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A Betrayed People

Frontiers: The Epic of South Africa’s Creation and the Tragedy of the Xhosa People

by Noël Mostert
Knopf, 1,355 pp., $35.00

In 1797 a young Englishman, John Barrow, traveled five hundred miles from Cape Town to the eastern frontier of the Cape Colony on an assignment to report to the British Crown on the territory it had acquired, sight unseen, from the Dutch. A man of the European Enlightenment, an eagerminded amateur scientist, naturalist, and geographer, Barrow visited the kraal of the twenty-year-old Xhosa chief Ngqika and was much taken with what he saw. “No nation on earth…produces so fine a race of men,” he wrote. Raised on the simplest of diets, living vigorous outdoor lives, unashamedly naked, free of the vices of civilization, the Xhosa were the very embodiment of the noble savage; whereas the Dutch colonists, isolated from Europe, seemed only to have degenerated. If the Xhosa were to be given the benefits of science, Barrow saw every prospect that they would become an ornament to the Crown, as long as they could be protected from the encroachments of the colonists.

The Cape Colony had been annexed for reasons that had everything to do with geopolitics and nothing to do with the colony itself. Once the threat of Napoleon was past, Britain saw no need to maintain more than a military base there to guard the sea route to the East. The problem was that drawing in the boundaries of the Colony would be tantamount to abandoning its indigenous peoples to the mercies of the Dutch colonists; and this, public opinion in Britain would not allow. The boundaries were therefore maintained; but in a self-defeating move the garrison was reduced to a level at which policing of the frontier could not be properly carried out.

The Enlightenment was one of two great intellectual currents to reach southern Africa with the British. The other was evangelism. Born out of the antislavery movement, drawing upon the energies of nonconformist Protestant fervor and the ethical convictions of humanitarian philanthropism, the missionary movement turned to southern Africa as its main theater of operations after the West African climate turned out to be more than the missionary constitution could handle.

The missionaries who came to the Cape Colony scored considerable successes with the demoralized remnants of the Khoi peoples, but the Xhosa were another story. “Secure in their culture, in the wholeness of their society,…loyal to the shadows of their ancestors,” writes Noël Mostert, the Xhosa “regarded [Christianity] from a position of severe, disciplined cultural reserve.” The missionaries made no converts worth speaking of. In some cases their impact was the opposite of what they had expected. Prophets along Biblical lines arose among the Xhosa. One, Makanna, spread the word that there were two Gods, a god of the whites and a god of the blacks. The black god should be worshiped not as the cunning missionaries taught but by dancing and making love “so that the black people would multiply and fill the earth.”

Nevertheless, as the evangelical movement grew in strength in Britain, more and more mission stations were opened on the frontier, and in the name of Christianity a broad assault was launched on traditional Xhosa culture. As time passed and the vision of mass conversions faded, the ambitions of the missionaries became narrower but more intense: the Xhosa they said, must give up their more outrageous practices; they must become monogamous, wear clothes, deport themselves more soberly, own and care for property. Evangelism mutated into a campaign to impose Victorian moral standards on the natives, but also—and some of the missionaries were frank about this—to bring the natives into the colonial economy. Within mere decades, missionaries found themselves working in concert with the colonial government, acting as its eyes and ears and sometimes its voice. As in England—where, Mostert (following Elie Halévy) argues, evangelical Christianity had turned the restless masses against radical agitators—so in the Colony the missionaries became a political force.

In his account of contacts between missionaries and pagans, Mostert, a South African-born journalist who emigrated to Canada in 1947, is clearly on the pagan side. The picture he gives of traditional Xhosa culture, if not idealized, is certainly rosy. Though not a particularly pacific people, the Xhosa, in his account, were too deeply committed to an ideal of ubuntu, humanness, to conduct warfare in the merciless manner of the Zulu or the British. Their system of chiefly rule was democratic, in the sense that the chief had to earn the respect of the people whose loyalty he inherited.

Mostert devotes vivid pages to the most striking feature of Xhosa culture: the symbiosis between people and cattle. Cattle gave the Xhosa the milk which, fermented, formed their principal food. But cattle were more than a resource: men knew every beast they owned by name and would spend hours celebrating the prowess and good looks of their favorites.

Xhosa culture was based on what Mostert calls polygamy but is more accurately called polygyny (men might take several wives; women might not take several husbands). Mostert gives a vigorous defense of this institution as a “stabilizing force,” as he does of the free and frank sexual mores of the Xhosa in general. He has a harder job defending the practice of scapegoating: diviners would be ordered to “smell out” the person responsible for some piece of ill fortune, and the “witch” would then be cruelly put to death. In his defense of scapegoating, Mostert elides questions of right and wrong by taking a functionalist approach: scapegoating was a mechanism for maintaining social “balances,” for eliminating “any who diverge[d] widely from the social norm” (here he quotes the anthropologist Monica Hunter).

Mostert defends scapegoating not because he likes it but because it was the feature of Xhosa culture most abhorred by the missionaries. The same missionaries who sought to root out witch-hunting among the Xhosa, he points out, failed to acknowledge that not long ago witches had been lynched in Europe. In defending Xhosa culture, Mostert’s general strategy is to stress the alienness of the culture with which the missionaries sought to replace it. Given his general outlook—secular humanist with a dash of Romantic primitivism—it is perhaps inevitable that he should regard as faintly ridiculous the project of traveling thousands of miles to save the souls of people one has never laid eyes on. To him the missionaries are no more than the front-line troops in a campaign of cultural imperialism hard to distinguish from economic and military imperialism. He concentrates much of his ridicule on the endeavors of zealots, “hatted, clad in their long black coats and leggings, choked in their cravats, steaming and suffering in the heat,” to clothe the Xhosa like themselves.

Among the few individual missionaries who gain his approval are Johannes van der Kemp and James Read, both of whom “went native” in respect of sexual mores, while remaining vociferous (and much vilified) advocates for the rights of their charges. Mostert records the shock with which, in his researches, he came across the “shameful” record of how Read’s more conventionally minded colleagues sought to destroy his reputation with his superiors and erase his influence in Africa.

As Barrow had observed in the course of his travels, the Dutch frontiersmen had lost touch with Europe to the extent of becoming indistinguishable from Africans: most were illiterate, counted their wealth in cattle, migrated from place to place according to the seasons. The warm African climate also (in Mostert’s phrase) “made [their] loins ache”: they had families on a large scale, often with black wives and concubines, and their descendants spread far and wide. In the course of time some of them, their genetic inheritance by now utterly scrambled—they called themselves, without shame, “Bastards” though they still spoke Dutch—migrated beyond the northern border of the Colony and established themselves among the warring tribes of what would later become the Orange Free State and the Transvaal. Mostert calls these “the real pioneers,” by contrast with the Voortrekkers, the pioneers sanctified in official Afrikaner historiography, whom he sees as informed by a particularly bigoted, exclusive strain of Calvinism. One of his larger objectives is to rehabilitate “the alternative course of frontier history,” the bastard history that has been written out of the story of South Africa. Among his unlikely heroes is therefore the frontiersman Coenraad de Buys, patriarch and paterfamilias on a giant scale, whose mixed-blood progeny, so numerous that they came to be called the Buys Nation, settled the far northern Transvaal long before the Voortrekkers.

In the wake of the Napoleonic Wars Britain faced unemployment and concomitant social upheaval. Trying to kill two birds with one stone—export surplus population and cut the expense of maintaining a large garrison in the Cape Colony—the authorities offered free land on the eastern Cape frontier to suitable British settlers. Some four thousand volunteers sailed for Africa, among them the poet Thomas Pringle, who described his fellow passengers as “for the most part…low in morals or desperate in circumstances…idle, insolent, and drunken, and mutinously disposed towards their masters and superiors.” It was hoped that these colonists would in time form a human buffer against mutual Boer and Xhosa encroachments.

Few of the new arrivals knew anything of farming, however; nor had they been told of the explosive situation on the frontier. Quitting their farms, they took to the towns. Grahamstown, once no more than a military outpost, flourished as the center of settler power; by the 1840s voices would be raised demanding that the seat of colonial government be moved thither from Cape Town.

Though Grahamstown is today no more than a provincial town, it remains the cradle of British culture in South Africa. As such it seems to embody a link between white English-speaking South Africans and the liberal traditions (real or imagined) of their land of ancestry. Mostert shows just how illusory this link is. “There was a quality of racial hatred in [Grahamstown] of a virulence that equaled, and probably surpassed, anything previously experienced in South Africa,” he writes. From the Grahamstown Journal emerged a stream of lies and propaganda against the Xhosa and their sympathizers intended to advance at any cost the material interests of the British-descended community; this propaganda would later be directed toward undermining the color-blind franchise of the Cape Colony itself.

Why should Grahamstown have been such a center of reaction? Partly because it was vulnerable to Xhosa attack, and therefore in a state of war scare (it was nearly sacked in 1819). But Mostert advances a more provocative explanation as well. Whereas the frontier Boers had accommodated themselves to their Xhosa neighbors to the extent of becoming in effect just another frontier tribe, albeit a bellicose one, the British remained locked into the ideology of social self-advancement that had brought them to the Colony in the first place: the Colony was a place where they would be able to get ahead socially as they had not been able in Britain. What they brought along with them—furnishings, books, heirlooms—constituted social capital. When their homes were razed in frontier wars, the loss of their possessions was felt as a crippling assault upon their social identity, as it was not by the Boers. Hence their rage.

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