No. 73, November 2015


Book reviews


Regional histories of the Cape in transnational perspective: New path sand possibilities

This special issue of New Contree, a journal that endeavours to promote the study of local and regional histories, presents current research on the regional history of the Cape. The aim of this special issue is to showcase new research and impetuses within the field of Cape regional history. Regional, or local, history continues to grow in popularity in international studies, uncovering perspectives, experiences and narratives that are at risk of being submerged in histories from above. In sourcing contributions for the issue, no restriction was placed on the period of study and articles ranging from the pre-industrial era to the twentieth century were equally sought after. Recently, research within the field of Cape history has begun to explore the Cape's connections with other parts of the world, revealing exchanges, entanglements and tensions between "the local" and "the global". While the initial call for papers for this volume did not limit potential contributors to this theme, it has emerged on its own as the dominant motif in all the analyses presented here. Each author has situated his or her particular study of the Cape within a wider, global context. In doing so, the value of a transnational perspective in interpretations of Cape regional history has been emphasised. Together, the contributions to this special issue point towards new paths and possibilities that this historiographical trend has to offer to the field of Cape history.

The Cape occupies a unique geographical position situated between the Atlantic and Indian Ocean worlds. Historical influences on the region have flowed from interactions between Africa, Asia and Europe. For these reasons, the Cape's history is particularly conducive to research framed by a global approach. The rapidly globalising world has inspired historians to search for instances and processes of human interaction, influence and exchange across boundaries and to take into account wider geographical contexts when looking back. Concepts such as circulation, connection and mobility have come to the fore as a result. In colonial studies, notions of the "metropole" and "periphery" have been questioned and destabilised as the multi-directional nature of colonial influences has been recognised, giving rise to the popularity of "networks" as more valid lenses through which to analyse the past. Over the past two decades or so, historians have delivered more histories that situate both colony and metropole in one analytic field. There has been a noticeable trend in the related historiography to explore the connections between spaces that were formerly considered separate and discrete. Doing so has been motivated by the desire to understand complex phenomena such as migration, convict transportation, indigenous peoples' experiences of colonialism, missionary activity and slavery across spatial boundaries.

Writing history in a globalising context has also motivated historians of the Cape to ask different questions and to pursue new themes. Prior to the 1990s, Cape historians were preoccupied with themes related to slavery and the oppression of the Cape's indigenous societies, as well as race and class stratification. Since the 1990s, however, the concept of identity has become increasingly popular in response to a "cultural turn" in social history. As identities are formed out of complex processes of social interaction, it is not surprising that the current predominance of identity as a theme in Cape history has reconfirmed the value of transnational, or global, approaches to the study of the region. In uncovering the broader cultural and geographical contexts that have shaped Cape society, regional histories with a global reference have highlighted the importance of understanding the varieties of social networks that existed at the Cape and how these networks influenced identities. Social networks functioned as circuits along which ideas, cultural forms and practices travelled, influencing how people viewed themselves and those around them. Local ideas relating to status, respectability and honour, as well as issues of power, class, race and gender, may have been locally adapted, but they were fashioned and re-fashioned via exchanges and interactions with the global.

Cape society has emerged as far more complex than what is often thought as a result of this recent work. The studies presented in this issue are consummate additions to this historiographical trend. Reflecting current contests over identity and the politics of status and belonging in South Africa, several of the pieces interrogate similar contests in the Cape's past. Interestingly, four of the contributions present histories of the eighteenth century Cape, signalling that the present dynamism of studies of this period looks set to continue for some time. In contrast, the nineteenth century is less dominant than has previously been the case - especially with regards to the rapid expansion of studies of Cape history during the 1990s. Six of the articles feature white characters in leading roles; again in contrast to the dominance afforded to the Cape's slaves and indigenous population in previous decades. This reflects a shift in focus that has been enabled by the emergence of the post-apartheid era, allowing historians the intellectual freedom to include the Cape's colonisers, and colonising cultures, in their analyses. This is also in keeping with an ongoing effort to include all of the Cape's diverse inhabitants, of various class and social positions, in historical analyses of the region, including sailors, soldiers, convicts and exiles. Notably, the pre-industrial Cape still appears to pre-occupy scholars, with only one contribution to this issue venturing into the twentieth century.

Gerald Groenewald's article explores the emergence of the system of alcohol retail at the VOC Cape; one of the most important economic enterprises in the settlement. The discussion begins with the intellectual origins of the lease or monopoly system - which involved an individual purchasing the right to sell a particular commodity for a certain period - in the Dutch Republic in the seventeenth century. The author then considers how the practice was modified in the largest and most important of the VOC's colonies, Batavia, and thereafter traces the emergence of the system at the Cape. Groenewald demonstrates that business practices established elsewhere in the seventeenth century Dutch world were introduced to the Cape, but at the same time, were moulded and adapted to local circumstances. In doing so, the article sheds light on how one, very important, aspect of life in the Cape Colony was shaped by both global and local influences.

Nicole Ulrich questions established approaches in Cape literature relating to resistance among the popular classes. In contrast to the emphasis heretofore placed on social divisions among the Cape's popular classes, Ulrich explores a variety of examples of resistance that saw members of different social categories unite in various forms of resistance. In the course of the analysis, a rich and varied tradition of resistance at the Cape begins to emerge; one which accommodated both multi-racial and multi-ethnic collaboration and action. Ulrich shows that the social networks at work in the lives of slaves, Khoesan servants and low-ranking VOC men enabled resistance that was socially inclusive, thus destabilising the notion that discreet categories of belonging existed among the Cape's popular classes. Notably, the struggle of the popular classes was often inspired by the desire to express alternative notions of morality and popular justice.

Teun Baartman's contribution provides insights into the lives of the Cape's burghers as they were influenced by their connections with the Netherlands. Baartman notes that the Cape was an important node along the Dutch trading empire's networks and experienced a constant flow and interaction of people, goods and ideas. As such, the author argues that the context of the Dutch world is crucial to our understanding of the social history of the Dutch Cape. The discussion explores how burgher status came to be contested at the VOC Cape, with the Cape's burghers demanding the same status and rights afforded to the burghers of the Netherlands and thus challenging their position as subjects of the VOC. Baartman argues that burgher protests during the late eighteenth century did not amount to a proto-Afrikaner liberation movement, but rather were motivated by the circulation of ideas of citizenship and status between the Cape and the Netherlands.

Liza-Mari Coetzee's article examines how women of the VOC official elite displayed their status in public via fashion. Clothing functioned as an important marker of distinction in the VOC Cape and distinguished women of Cape society were able to access the newest fashions from Europe through the VOC's trade network. Coetzee presents an illuminating account of the types of fashionable items which were considered desirable for displays of status. Though the wearing of conspicuous goods was initially protected by sumptuary legislation at the Cape - intended to protect the social boundaries of rank and prestige - as the Cape's local economy expanded and prosperity among the Cape's burgher class grew, so new opportunities to be fashionable presented themselves to women of lower social standing. Coetzee notes that by the end of the eighteenth century, the role of the women of the VOC official elite as purveyors of fashion, and in turn, status, had been diminished, as members of different social classes began to influence the fashion of the day to a greater extent.

Jessica Murray's contribution focuses on the construct of "home" in the Cape Colony in the writings of Lady Anne Barnard. Employing a feminist literary analysis in her close reading of Lady Anne Barnard's life-writing, Murray explores how discourses of gender and empire shaped Lady Anne Barnard's understanding of "home". The author notes that women's homemaking in the colonies was an important enabler of the masculine work of empire. In Lady Anne Barnard's case, she undertook the task of replicating pieces of Britain in her Cape homes. The frequency with which her home-making efforts appear in her writings shows the importance Lady Anne Barnard attached to this aspect of her duties as a wife in the imperial project.

Jared McDonald presents a discussion of Khoesan identity during the early nineteenth century and how it was shaped in response to ideas of subjectcitizenship conveyed via local sponsors of evangelical-humanitarianism, imperial commissions of inquiry and colonial law. The analysis focuses on Khoesan claims to subject-citizen status in the aftermath of the passage of Ordinance 50, the most significant piece of legislation affecting the Cape Khoesan, as well as at the time of the vagrancy agitation in 1834. The article argues that loyalism to the British Crown became the basis for an imagined, Khoesan civic nation, members of which sought to transcend their racially inferior status in Cape society by claiming recognition as equal subjects.

Helen Ludlow investigates the workings of the Established System of Education at the government school in Worcester during the mid-nineteenth century. As one of the first systems of state education introduced in the British Empire, the Established System was an important means by which the Cape Colony was shaped according to nineteenth century liberal conceptions. In Worcester, this "very English" system of education found itself in a very Dutch town. Ludlow stresses the central role played by the government appointed teacher in ensuring the success of such an education system in such a context. The article delves into the life, identity and aspirations of the Worcester government teacher, Albert Nicholas Rowan, and the ways in which he deployed his social capital to navigate the boundaries of religious denominationalism.

Halim Gençoĝlu's article adds to a limited literature on the history of Islam at the Cape and corrects a historical inaccuracy regarding the origins of the Bo-Kaap Museum in Cape Town as well. The discussion raises awareness about a forgotten Islamic scholar, Mahmud Fakih Emin Effendi, and his family, and brings to light their religious and educational contributions to Cape Islamic society during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Gençoĝlu's use of Ottoman archival materials to complement the existing Cape records highlights the enormous potential for future studies of the ties between the Cape and the Ottoman Caliphate.

The final article is by Monica Gemeiro Fernandes. Her discussion spotlights the transnational influences on the early women's movement at the Cape, in particular those emanating from the United Kingdom and the United States around the turn of the twentieth century. Fernandes explores the international connections of the first two women's organisations to emerge at the Cape: the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and the Women's Enfranchisement League (WEL). The WCTU initially focused on social ills, especially as they related to the consumption of liquor. By 1892, it had established a franchise department in response to the lack of female suffrage at the Cape. The WEL would follow in the WCTU's footsteps, establishing itself in 1907. The author shows how networks of exchange and dialogue and an awareness of women's issues globally contributed to the structures, functioning and visions of these organisations. Notably, their international linkages not only influenced the women's enfranchisement movement at the Cape, but also provided opportunities for South African women to influence the international suffrage movement in return.

Guest editor

Jared McDonald

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