Racism Reconsidered: The case of South Africa in the 17-18th centuries
Seth J. Frantzman
June 4th, 2007
Historians in the last twenty years have begun to add the word ‘reconsidered’ to as many topics as possible. The 1948 War: Reconsidered, History of the American West: Reconsidered. In general the term denotes revision and usually revision that implies that a given situation was worse and more ‘racist’ than previously thought. It denotes the attempt to ‘destroy myths’ and end the ‘romance’ associated with certain topics that are usually tied up with national epics.
However the received wisdom on racism has never been thoroughly critiqued except in largely ignored books such as Dinesh D’Souza’s The End of Racism. In fact the envelope on what is ‘racist’ has been expanded to include nearly everything. When historians and activists and social critics have been confronted with two nearly identical peoples fighting one another they have either applied the world racism or contrived new terms such as ‘ethnic-cleansing’. It is not uncommon today to see the word ‘racism’ applied to anti-gay protests or things that have nothing to do with race.
With that in mind it is interesting to seek the roots of racism and the obsession with which society holds the phenomenon. As the definition of racism has expanded so has the history of it. Few would today deny that the Atlantic slave trade was ‘racist’. Colonialism and imperialism are seen as ‘racist’. The Crusades are seen as racist. But what was this racism that existed in the 16th and 17th centuries, this supposedly European phenomenon that sprang up and eventually led, so we are told, to the Holocaust? When did ‘racism’ come to life in Europe?
Most tend to think that Europeans were innately racist and that contact with foreigners was the impetus for ‘racism’ especially when those foreigners were seen as ‘lesser’ and ‘sub-human’ and as ‘the other’. So racism is supposed to being in 1099 with the First Crusade and it is supposed to have truly begun with Colonialism. Thus the Cape Colony in South Africa must have been a perfect place to find racism. Second only to the Holocaust, Apartheid has been seen as one of those uniquely European forms of racism. The roots of Apartheid must surely be found in those centuries before its development.
So logically a great place to find racism would be with the first centuries of Dutch colonization of Southern Africa. The book Frontiers by Noel Mostert provides us with a large number of primary sources from the period: letters, books, travel diaries and court cases(all quotes in this article come from this book.
Around 1701 one Dutch East India Company official stationed at Cape Town wrote of the indigenous inhabitants: “I found this people with one accord in their general daily life living in harmony with nature’s law, hospitable with every race of man.”
By contrast one official described the local Dutch colonists thus “We find many reckless, useless subjects, and still more among their servants, disobedient and worthless characters.(page 137)” Later in the late 1700s another company official described the Dutch ‘Boers’ thus “There are many such nomad families..no way connected in society with any of their fellow creatures, so that they are almost sunk to the situation of savages.”
But the Dutch did coined a phrase for the people they first met at the Cape; Hottentoos(sometimes Hottentot or Ottentot). The word, now considered ‘racist’ was a descriptive term for the way in which the local Khoikhoi spoke, with a series of clicks(as Bushmen do, the two peoples being related in ethnicity but not in lifestyle or culture). Indecipherable, the Dutch mimicked the sound of the language in the name they gave the people. Although the modern anthropologist has done away with this ‘condescending’ term, oddly enough the new term invented for the Bushmen, San, is a word that the Khoikhoi used as slang for those who dwelled in the Bush. So modernity discarded one slang term for one people while borrowing from them a term for other people.
But the Trekboers as the local Dutch colonists who moved deep into South Africa became known were also “sexual freebooters” who produced such a large number of mixed white/black offspring with local women that they created their own nation of people today known as ‘coloured’. Such was there ‘racism’. One English writer noted in 1813 “A boor from the colony who had fallen deeply in love with a black woman, and who on account of the opposition of friends to his marrying her, and likewise of the minister’s refusing to perform his office, had left the colony and wandered thither.”
But sex with women and maltreatment of male natives were two different things(as was the case in Spanish Mexico). When asked why the Boers felt they had a right to take on native servants and treat them badly one supposedly justified it on the basis of the Bible, trying “to prove that the Hottentots were the race of Ham, accursed by God, doomed to slavery.”
But the Khoikhoi and Bushmen were not the only natives encountered by the colonists. Of foremost importance, certainly for the future of South Africa, were the much larger group of Bantu speaking blacks(who were separate ethnically and historically from the Bushmen and Khoikhoi), of which the Xhosa tribe was one of the largest(the other large tribe being the famous Zulu). From the end of the 18th century travelers began carrying back accounts of these people.
Europeans were enraptured by these people. Ludwig Alberti, a European, said they were “remarkable for their imposing height…the head of the Kaffir[Xhosa] is well formed, the eye lively and his teeth are sparking white. The arms and legs reveal health and strength, as do all parts of the body evince the greatest possible blend of perfection.”
We might pause here and note that the word ‘Kaffir’ which is widely seen as a ‘racist’ word in modern South Africa developed from the Arab word for ‘infidel’, Kaffir. It was borrowed by Europeans explorers from the Arabs to describe the local blacks of Africa.
But Europeans understood the difference between the South African blacks and those of West Africa. Reverend Henry Calderowood, a missionary, noted “They have the woolly hair, and many of them have the thick lip and flattened nose of the Negro.” The ‘negro’ quite clearly being the blacks that Calderwood was familiar with from elsewhere, likely slaves from West Africa.
Captain Edward Alexander noted in the 1830s that one tribe, the “Amakosa-are among the finest specimens of the human race: tall ..and active.” W.R.D Fynn, another Englishman, noted that “no people are more loyal than Kafirs.”
However the Bushmen, the third group of native people to inhabit the region were widely derided. A Swedish naturalist named Anders Sparrman wrote in the 1770s: “the maxims of the Bushmen are to live on hunting and plundering…by this means they render themselves odious to the rest of mankind, and are pursued and exterminated like wild beasts, whose manners they have assumed, others of them are kept alive and made slaves of.”
In the 1790s an English woman, Lady Ann Barnard recalled the Xhosa as “very fine men, their height is enormous.” John Barrow, an English sailor, in 1797 noted that “there is perhaps no nation on earth, taken collectively, that produces so fine a race of man as the Kaffers.”
Meanwhile as the English and other travelers marveled at the perfection of the Xhosa the Boer frontiersmen were dealing with something altogether different. Mostert noted in his book that “the view of the South African frontier offered by liberal historians, who for the past sixty years or so have been inclined to regard the eighteenth-century Cape frontier as the original mould from which the rigidities and narrowed racial perspectives of the later Transvaal Boer and Nationalist Afrikaner were case whole.(page 240)” However it must then seem strange that in the 1790s and afterward the Dutch Afrikaners began conspiring with the natives against both their country and later against the English. One famous Boer, Coenraad De Buys, a descendant of French Huguenots turned frontiersman, described the English as the “Bushmen of the sea, predators and robbers” when he was acting as a councilor to a Xhosa chief, having married the chiefs mother.
But the narrative must pause now. The Boers derided the Khoikhoi ‘Hottentots’ for being less than human. Even black slaves, purchased elsewhere, refused to marry the Khoikhoi servants of the Boers, for the slaves felt their status better. Although Khoikhoi served with the Boers on their farms and frequently as auxiliaries in battle one Boer noted, after being given command of a unit of them that “I do not think that I have been appointed to do commandoes[military raids] with Hottentots but with human beings.” And yet we are told the same men were working with Xhose chiefs against a common enemy, marrying and producing offspring. But surely the Xhosa and the Khoikhoi and the Bushmen were all black, all members of the same race?
Another English Reverend noted of the Xhosa that “their colour is dark brown, mixed with a warmer tint of yellow; their hair id black and wooly, but their faces approach to the European model, and far surpass, in our ideas of beauty, the Hottentot’s or the Negro’s.”
So was the 18 and early 19th century South Africa ‘racist’. No. The culture of the period differentiated between the natives they met. The Boers understood that they were one people among many. For them the English were no more natural allies due to ‘race’ than the blacks. But the Boers were not universally ‘tolerant’. But neither did they paint all the blacks with the same brush. They understood as intimately as the local inhabitants, the differences among the people. And the local people were just as harsh in their treatment of one another. The Xhosa looked down on the Khoikhoi and Bushmen as sub-human, not members of the tribe. The fact that so many Afrikaners took native wives must point to a rejection of the way in which ‘racism’ is said to have developed during this period. De Buys produced such a large clan of mixed offspring that in the 1970s his descendants, then living in Transvaal, were known as the Buysvolk or Buys nation of coloureds. They were described as ‘non-white’ under Apartheid.
And here is where it important to understand the true nature of racism. In many ways our definition of race today is simpler and more foolish than the definition employed by the 18th century colonists. Our definition today sees very little difference between all the blacks in the world. For us there are no Negros and Hottentots and Kaffirs and Bushmen. There are, instead, Africans and Blacks and African-Americans and San and Xhosa. But our terms do not describe different peoples, they are merely dumbed-down words for us to try to be politically correct. For Apartheid, which was a modern invention, there were just Asians and Coloureds and Blacks and Whites.
We look on the Boers as racist because they used ‘improper’ words like Negro and Kaffir and Hottentot. But what were they to do? They were not anthropologists. They called people what they could out of expediency on the frontier. Since the Arabs called the blacks ‘Kaffir’ they borrowed the word. They couldn’t understand the clicking sounds and mimicked it as best they could in the name they gave the people they first met. The Bushmen lived in the Bush, and received their name from it. Today’s anthropologists use native slang terms to describe long extinct tribes today, but the native terms for people are not always ‘politically correct’, usually indigenous people call eachother by equally descriptive terms, that could be construed as racist. Hence borrowing ‘Kaffir’ from the Arabs didn’t denude the term of its ‘racism’ in the 20th century.
But where did Apartheid come from? It certainly didn’t come from the period 1700-1850. Usually modern ‘race theory’ and eugenics are said to have begun with Darwin. This is true, the age of science that began in the 19th century led to the classification of all things. Humans felt similar ideas such as the ‘survival of the fittest’ and ‘social Darwinism’ and ‘natural selection’ could also explain why people were different and some seemingly superior to others. But even in the 1920s the American quota laws on immigration defined 24 ‘racial groups’ including “Welsh, Syrians and Hebrews”. Few would consider the Syrians or Welsh a ‘separate race’ today. But the conception of the 18th century would have. In many ways the concept of ‘race’ was not fully developed until the 1930s and then not fully until the 1950s.
However in the liberal society’s quest to prevent another Holocaust the idea of anti-racism and multi-culturalism and diversity became paramount in the 1960s and 1970s. The condemnation of racism then truly began. Suddenly all western history was laid bare to the critiques of the modern and everything in the past became racist. All the anti-racist had to do was find the word ‘Kaffir’ and ‘Negro’ in any primary source from the 18th century and thus the society that produced such ‘intolerance’ and ‘ignorance’ was construed as ‘racist’. But the anti-racist was merely projecting backwards his current understanding of these terms and what they implied.
The racists of today are a unique phenomenon. Their over-arching simplicity and their categorizing of people on the simplest terms would have surprised the Boers of the 18th century. They would not have been welcome, nor would they have had the intellectual or moral caliber to survive the frontier in South Africa. That is because today’s racist is an armchair racist. He has accepted many of the anti-racists judgments and simply reversed them. Diversity says one must love blacks and Asians so he hates them. But diversity is equally racist in its classification of all people with black skin as ‘African-American or ‘black’. Diversity sees no difference between Cassius Clay(Mohammed Ali), Nelson Mandela, Barack Obama, Bob Marley and Tiger Woods. They are all blacks. To dislike one would be to dislike all. There is no recognition of the idiocy with which these people are all lumped together. The overall ‘blackness’ of them is completely suspect, between the five there is at least one whole white person given that most of them are of a mixed heritage. And what does a Jamaican Rasta really have in common with a Xhosa Prince. Probably most leftists would be baffled by Mandela’s heritage anyway, for the leftist, as for the neo-Nazi, he is just a Nigger, or an African. Because Mandela stopped being a Xhosa in the West long ago.
But there was a time when he was a Xhosa and when the Afrikaners were Boers. There was a time when they intermarried and waged common war against a common enemy. There was a time when people were more intelligent and more honest. That was the hallmark of 18th century society. It was honest. When the first Dutch sailors met the naked Khoikhoi they said of them that they were “of all the people the most bestial and sordid” but they also noted that “it is noteworthy that the men have a member surprisingly longer than that of Europeans, so that it more resembles the organ of a young bull than that of a man.” What people only might whisper today or speak of in the company of friends, in those days people put down to paper. When people in the 18th century saw something they liked, they described it thus. When they hated a custom of people they were honest in their hatred. The ‘natives’ were also honest. Everywhere they came up with their own slang terms for the various Europeans they encountered. The 18th century was the last honest century. The Crusaders and the Europeans who colonized the world were not racist. They had more in common with those they fought in Asia and Africa and the Middle East than modern day Europeans have with the black and Arab immigrants who today live next to them in London and Paris. The Crusaders called the Arabs ‘Saracen’ and the Arabs called them ‘Frank’. Today we lie to ourselves and we lie to others in an endless game of political correctness and fear of our own stereotypes of others, our own true feelings about other cultures and our fake desire to think everyone is exactly the same and equal and no one should ever be judged.
The 18th century Europeans were guilty of judgment. But at least they were also guilty of honesty. That’s more than can be said for the world today.