During the first half of the nineteenth century, Cape society was radically altered in many respects by its integration within a British imperial system and a globalizing economy. But it was not necessarily transformed in the fundamentals of its racial structure. On the one hand, British administrations enforced "the replacement of slave-owner tyranny by a more powerful state regulation of labor," but on the other, they ensured the maintenance of "social hierarchy and inequality of race and class" (Worden and Crais 1994, p.13).
The Cape Colony first became a part of the British Empire on an indefinite basis during the Napoleonic War. It was seized from the Dutch Batavian Republic in 1806 due to its strategic location on the shipping route between Europe and the East Indies, but its retention was not confirmed until 1814. During the first two decades of British occupation, autocratic and predominantly military governors pursued conservative policies, similar to those adopted in Britain, which were intended to maintain an inherited social order. Thus, the 1809 Caledon Code, while it attempted to moderate physical abuse of the colony’s Khoi workforce, nevertheless reinforced their subordination to colonists by imposing a pass system which restricted their movements. Close links were forged between the small number of British officials in the colony and the Dutch-speaking colonial elite, and British forces were used to secure the eastern colonial margins for frontier farmers by expelling Xhosa chiefdoms across the Fish River.
By the 1820s, however, the middle classes’ ongoing struggle against aristocratic hegemony in industrializing Britain was undermining the status quo in the Cape as well as in the metropolis. In 1807, a campaign fought largely by middle-class evangelicals culminated in the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade for British ships, bringing labor shortages to many parts of the colony. Further British humanitarian intervention led to the amelioration of the Cape slaves’ conditions during the 1820s. The colony’s aristocratic governor, Lord Charles Somerset, was directly challenged by British settlers such as the journalists Thomas Pringle and John Fairbairn, who were advocates of reformist programs in Britain. Among the 4,000 "1820 settlers" located on the eastern frontier of the colony, the majority of the gentry, who had emigrated as leaders of group parties, joined in the pressure for an end to the governor’s unmitigated powers. An official commission of inquiry appointed in 1823 recommended reforms that were the first step away from the old autocratic and mercantilist system and toward freer trade under an advisory legislative council.
Reformist pressure did not end with the assault on Somerset’s ancien rйgime. The London Missionary Society director in the Cape, Dr. John Philip, represented the plight of the colony’s Khoi as being akin to that of slaves. Metropolitan humanitarians took up his call for their freedom, and in 1828 Ordinance 50 abolished the pass laws and accorded Khoi equal rights to colonists under the law. Despite the vehement opposition of both established Dutch-speaking colonists and recent British settlers, Ordinance 50 was hailed by humanitarians as the Cape’s own Charter of Freedom. In 1834, a British humanitarian campaign against the continuance of slavery in the West Indies culminated in the abolition of the institution of slavery throughout the British Empire, including the Cape.
While reform took precedence in the Cape under Somerset’s successor, Lieutenant Governor Bourke, the humanitarian concept of freedom was nevertheless qualified. In Britain, humanitarian reformers held out the prospect of workers’ freedom from arbitrary legal restraint, but advocated their docility, sobriety, and productivity within an unequal class system. In the Cape, freed slaves had four years of "apprenticeship" to their former masters in which to learn the traits of respectability and submission to "proper" authority. In case these lessons were not sufficient, the 1841 Masters and Servants Ordinance prescribed criminal sanctions for any laborer’s breach of contract with a new employer. Although the legislation itself was nonracial, the vast majority of laborers were freed slaves or Khoi, by now known collectively as "colored," while the vast majority of employers were white. Only a tiny proportion of the Khoi freed under Ordinance 50 had actually been allocated land along the Kat River on which they could attempt to acquire a living independent of colonial employers, and even this humanitarian "experiment" was part of a buffer strip defending the colony’s eastern frontier from Xhosa raids.
British administration created favorable conditions for British merchants to operate from the Cape, especially once sterling had replaced the rixdollar as local currency and once British preference for Cape wine exporters had been removed, breaking the established Dutch elite’s economic stranglehold. With their connections in London, British merchants were able to act as agents retrieving much of the compensation money offered to the Cape’s slaveowners upon the "emancipation" of their workforce. Dutch-speaking merchants soon assimilated within this English-speaking elite and, from the 1830s, both helped to finance settler capitalist expansion, based on wool production, in the eastern Cape. These merchants were also behind the complex of scientific, literary, and artistic institutions centered on the company gardens in Cape Town— institutions that did much to bolster a sense of respectability and pride in a Cape colonial identity.
It was partly the "respectable" colonists’ desire for metropolitan recognition that led to the "Convict Crisis." In 1848, the British government ordered that the Cape be used as a penal colony in order to appease Australian settlers, who had repeatedly complained about the "export" of British convicts to their territories. Dutch – and English-speaking commercial interests forged an alliance of classes in Cape Town to protest at this challenge to the Cape’s status as a colony of free settlement. Governor Harry Smith, despite securing the support of eastern Cape settlers, whose expansion onto Xhosa lands he had facilitated, found that he could not govern effectively as long as the Cape Town elite boycotted the legislative council. He was forced to order the first and only convict ship to arrive in Table Bay on to Tasmania, saving the Cape from degradation in the eyes of its bourgeois elite. Victory in this struggle with metropolitan authority gave the colonial elite the confidence and the determination to follow Canada in securing greater powers of self-government.
When representative government was granted to the Cape in 1853, it came in the form of a compromise. Eastern Cape British settlers, many of whom supported a separatist movement which aimed to bring governmental authority under more direct settler expansionist influence, had generally argued for a franchise qualification that would include only wealthier capitalists such as themselves. But western Cape commercial and Afrikaner farming interests were generally in favor of a more inclusive franchise that would empower the entire white population (as well as wealthier "coloreds" and land-owning Africans). The constitution finally adopted contained the relatively low franchise qualification of Ј25 worth of property, regardless of race. It has been argued that the inclusion of a small minority of blacks within the enfranchised classes acted as a kind of "safety valve" for black grievances in the wake of the "colored" and Xhosa eastern Cape uprising of 1850-1852. The nonracial constitution served as a counter to the destabilizing effects of settler expansionism which had caused the rebellion, giving blacks the aspiration to join the governing elite rather than overthrow it.
With representative government, the Cape’s authorities managed relatively successfully to contain the tensions within colonial society for the next 20 years while consolidating colonial control over Xhosa territory in British Kaffraria. Under the governorship of Sir George Grey (1854-1862), Xhosa resistance was overcome in the wake of the cattle-killing movement, and expenditure increased on roads, prisons, hospitals, and schools in both the east and the west of the colony. This created a budget deficit, which in turn contributed to an economic downturn in the 1860s, but it meant that by 1870 there was surplus capital in the Cape ready for speculation and investment in the mineral discoveries to the north. Ultimately, the success of black farmers occasioned by commercial expansion would threaten white dominance of the electoral roll under the Cape’s nonracial franchise. But once the colony was granted responsible government in 1872, the white elite was in a better position to raise the franchise qualification and maintain white political privilege. There would be little protest from liberal merchants now that their economic interest had shifted from the agrarian enterprise of black farmers to the expansion of industrial activities.
See also: Boer Expansion: Interior of South Africa; South Africa: Missionaries: Nineteenth Century.
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