The frontier experience still looms large in popular descriptions and explanations of the “American character.” Pioneers hewing new communities out of the wilderness are revered as the archetypal American democrats and individualists, a notion that received historical respectability in the writings of Frederick Jackson Turner and his disciples. Other nations have also had frontiers and frontier interpretations of their history, and one of the most conspicuous is the Republic of South Africa. Afrikaner nationalism—the ideology of the dominant segment of the ruling white minority—draws strength and determination from a romanticized image of the Great Trek, a mass migration of Dutch-speaking stock farmers into the interior of South Africa during the 1830s and 1840s.

For Afrikaners the Great Trek combines elements of our revolution and the westward movement; for the migrants known as Voortrekkers were not merely seeking new pastures for their cattle and sheep but were also making a conscious effort to escape from the mildly autocratic rule that the British had established over the Cape of Good Hope earlier in the century. The republics they founded in the Orange Free State and the Transvaal did not survive the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902, but Afrikaner nationalists regard them as prototypes for the modern South African state.

The American and South African frontier myths differ somewhat in the kind of nationalism they project. According to Turner, the West was a great melting pot for various white ethnic and sectional groups—out of the mixture came a common American nationality. The Voortrekker experience, on the other hand, is the exclusive property of only one of the two major white ethnic groups in South Africa. English speakers—about 40 percent of the present-day white population—have inherited some of the stigma attached to their ancestors for opposing Afrikaner independence.

But in another respect the two mythologies are quite similar: both necessarily deny the right of indigenous populations to the land that people of European origins settled in the course of frontier expansion. They do this in part by making it appear that native peoples were very thin on the ground in all or most of the territory now occupied by whites. Turner and his followers virtually ignored the American Indian and generally referred to the areas settled by pioneers as “free land.” Low estimates of Indian population at the time of Columbus—now believed to be a small fraction of the actual numbers—reinforced the myth that America was scarcely peopled at all before the white man came.

Popular Afrikaner historiography makes the similarly misleading claim that Europeans occupied most of South Africa before Bantu-speaking Africans, migrating from the north, had arrived. The fact is that Bantu-speakers were thickly settled almost everywhere except in the present-day Cape Province before the first white settlement in 1652, and other indigenous peoples occupied the Cape itself. Because of the historical accident that many of the Voortrekkers migrated into areas recently depopulated by wars among Africans, even the great interior plain known as highveld is portrayed as a kind of demographic vacuum into which whites could move without really dispossessing anybody.

Yet both American and South African history are filled with wars between white settlers and indigenous groups fighting to maintain their territory. Celebrants of white expansionism have thus been unable to ignore entirely the historical record of conquest and dispossession. To justify the forcible displacement and subjugation of Indians or Africans, they have restored to the ethnocentric—and at times downright racist—argument that the encroaching white civilization was so vastly superior to the way of life of “savages” who got in its way that human progress or the will of God was served by its triumphant march.

This one-sided, self-serving, and stereotypical view of the frontier process remains deeply embedded in the popular consciousness of contemporary white Americans and South Africans. But, because of the enormous difference in the numbers and relative importance of surviving indigenous groups, it is a mythology that has much more resonance in the South African case. American Indians were so decisively outnumbered, defeated, and dispossessed in the course of American history that they have been relegated to the margins of American life and consciousness—objects of neglect or paternalism rather than fear and systematic repression.

In South Africa, of course, the descendants of those on the “other side” of the frontier remain the overwhelming majority of the total population. There is a genuine and plausible fear among whites that the frontier will, in a sense, reopen and that the European dominance achieved by violence in the late nineteenth century will be violently overthrown in the late twentieth. It is inconceivable that American Indians will ever regain their original domain, but it seems highly probable that Africans will some day win back theirs. Hence the legendary exploits of the Voortrekkers in their wars with the Zulus or Ndebeles retain a deadly contemporary relevance. White American children can casually divide up to play “cowboys and Indians,” but it is hard to imagine Afrikaner youngsters playing “Voortrekkers and Zulus.” Traditional enemies who remain dangerous are not romanticized and made into heroes with whom children can identify.


The books under review seek to dispel ethnocentric mythologies by viewing frontier phases of South African or American history in their full complexity, and from the indigenous as well as the white perspective. All three are collections of essays by several authors, and this of course makes it impossible to do justice to most of the individual contributions or to the full range of issues explored. Only one of them—The Frontier in History—focuses exclusively on the frontier per se and attempts a comparison of the American and South African experiences by juxtaposing essays that treat similar aspects of each.

The others—The Shaping of South African Society and Economy and Society in Pre-Industrial South Africa—bring together the work of a new generation of scholars (British, American and South African) concerned with various aspects of South African history between the beginnings of settlement in the seventeenth century and the consolidation of white rule by the British at the end of the nineteenth. But several of the contributors address themselves to the nature of frontiers and the role they have played in the rise of a white-supremacist nation-state.

In the introductory essay to The Frontier in History, a path-breaking work of comparative history, Lamar and Thompson define a frontier “not as a boundary line, but as a territory or zone of interpenetration between two previously distinct societies. Usually, one of the societies is indigenous to the region, or at least has occupied it for many generations; the other is intrusive.” To understand fully what is going on in a given frontier zone, they maintain, the historian has to look at the process from the indigenous as well as the “intrusive” side. In contrast to earlier frontier historians, who concentrated on the actions and attitudes of European colonists and pioneers, most of the contributors to The Frontier in History devote at least as much attention to the outlook and responses of Indians or Africans. Indeed, the essays on the American frontier tend to go to the opposite extreme by dealing much more extensively with Indian reactions or adjustments than with the causes, motivations, and long-term consequences of white expansionism.

Unlike Turner’s, the Lamar-Thompson frontier is more a phase of race relations than a wilderness where settlers were free to build new societies. But it does retain one feature of Turner’s theory: it “opens” and “closes” in predictable ways. According to the essay by Hermann Giliomee, a leading South African historian, a frontier is open so long as neither the intruders nor the original inhabitants have exclusive political control and must, for some purposes at least, deal with each other as equals. It closes when the whites have effectively conquered and subordinated the indigenous peoples. For Turner the closing of the frontier meant that there was no more free or empty land for settlement; for Giliomee and other contributors to The Frontier in History, the frontier phase is over when there are no more independent sources of opposition to white political dominance.

There is a teleology at work here that raises questions about the relationship of frontiers to broader patterns of historical development. If one asks why whites in the United States and South Africa bothered to open frontiers in the first place and what they had achieved once they had closed them, the inquiry has gone beyond the usual bounds of frontier history. Most of the writers on South African frontiers in Lamar and Thompson (and also in the other two anthologies) explicitly or implicitly reduce the frontier to a phase or chapter in some larger, continuing process. Their counterparts among American historians—with their stress on how the white triumph irrevocably destroyed the Indian way of life—are less likely to achieve this broader kind of perspective.

The work of the South Africanists suggests that it is not enough to counter ethnocentrism by looking at the frontier from the “other side.” It is also necessary to expose the underlying forces or ideologies that affected both sides, determined the outcome, and shaped the “postfrontier” society. But these historians are not of one mind on the nature of these deeper influences. One school of thought stresses material or economic forces. According to Robert Ross in Lamar and Thompson’s book and Martin Legassick and other contributors to the book edited by Marks and Atmore, frontier interaction can best be interpreted as an episode in the growth of capitalism. The long-term development that preoccupies them is the transformation of independent tribesmen into oppressed proletarians.


There are differences of opinion on exactly how or when this occurred. According to several writers in Marks and Atmore, the commercial capitalism of the frontier and immediate postfrontier periods offered substantial opportunities for indigenous black “peasants” to produce for the new markets created by white expansionism. It was not, in their view, until the triumph of industrial capitalism in the early twentieth century that Africans were turned en masse into an economically exploited class, a process rationalized by racism rather than caused by it. From this perspective the frontier stage itself begins to look surprisingly benign.

South African frontiersmen, we are told, not only fought against black Africans but also traded with them, formed alliances with them against other whites, and sometimes even married their women. It appears that there was much more racial tolerance and mutually advantageous give-and-take than in the brutally repressive society that emerged after the frontier closed. Robert Ross, on the other hand, seeks to qualify this image of a preindustrial age of racial accommodation and African opportunity by arguing that the extension of capitalistic relationships which began in the seventeenth century had always tended to undermine native economies, deprive Africans of access to the means of production, and force them to do menial work for whites. During the two and a half centuries of white expansion, there were recurrent opportunities for independent native producers to feed off the white economy, but they were invariably squeezed out as soon as Europeans were in a position to do their own hunting, livestock-raising, or farming. The industrial revolution, one might conclude, did not bring a decisive change in attitudes and policies; it merely offered a new arena for traditional forms of exploitation.

Several of the writers in The Frontier in History as well as in The Shaping of South African Society resist the notion that economics and the rise of capitalism were at the root of all major frontier developments. For them, culture and ethnicity have a life of their own that is not completely reducible to the pursuit of profits, markets, and labor. From the beginnings of settlement white colonists manifested a strong sense of cultural or racial superiority over their indigenous rivals. A major theme of The Shaping of South African Society is the early rise of color prejudice and discrimination in South Africa—not as a result of the frontier itself, as an earlier generation of historians had claimed, but mainly because of preconceptions brought from Europe and the subsequent opportunity to identify race with social status. While the frontier was still “open,” conditions on the outer fringe of settlement actually worked to leaven or modify these racist attitudes, because survival often required cooperation with, and sometimes even dependence on, indigenous groups. But when white rule was firmly established the discriminatory ethos already rooted in the more settled areas rapidly took over. These historians see in the larger setting for frontier history the early emergence of white supremacy as an ideology with deeper roots than economic determinists will acknowledge.

Whatever the extent and depth of early white racism—and this is a debatable issue—it is clear that Africans did not think so readily of the difference between “us” and “them” as Europeans were capable of doing when the chips were down. Englishmen and Afrikaners quarreled and even fought with each other, but when the European presence was clearly threatened by African resistance they generally found some way to colloborate. Africans, on the other hand, tended to place loyalty to tribe or nation above the need for a common front against the intruder. There were few “native wars” in South African history that did not find indigenous blacks joining forces with whites as a way of revenging themselves on some traditional enemy.

American Indians also failed to match the white invaders’ racial solidarity, and some of the essays in Lamar and Thompson’s book shed additional light on this weakness and help to explain why the white “side” prevailed on both frontiers. Here, too, purely economic pressures are played down and stress is placed on cultural differences that gave greater cohesion to the intruders. In his fine essay on “The North American Frontier as Process and Context,” Robert Berkhofer notices the incompatibility between Anglo-American and Indian economies but he emphasizes differences in political culture as determining the nature of the conflict and its outcome. Crucial for him is the fact that whites belonged to nation-states while Indians were members of “stateless societies.”

This meant that conquering the Indians was a slow and piecemeal process, but it also ultimately gave whites the upper hand, because they were capable of mobilizing and commanding the loyalty of larger populations while at the same time exploiting the differences among many autonomous and weakly governed Indian groups. This insight is not entirely applicable to South Africa; for there were indigenous nation-states in southern Africa—most notably the centralized Zulu kingdom. But there, as in the United States, the comparatively broader and more inclusive national, ethnic, and racial identities of whites usually gave them the edge in confrontations with indigenous peoples.

In another perceptive essay, James Axtell compares Anglo-American and Amerindian religion during the colonial period. The former was militant, aggressive, and intolerant; the latter was pluralistic, pragmatic, and capable of borrowing and synthesizing the usable elements of other faiths. In a good companion piece, Richard Elphick describes the great energy and dedication that characterized white missionary activity in South Africa during the nineteenth century. The missionaries were successful in converting Africans because their message seemed more appropriate to the circumstances of colonized blacks than indigenous religions that had worked well enough before the great disruptions brought by the European invasion. Although they differ somewhat in tone and interpretation, the two essays suggest that aggressive Christianity was a powerful weapon in the white arsenal, because it could sow doubts about traditional world-views and create serious cultural divisions which whites could sometimes exploit. (It could also backfire in the form of millenarian protests inspired in part by Christian eschatology.)

Making the frontier primarily a zone of cultural or ideological conflict in which whites had most of the advantages runs the risk of overlooking some of the more mundane reasons why the whites won out. If an ideological or cultural interpretation is a useful corrective to materialist explanations, the reverse is also true. Would Indians and Africans have been so culturally vulnerable if they had not already been weakened or outgunned by purely physical factors?

The physical vulnerabilities of American Indians are well described in Ramsay Cook’s essay, in The Frontier in History, on the Canadian fur trade. Initially, Cook points out, the trade “provided the framework for a mutually profitable partnership” between whites and Indians. Tribes involved in this commerce retained their cultural integrity and independence for extended periods. But inexorably the trade created dependence on Europeans and induced native Americans to exhaust their capital of fur-bearing animals. Furthermore, “the same trade routes that brought buyer and seller together also brought epidemic diseases.”

Cook then summarizes the recent work suggesting that “the most significant consequence of early contact was biological.” It is now estimated that there were perhaps 4.5 million Indians north of Mexico in 1492; by 1900 the figure had fallen to approximately 350,000. The main cause of this demographic disaster was the introduction of European diseases—small-pox and many others—for which native Americans had no immunity. Germs and viruses actually did more to ensure white conquest than frontiersmen or armies. Besides merely reducing the numbers of Indians capable of resisting the white advance, epidemics caused “a breakdown of traditional values and beliefs”; for Indian medicine and religion “were totally ineffective when faced with these foreign contagions.”

Again the parallel with South Africa is inexact. Differences in the degree of indigenous susceptibility to the white man’s diseases assume enormous comparative significance. In the early phases of white settlement at the Cape of Good Hope, as described in Elphick and Giliomee, the Dutch intruders confronted a native population with a relatively limited immunity to European microbes. As a result, the Khoikhoi—aboriginal herders known to Europeans as “Hottentots”—were decimated by a series of epidemics and greatly weakened in their capacity to resist Dutch encroachment and eventual reduction to semislavery. But the Bantu-speaking Africans whom settlers encountered for the first time on the eastern Cape frontier late in the eighteenth century were much more resistant to epidemiological disaster. They not only kept their numbers but maintained a high rate of natural increase throughout the period of frontier contact and afterward. This demographic vitality is one of the main historical reasons why white domination of native populations remains fragile and reversible in South Africa.

It also helps to explain the differing situations of indigenous peoples after the frontier was closed. The most obvious contrast between the fate of the original inhabitants of the two places is that Africans became the principal source of labor for a white-dominated capitalistic economy while Indians were simply shunted aside to make way for plantations worked by African slaves and factories relying heavily on the labor of European immigrants. There are several reasons why Indians never became a significant part of the agricultural or industrial labor force in the United States, but the most important is the sheer lack of numbers resulting from the ravages of disease.

That the Euro-American triumph in the United States was so complete makes understandable the reluctance of historians interested primarily in the Indian experience to investigate the legacy of the frontier as a force in contemporary American life. Their concern is with a tragedy that is essentially over and irreversible, although Indian claims to land and self-government remain a live issue and a burden on the conscience of Americans committed to minority rights. But the questions Frederick Jackson Turner raised about the lasting impact of the westward movement on Euro-American culture and society deserve reconsideration from a new perspective that would be less given to emphasis on triumphs of the frontiersmen. To what extent is the careless and wasteful exploitation of natural resources in the US an inheritance from the frontier scramble for seemingly limitless wealth? Does the resurgent American ethic of “looking out for number one” in any way represent a carry-over of frontier individualism? Are we bellicose and moralistic in international relations partly because of habits of mind acquired during the conquest of North America? Do liberal fears of “a cowboy in the White House” represent more than a loose metaphor?

The historians in Lamar and Thompson’s book shed little light on such questions because they assume that the frontier ended when the Indians were defeated. But some other recent writers on Indian-white relations have tried to see the process of Indian expropriation as a formative episode in the history of American capitalism.* If we look upon the frontier as a place where the spirit of capitalistic accumulation could flower without restraint, we can perhaps begin to recapture its significance for American history in general.

The extent to which the frontier prepared the way for what came later, namely the modern apartheid regime, remains a burning question for the Afrikanist contributors to these volumes. But virtually all of them conclude that the frontier experience per se was not a principal cause of contemporary racism, despite the popular metaphor of the “laager mentality” for Afrikaner attitudes. The historians of early white attitudes in Elphick and Giliomee are inclined to trace apartheid back to traditions established in the early postfrontier society of the western Cape (essentially Cape Town and its hinterland). The Marxist scholars writing in Marks and Atmore tend to attribute the theory and practice of apartheid to the rise of industrial capitalism after the closing of the last nineteenth-century frontier. It is not possible here to assess the particular strengths and weaknesses of these arguments. But it seems to me that these historical revisionists, in their zeal to refute an earlier and oversimplified view of the frontier as the determining factor in contemporary race relations, are in danger of forgetting some real contributions that the frontier made to the shaping of the South African brand of white supremacy.

A clear foreshadowing of modern apartheid policies can be found in the Afrikaner republics and the British colony of Natal in the mid-nineteenth century. In the former, the principle was established for the first time that only those of white ancestry were eligible for citizenship rights; in the latter, policies of territorial segregation and separate governance for Africans and Europeans were first devised. Hence two key elements of apartheid—a white monopoly on political power and the designation of separate living areas or “homelands”—were set out in preindustrial frontier polities still struggling with independent African nations on their borders.

Settlers in these areas had two urgent needs—physical security from masses of Africans who either remained independent or were under only a loose form of white control, and an adequate supply of agricultural labor. In other words, they both feared and needed blacks. Efforts to exploit Africans as workers without giving them power and citizenship in white-dominated states or colonies not only antedated the migratory labor system and occupational “color bar” that developed in the gold mines at the end of the nineteenth century but also helped to provide a precedent for them.

Thus some of the attitudes and policies associated with contemporary apartheid were rooted in that phase of the frontier experience involving the initial establishment of white settler states in the interior of South Africa. Inherited prejudices may have influenced these pioneers, and the rise of industrial capitalism obviously suggested new and modified applications for the basic devices that they had developed for racial control and exploitation. But their contribution was important enough, in my view, to raise doubts about the emerging consensus that the frontier was not a significant source of the apartheid mentality.

This Issue

March 18, 1982