Volume 11, Issue 1
Richard Price. Making Empire: Colonial Encounters and the Creation of Imperial Rule in Nineteenth-Century Africa. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.
This is a different history of the British empire. It is a profound exploration of the dynamics of the encounter between the Xhosa peoples and the British. Its setting is the eastern Cape frontier of South Africa in the first half of the nineteenth century. Outside Britain, Richard Price discovered a mine of unused colonial archives, uncommon imperial subjects and a conventionally untold story of the empire. He, therefore, concocted an interesting brew of British culture at the frontier of empire. Making Empire investigates the way colonial encounters produced a culture of imperial rule.
On the basis of disorganized, eccentrically classified but remarkably useful colonial archives which include reports of British colonial officials, records of imperial administration, and missionary archives, the author wrote a vivid and well-documented history of the aims, practices, values, mindsets and ideologies of imperial agents like governors, military officers, missionaries and even intruders. These sources disclosed what the imperial agents were doing as they interacted with Xhosa culture. Similarly, they revealed what the former thought about what they were doing at the imperial frontier.
Why the Xhosa peoples, not the reputed Zulus? This is not a puzzle; the Zulus did not resist British rule for nearly a century, the Xhosa did. The predominance of the Zulus in the British imagination is indeed a British construct. The reality, a problematic one, is that in the eastern Cape relentless British expansion met with deep resistance of the Xhosa peoples. What is surprising, however, is how the British neglected the history of the first African people whom they had to decide how to rule.
This history of the empire breaks good ground insofar as it gives a voice to both the imperial ruler and the imperial subject. The colonial encounter, by its nature, was a space of inter-relationships and hybridity, where the behaviour of the coloniser depended on and was conditioned by that of the colonised and vice versa. The colonial project was a hegemonic enterprise but a fragile one, since hegemony had to be negotiated and defended to be maintained. In a sense, the empire was real in the metropole, not at the frontier where it was not secure. At the origin of this fragility and insecurity were the imperial subjects, the Xhosa peoples, who remained deeply attached to their culture and resisted any accommodation to the British terms of cultural framework.
This dark aspect of the empire figures little in the imperial historiography. Richard Price offers us detailed and sad accounts of how British imperial agents met the Xhosa and failed in imposing an imperial culture, a civilised, liberal and progressive culture, the imperial authorities claimed. It has to be noted that the Xhosa interacted with the British at many levels and developed a relationship of mutuality and reciprocity, cooperation and contention with them since their advent in the late eighteenth century.
The first part of the book is an extensive study of what happened to missionary culture as it met the Xhosa. Shrewsbury, Cumming, Niven, Williams, Barker, and others were the missionaries who came to the frontier with a deep sense of optimism. They came straight out of the culture of eighteenth-century evangelicalism, which placed at the center of its religious and social thought the power of individual salvation and the doctrinal certainty that God was in control of the world. For most of these uneducated, highly spiritual and zealous evangelical missionaries, there was every reason to expect Xhosa conversion to proceed easily and rapidly. For these strongly engaged field missionaries civilization was subsidiary to conversion. They resided with the Xhosa peoples, lived their lives, interacted with them, experienced the true and tough frontier, yet failed in their mission. The Xhosa people proved intellectually and culturally impermeable to missionary attempts of conversion. The cultural encounter with the Xhosa peoples was partial, short-lived and, therefore, destabilized missionary culture to the extent that these culturally relativist missionaries soon turned essentially racist. Their objective, optimistic, and open discourse shifted into a radically subjective, pessimistic and closed one. A different understanding and a new encounter with the Xhosa were called for.
The imperial state interaction with the Xhosa is what the second part of the book is about. The religious mission was imploded and this motivated the state’s intervention. The cultural interaction of the missionaries gave place to a settler culture and to the state’s indirect rule. Missionaries closed their minds to the Xhosa and adopted a new discourse and a different strategy to meet them. The Xhosa peoples were now perceived as a degenerate race unable to survive and destined for extinction. They could not embrace the benefits that the British culture offered them. By the 1830s, a new knowledge system about the Xhosa was established. It perceived them as cunning, deceitful, and inveterate thieves and irredeemably savage; their chiefs, who were the major link with the imperial administration, were seen as conspiring manipulators and agents of tyranny. Great Xhosa chiefs, such as Maqoma, Ngqika, Mhala, and Xhoxho, for long reputed for their wisdom, intellect and political vocation, came to be seen as obstacles to the spread of British civilization and progress.
Imperial Britain’s new knowledge system retreated into ignorance. The Xhosa peoples, who refused to cease to be Xhosa, became the enemies of the empire and joined the characters of the imperial literature of stereotypes. No options were left but coercion, force, humiliation and violence against the Xhosa. This book ends with a sad note, that of the brutalities and atrocities that marked the history of the British relations with the Xhosa.
This sensitive study of the brutal conquest of Africa by the British is useful for the student of history, anthropology, and cultural studies as well as for those who still have nostalgia for the empire.
Adel Manai Institut Superieur des Sciences Humaines de Tunis, Universite Tunis El-Manar