University of the Witwatersrand
|I think history is more likely to be born on beaches, marginal spaces in between land and sea. Anyway, this is where I would take you, to beaches where everything is relativised a little, turned around, where tradition is as much invented as handed down, where otherness is both a new discovery and a reflection of something old.|
In contrast to the numinous beaches of the South Pacific, so vividly evoked by Greg Dening, the South African shoreline can seem unimportantly pretty or, where the coast is flat and dull, simply unimportant. The "Whites Only" signs have long since been removed from the bathing places. The harbours are heavily industrial - except where they have been carefully made-over to appeal to tourists. Unlike those classic sites of production of South African history - the mine, the farm and the city - the South African coast has not attracted much attention from academic historians. Nor, generally speaking, would it be appropriate for students of southern Africa to stay too long, as it were, at the beach. Understanding South African society almost always requires the researcher to make the trek inland. As this article will argue however, at least some encounters on the shoreline had a genuine, lasting and widespread social significance. Like their Pacific equivalents, these were encounters that created new 'others' and helped to invent new traditions.
Between 1860 and 1900, approximately 250,000 settlers arrived in South Africa from Britain. With, it seems, very few exceptions, British immigrants to South Africa between the 1850s and the 1890s landed at one of three ports: Cape Town in the western Cape, Port Elizabeth in the eastern Cape or Durban in Natal. The experiences of migrants at each of these ports obviously differed considerably from each other and also changed very much from the pre-industrial 1850s to the 1890s, by which time each port had been furnished with all the conventional equipment of the industrial age. Nevertheless, migrants from Britain exhibited a significantly similar general pattern of perception of these experiences throughout the period. The first of these was an immediate and powerful perception on British migrants' part of an enormous cultural and somatic gulf between themselves and Black people. Second and relatedly, a perception of Black people as 'picturesque.' Third, a sense of fear or displeasure. A fourth perception arose from the fact that most, if not all, of the Black people whom migrants first encountered as they arrived in South Africa were manual labourers. All this seems very likely to have helped to persuade British migrants that social subordination and employment in the lowest-status work were Black people's proper calling.
In the earlier part of the period only Cape Town had a breakwater which protected ships from the surf. At Port Elizabeth and Durban, getting on shore was more dramatic - requiring the use of surf-boats. At the very last moment of debarkation, there was, for many migrants, a remarkably symbolic moment. As diaries, letters and memoirs testify, the importance of this moment is not merely an historian's imagining - it seems to have remained with migrants throughout their lives. This was the moment at which the new arrivals were carried on to the African shore by Black men, sometimes in a sedan chair, but often literally on their backs. As an immigrant policeman, Edward Wilson, described it in 1860 :
There are two highly significant aspects of this extraordinary description. The migrants' very first interaction with Black people in South Africa was as labourers, subordinated and functionalised in the most literal and dramatic way possible. The second significant point is the way in which Wilson described the porter. So great, in fact, was the gap in culture and appearance between the porter and the man he carried that the immigrant was unable to think of him as fully human. He was a 'specimen,' his skin was not really human skin and - a common White South African conceit of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries - his hair was not really human hair, but 'wool'.
Other descriptions of this moment are not quite so vivid or evocative, but they are sufficiently alike to suggest that many British immigrants probably experienced a similar set of emotions. A 16 year old Anglican catechist enjoyed being carried ashore at Port Elizabeth in 1854 by men 'singing and whooping like savages;' a young army officer noted in 1856 that 'The English ladies who were carried pick-a-back in this fashion looked terribly shocked....'. In a novel written in the mid-1870s as a celebration of the achievements of the Natal settlers of 1849-50, the men carrying ashore the immigrants are referred to as noisy and somewhat terrifying 'creatures.' As late as 1875, one settler recalled in his memoir :
There was only a very small jetty at Port Elizabeth, and passengers landed on the beach. It was necessary for one to get on the back of a nigger to be carried through the surf and thereby avoid getting wet.
Even in a case like this, where being carried ashore by a Black man was accepted unemotionally, the experience is extremely likely to have been a powerful lesson in the nature of the racial order as seen from the colonisers' perspective.
Such experiences were represented and condensed for the readers of the Cape Monthly Magazine in 'Sandy's Letters to his Kinsfolk.' The Cape Monthly's editors amused themselves by insisting these were genuine. This is very unlikely, but the piece does suggest that the experiences of the immigrants quoted in this paper were sufficiently typical to be fictionalised :
It ought to be noted that 'Sandy' is depicted as rapidly losing his original fear. Of course, by the end of our period, the experience of landing at Port Elizabeth or Durban had become a staid and mechanical matter. However, in the latter case, a hint of the earlier exoticism was perhaps retained. While most people disembarking at Durban could soberly have taken the train from the dock to the centre of town, there appears also to have been a more unusual experience available in the late 1880s. In 1889, a seven-year-old Australian boy was introduced to South Africa in a way almost as symbolic as being carried ashore. It was a deeply extraordinary and memorable experience, vivid in the memory of an old man, having taught him the lesson of difference and subordination as thoroughly as the earlier arrangement could have done :
What struck immigrants disembarking at Cape Town throughout the period was the wide ethnic diversity of the townspeople which migrants often referred to as the 'motley' nature of the population. This, and particularly the perceived oddity of the usual dress of Cape Malays, struck British migrants with considerable force, creating, though less dramatically than the Port Elizabeth and Durban experiences, a sense of a great social gap between themselves and Black South Africans. Looking back over forty years, most of which seem to have been spent in the Cape, one J. Cruickshank recalled his first impressions of Cape Town in 1860 :
For Cruickshank the Malay community appears never to have resolved itself into individuals. They remained a firmly distanced 'they.' Much the same response can be observed in the case of the young army officer named Brabant, who, on landing at Cape Town, felt himself to have been confronted 'by hundreds of gaily dressed Malays... [who] fought for our luggage.'
It was also entirely usual for new arrivals to find the Cape's Black population pleasantly strange, or 'picturesque.' For instance, the wife of the first Anglican Bishop of Grahamstown, Frances Armstrong, recorded in her diary that on landing at Cape Town in 1856 :
A few days later, she contrasted this with the 'noble' Mfengu workers by whom her family was carried ashore at Port Elizabeth. The Black people of Cape Town were amusing, but not, in her opinion, able to 'become a people.' Of course, Armstrong - a missionary - took a more universalist position on race than most settlers (from what mixture of conviction and pastoral obligation it is impossible to guess), but it is interesting to note that, in the case of Cape Town Black people at least, she had some of the same feelings of superiority and an unbridgeable social gap as her less religious contemporaries. In 1861, Louisa Ross described her first impression of Cape Town's Malays in even more positive terms, thinking of them as attractive, but clearly also as an exotic, un-differentiated and childlike mass :
An adventurous young Jewish East Ender called Louis Cohen, as socially distinct as it was possible to be from the High Church sentiment of Frances Armstrong or the refined aestheticism of Louisa Ross, had a remarkably similar first impression of Cape Town in the early 1870s :
On one of his first nights in Cape Town, Cohen visited a public dance hall to which White men and particularly, he suggests, those fresh from England, went in search of (mainly non-white) prostitutes. Cohen found the dancing pleasant and the women attractive, but also somewhat disconcerting. The scene was 'decidedly primitive,' 'they danced like wild things.... became boisterous and a trifle quarrelsome.' Cohen, then, while prepared - in common with many other male English immigrants - to consider non-white South African women as part of their sexual world, was not able to integrate them into his social world.
For Ross, Armstrong and Cohen, social distance from coloured people was primarily created by perceived exoticism. In the case of Africans, an equivalent or greater distance was often created by a sense of threat. Louisa Ross for instance, first encountered Africans in Grahamstown, which she liked in general because it was 'very pretty, very clean, and very pleasant' and because 'the tone and character of the place are decidedly British.' Its Britishness, however, seemed unfortunately to extend to Africans, described as 'fierce-eyed natives who prowl and stalk about its suburbs... almost as independent in their bearing, and wanting in deference and politeness, as if they hailed from Birmingham....' Africans did not merely partake of the menace of the 'rough' British working class, but evoked a potential military menace in Ross's mind. 'There is more sturdy independence peeping out under brown skins than is quite good for he community whenever the day comes that they will have to part with the red-coats.'
An unlucky and self-absorbed immigrant named Richard Harwin recorded his and his young sons' first reaction to Africans in Cape Town in 1873, over-strenuously denying fear: 'There were some Kaffirs selling fruits in the Avenue. The boys will have some fun with them. They do not mind them a bit.' Harwin and his family were later placed in quarantine near Durban, during which time they were served by two Africans who were 'very kind and the Children do not mind them.... They would almost frighten some of my Brothers and Sisters when they came to the door in the evening to ask what to do.' Margaret Potts, who came to South Africa at the age of 18 in 1885, was more forthright about her fear and seems to have overcome it quite rapidly as she was transported away from the coast after disembarking at Durban :
As late as 1896 this pattern of initial fear seems to have persisted. The Cornish-Australian miner Richard Pope, when walking around Johannesburg looking for work during his third week in South Africa, was wary of the Africans whom he passed :
Here is a final example of the nature of British immigrants' first impressions of South Africa - a particularly mannered, almost archetypical one: In 1890, a serious-minded young Londoner named William Fish arrived in Cape Town, escaping the drudgery and subordination of his life as 'counter jumper' in a draper's shop. In his autobiography he recalled his first minutes in the city of which he was to become mayor. By this stage, much of the drama had been removed from arrival in South Africa at all its main ports :
In this late description, a vestige of the 'picturesque' aspect of a British migrant's first impressions is retained, as is a vestige of the sense of danger, in the form of the two revolvers (one of which was a gift which friends in England thought particularly appropriate for one going to Africa), but the really important aspect of this description is the brisk 'Ja Baas' which Fish claims to have received. This was the standard Afrikaans expression of respectful obedience to an order expected by White South Africans from almost all the Black people they encountered. It is of course extremely unlikely that this self-conscious colonial Dick Whittington impersonator really slipped as quickly and easily, as his memoir would have it, from the role of a put-upon shop assistant to that of masterful, pistol-packing British settler - but his arrival at Cape Town harbour obviously played an important role in Fish's internal narrative of self-invention.
Clearly, there was far more to acculturation of British migrants to colonial South African society and to the development of settler racial discourse than their experiences on 'the beach.' Their shipboard experiences, their reading, their daily lives in South Africa all merit further investigation. Clearly, too, as Dening's example reminds us, much work needs to be done on Black southern Africans' first encounters with migrants to their land if we are properly to understand how these encounters contributed to the invention and maintenance of colonial society. Nevertheless - as this article tries to show - settlers' first impressions of their adopted country were not without importance in shaping southern Africa's malignant racial order.
 G. Dening, Mr Bligh's Bad Language. Passion, Power and Theatre on the Bounty, Cambridge, 1994, p.177.
 In Rights of Passage. Emigration to Australia in the Nineteenth Century, London, 1986, Helen Woolcock suggests that a total of roughly 500,000 British people migrated to South Africa between 1860 and 1900. (Woolcock, p.29) However this writer's impression is that a somewhat smaller number stayed for any length of time, perhaps 250,000, of whom roughly 60,000 arrived in the last ten years of the period. (See E Bull, Aided Immigration from Britain to South Africa, 1857 to 1867, Pretoria, 1991, pp.2, 10-11, 18; D. Hobart Houghton and J. Dagut, Source Material on the South African Economy: 1860-1970, Cape Town, 1972, Vol.1, pp.285-299, and S. Dagut, 'Racial Attitudes Among British Settlers in South Africa c.1850-c.1895,' Ph.D thesis, Cambridge University, 1998, pp.43-4, 55.) It must be emphasised that this number is arrived at by what amounts to guesswork on the shaky foundation of notoriously inaccurate censuses, especially those of the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek.
 The term 'Black' is employed here - as it is employed in current South African usage - to refer to African, Coloured and Indian South Africans. The extent and importance of these differences in appearance, dress, 'body-language' and so forth, still not widely appreciated by historians, is vividly described and enlighteningly discussed in Keletso Atkins' The moon is dead! Give us our money!: the cultural origins of an African work ethic, Natal, South Africa, 1843-1900, London, 1993, pp.141-2.
 Writing of landscape rather than of people, Andrew Hassam makes the important point that the use of European aesthetic categories such as 'picturesque' in immigrants' diaries was part of an attempt on diarists' part to assert control over their experiences, if only at the level of narrative. Describing people as 'picturesque' seems a very similar sort of strategy to obtain mastery over the 'other.' Sailing to Australia: shipboard diaries by nineteenth-century British emigrants, Manchester 1994, pp.166, 174. I am very grateful to Dr Hassam for his generosity in giving me a copy of Sailing to Australia.
 E. Wilson, Reminiscences of a Frontier Armed & Mounted Police Officer in South Africa, Grahamstown, 1866, p.15.
 University of the Witwatersrand [Wits], Church of the Province of South Africa Archive [CPSA], AB 482, R. Mullins Diary, 11/10/1854.
 Cape Archives Depot [CAD], A459, 'Sir E.Y. Brabant Autobiography,' p.11.
 J. Robinson George Linton; or, The First Years of an English Colony, London, 1876, p.29.
 D. Buchanan, (ed.) The Chronicles of a Contractor. Being the Autobiography of the Late George Pauling, Bulawayo, 1969, p.25.
 Cape Monthly Magazine [CMM], 7/1861.
 W. Carr. Pioneer's Path. Story of a Career on the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, 1953, p.16.
 Johannesburg Public Library [JPL], S. Pam 968.712T, J. Cruickshank 'Reminiscences of Cape Town,' p.4.
 Brabant, p.10.
 Wits, CPSA, AB 192, 'Journal of Mrs Armstrong,' 29/9/1854; 11/10/1854.
 CMM, 8/1870. The identification of the CMM's 'Lady' as Louisa Ross is Edna Bradlow; a pamphlet in this writer's possession.
 L. Cohen, Reminiscences of Kimberley, London, 1911, p.13.
 Cohen, p.14.
 CMM, 8/1871.
 JPL, S. Pam 920 Harwin, William Harwin Diary, 19/12/1873.
 Harwin, 7/1/1874.
 JPL, Sfo 968.203, Margaret Potts Diary, p.2.
 Wits, A1852, R. Pope Diary, 15/2/1896.
 W. Fish The Autobiography of a Counter Jumper, London, 1929, p.11.
Dr. Simon Dagut, a 4th generation Joburg 'settler', was educated at Wits and Cambridge Universities. His academic work has focussed on trying to understand the process of settler socialisation in colonial South Africa and, more generally, on the construction and maintenance of colonial racial orders. His publications include: "Paternalism and Social Distance: British Settlers' Racial Attitudes, 1850s - 1890s," South African Historical Journal, 37, November 1997; "Strangely hard natures were bred in the South Africa of that day : Rural Settler Childhood, 1850s-1880s", African Studies, 58, July 1999 and 'Gender, colonial women's history the construction of social distance: Middle-class British women in later nineteenth century South Africa', Journal of Southern African Studies, 26, September 2000. This article was written while he was a post-doctoral fellow in the History Department at Wits, but he has since been employed as a policy adviser at a Johannesburg think tank. His current interests are the application of psychoanalytic concepts to historical explanation and the role of settler military experience in the creation of segregationism.