De-territorializing Britishness In Colonial South Africa


In his landmark study of the idea of ‘Greater Britain’ in imperial discourse, Duncan Bell identified three different meanings ascribed to the term by nineteenth century political thinkers after 1870. In some conceptions, it included the ‘totality of the British empire’, including Britain’s expanding African empire and, the jewel in Victoria’s crown, India. [Bell, 7] However, more commonly, ‘Greater Britain’ was conceived along racial lines, as an Anglo-Saxon polity which encompassed the settlement colonies and, in some formulations, the United States. [Bell, 7] Bell’s exploration of how the idea of ‘Greater Britain’ was constructed discursively post-1870, and the relationships envisioned between the Anglo-Saxon empire of ‘Greater Britain’ and Britain’s other imperial possessions draws our attention to the diversity of social and political structures that together constituted the entity we know today as the British Empire during the nineteenth century. Bell explains that:

To generalize about the role of the “empire” during the Victorian era is to miss the vital point that many contemporaries envisioned multiple empires, governed by different political systems, subject to assorted dreams and demands, and as a consequence holding diverse places in  both their affections and schemes of political thought. [Bell, 9]

As the century progressed, and the tide of emigration to Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa increased, and with it the traffic of people, goods and correspondence that flowed from Britain into the settlement empire. Undoubtedly, an ‘imagined community’ of kinship and connectedness was maintained between settlers and their homeland, but exactly what form this relationship took varied considerably at different times and in different locations. As Saul Dubow has argued in the case of South Africa, the idea of Britishness needs to be ‘decoupled’ from the racial unity of Greater Britain envisioned by J.R. Seeley and others in order to include ‘elected, hyphenated forms of belonging.’ [Dubow, 2]. In order to do this, Dubow argues, we must expand our definition of Britishness beyond the ways in which the British state exercised its jurisdictional power in favour of an analysis of the ‘cultural, political and symbolic attachments’ that constituted a ‘de-territorialised’ Britishness in the imaginations of the inhabitants of the settler colonies. [Dubow, 3]

In his analysis of the development of colonial nationalism among the British settlers in South Africa, Dubow highlights the fact that an embryonic form of colonial nationalism was evident among British settlers in South Africa from as early as the 1820s [Dubow, 9]. In the Cape in the 1820s, self-identifying British whites were a minority not only among the indigenous Khoisan, slave and free black communities, but also within a settler-society dominated by the more numerous and longer established Cape Dutch community. Within this culturally mixed world, the British clung to the cultural markers of ethnicity manifested not only in dress, architecture and the introduction of British institutions and laws, but also in the introduction of a free press. The Anglophone press was, as Chris Holdridge has argued, a ‘discursive mediator of identity’ [Holdridge, p.489] and was conceived by its editors as such from its very beginning. In his ‘Prospectus’ to the South African Journal, the colony’s first literary periodical, John Fairbairn argued that:

In the security enjoyed under the British dominion, the growth of wealth, activity, and intelligence, is rapidly maturing these results. No longer a  disunited, wavering and temporary assemblage of adventurers, with our ultimate views rooted beyond the Atlantic, we are fast acquiring, as a community, self-respect, and home importance, in which the prosperity of every country has its foundation.

Here, the discourse of improvement is adopted to argue that British control over the Cape has resulted in increased security, material prosperity and cultural and intellectual uplift. Yet Fairbairn also points out that the Cape colony is acquiring a distinct civic identity, no longer ‘rooted beyond the Atlantic’ in Britain but acquiring a ‘home importance.’ This is not an image of the Cape as a ‘little Britain’ whose institutions and culture would mimic those of the metropole, but rather a colonial nation state in its own right grounded in British culture and values, but with a distinct civic identity of its own.

Interestingly, this embryonic British-South-African national identity conceived by Fairbairn and other Cape Town intellectuals in this moment of humanitarian idealism in the 1820s, was not predicated upon an ethnic affinity with Britain. Rather it was defined by an aspiration towards the ‘cordial amalgamation’ of the many races and nations into one polity.

In this Colony, being a mixture of many nations, we have insensibly conceded our peculiar prejudices to each other, and look with equal eyes on Dutch, German, and English. Religion, happily for us, forms no ground of distinction here, and Catholic and Protestant are content to go to Heaven in company. The aversion so long entertained towards the native tribes, arising from the dissimilarity of their features and mode of life, has so very nearly disappeared. [Advertiser, December 31, 1828]

In the heady period of humanitarian optimism that followed the passing of Ordinance 50 in 1828, which granted the indigenous Khoikhoi equality under the law with white settlers, Fairbairn’s vision of British-South-Africa included a place for the colony’s indigenous people within its citizenry (even if Fairbairn’s stadial view of human development still denied the indigenous Khoikhoi coevalness with the white settler population, viewing them as subordinates in need of education and mental and moral improvement). Sadly, this moment of racial inclusivity was not to survive the intensification of the Frontier Wars between colonists and the amaXhosa on the eastern frontier in the late-1830s and 1840s, during which a hardening of racial attitudes towards indigenous people by frontier settlers occurred. Nonetheless, it does suggest that from its very inception Britishness in South Africa was less a national or ethnic marker than a set of symbolic affinities or values. These ‘liberal and just sentiments’ constituted what Dubow has termed ‘a strand of local Whiggism’ rooted in British liberalism, but adapted to the multi-cultural and multi-ethnic conditions of settler life in the Cape colony.

Works cited

Bell, Duncan, The Idea of Greater Britain: Empire and the Future of the World Order, 1860-1900 (Princeton, 2007)

Dubow, Saul, ‘How British was the British World? The Case of South Africa,’ Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth Studies, 37:1 (March 2009), 1-27.

Fairbairn, John, ‘Prospectus,’ in The South African Journal Number One, January-February 1824, centenary reprint (Cape Town: South African Library, 1924), p.i.

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 (2010), 487-51.

South African Commercial Advertiser, 31 December, 1828.

Lara Atkin is a postdoctoral fellow with the ERC-funded project, SouthHem. Her research interests are in Victorian Literature; Romanticism; transnational print culture in the nineteenth century and indigenous representation in British colonial literature. 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 courtesy of the David Rumsey Historical Map Collection




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