30 May 1808, concerning the Bosjiesman Nation

30 May 1808, concerning the Bosjiesman Nation

Please reference as: Liz Stanley (2021) ’30 May 1808, concerning the Bosjiesman Nation’, www.whiteswritingwhiteness.ed.ac.uk/Traces/30May1808/ and provide the paragraph number as appropriate when quoting.

1. Introduction

1.1 During the Peninsula War in Europe, and following the Treaty of Amiens in 1806, the Cape came under British jurisdiction. Its first fully civilian governor was the Earl of Caledon. Various British regiments were stationed in the Cape, and from among their commanding officers, Lt Col Richard Collins was appointed in 1808 as Commissioner [a leading military command role]. He was then immediately asked by the Governor to carry out a tour of the frontier areas of the Cape looking for military weak spots and also more generally collecting ‘intelligence’ about people and circumstances. He travelled with Andries Stockenstrom, who acted as a translator, while Collins was very much there as Caledon’s eyes and ears. The letter discussed in this Trace was then dispatched. The following year, following a later investigation as well the earlier, what is known as the Collins Report was presented to Caledon (CO 46/8).

1.2 The 1809 Collins Report is now sometimes described as a ‘threat assessment’. What appears in most accounts is its recommendation that, as the Xhosas in the Eastern Cape had occupied the neutral area agreed in a previous conflict/war, they should be expelled from the Zuurveld, which should be secured by interconnected white settlements and the area between the Fish and the Keiskamma Rivers should be unoccupied by black or white.

1.3 However, the detailed 1808 letter of intelligence from Collins to Caledon that proceeded the later Report is different.

1.4 This letter, some 76 manuscript pages and dated 30 May 1808, survives in one of the Bodleian Library’s collections. Although the letter is known about, its contents are usually encountered in a printed version that appears in a secondary source. That it exists in a full manuscript which is accessible seems not to be widely realised. However, the original does exist, and makes for very interesting reading.

1.5 In general terms, Collins’s letter provides a long account of the ill-feeling between the (white) farmers and the Bosjiesman people and possible reasons for this. It also deals with the Moravian mission at Gracedale (renamed as Genadendal in 1806); and a suggestion for government protected mission-stations existing between the Bosjiesmans and other areas. It is very long, refers to the ‘Bosjiesman Nation’ in a respectful way, and deals with its situation in considerable detail. As the focus of its situation is its troubles with other groups, it is interesting in race/ethnic categorisation terms.

1.6 As this brief summary will convey, it is a more complicated and nuanced document than the Report. Rather than being focused around a plan of using settler farms as the first line of defence backed by a military buffer-zone between the Cape and the Xhosa, it is largely concerned with the relationship between white groups and in particular Boer settlers and various independent African Nations. It also suggests the possibility of a different version of the same strategy, of placing beneficent mission-stations and making these the main point of contact with the Bosjiesman Nation.

1.7 In part this arises from the fact that a letter is written in a different way and has different purposes from how a Report is written and its more specific and focused purposes, in particular with regard to it providing information and making recommendations. But in part, it also seems to arise from Collins’s different responses to the African groups involved, the Bosjiesman on the one hand in 1808, and on the other hand the Xhosa in 1809.

1.8 The strong sense is conveyed in the 1808 letter that the aggravations come from the white farmers to the Bosjiesman, although none of the indigenous groups are represented as entirely pacific in their dealings with each other. One of its principal suggestions is that Britain should protect the San or Bushman people from murderous settler predations and the failure of an earlier military Governor, Macartney, to recognise that his idea for dealing with the issue misunderstood the Bosjiesman character and traditions by wanting to confine them to a particular area or territory. And in its considerable detail, there are many fascinating references to differently situated groups, which indicate something of the terminology used to describe and evaluate people at that time by the British military elite.

2. To Governor Caledon from Richard Collins

2.1 In what follows, a running though partial transcription of the letter’s contents is provided. All the words given are present in the original, but it has not been fully transcribed due to its length. Instead, key elements have been transcribed to convey the unfolding narrative that it provides, and the facts and arguments it gives concerning relationships between different groups of people that are important for the Governor to have accurate information about.

2.2 After the running transcription, some key points will be picked up and discussed, in particular regarding ethnic and racial matters.

2.3 The letter from Collins to Caledon is as follows:

From: Lt Col Richard Collins [British Eastern Cape Commanding Officer]
To: Du Pre Alexander, Earl of Caledon, Governor Cape Colony [political superior, patron]
Date: 30 May 1808
Archive reference: Bodleian Library, Oxford: Cape Colony Letters, MSS Afr s1 / 18

…[I had] a personal communication with some part of the Bosjiesman Nation
I engaged an Interpreter a Bastaard Hottentot [i.e. Griqua] named Jan Titis, who speaks one of the dialects of their language
visited… a few days before by one of their Chiefs, named Rouman
We left the house of Christian Bras, the most remote on that side of the Colony
I sent the interpreter, on horse-back to invite the people to come to us
the unexpected intelligence that he had not found any person at the Krall… their late residence almost entirely destitute
the other Kralls in that part of the country were said to be mostly hostile
I gave Titis a few presents for the two Bosjiesman families… and for his friend Ruman
the only kraal situated near that District was one commanded by an old man named Platje
the Feldkcornet Mr Jacobus Nell, kept up a friendly communication with such of the Bosjiesman as lived peaceably, I left presents with him for them
encourage any of their Chiefs who might wish to go to Cape Town that they should be well received
I can only convey to your Excellency the most satisfactory accounts I have received respecting them
Viz the extent of the misunderstanding which prevails between the Farmers and the Bosjiesman, the probable cause, or causes, which have occasioned it, and the line of conduct best suited to remedy the evil
On comparing the complaints sustained by the Farmers with their account of the numbers, hostility, enterprise & activity of the Bosjiesman, it seems astonishing that they should have suffered so little from their attacks… [a long discussion of this]
The supposition that the emnity of the Bosjiesman was originally occasioned by their resentment at being forced, by the Colonists, to quit the Territory of their ancestors, seems unfounded; as it appears they have always resided in the country they now inhabit [much on this]
They were then in the habit of plundering the Namaquas, a timid people
This tranquility… was unfortunately interrupted by an event, similar to that which gave rise to the Trojan War – A servant of the late Mr van Reenen, of the ?Kantam, having carried off the wife of a Bosjieman, was murdered by him [much more on this]
such articles of subsistence as they do not possess in their own country
They [ie. The farmers] also attempted to rob the Kaffers & Boshuanas, but they experienced from them such determined opposition
Many of them [farmers] have Bosjiesman in their service
I am much disposed to believe, that the accounts given of them are exaggerated
It is however to be feared, that women are sometimes put to death, in these [Boer raiding] expeditions and it cannot be doubted that the Farmers generally bring away a number of children
With regard to the idea that the extension to the boundary from the ?Riet, to the ?Zak River, may have caused the wants of the Bosjiesman… an additional degree of resentment in their minds… There are likewise strong objections to the former boundary… by withdrawing the boundary from the Zak, to the Piet River, the Farmers would be deprived of the advantage they receive from the water & pastorage
I am inclined to think that no measure can put an end to the depredations of the Bosjieman except such as are directed to the root of the evil; and that before any reliance can be placed on them, a change must be effected in their habits & manners; which can only be the work of time
It would be worthy the greatness of the British Empire, to rescue this unfortunate race from the deplorable state of barbarism to which they have been so long condemned. The late Earl of Macartney seemed sensible of the glory attached to such an undertaking
…yet, I cannot help thinking, that his Lordship’s plan for the civilisation & pacification of the Bosjiesman Nation, must have been formed on a total misconception of that people… would not allow themselves to be confined…
The institution of the Moravians at Grace Dale, or Bavians Kloof, within the Colony, first offers itself to my attention [much on his visit to it]
Hottentots flocked… each family has a piece of land allotted to it
It is said that Mr Anderson, an English missionary, has collected in the course of five years several hundred families, from the different nations by which he is surrounded
The great effects arising from these two Establishments afford a just ground to hope
The northern boundary of the Colony seems to admit of three divisions… In each of these divisions I think there should be such an Establishment… [much on this]
the Landdrosts should be directed, occasionally, to inspect & report upon the state of these institutions
The appointment of Superintendents for the missions is a matter of great consequence
Mr Jacob Louw the elder, of Under Bokkenveld
Mr Jacobus Nell of Under Roggerveld
I have heard of a farmer named Klerk, an inhabitant of the ?Konp, whose family employ a great number of Bosjiesman in their Service. He might perhaps be a fit person to act as superintendent of the central mission
I think that the Bosjiesman should not be allowed to have any communication with the Colony, except through the missions
There are three more hostile kraals in that neighbourhood; one commanded by Moses; another by three Chiefs, named Rouland, Abraham, and Cobus; and the third, by ?Schietsfontein
…if I have had the good fortune to offer any suggestions that may be found conducive to purpose, so ?especially calculated to promote the interests of humanity, the prosperity of the Colony, and the honour & advantage of the British Empire….

3. The Bosjiesman Nation

3.1 A considerable part of Collins’s letter is concerned with the Bushman people, referred to by him as the ‘Bosjiesman Nation’ (now referred to as San or Khoisan) and their troubled relationship with white settler farmers and in particular those of Boer extraction.

3.2 Regarding the ethnic and racial terminology that is used, it is notable that the terms used for the Bosjiesman are respectful given the current usage of the day, with other ethnic terms used including Kaffers (ie. Xhosa), Bastaard Hottentots (ie. Griqua), Boors. White is used at various points to describe the farmers, while black is not used of these groups, which are described in ethnic terms instead. And all of the black ethnic entities are referred to as being nations.

3.3 There is no demonisation of the Bosjiesman, but rather an attempt to understand the situation they are in, with the ‘barbarism’ mentioned later in the letter linked to their tradition of being unconfined, not located in one specific demarcated area. The main focus is on how the farmers deal with them, and so on the situation as they have to respond to it. What is at issue is not just the northern boundary, the three divisions and so on that are mentioned, but that for the Bosjiesman Nation this is all about the territory of the ancestors and the right to roam over it and use its resources, including water, something which the plundering farmers had privatised and prevented anyone else from using.

3.4 At the same time, Collins recognises that the situation was overall and in a general way peaceful. But this had been disrupted by an event which he compares to the origins of the Trojan War. The wife of a Bosjiesman man was ‘carried off’ by someone working for a local farmer, the late Mr van Reenen, and this man, a ‘servant’, was later murdered by the Bosjieman husband. These events then set in motion a series of revenge and counter-revenge attacks that became more general.

3.5 Given that from these local and specific beginnings there were ongoing attacks and counter-attacks involving Bosjiesman people, the letter proposes that there are no measures that will end these except by removing the root of the problem. This means changing their habits, but it also recognises that confinement of the nation within a particular area is based on a misconception of the people concerned. It hedges its bets: in one part it says that territorial dispossession is not the root, in another part it says this is how it was. Collins‘s letter then proposes that the presence of missionary stations and these being the only source of contact with the Bosjiesman people was the way forward, by setting up strategically placed mission-stations with men heading them who were suitable for the task because of their known sympathies and expertise.

3.6 However, when the farmers’s reports of Bosjiesman attacks are scrutinised, the letter states, there are many fewer of these than talk might suppose and might have been anticipated from the circumstances. The farmers are settled on parcels of land and defend their water supplies, and many of the conflicts arise from this. And the farmers also raid villages, kill Bosjiesman women and carry off children. This was to bring them up as servants and in a situation rather like slavery because they would have no knowledge of the place they originated from and so be unable to return.

3.7 The conundrum that Collins is wrestling with in this letter is how these different interests can be balanced whilst also recognising the claims/rights that inhere in the Bosjiesman Nation’s position. And this is why, most unusually for a man writing to his patron who is a very senior politician in charge of the Cape, he criticises a previous governor for failing to recognise the issue, that the fundamental Bosjiesman Nation concern is with the whole of the territory, not being given rights within a constrained area. And of course, he is also signalling the existence of a range of different disturbances and conflicts caused by the farmers and the way they conducted themselves.

4. Collins on the Xhosa, Collins on the Bosjiesman Nation

4.1 Is the analysis that Collins provides of the situation of the Bosjiesman Nation in his 1808 letter different from the analysis he provides in his 1809 Report on the Xhosa, and if so in what ways and to what extent?

4.2 It would seem that at basis both the document of 1808 and that of 1809 suggest a similar kind of strategy. This is one of separating contending groups and placing mediating groups and institutions between them. And if that did not work, then more radical separation was recommended, as in the 1809 Report.

4.3 The main difference appears to be that the Report sees the Xhosa people as by and large responsible for the conflicts that occurred between them and the Eastern Cape settlers because they had broken a previous agreement, while the letter sees the San in different terms and assigns responsibility for conflict there as largely the result of the predations of the Boer farmers.

4.4 The letter conveys understanding of and some broad sympathy for the situation that the Bosjiesman Nation was in, its use of the word ‘barbarism’ not withstanding. But this liberal sentiment goes only so far, for the overarching concern of both the letter and the report is with matters of governance, of how to deal with contending interests and produce a balance that was approved by the Governor and his entourage by heading off troubles and enabling governing to take place.

Last updated:  11 September 2021