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Beyond the Pale: Essays on the History of Colonial South Africa.

By Robert Ross. Wesleyan University Press of New England, 1993. Xii+270PP. 37.95 [pounds] hardback. ISBN 0-8195-5258-5.

The title of Robert Ross' collection of essays contains within it a pun. As the frontiers of white settlement in the pre-industrial Cape Colony advanced, pale-skinned colonists went beyond the pale in a number of different ways. In going outside the boundaries of European society the encountered darker-skinned peoples, with whom they had diverse interactions. Sometimes their behaviour was, well, quite `beyond the pale', as they achieved dominance and subjugation through brutality and coercion. Gradually white society itself became less pale, less European. New societies of mixed descent also emerged from the matrix of colonial culture. By the 1870S, though premature to speak of a `rainbow nation', it was not, argues Ross, premature to speak of the Cape as being under the domination of a class that was specifically colonial in nature. Furthermore, `This control was buttressed by, made possible by, or perhaps consisted of, the institution of slavery, and after emancipation, and to a certain extent before then (but not very long before), by the establishment of a racist order of white supremacy' (p. 1). The entrenchment of racial prejudice, however, has to be understood alongside processes of class formation, and in this sense historical analysis has to go beyond a consideration of racism and encompass economic issues as well. It is these multiple and inter-connected themes that Ross' book explores.

As one of the foremost historians of the pre-industrial Cape Colony Ross has directed much of his work towards asserting the significance and influence of the pre-1870s period of Cape history for South African history in general. This has been a necessary corrective to the view, prevalent in the 1970s and 1980s, that the economic revolution following the discovery of diamonds and gold in South Africa acted as a great divide, separating modern South Africa from its somewhat irrelevant pre-industrial past. `I would not want to argue', he writes, `that pre-industrial social relations and ideologies determined what happened [after 1870], only that they provided a legacy on which the makers of twentieth century South Africa, of all backgrounds, could and did build' (p. 2). In previous books Ross focussed on some of the marginal and downtrodden groups of the Cape. In this one, he is primarily concerned with `white' society and is able to draw from his extensive corpus of work on this subject. Of the eleven essays collected here five appear for the first time and six are expanded and updated versions of articles which have appeared during the course of the last decade. Sometimes different articles have been conflated. Thus chapter one, `The Cape Economy and the Cape Gentry' contains sections from three earlier papers (`The Rise of the Cape Gentry', `The Origins of Capitalist Agriculture in the Cape Colony', and `The Cape of Good Hope and the World Economy, 1652-1835'). Chapter three, `Going Beyond the Pale: On the Roots of White Supremacy in South Africa', is an English version of a Dutch work, De Wijngaard des Heeren?, written in collaboration with Dik van Arkel and Chris Quispel and not, until now, as widely known as its importance merits. Some of the more recent essays (`The Rise of Afrikaner Calvinism' and `Donald Moodie and the Origins of South African Historiography') are concerned with aspects of the cultural hegemony of Cape colonialism. Taken together, whether old, new or substantially revised, the essays present an interpretation of Cape history that is likely to exert a powerful influence.

Ross' central argument, is that the eighteenth century Cape economy was stronger, and more market orientated, than previously believed. Agrarian prosperity and commercialization favoured the consolidation of an indigenous upper class--the Cape gentry--who were fully constituted by about 1770. The power of this class grew during the nineteenth century as it extended its control over land, labour and commerce. Even after 1828--when all civil disabilities pertaining to the Khoisan were removed by Ordinance 50--and 1838--when the abolition of slavery took effect, `the ruling class of the Cape countryside was largely able to negate the effects of emancipation'. How? This, for Ross, is the crucial question. He seeks to answer it by demonstrating that, at a grass-roots level, relationships of oppression and dependence remained intact. The economic power of the gentry was unbroken and the proletarianization of Khoisan and free-slaves was accompanied by a growth in racism as white landowners sought ideological underpinnings to justify the continued subjugation of a non-white labouring class. A racially stratified society was, therefore, in existence well before the discovery of minerals in the 1870s. It was, however, a fairly recent creation, for, according to Ross, seventeenth and eighteenth century Cape society was not racially ordered and was not permeated by racist ideology. The crucial years, in his account, are therefore the first half of the nineteenth century for it was during this period that the Cape gentry both ensured their continued class domination of the countryside and justified it racially.

This emphasis on the significance of the early nineteenth century Cape represents a slight shift in emphasis from Ross' previous work on the eighteenth century Other historians too have begun to believe that this is an absolutely crucial period in South Africa's history. Ross quite rightly points to the dangers of trying to establish breaks in South African history and stresses that there `are always enormous continuities that stretch across whatever separations may be made'. With these words in mind one may question whether the pre-nineteenth century Cape colony was quite as open or non-racial as Ross believes. One would also have liked more of a discussion on that well-worn topic--the influence of the frontier on the shaping of South African society. For these reasons it would be a shame if Ross were to abandon his work on the eighteenth century Cape entirely for he has an unrivalled grasp of the difficult documentation of the Dutch East India Company period at the Cape. For the time being, however, students of South African history may rejoice in the fact that, with the publication of this book, they now have easy access to some of the most important essays ever written about the pre-industrial Cape colony.
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Author:Penn, Nigel
Publication:African Affairs
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 1996
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