Karel Schoeman. The Griqua Captaincy of Philippolis, 1826-1861. Pretoria: Protea Book House, 2002. 308 pp. ZAR 180.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-919825-39-7.
Reviewed by Robert Ross (Talen en Culturen van Afrika, Leiden University)
Published on H-SAfrica (March, 2004)
Let me try to be honest. Reviewing this book is for me in some senses self-indulgent, in others problematic. Rather longer ago than I would care to admit, I wrote a Ph.D. thesis on "The Griquas of Philippolis and Kokstad," and published it as Adam Kok's Griquas. So Schoeman is revisiting historiographical country which I once knew well. Even the picture on the dusk jacket is the same--and that on the back of Schoeman's book I have used elsewhere.
The Griqua captaincy of Philippolis, under its successive leaders Adam Kok II and his son Adam Kok III, was established in the mid-1820s by people of primarily Khoekhoe descent--though in general they were prouder of the European admixture--who had congregated in the valley of the Gariep (Orange) river further to the west, and who had seceded from the polity under Andries Waterboer in Griquatown. They thus came to control a large area of what is now the Free State province of South Africa. Until the 1840s the captaincy operated independently, although it was increasingly surrounded by what were then known as "emigrant farmers" from the Cape Colony to the South. In 1848, the region was incorporated into the short-lived British colony of the Orange River Sovereignty, and six years later became part of the territory of the Independent Republic of the Orange Free State, although it was far from clear just how much jurisdiction the Free State had over the Griquas. In any event, the tensions involved in this subordinate position were too great, and in 1860-61, the Captaincy left en masse and crossed the Drakensberg to refound itself in what became known as Griqualand East, around the new town of Kokstad against the mountains between the Transkei and Natal.
There are two questions which I feel comfortable in putting after reading Schoeman's most recent book--probably by now not the most recent; as was said of a Dutch novelist, he writes faster than God can read. First, is there any sense in reading Schoeman's book if you have read my (much shorter) volume, and secondly, and conversely, is there any sense in reading mine as well as Schoeman's? The answer to the first is clearly "yes"; to the second, in all modesty I think the answer is also "yes." This calls for some explanation.
Schoeman wrote this book, some years before it was published, to use the material which he had collected during the course of his work producing the volume of documents for the Van Riebeeck Society. He himself comments that the two works should be read in conjunction. The volume of documents contains the Philippolis Law Book and the extensive correspondence between the officials of the Captaincy and the missionaries, on the one hand, and the colonial governments of the Cape and Orange Free State on the other. It was designed to be illustrative of "the main theme of Griqua history," namely the struggle for control of the territory of what is now the southern Free State between the Griquas and the white settlers. The current volume, on the other hand, is described as a "socio-cultural and historical survey," but one which does not deal in any great detail with the political conflicts of the region. It is also constructed more as an anthology than a standard history, with very many long quotations, often filling more than a page of text. In many ways the book resembles one of Schoeman's novels--he is of course primarily known as a very fine novelist, in Afrikaans, and his historical work has often been combined with the production of historical novels--in that the setting is superbly conveyed but the plot is somewhat meagre. If you did not know, you might come out of reading this book wondering what happened, which is very strange indeed for virtually any part of South African history over the last two centuries, and certainly for this one. It takes a different type of reading technique to distil that narrative from the collection of documents. For this reason, if for no other, it would be worth reading Adam Kok's Griquas. For better or worse, that presents a coat-hanger narrative of the politics and economics of the region, as well as some attempts--how successful I would not care to judge--to place the Philippolis captaincy within the broader contexts of the developments of South African history. But Schoeman, with his novelist's instincts, would never write a sentence as abstract, or as wooden, as the last one.
Where Schoeman succeeds is, first, through his enormous erudition, allowing him to provide a level of personal detail on the participants in his story which is at times staggering. In particular, the portrait he provides of Hendrik Hendrickze, long secretary to the Philippolis government, makes clear just how most shrewd and impressive, if unscrupulous, a politician this man was--although Schoeman has missed the fact that Hendrickze seems to have survived well into his eighties. In general he is very good on the internal politics of Philippolis, except that he does not really explain how the missionaries of the London Missionary Society were fully incorporated as actors, often losing actors, in the struggles within the Captaincy. There is also a wonderful amount of detail on clothing, housing, and such like. There are schools, sewing classes, a "maternal association," temperance societies, and traders, as well as, fleetingly, the moments of political conflict. And for the Griquas and for their white opponents, clothing, housing, temperance, and so forth were used in the political battles, and could be used to assert rights to land and power. So, in the end, the two volumes which Schoeman produced deal with two sides of the same process, the material and the symbolic, and it would be a rash reviewer who, these days, would say which mattered more.
Finally, even if you don't read the book, look at the photographs. Schoeman has published, generally for the first time, some of the photos taken by the missionary W. B. Philip in Philippolis around 1860. They are stunning.
. R. J. Ross, "The Griquas of Philippolis and Kokstad, 1826-1879" (Ph.D. thesis, Cambridge University, 1974); Robert Ross, Adam Kok's Griquas: A Study in the Development of Stratification in South Africa (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976).
. Karel Schoeman, ed., Griqua Records: The Philippolis Captaincy, 1825-1861 (Cape Town: Van Riebeeck Society, 1996 for 1994).
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Robert Ross. Review of Schoeman, Karel, The Griqua Captaincy of Philippolis, 1826-1861.
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