The oddities of whiteness: ‘injury to his character’ in interesting times

The oddities of whiteness: ‘injury to his character’ in interesting times

On 13 May 1840, the South African Commercial Advertiser reprinted the news item below from the Grahamstown Colonial Times.


We give below from the Colonial Times, Grahams Town, a report of the first instance in which a Caffer has applied to a Colonial Court for injury done to his character. Without anticipating the result of the application, we must express our opinion in favour of such a mode of proceeding. We feel surprise that many of the Chiefs have not been advised long ago to seek redress in the civilised manner, instead of allowing resentment to rankle in their hearts till it led to open violence.

This had earlier appeared in a Grahamstown newspaper, by implication having limited Picture1circulation. However, the news item’s content, concerning a libel case, was deemed important and interesting enough, as it was the first time such a thing had happened, to be reprinted for the larger readership of the Cape-wide distributed Commercial Advertiser. It expresses clear approbation for the libel prosecution, taken up by an unnamed Xhosa chief (but perhaps Sarili, successor to Hintsa) because of ‘injury to his character’ – it states, ‘we must express our opinion in favour’. Indeed, it goes further, also stating that ‘seeking redress in this civilised manner’ should have been advised before, with the implication that just cause for it and the resulting rankles existed for ‘many of the Chiefs’.

It tut-tuts that rankles can become violence, thereby ignoring or disavowing that provocation for these might include violence and injury to persons and not just character. Its comment is also tempered by the use of ‘civilised’, clearly implying other responses were not civilised; and attached to the term ‘Caffer’ it has a racialising effect, although in 1840 this word did not have quite its present offensive overtones. But nonetheless the overall effect is a positive comment and a tacit acceptance that ‘injury’ did indeed occur.

Odd lot, we white folks, both then and now. A bloody war had occurred, terrible events were done, and disgusting things were also said. Go to law instead! The Xhosa chief is in the right! The even odder thing is that the writer gives the impression of meaning it and that disputes, even major ones, could be dealt with not by violence but by legal disposition. This is a very Norbert Elias and civilizing processes route to advocate, that conflict should become incorporated into routinisation and state monopoly. Except of course that it was ‘the state’ that was a major part of the problem for African peoples and leaders such as Hintsa and Sarili.

Last updated: 18 August 2016


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