Whites and blacks educated together… the ordinary procedure

Whites and blacks educated together… the ordinary procedure

George Cory is not exactly the most favoured figure in current South African historiography. A proponent of the ‘onwards and upwards’ school with regard to the settler presence, his writing conveys without actually explicitly saying so that there was nothing much in the way of civilisation before the arrival in South Africa of Europeans. The kind of approach he promulgates can be described as ’the rise of South Africa‘, the title of his once-famous multi-volume series of histories (NB. there were other series as well). And in writing terms it consists of an ‘it is so’ narrative of one fact after another after another after another with no sense of the interpretational niceties or the possibility of alternative viewpoints. All the more surprising, then, to find in Volume II, concerned with the period 1820 to 1834 and focused on the 1820 Settlers in the Eastern Cape, a very matter of fact statement about white and black children being educated in schools together at that time. Cory comments about the founding of a number of schools and that a contemporary had written about one of these being “entirely for European children” (213).  He continues as follows:

“It might at first be thought that the statement was wholly unnecessary and that it was not in the least likely that whites and blacks would be educated together. Sentiment and opinion on these matters have changed since those times. At that date educational feeling ran, not on colour lines, but on the merits (or perhaps more correctly demerits) of two rival systems of education…. The mixing of European and native children (including those of slaves and Hottentots) in school was the ordinary procedure and, further, was one which was considered to be worthy of every encouragement. The Lieutenant-Governor, Major-General Bourke, in writing to the Landdrost of Albany in October, 1827, in connection with the unsatisfactory state of the two free schools in Grahamstown, said: ‘The distinction between white and coloured children is not observed in any of the other free schools in the Colony that I am aware of and should if possible be avoided’. Again, in the previous year, when steps were being taken to open a school in the newly established town of Somerset East, the question of the advisability of admitting coloured children was raised and the Government referred the matter to Mr Mackay, the Landdrost. He stated that at Graaff-Reinet children of colour mixed indiscriminately with others without calling for any remonstrance, and he was of the opinion that there was no better way of finally removing the prejudices – ‘now rapidly wearing away‘ – against the blacks than to afford them an opportunity of emulating those who possessed advantages over them.”

This is interesting in a number of respects. Firstly, there is Cory‘s matter-of-fact statement that the usual procedure in and around 1827 was of mixing in classrooms, and at the highest level of colonial administration this was thought desirable. Secondly, there is the equally matter-of-fact statement that part of the purpose of such education was to remove prejudice and that where such mixing did not occur this was to be avoided. Thirdly, there is the fact that Cory’s book was published in 1913, the year of the Natives Land Act and three years after the Union of South Africa, and he notes in passing the change of views that had occurred over the period between 1827 and when he was writing. And fourthly, he seems unaware that his apparently even-handed manner of writing in fact displays the racialisation that had occurred. The terms he uses are whites and blacks, natives and Europeans, and the reduction of people to one end or the other of a binary racialised colour categorisation is notable.

George Cory 1913 The Rise of South Africa London: Longmans, Green & Co. Vol II 1820-1834.


Last updated:  17 May 2019