Cape Town between East and West

Edited by Nigel Worden

(Jacana, R250)

I have a dream

Published by Quercus

Hard on the heels of Karel Schoeman’s Cape Lives of the Eighteenth Century comes this collection of essays on Cape Town in the 18th century. The ground covered is very similar, though this volume is more focused in terms of locality, the town rather than the settlement, and in terms of topic, identity construction in the diverse social segments of the community.

Schoeman wrote for the general reader, but his book is of value to the scholar. This work is directed to a specialist readership, but will prove of interest to informed general readers as well.

What a pity, given this high degree of congruity, that Schoeman and the scholars of the joint project of the universities of Cape Town and the Western Cape which was the matrix of these essays worked in isolation from each other. With the publication of their books coinciding so closely, the authors obviously could not benefit from each other’s researches, although the end notes of the present volume contain scattered references to Schoeman’s earlier works on the VOC Cape.

Cape society in the 18th century was made up of people of varied ethnic origins and social positions intent on forging new identities to accommodate themselves to their new situation and maintaining these identities in the face of constantly changing circumstances. In doing so, they made use of whatever resources were available, including concepts from the wider context of their Dutch and Eastern hinterlands.

Entrepreneurship and judicious marriages helped people to move up the social hierarchy, with access to power and mutual support determining their relative success. Because identities thus established could be precarious, masculinity was asserted in the defence of honour, ranging from ritualistic duels to street brawls.

Most strikingly, status and race were not, at this stage, mutually exclusive concepts, although most methods of advancement were obviously less accessible to some sectors of society than to others.

What emerges is a picture of a richly varied, complex and dynamic society and there is not an essay in the book that does not vividly convey the vibrancy of this neglected period of SA history. – John Boje