Two hundred years ago 5,000 people from Britain were settled in the south eastern part of South Africa in an area around present-day Makhanda and Port Alfred, then called the ‘Zuurveld’, by the British colonial authorities. To some South Africans (and particularly to many of their descendants) they are heroised as having brought development and ‘civilization’ to the area.
But should South Africa celebrate or mourn their arrival and legacy?
The settlers were allotted land which African people had occupied for millenia. The western Cape of South Africa had long experienced the dispossession of indigenous land under the regime of merchant capitalism of the Dutch East India Company from the mid 1600s. But British colonialism ushered in powerful and devastating new dynamics.
From roughly the 1770s, wandering Dutch-speaking farmers tried to settle east of the Cape Colony. But for 40 years, their new and strong neighbours, the amaXhosa, resisted their efforts. They fought each other in 100 years of wars, which left the Xhosa weakened .
Once the British took over in 1806, via diplomatic agreements in Europe, everything changed. In the first great removal in South African history, the Xhosa were dispossessed. It began with the expulsion of 1811/1812. What followed was an additional 70 years of war.
The Zuurveld was the crucible of South African history in the sense of being the area where the country’s diverse peoples first encountered each other. It was also the crucible of settler capitalism.
So what should we do with this 200th anniversary? It offers an invitation to sober reflection on where South Africa has travelled as a nation over two centuries and how the savage inequalities established in the past, continue in its present.
Scorched earth policy
This first round of expulsion was particularly cruel. Crops were destroyed, cattle confiscated, homes burnt. This led to 20,000 people under Chief Ndlambe’s leadership being forced across the Fish River and later the Keiskamma and ultimately the Kei.
This ‘scorched earth policy’ has been described by the victors as ‘a superbly executed campaign’.
British colonialism drove this process of dispossession, employing unprecedented levels of force which soon led to yet another war. As tensions escalated, the British simply went over the borders and seized Xhosa cattle. At the beginning of 1818, the largest to date of such raids saw 2,000 head of cattle taken. By November that year, the number of cattle taken by force from the amaXhosa in yet another raid was 23,000.
The ensuing fifth ‘frontier war’ in 1819 left the British once again as military victors. The colonial forces nominally controlled the old Zuurveld, as well as new stretches of land beyond the Fish River boundary.
By then, experience had shown that the amaXhosa would not simply stay away from their former homes by diplomatic agreement. The conquered land could only be maintained in British hands by filling it up with its own people.
In other parts of the empire indirect rule, using indigenous leadership, often worked. But this had proven impossible in the borderline areas of the Eastern Cape. The settlement of the 5,000 British in 1820 was a direct outcome of the latest war. It was to be the largest settler scheme undertaken in the whole of the colonial era.
After 1820 a small elite group of British settlers built on this process to create a new and savage social order: settler capitalism.
Capitalism involves the process whereby both the means of production and labour become commodities. While in this case the initial dispossession was driven by colonialism, the process of commoditisation was driven by an elite that developed their own brand of settler capitalism.
Deeply embedded in British colonialism, these settler elites soon articulated and perpetuated a virulent racism. It followed hot on the tail of the most massive attack the amaXhosa had ever waged against the Colony. On Christmas Eve 1834, 12,000 to 15,000 armed invaders crossed the full length of the Fish River boundary in one huge wave. They burnt settler farmhouses, killed the occupants and confiscated livestock.
It was an all-out attempt to get rid of the unwelcome neighbours. Most of the direct engagements in the Zuurveld forced the British settlers to abandon virtually the whole country east of Algoa Bay, saving only the towns of Grahamstown and Fort Beaufort. The Xhosa now carried guns as well as their assegais and shields.
But in 1835 the colonial forces soon went on the offensive and cleared the Xhosa not only out of the Zuurveld area once again, but also from strictly Xhosa-occupied lands further east. They suffered severely when the British applied the same strategy as in 1811 – a scorched earth policy which destroyed their economic base.
As a result, many were reduced to eating herbs and roots and forced to seek employment in the Colony from the very people who had destroyed them. Once again, the large-scale importation of British troops secured a military victory for them after nine months of fighting.
A militarised racism
The deep-seated racism of settler capitalism was linked to war. The war of 1834-35 was the first in which the settlers participated, and it created a particularly vitriolic racism. In the words of one of the settler elite, Mitford Bowker, the Xhosa were ‘ruthless, worthless savages’.
The landscape around Grahamstown was the scene of many violent encounters in the wars of dispossession and the settler elite were directly involved as soldiers, as a source of supplies to the British forces and as members of the colonial administration. They had the most to gain, in the form of new lands available for their own use. Some of these same people made small fortunes as war profiteers and war mongers. Overall, as Timothy Keegan wrote, the British settler elite, were marked as exhibiting “acquisitive, warmongering propensities”.
This settler elite promoted their personal economic interests. They did so initially through the occupation and commoditisation of Xhosa land and through establishing and extending lucrative trading networks. Land speculation was extensive and involved buying up conquered lands and establishing sheep and cattle farms. Cattle sales and wool exports became the basis of many settler fortunes. Between 1837 and 1845 property prices in the Eastern Cape quadrupled.
Settler capitalism also involved the incorporation and exploitation of the amaXhosa as wage labourers.
The war of 1835 resulted in the importation of 16,000 amaMfengu as cheap labour for the colonists, while the war of 1846 concluded with major labour recruitment among the defeated amaXhosa. Settler capitalism also involved the establishment of the financial institutions and infrastructure to promote speculation and trade.
The new social order that emerged was defined by racism, primitive accumulation and ‘free’ labour. It involved a continual displacement and transformation of social relations. What historian Clifton Crais calls ‘racial capitalism’,
tore up communally based societies and began to replace them with a single colonial order.
It is not hard to see the roots of the 20th century apartheid policies in the legacy of the settlers. From 1811, they advocated total domination and geographical separation along race and colour lines. Over the entire 19th century, the principles of dispossession, accumulation and domination grew and affected more and more land and people.