Hidden Histories of Gordonia: Land Dispossession and Resistance in the Northern Cape, 1800–1990, is the last, posthumous work of one of South Africa’s foremost “radical” or revisionist historians, Martin Legassick (1940–2016). It takes the form of a number of essays on the history of an arid frontier region of the Cape to the north of the Orange River. When reading them, it is important to heed Legassick’s words in the preface to the volume. He conceived of them as being part of an exercise in “‘applied history,’ that is to say, historical writing with a direct application to people’s lives in the present” (xviii–xix). But this is not the book that Legassick initially wanted to write. That would have been, in his words, “a full local history of Gordonia from the time of its settlement by Basters in the 1870s up to the present.” Ultimately this “proved [to be] too much to accomplish” (xviii). These are essays, then (some of which have been published before), in applied history. The most obvious application of several of the essays is to document the historical processes whereby the region’s various indigenous peoples were dispossessed of their land. By so doing Legassick hoped to facilitate the restitution of such land to the descendants of the dispossessed, a concern that stemmed from his work for the Commission of Restitution of Land Rights and that involved detailed archival research. The fruits of such labor are to be seen in those essays that meticulously record the ways in which the brown, coloured, or mixed-race Baster communities of the region firstly acquired land and then had it taken from them by white colonists or the colonial government. Another set of essays deals with the theme of armed resistance by sections of the indigenous population to white encroachment. Here Legassick recounts the histories of various Oorlam (Khoikhoi acculturated to, but outside of, colonial society), Khoikhoi, or Baster groups, such as the Afrikaners, the Koranas, and the Bondelswarts, who fought to keep at bay Boer frontiersmen, British colonial officials, Cape settlers, and German soldiers from South West Africa. During the late nineteenth century Gordonia was a real frontier zone whose boundaries only became clearly defined once the British and Cape governments decided where exactly British Bechuanaland began or ended. A further complication arose, in 1884, with the proclamation of a German protectorate in South West Africa (now Namibia), whose eastern boundary was drawn right through the Riemvasmaak district. In addition to being the site of the Korana Wars of 1868–1869 and 1879–1880, the region also played host to the Anglo-Boer War of 1899–1902, during which Baster units fighting alongside the British found themselves in conflict with Boer commandos. Between 1903 and 1907 the Nama-Herero Revolt in German South West Africa saw the resistance leader Jacob Marengo making skillful use of the colonial border between the two countries to elude his pursuers, a tactic that worked until the British and Germans authorities temporarily chose to ignore the border and united to destroy him. Among the earliest resisters to colonial expansion in the region were the hunter-gatherer societies known as the Bushmen or the San. Two essays in this collection deal with aspects of their fate in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As San societies approached the brink of extinction, either through violent extermination or through forced absorption into the Boer’s labor force, it became fashionable to exhibit live Bushmen as curiosities at international shows, and dead Bushmen, that is, skeletons or anatomical specimens, in museums and medical schools. A happy outcome of this particular piece of applied history was the return, for re-interment, of the remains of some individuals from the Natural History Museum, Vienna, in 2012. The book ends with an extensive exercise in oral history, as Legassick comments on the life story of an Upington anti-apartheid activist, Alfred Gubula, a Xhosa man who was caught up in the turmoil surrounding the celebrated trial of the “Upington 25” for the 1985 murder of a policeman and who narrated his story to Legassick. Although there is much to admire in this collection of essays—and much to be grateful for—the book is not without certain weaknesses. For a study of a relatively obscure frontier region, where shifts in borders and boundaries are absolutely crucial to understanding the historical fate of the inhabitants, the maps that are provided are totally inadequate. The scans of historical maps are too faint and too small to be read even with a magnifying glass. Since this is a posthumous publication, one feels that this deficiency was probably not something within Legassick’s control. It is possible, too, that, had Legassick had more time, he might have reviewed or updated certain sections of the book. Those chapters that deal with the early history of the region, or “prehistory” as he incorrectly puts it, since he means the history prior to 1870, do not seem to have been published elsewhere and bear the hallmarks of having been written in the 1990s. The result is that Legassick seems to have ignored more recent important works that provide contextual, thematic, and comparative insights into what was happening in and around Gordonia in the second half of the nineteenth century. His discussion of the early history of the Oorlam Afrikaners seems somewhat dated to this reviewer, and his decision not to write about the presence of missionaries in the area, “because this has been done elsewhere” (xxii), is an extraordinary omission. Legassick does not say where this has been done—though he may be referring to his earlier work—but he cannot have been unaware that missionaries were of fundamental importance to the creation of group identities in this region and that it is impossible to write the history of the region without them. As it is, the book succeeds in conveying to the reader something of the distinctive harshness of Gordonia’s desert landscape and its people, where life has always been a grim struggle against hostile elements and dangerous neighbors. The work is also a monument to Legassick’s industry and involvement, a tribute to his commitment to the struggle and his dedication as an historian. Legassick could be proud of his achievements in these essays of applied history, for by recovering the histories of the oppressed he has, in a fundamental way, given them an enduring existence. “Hidden Histories” are the fitting last words of a combative intellectual and a caring champion of the downtrodden. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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