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 …

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