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.

Since 1778 the Xhosa had fought a series of increasingly bloody wars with colonists on the frontier. The causes of conflict were manifold: population growth, Xhosa cattle-rustling, settler greed for Xhosa land, the inconsistency and duplicity of official policy, the mischief-making of the colonists’ propaganda organs. All of these contributed to what Mostert justly calls “the most tragically disastrous and tarnished involvement between Britain and a sovereign black people in Africa in the nineteenth century,” an involvement whose “shadows continue to move with unappeased restlessness within the haunted house that is modern South Africa.” With the benefit of hindsight one can see the symbolic turning point in race relations to have been the moment when Sir Benjamin D’Urban, governor of the Colony, publicly characterized the Xhosa as “irreclaimable savages,” thereby placing them outside the pale and justifying total war against them (one is reminded of the judgment pronounced by Kurtz in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: “Exterminate the brutes!”).

In 1850 there began what was to be the most terrible of these wars, “a war of race, perhaps the first of its kind.” Mostert quotes from missionary diaries to attest the active, personal hatred by now felt by the Xhosa for whites. It was a war in which the British killed men, women, and children without distinction, while the Xhosa tortured prisoners to death and mutilated the corpses of their foes. Mostert devotes some two hundred superb and harrowing pages to a re-creation of this war as it was experienced on both sides.

The British military establishment of the day was dominated by its commander-in-chief, the Duke of Wellington, a military thinker whose outlook had frozen with Waterloo. Until his death in 1852 Wellington resisted every pressure toward innovation. Fighting a bush war in Africa, British soldiers still marched in formation, wearing scarlet uniforms, burdened with heavy equipment. They were mown down by massed Xhosa rifle fire or stabbed with spears from the thick bush. Nevertheless, battle tactics remained unchanged. From one frontier war to the next, nothing seemed to be learned. (The chickens at last came home to roost in 1854, when the antiquated thinking and incompetence of the British general staff were laid bare in the ghastly sufferings of the Crimea.)

Governor of the Cape at this time was Sir Harry Smith, victor in the battle of Aliwal in India and one of Wellington’s darlings. When Smith arrived at the frontier, one of his first acts was to force a Xhosa chief named Maqoma to prostrate himself. With his knee on Maqoma’s neck, Smith announced: “This is to teach you that I have come to teach Kaffirland that I am chief and master here, and this is the way I shall treat the enemies of the Queen of England.” As commander in the field, Smith almost managed to lose the war. But in the end, facing superior force, the Xhosa chiefs had to sue for terms.

A few years later the defeated Xhosa received, through the medium of a fifteen-year-old girl named Nongqawuse, good tidings in the form of instructions from the afterworld: they were to kill all their cattle, cease to cultivate their fields, scatter their food stores. A day of reckoning would follow: a new sun would rise, the British would be swallowed into the sea, there would be a grand resurrection of the ancestors; then would follow an earthquake, after which new herds of cattle, immortal, would emerge from under the earth, and new corn stand in the fields.

Public opinion split in two between believers in Nongqawuse’s prophecy and unbelievers. From the hilltops believers stood gazing eastward to sea for the ships that would bring the ancestors—incarnated as Russians—to defeat the English. Mostert records the emotion-laden reminiscences of people who spent February 18, 1857, waiting for the rising of the sun in the west. In vain: the new sun did not appear, nor did new cattle and new corn rise from the earth. Rage and reprisals against the unbelievers—whose unbelief was held to have led to the nonarrival of the millennium—took place all over the land. With tens of thousands starving to death, the integrity of Xhosa culture was shattered.

This act of national self-destruction can only be understood as a despairing reaction to a series of demoralizing military defeats and to unrelenting pressure on their traditional institutions. Whether or not Mostert is right in claiming that the colonial authorities, and in particular Governor Sir George Grey, who has till now enjoyed a reputation as an enlightened man, foresaw the disastrous sequel, yet found reasons not to intervene, the fact is that the British stood to gain much. Without raising a finger, they could watch what their armies had failed to accomplish being achieved before their eyes.

As for Nongqawuse herself—whose role in the episode may well have been no more than that of a tool in the hands of an uncle who, having fallen under Christian influence, cherished ambitions of becoming a “gospel man” himself—she lived out her life ostracized by her people. Mostert includes a photograph of her from the period, looking glum.

The cattle-killing may have marked the end of Xhosa military power, but it was by no means the end of the Xhosa. With the hold of tradition broken, individual Xhosa were released to sink or swim in the colonial economy. Many sank, some swam. The decades that followed saw the rise of a class of black farmers using new techniques learned from the missionaries, farming new crops, competing successfully with white farmers. From Lovedale, the missionary institute for advanced education, began to emerge a new Xhosa elite, “Christian, articulate, model Victorian gentlemen in their conservatism, respectability and sobriety.” Westernized by force as the Zulu never were, the Xhosa were to provide black South Africans with political leaders in the new age they were entering, including most of the founding fathers of the African National Congress (established in 1912).

In the middle of the nineteenth century the Cape Colony had the most liberal constitution in the British Empire, in respect to the franchise more generous than the constitutions of some European states. It enshrined a vision, inherited from the Enlightenment, of a nonracial society of free individuals. But it was too much to hope that in 1910, when it finally cut links with the Colony, Britain would insist that the constitution of the newly formed Union of South Africa be based on the Cape model. Exhausted by the Boer War, intent on withdrawal at all costs, Britain did what the enfranchised blacks and the liberals of the Cape feared most: abandoned them to their countrymen, Boer and Briton, washing its hands of responsibility. “The political tragedy of the twentieth century in South Africa was born in Westminster,” writes Mostert. “It is impossible to avoid looking back wishfully…. The Cape Colony was unique…. Its value as the quintessential example and ideal for an emerging Africa at mid-century, and for most of the rest of the world…would have been inestimable.”

“I am of the Cape,” writes Mostert, announcing his credentials. With its “benignly occult” qualities, the Cape (by which he here means Cape Town and its immediate hinterland) is “a spiritual birthright from which there is no departure.” He shares a tendency, not uncommon in the Cape, to regard the region as both geographically and ideologically set apart from the passions and cruelties of a wider South Africa. (How one squares this with the fact that, in the incidence of murder and rape, Cape Town is the most violent city in Africa, I am not sure.) His sympathies are clearly liberal, idealistic, and secular, though colored by a somewhat mystical nostalgia for his lost African childhood.

As a historian he is consciously old-fashioned. His book contains no graphs or tables. He is well aware that the story of frontier conflict he tells can be retold as the working-out in human affairs of variations in rainfall and the spread and retreat of cattle-fever bacilli. He acknowledges the importance of these material factors. Nevertheless, to him history is primarily the story of men in conflict; his interest is not in economic forces but in (male) personalities. His principal documentary research has been carried out by examining sources he admits to be “unfashionable”: missionary records. He visits overgrown battlefields and reports the melancholy effect they have on him. When he enters the narration in propria persona, it is not as part of an ironic post-modernist ploy. Sometimes, indeed, he reads like one of the more magisterial, all-knowing Victorian novelists—Thackeray, for instance.

This does not mean to say that, as a historian, he is an amateur. His preliminary chapters on the history of precolonial Africa, the spread of Bantu-speaking peoples, early European voyages of exploration around the Cape, the first years of the settlement at the Cape, and life on the Cape frontier, are fully informed by contemporary historical scholarship, as are all his chapters on the Xhosa. His work on the missionaries breaks new ground.

Mostert is not without his blind spots. Some of his comments on women have an unfortunately patronizing air: “Like Xhosa women, Boer women were…active and demanding handmaidens to history.” The franchise in the Cape Colony was indeed open to all races; but in describing it as “open to all on the same terms” he takes it for granted that we understand that “all” means all adult men. A page after criticizing other writers for sentimentalizating the Bushmen, he calls the same Bushmen “delightful people” who “truly believed that the animals could converse with one another.” His references to maize, the staple cereal of southern Africa, are confusing: sometimes he seems to imply it is not a grain, sometimes not a cereal at all. His use of the word “winnow,” to mean adapt or hybridize, in relation to grains is also puzzling.

On occasion Mostert reminds one of Laurens van der Post at his most darkly Jungian. There are too many purple passages on the African continent and the “occult” forces informing its landscape. Some of his rhapsodies descend to hokum: in the indigenous languages of South Africa “the cadences of the wild, of water and earth, rock and grass, roll onomatopoeically along the tongue.” There is a tendency to grandiose hyperbole (the Xhosa cattle-killing was “probably the greatest self-inflicted immolation of a people in all history”) and a certain amount of careless cliché (the Boers are “fiercely independent,” a granite monument is “vast [and] brooding”). The device of ending a section with a dire foreshadowing of what is to come in the next section is used mechanically. Too often the momentum of the narrative falters and the reader becomes bogged down in the jostlings of minor chiefs, correspondence between military commanders, petty intrigues, political shadow-boxing. The fact is, Frontiers would be a better book if it were two hundred pages shorter.

A caveat for American readers. There are hundreds of Xhosa names in the book. What Mostert does not mention is that in standard Xhosa orthography certain alphabetic characters (q, x, c) have phonetic values unlike their values in European languages. Thus, for instance, the x in Xhosa is the sign for an implosive click, a sucked-in sound, not for ks.

Mostert treads carefully and for the most part wisely through the minefield of South African ethnic and racial terminology, in which an apparently neutral term like “settler” or “native” can be taken as the bitterest of insults. One might wonder whether “indigene” is an improvement on “native,” while to insist on the name “Khoi” or “Khoikhoi” for people who no longer used the name for themselves or spoke a Khoi language or observed Khoi traditions seems willful. On the other hand, Mostert is right to point out that, as black people began to be absorbed into a national economy, it made less sense to call them Xhosa, Zulu, etc., and more sense to call them simply Africans. Thus to nominate a person as “a Xhosa” in a South Africa just emerging from forty years of enforced ethnic categorizations and to make this the primary definition of his/her identity implies at best an old-fashioned ethnicist outlook, at worst the dogmatism of apartheid; even the more cautious locution “a Xhosa-speaker” may be taken as an evasive euphemism.

Frontiers is a masterfully conceived book from which one can learn a great deal about the South African past and about the shadow that past casts on the present. Since its coverage ends in the 1870s, it does not feed directly into the debate within present-day South Africa, a debate about the shape of the South Africa to come. But it will certainly correct the notion that what happened on the eastern Cape frontier was no more than a series of bush skirmishes, that the battles that formed modern South Africa were fought solely between Boer and Zulu, Briton and Zulu, Boer and Briton. It will also contain no comfort for the reader who believes that, as far as race-hatred is concerned, the British in South Africa have clean hands.

This Issue

January 14, 1993