Newspaper poetry and Anglophone Print Culture in the Cape colony

This case study focuses on the literary culture of the Cape Colony during the 1820s. Cape Town in the 1820s was establishing an Anglophone ‘bourgeois public sphere’ that accompanied the socio-economic transformation that followed the departure of the Dutch in 1806. (Mackenzie 1998:90) Industrialisation and the removal of government restrictions on trade led to the arrival of British merchants and their families, creating an urban, Anglophone middle-class. In the 1820s, the colony’s independent newspapers and literary periodicals emerged in parallel with the establishment of a range of cultural institutions modelled on ‘British precedents for the cultural mobilisation of the educated middle-class’. (Shum 2012: 200) These were the South African library (1822), the South African Museum (1825) and the South African Institution (1829). There are two interlocking strands to my current research in this area. Firstly, what role did these institutions, newspapers and periodicals play in helping to forge a South African national identity amongst the Anglophone settlers of the colony rooted in British notions of civilisation and cultivation? Secondly, what can we learn about the affective relationship of the Anglophone settlers to both the colony and the metropole from an examination of the poems published in the Cape colony’s independent newspapers?

  The first independent newspaper in the Cape colony was the South African Commercial Advertiser (SACA). Established in 1824 by Scottish émigré printer George Greig, the SACA was conceived as a ‘medium of general communication’ between the close-knit network of British traders, soldiers and professionals in Cape Town, and the 5,000 British settlers on the colony’s eastern frontier. (Greig 1823) To this end, the paper was dedicated to information that ‘may tend to the advancement of Trade and Commerce, the Improvement of Agriculture, or the elucidation of Science.’ (Greig 1823) In addition, the paper also included news republished from the British and European press, popular occasional verse extracted from British literary periodicals and lengthy dispatches from settlers detailing the conditions in various frontier towns and villages.

The dissemination of news on practical matters such as trade and agriculture was designed to promote a sense of collective identification among disparate settler communities scattered over a large geographical area, while simultaneously seeking to cultivate the economic prosperity essential to successful nation formation. Meanwhile, the recirculation of reports and literary productions from British newspapers and periodicals was designed to anchor settler national identity firmly to the political and literary culture of the mother country, ensuring loyalty and promoting British values.

Historians of South African print culture have drawn attention to the role that the SACA played in efforts by Cape Town liberals such to forge a distinctive and unified colonial identity grounded in British culture and civility. This was of particular importance in the Cape Colony, where self-identifying British whites were a minority not only among the Khoisan, Xhosa, slave and free black communities, but also within a settler-society dominated by the more numerous and longer-established Cape Dutch community. (Lewin Robinson 1962: 62) As Chris Holdridge has argued, the Anglophone press functioned as a discursive space in which a collective British-colonial identity could be forged, mitigating against the cultural alienation engendered by the dominance of the Cape-Dutch. (Holdridge 2010: 495)

However, little attention has been paid to the role that settler verse played in both forging and challenging these emerging colonial identities. This case study aims to archive and analyse settler verse published in the SACA between 1824 and 1834 in order to reveal the ways in which verse writing was used to register settlers’ affective responses to emigration and settlement. Settler literary production was conceived by Greig as playing a central role in shaping the ‘taste and tone’ of the colony – unifying disparate settler groups into one imagined community grounded in shared cultural, political and literary values.

Yet the precarious conditions of life for British settlers on the colony’s contested eastern frontier meant that many of the poems published express forcefully a sense of settler life as a form of loss. In these poems, the tropes of the pastoral and sublime are used to locate a sense of collective belonging not in the emerging colonial nation state, but in a vanished agrarian past. The elegiac tone of these poems is manifest in the self-representation of the settler as exile, often in a state of perpetual mourning for the homeland and friendships they have left behind. This case study therefore argues that British settlers used newspaper poetry as a means of voicing an ambivalence to the project of colonial state-building in which they were also participating.


Works cited

Greig, George, ‘Prospectus of the South African Commercial Advertiser’, reprinted in ‘Facts Concerning the Stopping of the South African Commercial Advertiser’, Monday 10 May, 1824

Holdridge, Christopher, ‘Circulating the African Journal: The Colonial Press and Trans-Imperial Britishness in the Mid Nineteenth-Century Cape’, South African Historical Journal, 62:3, 487-513

Lewin Robinson, A.M. , None Daring to Make Us Afraid: A Study of English Periodical Literature in the Cape Colony from its Beginnings in 1824 to 1835 (Cape Town: Maskew Miller, 1962)

Mackenzie, Kirsten, ‘Franklins of the Cape: The South African Commercial Advertiser and the Creation of a Colonial Public Sphere, 1824-54,’ Kronos, 25 (1998/1999), 88-102

Shum, Matthew ,’Writing Settlement and Empire: The Cape After 1820′, The Cambridge History of South African Literature, ed. by Derek Attridge and David Attwell (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), pp.185-203

Lara Atkin is a postdoctoral fellow with the ERC-funded project, SouthHem. Her research interests are in Victorian Literature; Romanticism; and the transnational circulation of representations of indigenous peoples in the long nineteenth century. She is currently researching the print culture and literary institutions of the Cape colony as part of her postdoctoral fellowship at University College Dublin.

Image by Thomas Baines [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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