Tensions inherent in all social interactions are particularly acute in colonial contexts. Struggles over access to land and resources, definitions of race, and the basis of social, economic and political order have permeated South African society throughout the more than 400 years for which there is documentation of multi-cultural exchanges. My research examines colonial interactions in South Africa during the long eighteenth century. I am a social historian who takes a broad approach to historical inquiry; my work explores questions of land tenure and resource allocation, slavery and other bonded labor, environmental issues, gender, sexuality, household formation, material culture, and trans-regional networks of exchange.
I am particularly concerned with situating the development of colonial society at the Cape of Good Hope within the broader context of Dutch East India Company (VOC) exchange networks. Lying at the confluence of two oceans, the Cape was a bridging point between Europe and Asia. Inland, indigenous hunters and herders engaged in both local and long-distance social and economic exchanges across Southern Africa. Thus colonial life emerged from the competing influences of three continents, juxtaposing multiple legal, religious, economic, social, and administrative traditions. These tumultuous circumstances provide fertile terrain for historical inquiry.
My first book is a local history of the Cedarberg, a region of contested colonial settlement, fluid identities, but stable settler land tenure. Belongings shows that setter family relationships were crucial to the eventual success of colonial land claims in the face of violent resistance from displaced Khoisan and subordinated slaves. I reconstructed a story of communities situated in specific landscapes from disparate pieces of evidence, much of it fragmentary. I used a wide range of archival sources preserved in the papers of the VOC in the Netherlands and South Africa(land rent ledgers, property deeds, census records, wills, estate inventories, auction rolls, criminal court cases, military reports) and the Dutch Reformed Church (birth, death, and marriage registers), along with published travel narratives, genealogies, and unpublished archaeological site reports from the ongoing survey projects at the University of Cape Town.
Read the full-text of Belongings on-line
As I explored the tangible material components that partly comprised colonial households—things like land, water, game, livestock, ploughs, cooking pots, beds, and candlesticks—I continually confronted the stark violence that pervades the accumulated evidence of the eighteenth century. I began to ask more questions about the ideological, spiritual, or cosmological frameworks through which communities made sense of their worlds, their lived experiences.
My current research focuses on art as a medium for investigating the meanings ascribed to the natural world by various communities. Examining a range of objects produced by Africans, settlers, and visitors to southern Africa in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, I aim, quite literally, to illustrate the differences in the ways African and European societies understood man’s relationship to nature. Through this exploration of difference I hope to shed light on the intractability of colonial conflicts over land and its social meanings. As a teacher, I encourage students to confront historical stereotypes and to engage with a variety of representations of the African past.
CHSSPMaterials: World History Institute
African History Content for 7th Grade
» Belongings: Property, Family and Identity in Colonial South Africa, An Exploration of Frontiers 1725 – c 1830 (Columbia University Press, 2009)
Research Articles & Chapters
» “Belonging: Family Formation and Settler Identity in the VOC Cape,” South African Historical Journal 59 (Dec. 2007): 103-125
» “Belonging: Kinship and Identity at the Cape of Good Hope, 1652-1795,” in Contingent Lives: Social Identity and Material Culture in the VOC World, edited by Nigel Worden, 247-265. University of Cape Town Press, 2007.
» “This is the Mark of the Widow’: Domesticity and Frontier Conquest in Colonial South Africa,” Frontiers: A Journal of Women’s Studies, 28: 1 & 2 (Spring 2007): 47-76.
» Three historical commentaries on eighteenth-century drawings of the Western Cape, South Africa inThe World of Jan Brandes, 1742-180: Drawings of a Dutch Traveller in Batavia, Ceylon and Southern Africa. Edited by Remco Raben and Max de Bruijn, 366-367 & 373-380. Amsterdam: Rijskmuseum, 2004
The Kloof to Overberg
Panorama of Hottentots Holland
The Plaats Vergenoegd
» “Material Culture and Cadastral Data: Documenting the Cedarberg Frontier, South Africa 1725–1795,” in Sources and Methods in African History: Spoken, Written, Unearthed, edited by Toyin Falola and Christian Jennings, 16-32. Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2003; paperback 2004.
» “Traces in the Landscape: Hunters, Herders and Farmers on the Cedarberg Frontier, South Africa 1725–1795,” Journal of African History 43:3 (2002) 431-450.
Essays and Blogs
» “A Humane Gaze: Historicizing the West's Construction of Humanitarian Need in Africa,” Critical Investigations into Humanitarianism in Africa posted April 6, 2009
» “Beyond Tense: Encouraging Historians to Think Hard About Writing and Reading,” Perspectives, April 2007, 31-32.
Work in Progress
» Watercolors & World Empire: French Military “Designs” on the Cape of Good Hope