Looked at from the vantage point of a democratic non-racial South Africa, the nineteenth-century may seem like one long bloody history of dispossession, the details of which are of little interest today. The Cape Colony of that time was not, however, a monolithic machine but a two-headed monster; although it was very powerful when the two heads faced in the same direction, it was wracked by internal contradictions which had concrete outcomes that can still be felt today. Most notably, with regard to the different characteristics giving birth to different provinces, and with regard to the origins of modern African nationalism, especially in the Eastern Cape.
Past historians have tended to personalise colonial history around historical figures, heroes or villains, courageous colonists versus interfering missionaries, or highminded missionaries versus brutal colonists. Everything depended on whether the historian in question was a conservative or a liberal. Yet other white historians theorised about something they called ‘the imperial factor’, meaning that imperialists in London thought very differently from settlers in South Africa itself. Black historians, for their part, have seen little to differentiate between the various blends of imperialism, racism and colonialism.
Yet there were differences, and these were significant. They stemmed not from personalities or ideology or class differences between aristocrats and traders. They stemmed from the fact that South Africa was not a settler colony like Australia or Canada, nor was it a trading colony such as the Gold Coast or Singapore. Rather, it was a little bit of both. Settler farmers wished to appropriate the land and labour of indigenous societies, but settler merchants and missionaries wished to enhance their productive and purchasing power. From this difference arose much else.
One of the great paradoxes of South African history is that the old Cape Colony, which spewed forth the forces of dispossession and subjugation, remained itself a bastion of egalitarianism, embodied in the nominally non-racial Cape Constitution of 1853 and normally referred to in history books as the liberal Cape. This paradox is even more surprising when one considers that the genesis of the liberal constitution occurred while the Cape was governed by the violently pro-settler Sir Harry Smith, engaged in two desperate frontier wars and politically dominated by landhungry Eastern Cape settlers led by the newspaper editor, Robert Godlonton. To understand how this came to be requires looking more closely at two iconic events of the mid-nineteenth century: the anti-convict agitation of 1849 and the Kat River Rebellion of 1850.