worden (2010) - after race and class- recent trends in the historiography of early

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This article was downloaded by: [K.U.Leuven - Tijdschriften] On: 17 November 2011, At: 10:08 Publisher: Routledge Informa Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954 Registered office: Mortimer House, 37-41 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH, UK

South African Historical JournalPublication details, including instructions for authors and subscription information: http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/rshj20

After Race and Class: Recent Trends in the Historiography of Early Colonial Cape SocietyNigel Wordena a

University of Cape Town

Available online: 10 Dec 2010

To cite this article: Nigel Worden (2010): After Race and Class: Recent Trends in the Historiography of Early Colonial Cape Society, South African Historical Journal, 62:3, 589-602 To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/02582473.2010.519904

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HISTORIOGRAPHICAL REVIEW After Race and Class: Recent Trends in the Historiography of Early Colonial Cape SocietyNIGEL WORDEN* University of Cape TownDownloaded by [K.U.Leuven - Tijdschriften] at 10:08 17 November 2011

Abstract This article reviews the recent upsurge of writing on the history of the early colonial Cape Colony from the VOC period to the early nineteenth century. It responds to important questions raised by Nicole Ulrichs review article of Contingent Lives in this issue. In particular it considers what is gained and what can be lost in the recent shift from class-based analyses characteristic of late twentieth-century revisionist South African historiography to research more influenced by the cultural turn, transnational and microhistorical approaches. Keywords: Cape Colony; VOC; historiography; cultural turn; identity; microhistory; transnational history This is the second recent issue of South African Historical Journal to be devoted to work on the Cape Colony in the era before the mineral revolution. This new issue has emerged from sessions on the eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Cape held at the South African Historical Society conference in 2009. In 2007, in a special feature on New Approaches to VOC History, the journal published eight articles that had been originally presented at the Contingent Lives conference held in Cape Town in December 2006.1 Clearly the field has been one of considerable recent growth. What does this work do, and where is it heading? These questions are most incisively posed by Nicole Ulrichs review article of Contingent Lives: Social Identity and Material Culture in the VOC World in this issue.2 Ulrich suggestively argues that the significance of Contingent Lives extends beyond the historiography of the early colonial Cape as it raises important questions about the writing of history in a post-apartheid and1 2 For a discussion of the articles, see N. Worden, New Approaches to VOC History in South Africa, South African Historical Journal, 59 (2007), 3 18. N. Ulrich, Time, Space and the Political Economy of Merchant Capitalism in the Cape of Good Hope and VOC World, South African Historical Journal, 62, 3 (2010), 571 588, review of N. Worden, ed., Contingent Lives: Social Identity and Material Culture in the VOC World (Cape Town: Department of Historical Studies, University of Cape Town, 2007).

*Author: Nigel.Worden@uct.ac.za South African Historical Journal 62 (3) 2010 ISSN: Print 0258-2473/Online 1726-1686 DOI 10.1080/02582473.2010.519904

South African Historical Journal pp 589602




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increasingly globalised context.3 While welcoming many features of the collection, she expresses concern at a neglect of political economy, an absence of considerations of class especially in relation to the labouring poor, imprecise time specificity and a tendency to decontextualised microstudy and postmodern eclecticism that does little to help us understand the operation of power and authority in a colonial society. In other words, we have turned away from the principles that underpinned South African historical revisionism in the heyday of the 1980s and replaced it with the less cogent ideas and methods that have emerged out of the cultural turn. These issues match concerns expressed elsewhere about the cultural turn and its relationship to social history. The South Asianist Manu Goswami has recently lamented cultural historys turn away from large-scale approaches, political economy and key areas of imperialism and capitalism.4 Geoff Eley in this journal has pointed out that many historians have abandoned the earlier totalising ambition, the goal of writing the history of whole societies in some integral and holistic way, but he appeals now for a synthesis since between social history and cultural history there is really no need to choose.5 In South Africa, the break with past historiographical traditions has not been nearly so dramatic or absolute.6 Ulrich does not reject the work published in Contingent Lives far from it but she warns us against ignoring more materialist and macroscopic insights. Work by historians of the early colonial Cape is of course by no means the only scholarship to have changed the ways in which South African historians think and write since the heyday of vibrant revisionism in the 1970s and 1980s,7 but consideration of some of these issues in relation to their work may illuminate larger issues about what is happening more broadly in the writing of South African history. Flattering as it is to have such momentous issues raised around a publication with which one has been involved, Contingent Lives is a surprising choice. It was never intended to have an impact of the kind made by a book with which Ulrich compares it, The Shaping of South African Society, rather being relatively unedited conference proceedings and therefore not commercially available and now out of print. The purpose of the Contingent Lives conference was to bring Cape historians of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the era of Dutch colonial rule, into contact with work of Dutch and Asian scholars on the Dutch East India Company (VOC) in order to open up new lines of thinking. It is thus an eclectic collection, although the re-writing of some of the papers on the Cape for later publication in this journal demonstrated a greater cohesion. The Social Identities in Eighteenth-Century Cape Town research project that hosted the conference is now in the process of producing a (hopefully) much more cogent book which will benefit from not only from the Contingent Lives conference but also the workshops and

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Ulrich, Time, Space, South African Historical Journal 62, 3 (2010) 571 588. M. Goswami, Remembering the Future, American Historical Review, 113, 1 (2008), 417 424. G. Eley, Dilemmas and Challenges of Social History since the 1960s: What Comes after the Cultural Turn, South African Historical Journal, 60, 3 (2008), 319, 320. These issues are more fully developed in G. Eley, A Crooked Line: From Cultural History to the History of Society (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007) and the forum that followed it in American Historical Review 113, 1 (2008), 391 437. For reflections on this a decade ago, see A. Cobley, Does Social History Have a Future? The Ending of Apartheid and Recent Trends in South African Historiography, Journal of Southern African Studies, 27, 3 (2001), 613 625. See, for example, N. Etherington, Is a Reorientation of South African History a Lost Cause?, South African Historical Journal, 60, 3 (2008), 323 333.



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seminars that have taken place since 2006, as well as from Ulrichs insightful critique.8 The papers in Contingent Lives thus only hint at what was to come. Writing on early colonial Cape society in the 1970s and 1980s was much less conceptually unified by either structuralist or culturalist approaches to political economy than was the case for most South African revisionist historiography. There were of course exceptions, notably in the work of Martin Legassick and later Susan Newton-King and Wayne Dooling, but many scholars of the Cape such as Robert Ross, Nigel Penn, John Mason and myself, while certainly open to the approaches of culturalist social history coming out of Shula Markss London seminars or the Witwatersrand History Workshop, were less than fully engaged in them. This raises an important issue. The key tropes of South African revisionism the forging of a capitalist society and its impact on class consciousness and agency were less easily transferable to a pre-industrial social order. This made writing on such a period less central to revisionists work. Notable revisionists, such as Bill Freund, Stanley Trapido and Shula Marks, shifted the focus of their initial work on the early Cape Colony to later periods and themes. Although many Cape historians were equally concerned with recovering ne