer histories of slavery or forced labor at the Cape.

Fiction as history betrays a nostalgia for a material, ideological, and white-washed colonial past. In contrast to more recognized architectural histories, Yvette Christiansë’s novel Unconfessed uses fiction as a tool to read into and productively engage the loaded silences of these sites. Unconfessed is set in the Cape Colony around 1822 and draws on over twenty years of research into nineteenth and twentieth century court records concerning Sila, a slave captured as a child from Mozambique who was convicted of the “unspeakable crime” of infanticide. The novel charts Sila’s life across the Cape colony in a series of homes, and as the subject of violent and serial sexual violence and abuse. In the novel, the story of slavery is not separated from the story of architecture and the wider landscape. Instead, the novel reveals an axis of power and performance where architecture, body, and land meet.

Unknown Gable, Herbert Baker Collection UCT (BC206 Unbound Album).

Haunted Gables

In Fairbridge’s description of the general features of a Cape Dutch house, she describes the importance of the gables, the stoep, and the veranda that extends around the house. Then, in a brief description, she makes a note that “the wine cellars and slave quarters which are always found near the country homesteads are frequently very charming.”11 In this move, the slave-owning history of the houses is both mentioned and disavowed as “charming.” In relation to another house, Fairbridge writes, “But pleasant as are the shaded rooms of the homestead [Speir], the outside is even more attractive.”12 These descriptions of the houses situate them within a wider landscape to be considered of value, including the “outbuildings,” which in this case refers to the various barns and “attractive” slave quarters. Fairbridge’s language betrays the omnipresence of slavery, even as it is inscribed within an aestheticized landscape.

“More painful is the sketch of the house with a scolding housewife at which the slave girl drags a log of wood chained to her foot; the shrieks and cries in another house where the slaves January and February were under the lash.” Alys Trotter, Old Cape Colony (London: A. Constable & Company, 1903), 283 (image on 284).

There is also some evidence of the significant role that slaves played in the construction and crafting of homesteads, yet we know very little about who the craftsmen were. In Trotter’s Old Cape Colony, among longer discussions of building details, there are short anecdotes which point to parts of buildings constructed by slave labor. With reference to the homestead Elsenberg, she writes: “The gable of course has a late date, and the beautiful side screens of the door were probably made by an Oriental slave, skilled in metal work.”13 Fairbridge’s writing contains similar descriptions, of the “deft-fingered Oriental slaves who worked marvels in plaster decoration.”14 These anecdotal references tell of the importance of slave craftsmen, yet without any detail or authorial inscription. Unlike the few architects or sculptors mentioned, these craftsmen are simply marked by the name “oriental slave.” These books are part of a grander narrative in South Africa at this time, of constructing a hierarchy of supposedly racial superiority of the “oriental” slave as distinct from the local or indigenous laborer.

Yet, there are moments when the body of the slave herself emerges, in stories of violence and slavery revolts. In a brief passage describing the house Waterhof, Fairbridge notes that “Waterhof is a place wherein to see visions and dream dreams. Legend says that you may hear the pattering footsteps of the mutinous slaves wherever you care to listen for them.” Later in the passage, Fairbridge writes, “The legend which hangs about so many old Cape houses has a home at Waterhof.”15 Fairbridge acknowledges this same story in relation to a series of other homes in the Cape, including Welgelegen and Nooitgedacht. For Fairbridge’s readers, amidst the detailed drawings and genealogical underpinnings of the gabled homesteads and their owners, these passages hold traces of the more violent histories of these buildings. These houses, as always, embodied with the ghosts of the slave body and her footsteps, mark mutiny as resistance. However, by Fairbridge’s own acknowledgment, these “footsteps” are only heard by those who “care to listen for them.”

“A slave atrocity or revenge is recorded on the coat of arms of the suburb of Mowbray near Cape Town, once called Trikop. There at the old house of Welgelegen, now rebuilt, a whole family was murdered. One baby only, whose descendants are still alive, was saved by his nurse, who hid him in the large brick bread oven.” Alys Trotter, Old Cape Colony (London: A. Constable & Company, 1903), 285.

In Unconfessed, the aesthetic of the gable is treated as a personification of the masters of the homes. This is most evident in the passages describing Sila’s arrival at her second owner’s farm:

I saw how the land had changed. There were fields. The land bent away into rows and rows of green and more green. The driver cracked the whip and the whole world cracked […] There was the house, not orange, but white, waiting like a queen on a wide throne, looking down through a robe of white that curled over itself like the walls through which we passed […] Look, the house said, look here. I looked and could not raise my eyes.16

The gable is described as both beautiful and imposing, and is depicted as a “queen,” looking down on the arrival of the new slaves. Sila, in contrast is unable to raise her eyes. If Spivak asserts that the subaltern cannot speak, Sila cannot look. The passage is furthermore framed with the violent imagery of the whip, and asks the reader to see the stuccoed walls in relation to the violence of slavery. This association continues on the following page:

So. That was how Oumiesies’ house arrived before me. I saw nothing but the way it bent its walls and made square eyes that looked out and told the trees where to stand, and pushed a long road out from itself. And opened its big brown door. The creaking stopped, but the dogs ran on and barked. The whip cracked and the dogs stopped on their heels.17

“It is about looking. That is what matters. The small things that make up the way a day is remembered are not only to be found in what a person says or does. A piece of bread. A bit of red dust blowing in through the door. The sound of a pot being put on a stove. I remember that sound. When I was first taken into Oumiesies’ kitchen, Alima was there and she heated soup for me after my long journey from the Neethlings’ farm.” Yvette Christiansë, Unconfessed (New York: Other Press, 2006), 239. Image source: Herbert Baker Collection UCT (BC206 Unbound Album).

Architecture’s imbrication in the role of ordering and controlling both the landscape and people is further brought out in later passages, which relay the trauma of slavery as it is invested in these grand houses of the Cape. While an analogy is drawn between the slave master’s violence and the houses, the house never takes the place of the owner. Instead, it is treated as a central character in its own right, commanding the new arrivals to “look” and active in the enforcement of violence. As with Toni Morrison’s Beloved, this is “a house saturated with spite.”18 This house “tells” the trees where to stand, and “pushes” the road out.

Fiction can be understood as a form of subaltern representation. To claim to know or speak for the slave would amount to a paternalistic recovery of a figure whose interior world cannot be known. In this context, Christiansë captures the opacity and ambiguity of slave history in Cape Town, and evokes a sense of the violent spaces of slavery without a literal description. There is no singular manor house here, but as Fairbridge has noted of Waterhof, the “legend” is present in “many old cape houses.”19 The result is a novel that does not attempt to recover a lost story, but rather evokes one possible sense of hardship in space.

“And some days I make my eyes reach far, further still, and I tell you I see the anchors splash into the water off that coast, there, that Cape of Tears, Cape of Death, Cape of Struggles, whose contagion will spread up, into land far from the sea- a dry land.” Yvette Christiansë, Unconfessed (New York: Other Press, 2006), 66.

Scars, bruises, land, and bodies

Spivak asserts that even when the subaltern does speak, we do not know how to hear her. Fairbridge’s choice of words points to those who “care to hear” the footsteps of mutinied slaves, suggesting too, that perhaps if we “care” we might “hear.” Christiansë’s novel is a response to the silence of archives; a practice of listening to those silences, and looking sideways. Of the few archival records she found of Sila are the reports by the District Surgeon, Sommerville, written on December 28, 1822, which indicate bruises of a “livid color” on the “upper eyelid of the left eye.”20 Sila was only recognized as a person due to her crime of infanticide, or kindermoord. The archives describe and compare their sizes and direction: one is “in an oblique direction upon the middle and back parts of the right arm,” while another on her left shoulder measures “about four inches by two.”21 While the medical record can be read as a trace of the embodied violence of slavery, the archive does not contain a complete or full record of Sila’s life, and what it does include is not in her voice. As Spivak asserts, the subaltern only enters into the archives as a disturbance or at moments of crisis, and always through the mediation of forms of power.22

As Brennar Bhandar has noted, the colonial encounter produced a racial regime of ownership that persists into the present. It created a conceptual apparatus in which private property remains bound to a concept of the human that is thoroughly racial in its makeup. In the process, “these laws of property, associated language, ways of seeing and modes of subjectivity render indigenized and colonized populations as outside history.”23 Christiansë writes of Sila “as a prisoner in the country of lies. Truth was a foreign language here.”24 Building a counter-archive represents a moment of care; it requires a self-conscious positioning, to construct categories and conceptual frames.25 To read an architectural history as fiction, and fiction as history simultaneously is to understand the archive as always already compromised.26 This stretching of time from the violent present to the captured past enables us to draw out the sustained practices of inequality and ongoing power dynamics of architecture. It also questions whether returning to these sites and stories can enable us to escape the repetition of this violence. Caring to hear becomes a means of acknowledging historical practices of resistance and refusal. Reading the haunting traces and listening to the spectral sounds in the archives of slavery is an intentional intervention and an engagement with the domination they speak to. The Cape of Good Hope might then not only be a place of unimaginable beauty and fertile farms, but also the “Cape of Tears, Cape of Death, Cape of Struggles…”27


Kim Harrisberg, “Murders of South African women as lockdown eases sparks online campaigns,” Reuters, June 16, 2020, .


Pumla Dineo Gqola, Rape: A South African Nightmare (Johannesburg: Jacana Media, 2015).


See: Gabeba Baderoon, “The African Oceans: Tracing the Sea as Memory of Slavery in South African Literature and Culture,” Research in African Literatures 40, no. 4 (2009): 89–107; Pumla Dineo Gqola, “Like Three Tongues in One Mouth,” in Women in South African History, ed. Nomboniso Gasa (Cape Town: HSRC Press, 2007), 21–41; Pumla Dineo Gqola, What Is Slavery to Me? (Johannesburg: Wits University Press, 2010).


Gabeba Baderoon, Regarding Muslims: From Slavery to Post-Apartheid (Johannesburg: Wits University Press, 2014).


“If, in the context of colonial production, the subaltern has no history and cannot speak, the subaltern as female is even more deeply in shadow.” Gayatri Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, eds. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (London: Macmillan Education, 1988), 281.


Discussing the archives of the East India Company, Spivak notes: “it is possible to say that this was the construction of a fiction whose task was to produce a whole collection of ‘effects of the real’ and that the ‘misreading’ of this ‘fiction’ produced the proper name ‘India.’” Gayatri Spivak, “The Rani of Sirmur: An Essay in Reading the Archives,” History and Theory 24, no. 3 (1985): 250.


Fairbridge writes: “Groot Constantia is a landmark, and from it we may reckon the starting-point of South African architecture.” She goes on however to add the doubt that exists around the actual house: “There are some people who doubt whether the house that is so familiar to us is the actual house built by van der Stel.” Dorothea Fairbridge, Historic Houses of South Africa (London: Humphrey Milford, 1922), 11.


Trotter, for instance, says he has “sometimes wondered if Groot Constantia, being built early and almost certainly of good bricks from the Netherlands, was originally left unplastered, save for the ornamentation. The place is so associated with its mellow whiteness that it is difficult to visualize it in colour.” Alys Trotter, Old Cape Colony (London: A. Constable & Company, 1903), 58.


Nicholas Coetzer, Building Apartheid: On Architecture and Order in Imperial Cape Town (Milton Park: Routledge, 2013).


Kathryn Yusoff, A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2019), 25.


Fairbridge, Historic Houses of South Africa, 18–19.


Ibid., 116.


Trotter, Old Cape Colony, 274.


Fairbridge, Historic Houses of South Africa, 17.


Ibid., 60.


Yvette Christiansë, Unconfessed (New York: Other Press, 2006), 143.


Ibid., 144.


Yvette Christiansë, Toni Morrison: An Ethical Poetics (New York: Fordham University Press, 2013), 3.


Fairbridge, Historic Houses of South Africa, 60.


CJ 817: 245, cited in Yvette Christiansë, “‘Heartsore’: The Melancholy Archive of Cape Colony Slavery,” Rewriting Dispersal: Africana Gender Studies 7, no. 2 (2009): 1–26.




Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?”


Brennar Bhandar, Colonial Lives of Property (Durham: Duke University Press, 2018), 3.


Christiansë, Unconfessed, 3.


Stuart Hall, “Constituting an Archive,” Third Text 15, no. 54 (2001): 89–92.


Christiansë, Toni Morrison, 10.


Trotter, Old Cape Colony, 96; Christiansë, Unconfessed, 66.

Survivance is a collaboration between the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and e-flux Architecture.

Architecture, Colonialism & Imperialism
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Huda Tayob is senior lecturer at University of Cape Town and co-curator of Archive of Forgetfulness and the transdisciplinary open-access curriculum project Race, Space, and Architecture.


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