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October 2011 – Richard Price’s “Making Empire”

Reviewed by: Vivian Bickford-Smith, University of Cape Town/Institute of Historical Research, University of London

Richard Price. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008. 371 pp. £55 (hardback).

Making Empire has at its heart the story of the hundred year colonial borderland encounters between Xhosa polities with first the Dutch and then, more enduringly and bloodily, the British. For South Africanists much of the story is already well known. In particular, these encounters were memorably described in Noel Mostert’s magnificent epic, Frontiers, first published in 1992. Like Richard Price, Mostert argued not only that Anglo-Xhosa encounters led to the tragic loss of Xhosa independence but also, more controversially, that they presaged the twentieth-century struggle against apartheid. Understandably Frontiers became the favoured read of many African National Congress (ANC) leaders.

Likewise the extraordinary episode known as the Cattle-Killing delusion, also analysed in Price’s book, was the subject of an earlier work, Jeff Peires’ path-breaking history The Dead Will Arise, published in 1989. The Cattle-Killing was a mixture of prophylactic veterinary intervention and millenarianism, aimed at driving the British into the sea, which resulted in mass starvation and what some have called ‘national suicide’. In addition, Alan Lester has written extensively and more recently on imperial networks and the establishment of British rule in the eastern Cape, while Clifton Crais, amongst others, has analysed white settler racism in the area.

Yet there is much reason for warmly welcoming and recommending Richard Price’s fresh examination of these events and processes. As Price convincingly states, many beyond the South African academy or South African area specialists are still largely ignorant of the details and significance of what were dubbed the ‘Kaffir Wars’, including Price’s own colleagues and students. He argues that these wars find little place in general histories of the British Empire, yet the Cape eastern frontier was where the British first experimented with ways of ‘civilising’ and ruling Africans. The area was thus a laboratory in the making of British imperial governance and what happened there should be more widely known among scholars of European colonialism.

Moreover, Price structures his account thematically in ways that relate to major interests of scholars of empire over the last two decades (in other words, since the publication of Peires and Mostert). Thereby Price’s readers can readily make connections and comparisons between the nineteenth-century eastern Cape and other parts of the ‘British World’ they may know more about. Sadly, Price does not venture far into such comparisons himself, presumably because of constraints of space; and one would have liked him to say more than he did about ways in which processes in the eastern Cape influenced Shepstone’s system of ‘indirect rule’ established in nearby Natal and other parts of British Africa. As it is, Making Empire covers considerable thematic ground including colonial ‘encounters’, the establishment of colonial rule, ‘colonial knowledge’, pre-Indian Durbar ornamentalism, British Empire liberalism and the undermining and persecution of indigenous rulers. All of this combines to make a fascinating and compelling read, one told in wonderfully lucid and jargon-free prose.

A particular strength of Price’s book is the thumbnail sketches he provides of missionaries and their individual aspirations, doubts and delusions. These avoid caricature or blanket condemnation and go some way to lending nuance to an account which otherwise remains largely, as with Peires and Mostert, a Manichean story. Perfidious Albion, with a few honourable exceptions, is ranged against the apparently innocent, intellectually superior (at least in a number of encounters with British officials or missionaries like Calderwood recounted by Price) Xhosa ‘nation’. Seemingly the only moral weakness among individual Xhosa was Maqoma’s over-fondness for alcohol. This weakness is itself explicable of course as a reaction to his expulsion by the British from his lands west of the Kei River and the result of white settlers introducing strong alcohol to the region. By the end of Price’s account, the Xhosa are subjugated by the British and chiefly authority undermined, yet soon the Xhosa embark on new forms of struggle against colonial oppression in the form of political associations including the South African National Congress (SANC) in 1891, ‘the antecedent of the present-day African National Congress’. As Price continues, ‘It is not wishful thinking to imagine that Maqoma would not have been surprised’ (p. 355).

Price, like Mostert and Peires before him, understandably wishes to give voice to a version of imperial history as viewed by those who resisted the British, a version absent in British histories ‘we grew up with’. As Price amply demonstrates, British conquest and rule was pot-marked with duplicity and atrocities. The desire to expose such elements of imperialism has rightly been shared by so many scholars in Britain and North America in recent decades that

this view of empire has surely become the current orthodoxy (pace Niall Ferguson). It largely concurs of course with historical narratives written since independence by nationalists in ex-British colonies, and proclaimed by the likes of Presidents Mbeki, Zuma and Mugabe, that suggest teleological lines of descent between post-independence national liberation parties today, anti-colonial political struggle and early ‘traditional society’ resistance to conquest.

And therein perhaps lies the problem. What Price does not emphasise is that organisations such as the SANC consisted of Christian converts who had a highly ambivalent relationship to ‘traditional’ leaders and culture. Almost all of these converts, whose numbers grew in the course of the nineteenth century as the power of Xhosa polities waned, professed loyalty to the British crown, and not only for strategic reasons. Indeed, as Price reveals, among those who founded the SANC were the sons of the first black African (Presbyterian) minister and missionary, Tiyo Soga. Soga combined a sense of kith and kin belonging to the Xhosa ‘nation’, which he encouraged his sons to share, with what might best be described as British civic nationalism or loyalism. In 1864 he wrote in Edward Blyden fashion: ‘What would not I do, to have all the natives brought, in God’s providence, under the influence of the English government’.[1] Soga saw ‘modernity’ as inevitable, British governance as its catalyst and Xhosa chiefly resistance as ultimately futile. But the inclusion of the perspective of such Xhosa/ British ‘in-betweeners’ rather confuses nationalist paradigms, as does – absent from Price – the question of what prompted Mfengu loyalism, or indeed Khoekhoe loyalism before the 1850s, or Khoekhoe loss of land to the Xhosa as well as the British, or whether or in what ways one can speak of a Xhosa nation in the nineteenth century.

At any rate, what appears to have mattered most to Soga, and indeed to the majority among black elites who formed early political parties, was what they deemed to be universal humanist values still achievable through loyalism. Soga again: ‘God has made from creation no race of men mentally and morally superior to other races. They are all equal in these respects; but education, civilization, and the blessings of Christianity have made the differences among men.’[2]

Early black political associations, including the SANC and to begin with the ANC, stood for the achievement of such values within a British South Africa. As such, they were not so much nationalist organisations as civil rights associations battling white racism. It took many decades of betrayal of avowedly their own universalist ideals by British imperial governments and white settler states for such associations to develop into proper nationalist movements intent on state control.



[1] J. A. Chalmers, Tiyo Soga: A Page of South African Missionary Work (Edinburgh, 1878), pp. 307–8.

[2] Chalmers, p. 431.


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