Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Frontiers - Noel Mostert

The incursion and settlement of the Cape frontier by the British and Boers transformed South Africa. As the frontier moved eastward, from Cape Town towards the Xhosa and Zulu heartland, settlers and colonials became increasingly enmeshed within the political dynamics of the indigenous people. While Mostert's is primarily a story told from the colonial perspective looking eastward, it brings the transformed Xhosa world into stark relief.

Elegant and carefully crafted, Mostert's work displays a journalistic quality. Clearly the result of painstaking historical research, Mostert's detail pulls the reader into a foreign world. His success is evident: at more than 1200 pages the story rarely loses steam and keeps the reader engaged; no mean feat. Historical characters like De Buys, Stockenstrom, Maqoma, Smith, and Sandile are resurrected and leap off the page as complicated and themselves dynamic actors. Tracing these actors' movements and machinations keeps the narrative taught and the story compelling. Part of the book's length seems to be an implicit argument by Mostert that to understand the transformation and settlement of the Cape frontier  (and thus modern South Africa) fully, one needs to become acquainted with the story in all its capaciousness. In this manner his account is convincing.

While the interactions between Xhosa and colonialist are Mostert's primary concern, the work could have given more space to the transformations along the Xhosa's eastern frontier with the Zulu. Beyond the British-Xhosa frontier, too often the Xhosa-Zulu heartland resembles a homogeneous unit. How the Xhosa were impinged upon by Zulu power and the mfecane (or whatever historical variation we accept of it) might have provided a more complete understanding of Xhosa actions during the period. This is meant less as a criticism and more as a suggestion for further research.

One of Mostert's signal successes herein is the majesty and mystery with which he treats the African landscape. As the narrative unfolds the darkness of the African map is slowly filled in and the mists of mystery role away. This is, of course, bound to the perspective of the explorer, colonizer, and settler, yet it brings the reader along as though they too are uncovering this new world and witnessing as it is made and remade throughout the 19th century.