Frontiers: The Epic of South Africa’s Creation and the Tragedy of the Xhosa People.

Frontiers: The Epic of South Africa’s Creation and the Tragedy of the Xhosa People. – book reviews

Robert O. Collins

This book is majesterial history, fully researched, evocatively written, spanning the sweep of South African history. It gives an understanding of South Africa’s geography, which is vital to understanding its history. Beginning with European journeys around the Cape of Good Hope, then detailing the cape’s subsequent occupation and the filling of the interior by Africans, the book’s theme is the unfolding tragedy of the relationship between blacks and whites as played out in the complex history of Boer, Briton, and Bantu (the Xhosa) on the eastern frontier of what became the Cape Colony. The eight Kaffir wars that dominated this relationship have always been a historical thicket so dense as to dismay all but the most passionate students of southern African history. This book slashes its way through that thorny undergrowth to provide a remarkably dear narrative with perceptive vignettes of the principal players. There is much to be learned about those whom biographers have yet to discover, such as Maqoma, Henry Calderwood, and lames Read. Of even greater importance is Noel Mostert’s skillful narrative, which stays on a steady path through discussion of British policy on the frontier and brilliant exposition of the Xhosa reaction to it.

This is a flowing narrative history characterized by dramatic descriptions of the South African landscape and by succinct analysis of British policy and its implementation by the imperial government and their administrators at the cape. The influence of missionaries, particularly the London Missionary Society, on the relationship among the races is placed in a more appropriate perspective than it has been in much contemporary South African historiography. Missionaries were a powerful factor on the eastern frontier, particularly Dr. John Philip and James Read, both of whom have been largely forgotten in the frenzy of the revisionist school of South African history.

Particularly gratifying is the enormous amount of detail, often about relatively minor events, that brings the narrative to life, although this lengthens the book. The intimate descriptions of British and Xhosa warriors, British administrators, Xhosa chiefs, and their followers not only confirm the thoroughness of the author’s research but lends an authenticity to his narrative.

Although this is a tale of hostile race relations, the Xhosa inflicted the greatest tragedy on themselves in 1856-57, when they slaughtered their own cattle and destroyed their supply of corn. After a half-century of seeing their land and cattle confiscated by both Briton and Boer, Nongqawuse prophesied a new age if the Xhosa would eliminate what remained of the nation. Their means of sustenance destroyed, some 65000 Xhosa perished as famine swept over British Kaffraria, the Xhosa lands beyond the Kei River. Meanwhile British colonists and officials, including the well-known humanitarian and governor of the Cape Colony, Sir George Grey, waited eagerly to seize yet more land and reduce the Xhosa to penurious laborers. A once proud people committed national suicide.

The epilogue links the tragic events of the nineteenth century with those of the twentieth. It is a bit of an anticlimax in an otherwise splendid, if not elegant, history of a frontier tragedy.

Robert O. Collins University of California, Santa Barbara

COPYRIGHT 1995 Phi Alpha Theta, History Honor Society, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group