Waiting for the Barbarians - Tidbit 3: Competition

Waiting for the Barbarians by ‎J.M. Coetzee

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Waiting for the Barbarians - Tidbit 3: Competition

Unread post by fireflydances » Tue Jul 16, 2019 7:20 pm

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Slavery at the Cape - Oxford Research Encyclopedia


The South Africa of colonialism and apartheid lies at the heart of Waiting for the Barbarians. It is never openly referenced, but all the same it lingers on the margin of every word Coetzee presents to his readers. And in this way it directs us to a fuller understanding of what happened and why it happened, and how all of that shaped Coetzee as a writer.

In taking on such a large subject, I knew I would need to find the specific in the sweeping history of South Africa. Small stories in hopes of illuminating the larger reality of South Africa during the 1970s when Coetzee was writing Waiting for the Barbarians. I have two such stories. Our tidbit today is about the destruction of San society in 18th century Cape Colony. On Thursday we will look at the origins of the apartheid state in South Africa.

In 1652 the Dutch East India Company (VOC) set up a “refreshment station” on the western tip of South Africa, near the Cape of Good Hope. It was not supposed to be a colony. Its sole purpose was to support the needs of Dutch ships moving from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean: fresh water, an opportunity to re-stock supplies, and a break from rough seas. One hundred and twenty men debarked, every one of them a company employee including settlement commander, Jan van Riebeeck. Already living in the territory were thousands of indigenous people.

From its earliest days the settlement dealt with two issues destined to influence the future direction of South Africa.
The first was lack of manpower. The original plan had called for the settlement to erect a fort and begin farming as soon as possible, but the enormity of the task proved beyond the scope of employees on hand. Within weeks van Riebeeck was writing to Amsterdam and requesting a shipment of slaves. For several years VOC headquarters resisted, and the settlement had to make due with slaves purchased from visiting ships, or secured via their own schooner voyages up the coast. Neither method allowed for the number of slaves needed.

Finally in 1657 the VOC commissioned the construction of two slave ships in Amsterdam specifically for the settlement. At this point Cape Colony became a slaving enterprise, trading firearms, currency and brandy in exchange for human beings. Slaves arrived from different locations over the decades that followed. Roughly half of Cape Colony’s slave supply was imported from India and Indonesia, 25% from Madagascar and another 25% from the African continent. All told, between 1652 and 1808 - when the slave trade was abolished - 63,000 slaves were imported to Cape Colony.

The second issue was a continuing dependence on food shipped in from Amsterdam to tend to the needs of passing ships. In address this problem, VOC decided in 1657 to release some settlers from their status as VOC employees and grant them freeholder title to parcels of land. This did much more than secure more food. It opened the frontier of Cape Colony with the establishment of a system of land grants, and ensured that even more settlers would arrive at the Cape. It also doomed the indigenous population to devastation and collapse.

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The Khoikhoi - Early representation (South Africa History Online)

The Khoikhoi had been living in Cape Colony for 2,000 years when the Dutch settlers arrived. They were pastoral nomads and herded sheep, goats and cattle, moving around the Cape, always in search of new grazing lands.

According to the VOC, the land on which the Dutch built their settlement had been purchased from the Khoe chief of a local tribe. The VOC provided brandy, tobacco and bread; the Khoe offered their land. While relations were fairly satisfactory during the early days, the Khoe were completely disinterested in working for the Dutch, as the compensation offered was viewed as wholly insufficient for the task to be undertaken. This is another reason why slaves became the solution. The Khoe were willing to help VOC with cattle breeding, but once it became clear that the Dutch wanted land and wanted to limit Khoe access to this land, the Khoe refused to negotiate further. By 1670, as land was steadily turned into farm after farm by Dutch settlers, the Khoe population was losing both grazing land and grazing rights. In 1699 VOC lifted the ban on colonist - Khoe livestock trading. This led to a spate of violence against the Khoe as Dutch settlers without herds or land saw the policy change as an opportunity to take animals from the herders by force. The Khoe way-of-life was based on family ownership of animal herds. A family’s wealth was based on the size of their herd. Even marriage was dependent on the ownership of animals. Unable to maintain a traditional lifestyle, Khoe society collapsed. Some Khoe became hunters and gatherers, some moved away from the Cape altogether in search of new land. A smaller number turned to work on settler farms, receiving only a minimal wage, and forced to hand over to the farmer any animals they still owned.

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Khoikhoi with Cattle -- European depiction around 1700, National Library of South Africa

By 1714 the VOC was issuing grazing rights in the form of 6,000 acre spreads on less arable land to the north of the settlement. Each property was leased for an annual fee. It was a dramatic expansion in available land, and it accelerated the movement of European settlers into the interior. The resulting demographic pattern was huge tracks of land and a small settler population. It also spurred the development of a new type of farmer -- the trekboer, ‘migrant farmer’ in Dutch. Trekboers were less wealthy settlers, those unable to pay an annual lease fee, but people willing to chance their fate on the frontier. They lived out of covered wagons, always moving with their herds, always searching for good grazing and hoping a permanent place to root themselves. “Hardy and resourceful, but vulnerable because of their isolation, trekboers were generally ruthless in their appropriation of natural resources and their treatment of indigenous peoples.” (Adhikari)

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An aquatint by Samuel Daniell of Trekboers making camp -- around 1804


By 1740 the trekboers’ need for land had driven them 225 miles north of Cape Town, and into the harsher environment along the escapement -- a marginal land formed by a series of mountain ranges that divided the lusher coastal region from dryer interior. The region offered the possibility of both winter and summer grazing, but it also placed the trekboers far beyond the control of the VOC, and into a lawless environment where the farmer was responsible for his own safety. It was also where the San people had lived for hundreds of thousands of years. Indigenous hunters and gatherers who fed their families by chasing wild herds, the San, like the trekboer, needed huge tracks of land. But open land, not land set aside for domestic herding.

Soon the trekboer and the San found themselves in hot competition for scarce resources. The large Trekboer herds overgrazed the grasslands, muddied San water holes, and the guns of the trekboer vastly reduced the supply of wild animals which were central to the San diet. The problem was further compounded when the trekboers denied San access to waterholes. All of this put tremendous pressure on the San. They chose to resist. Over the next thirty years the San launched guerilla attacks on the frontier farmers’ herds and homesteads. The attacks usually occurred at night: raids in which trekboer herds were driven off or killed. Sometimes the San killed the Khoe herders employed by the farmers, sometimes they destroying trekboer crops or even burned homesteads down. As the guerilla war proceeded small San tribes, usually less than 30 people in all, would band together into large groups of over 100 in an effort to defend themselves against the firearm-protected trekboer.

The intent was always the same -- convince the trekboer to leave. This is compellingly expressed by the words of San leader Koerikei, as reported by a trekboer who opposed him in an encounter in November 1777. Koerikei stood on a cliff beyond the reach of the colonists’ bullets. “What are you doing in my territory? You occupy all the places where eland and other game live. Why do you not remain where the sun sets, where you were before?” When asked why he did not live in peace with the colonists, Koerikei replied that he didn’t want to lose the land of his birth, that he would kill their herdsmen, and chase them all away. As he went off he added that it would be seen who would win.” (Adhikari)

The trekboer population saw themselves as an isolated people, Christian and civilized and determined to counter the San with force. While dependent on Cape Town for the restocking of firearms and ammunition, they organized themselves into commando squads. Early commando units were sanctioned by Cape Town and operated under militia-style rules: enforced drills, local farmer field sergeants who represented the VOC. Unofficial commando units soon developed, organized on a moment’s notice, to pursue San rustlers and guerilla bands, but also for pre-emptive attacks on the San. Deception was also used. A commando unit of seventy-seven men shot several hippo along a river bank and waited for the San to appear. Many San from the surrounding area arrived and a large feast was organized. The commandos waited for darkness and killed 122 San and took more than 20 as prisoners. Some trekboer were not above killing San women and children in horrific acts of cruelty, skinning San women and smashing the heads of babies on rocks.

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San settlement

Often San were killed casually. A farmer travelling from one farm to another might arrive at a homestead, indicating to his host that he had shot several San encountered during his trip. “Louis de Grandpre, a French army officer who visited the Cape in 1786-87, accused trekboers of being even more blood thirsty than the conquistadors because ‘they have hunted the Boschis (San) as one would hunt hares; their dogs are trained for it.” (Adhikari) Those not killed were forced into labor on trekboer farms.

All of this worked quite well for the VOC. It would be problematic for a commercial enterprise such as the VOC to justify military campaigns. So officials overlooked vigilante action, and rewarded trekboers with land titles to those areas where the San had been driven off. By 1777, VOC government policy “explicitly sanctioned the eradication of San whenever and wherever they were encountered.” (Adhirkari)

The manner in which the trekboer responded to San attempts to force them off the land was fueled by an underlying belief that trekboers were “unequivocally different from and superior to indigenous peoples.” (Adhirkari) What follows is a statement made by landdrost Alberti from the Cape. (Note: the first word means government official) “According to the unfortunate notion prevalent here, a heathen is not actually human, but as the same time he cannot really be classed among the animals. He is, therefore, a sort of creature not known elsewhere. His word can in no wise be believed, and only by violent measures can he be brought to do good and shun evil. “ (du Toit and Giliomee)

The VOC ceased operations in 1795 when the Cape Colony was seized by the British. The Boer search for land expanded first north then east into the interior of what is now called South Africa where they battling other indigenous tribes and expanded Boer control of territory, eventually establishing Orange Free State and Transvaal in the 1850s.

In the end, the “almost complete destruction of the Cape San society” (Adhirkari) was a function of Dutch colonialism, settler expansion, an intense competition for natural resources between ill-matched competitors, and an inability of those in power to see the San as equals, or at very least as fellow human beings. Unfortunately it was an attitude that the trekboer would carry with them long after they moved beyond the Cape Colony.



Sources:

Adhikari, M. “A total extinction confidential hoped for: the destruction of Cape San society under Dutch colonial rule, 1700 - 1795” Journal of Genocide Research (2010) March - June. PDF


Attwell, David J.M. 1 January 1970: “Chapter 3. The beginning - Dusklands.” Coetzee and the Life of Writing: Face to Face with Time, Viking Penguin, 2016

South Africa History Online (SAHO) specifically the following articles: The Dutch Settlement, Early Cape Slave Trade, History of slavery and early colonization in South Africa, The Dutch and the Khoikhoi
"Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed and some few to be chewed and digested." Sir Francis Bacon, Of Studies

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Waiting for the Barbarians - Tidbit 3: Competition

Unread post by nebraska » Tue Jul 16, 2019 9:08 pm

Interesting to think of the book being set in South Africa where Coetzee was born and spent his childhood. But perhaps that is because my knowledge of African geography is sorely lacking. For me the book seemed to be set in some unnamed fantasy land. Many of the themes in the book seem universal to a land that is overtaken by another civilization. I was frequently reminded of the treatment of American Indians by the white invaders in what became the United States.

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Waiting for the Barbarians - Tidbit 3: Competition

Unread post by fireflydances » Tue Jul 16, 2019 9:52 pm

Hey there Nebraska, so glad to see you! And I am very much looking forward to your involvement.

There is a universality to Waiting for the Barbarians with incredible application to many situations across the world. I know it continues to speak to me in terms of problems our own nation faces now with the border dilemma as well how the US treated the American Indians. In fact, in trying to create a setting he explored a whole range of options -- including the American West. So I agree with you totally. Basically Coetzee has created something that is universal in its truths.

The genesis of the book came out of Coetzee's desire to write a novel in response to the horrific conditions non-Europeans faced in South Africa during the 1970s. He struggled with the notion of a realistic telling of what was happening in South Africa, but rejected it and chose instead the mythopoetic tale we are reading. The story was a way of getting under the skin, if you will, of South Africa on the edge of revolutionary change, but deliberately not realistic because it is possible to go deeper with a story that approaches the mythic. Because there is no specific country, no specific time, setting, etc. everyone gets to look beneath the surface and pull out the meaning and significance they find. It is an eternal tale if you will.

I am planning one tidbit on Coetzee's life and another one on the writing of Waiting for the Barbarian.
"Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed and some few to be chewed and digested." Sir Francis Bacon, Of Studies

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Waiting for the Barbarians - Tidbit 3: Competition

Unread post by SnoopyDances » Tue Jul 16, 2019 10:29 pm

Very interesting, Firefly.
Not knowing the biography of Coetzee, I would not have pictured South Africa reading the book.

I'm looking forward to learning more about Coetzee and the history that shaped this book.

Already, the book has shown a universality in themes relevant today. How sad that humans continue to repeat the past instead of learning from it. :no2:

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Waiting for the Barbarians - Tidbit 3: Competition

Unread post by fireflydances » Wed Jul 17, 2019 8:31 am

Thank you for your comment Snoopy.

Yes, and well I hope that the tidbits on the life of Coetzee and on the writing of the novel will provide additional insight. :zoner:

The first is early next week.
"Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed and some few to be chewed and digested." Sir Francis Bacon, Of Studies