Making Empire: Colonial Encounters and the Creation of Imperial Rule in Nineteenth-Century Africa

January 15, 2009

For Africanists, two perplexing questions have regularly surfaced over the years. Why has Africa remained so poor, and whatever happened to Richard Price? Now at least the second has been answered. When his book on the South African war and the British working class was published in 1972 it was an instant classic - then silence. After focusing on UK labour history, Price has now returned to Africa and produced a magnificent account of the clash between British imperialism and the Xhosa in what became South Africa. What took him so long?

Price's central argument is that in the first half of the 19th century there was an almighty struggle on the eastern frontier of Britain's Cape Colony where "the foundations of modern African empire were laid". Historians, he insists, have forgotten the experimental Queen Adelaide Province and British Kaffraria. As white settlement encroached on resilient indigenous communities, so a deadly culture of imperial rule evolved. To fulfil its utopian fantasy and cope with an inherent fragility, that rule quickly became indirect, relying on local power structures and thus perpetuating its fragility. Moreover, it was carried out under the cheery banner of liberal imperialism, which justified the use of force first, to civilise afterwards. So-called expert knowledge provided a shaky rationale. Xhosa were at best wayward children, at worst a degenerate "race of liars".

There were three in this marriage: the Xhosa chiefs, the colonial state and the missionaries. From the beginning, all was not well aboard the starship missionary enterprise. Many recruits were poorly educated, thick and lacking in appropriate training. Given the runaround by wily, politically astute chiefs, they struggled to find converts; locals preferred to hedge their bets. Routinely, missionaries watched what little they had built from scratch destroyed. Consequently, Price suggests, they were prone to depression and mood swings. It seems the "lubrication" of empire was actually inherently bipolar. Missionaries interpreted failure by turning rejection into blame, believing that the burden placed on women by male indolence and polygamy, along with the practice of communal land ownership, "eroded the moral fibre of society". By the 1840s there was a bolt-on clause: only by working with the state to impose a civilised life by whatever means necessary, they believed, could native hearts be opened to salvation.

It was a theory that imperial administrators embraced with a series of bold attempts to civilise the Xhosa. Over-enthusiastic military administrators used a self-serving "knowledge" of the tribe to justify indirect rule: a mixture of force, social engineering, ceremonial displays and local agents. Yet it quickly ended in tears. The frontier wars continued; chiefs refused to give in and so the horror of the great Xhosa cattle killing of the 1850s unfolded. On the advice of prophets, a society deluded by the onslaught they were experiencing opted to destroy the very thing they needed to survive it.

This book is a brilliant entry point for anyone who wants to see how imperial rule in Africa was established. It sticks closely to the wealth of archival material available - sometimes too closely. The prose is jargon free; the only crime is the term "interlocutor", which sounds more orthodontic than anything human beings are to each other. Characters leap out; their absurd antics are sometimes pure slapstick. But this is no Carry On Up the Cape. In the scale of suffering unleashed by this power struggle, it is more like Shakespearean tragedy. At times, the folly of man is overwhelming.

Making Empire: Colonial Encounters and the Creation of Imperial Rule in Nineteenth-Century Africa

By Richard Price. Cambridge University Press. 402pp, £50.00 and £18.99. ISBN 9780521889681 and 718196. Published 16 October 2008

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