Timothy Johns, “The 1820 Settlement Scheme to South Africa”


The 1820 settlement scheme to South Africa marks an important conjuncture both for the colony’s internal development and for the rhetoric of immigration in the internal politics of Britain. Examining the rationale for the venture in light of the seminal historical event of the age—the Peterloo Massacre of 16 August 1819—and in light of Romantic notions of the “Noble Savage,” this entry attempts to demonstrate how concerns surrounding the South African scheme came to be entangled within larger debates over joblessness, slavery, class struggle, and inanition in early nineteenth-century British culture. Limiting its focus to a reading of The Emigrant’s Cabin (1822, 1834), a poem by the settler-poet Thomas Pringle (1789-1834), the entry argues that 1820 settler rhetoric navigated debates over labor through a novel engagement with time. By imagining a two-tiered system of labor time in the poem—one for settlers, based on unemployment relief and freedom from the oppressive pace of industrial life; and one for the African labor force on the eastern Cape farms, based on missionary discipline, a proto-Victorian program of “improvement,” and freedom from slavery—Pringle’s verse helped foster a British cultural identity in the Cape that resonates even today.

In 1819, after the announcement, in July, of an ambitious, government-sponsored settlement scheme to the eastern frontier of the map iconCape Colony, Britons openly debated the potential merits and pitfalls of the venture. A “booster” notice in The Times of London, for instance, envisioned “the finest soil and climate in the world” in the eastern Cape settlements, together with “all the luxuries of life” (qtd. in From Dias to Vorster 145).[1] In Hints on Emigration to the Cape of Good Hope (1819), the naturalist William John Burchell (1781-1863), who had already toured southern Africa and testified before the House of Commons on the region’s suitability, describes “a beautiful and delightful country, issued with every diversity of scenery and surface, abounding in herbage, wood and water, and having a soil capable of feeding large herds of cattle” (qtd. in Vigne 52). Less sanguine observers, however, predicted an abyss for the scheme. For example, in A Correct Statement of the Advantages and Disadvantages attendant on Emigration to the New Colony forming near the Cape of Good Hope (1819), the pamphleteer James Griffin reasoned: “You give up your country, your friends, and all the polish of European society [in map iconSouth Africa]. . . . You are likewise destitute, in the case of illness, of any sort of medical assistance; perhaps you may reckon this a blessing; but that is for your consideration” (qtd. in Benyon 69-70). Skeptical of sustained infrastructural cover on the Cape frontier and also suspicious of a Rousseauian return to a more perfected state of human existence before the advent of European modernity, in Africa, Griffin believed the settlers would “all feel the bitterness of wandering upon a foreign land, friendless, homeless [and] penniless” (70).

If critics in Britain had been fully cognizant of the challenges awaiting the immigrants, hostility to the scheme might have been more pronounced. Booster literature conveniently failed to mention that the farm plots assigned to the settlers were intended to serve as a buffer between “more established western regions of the colony” and amaXhosa and amaThembu communities further east, African polities who had recently lost the territory to European commandoes (Pereira and Chapman xiv). In other words, the 1820 settlers (as they came to be known) were to be situated within a region that had recently undergone “ethnic cleansing” (Vigne xiv), a former “contact zone” between colonial troops and local African groups, sides who had already engaged in a series of frontier wars (Pratt 6). To make matters more complicated, most of the new arrivals, while soon to be engaged in a monumental agrarian endeavor, were merely “tradesmen, artisans [and] mechanics” from Britain’s industrial towns and cities, some of whom “passed themselves off as rural folk, and sailed to South Africa with grand dreams of finding a natural paradise that would support them with little effort” (Mostert 520). Yet even if the settlers had been adequately prepared for the rigors of agricultural development, some experts (Burchell notwithstanding) believed that the region chosen for settlement—known as the Zuurveld or “sour field” in Cape Dutch—was “unsuited for crop-farming” (Pereira and Chapman xiv). The plots were thought to be too small, rainfall was often unpredictable or scarce, and the soil retained an abnormally high level of acidity, “which is harmful, even fatal, to cattle in autumn and winter” (Giliomee 293). From performing the most ordinary tasks, then, all the way up the chain of the imperial command, the 1820 settlement scheme appeared somewhat precarious. “The operation,” as one historian recently put it, “was probably the most callous act of mass settlement in the entire history of empire” (Mostert 533).

As the debate over South African immigration continued, the rhetoric surrounding it took a curious detour into domestic politics. Some believed the scheme was simply devised to displace Britain’s poor and unemployed onto foreign shores—and though the four thousand applicants (out of some forty thousand) selected for the scheme represented “a neatly sliced section of early nineteenth-century British society in all its layered complexity from parish indigent to gentry,” the depressed climate at home fostered an impression that Parliament was solely attempting to displace the lower orders of society abroad (Mostert 520).

For in the wake of the Napoleonic wars, and in the period immediately preceding Parliament’s announcement of the settlement scheme, the “burden of an enormous national debt, drastic changes in industry and agriculture brought about by the Agrarian and Industrial Revolutions, the distress of returned, disabled and jobless soldiers, the collapse of markets created by war, general disillusionment so intrinsic a part of war’s aftermath, and, lately, the failure of the American cotton crop, had brought unemployment and economic distress”—especially among the poor and working class—“to an unbearable point” (Meiring 2). Despite the spendthrift proclivities of Britain’s elites—including George IV (1762-1830), the Prince Regent, whose drug and eating habits, drinking, and extravagance came to symbolize the overindulgences of the era—British laborers confronted a situation that “seemed worse than anything they had known” (Williams 182). Faced with hunger, palpable class divisions, a lack of parliamentary representation, and the specter of joblessness, on the one hand; and intolerably long working hours and low wages when fortunate enough to find employment, on the other, workers and their supporters began to appropriate “the images, the rhetoric, and the tone of the antislavery movement” to draw attention to domestic suffering (Gallagher 4).[2] Although the trading of (mostly black) slaves had been abolished in 1807, many social reformers and Radicals began to protest that a form of white slavery was festering at home—and, partly for this reason, the rhetoric of domestic distress and the rhetoric of foreign settlement came to be intertwined.

On 16 August 1819, mere months before the immigrants set sail for South Africa, agitation over the “unbearable” condition of labor came to a head in map iconSt. Peter’s field, outside Manchester, in the largest working-class protest yet “seen. . . on England’s soil” (Marlow 125). One of the contingents of workers carried a banner that read “Let us DIE like men and not be SOLD like slaves,” thus conflating the buying and selling of slave labor overseas with the buying and selling of seemingly “free labor” at home (Marlow 119; emphasis original). On this infamous day, after state-supported militiamen, some of whom had fought against Napoleon at map iconWaterloo, attacked and killed a number of unarmed protesters at the gathering—violence that outraged “every belief and prejudice of the ‘free-born Englishman’—the right of free speech, the desire for ‘fair play’, [and] the taboo against attacking the defenceless” (E. P. Thompson 689; 1963)—the so-called “Peterloo Massacre” was born: a journalese coinage linking class struggle at home, on St. Peter’s field (“Peter-“), with international struggle across map iconthe English Channel, on the battlefields of Waterloo (“-loo”).

In a parodic political cartoon entitled “A Strong Proof of the Flourishing State of the Country” (1819), the illustrator George Cruikshank (1792-1878) stretched the rippling effects of these events in map iconManchester even further afield: the cartoon posits Peterloo as the primary catalyst behind the South African settlement scheme.[3] In Cruikshank’s illustration, situated behind a hungry family of British commoners and Lord Castlereagh (1769-1822), then Foreign Secretary and leader of the Tories in the House of Commons, a sketchy yet unmistakable image of the Peterloo Massacre appears—an image of “Manchester Slaughter” juxtaposed to a second, and clearly farcical, image of obese British immigrants, smiling from ear to ear, happily settled on southern African soil. As the waifish mother of the family laments the tragedy of Peterloo (“What would my Grandfather say if he were alive and could see his children driven from their Native Country by Starvation and the point of the Bayonet!”), Castlereagh tells her rail-thin husband that, in the Cape of Good Hope, one can “live like a Prince & grow fat as a hog”—clearly an allusion to the gluttonous habits of the Prince Regent. Tragedy in Manchester is thus juxtaposed against a colonial farce. For in urging the poor family to emigrate abroad, Castlereagh goes on to promise a “Garden of Eden” and “second Paradise” in South Africa, claiming that “Bread & Milk grows upon trees” in the colony, and that “the Rocks are all Roast Beef & the hailstones are plum puddings & rain water is as strong as gin!!” Mocking the paradise envisioned in booster literature, Cruikshank suggests that the settlement scheme remained nothing more than a cynical attempt by Castlereagh and the Tory-led Parliament to unload poor and hungry Britons on African shores.

Cruikshank's Strong Proof

Figure 1: George Cruikshank, “A Strong Proof of the Flourishing State of the Country exemplified in the Proposed Emigration to the Cape of Good Hope”

After these interventions, both for and against the scheme, some four thousand settlers began to sail for the colony in the winter of 1819 (a thousand more sailed soon after). Each party had been “promised 10 acre plots, rent-free for 10 years, arrangements for victualling, for the paying of ministers. . . and much else” (Vigne 51). “Of the emigrants, 36 per cent were men, 20 per cent women and 44 per cent children” (Lester 49). How they collectively fared depends upon one’s perspective. The standard undergraduate introduction to South African history—Leonard Thompson’s History of South Africa (1995)—announces that the settlers “did not prosper as the government intended.” After “a few years more than half of them had abandoned their lots and became merchants and artisans in the military post at map iconGrahamstown, or in…map iconPort Elizabeth” (55). Other scholars maintain that South Africa entered “a whole new epoch” (Mostert 524) after the arrival of the settlers, and that Britons, from this point on, began to have a “disproportionately large impact” on the development of the colony (Keegan 61). Although a relative sideshow in what James Belich calls the “Settler Revolution,” a “remarkable explosion of the nineteenth century that put the Anglophones on the top of the world” (9), the metropolitan, abolitionary sensibility that the settlers established in the interior of the region became “as much a landmark in the colonial mythology of South Africa as the Afrikaner’s Great Trek a decade and a half later” (Keegan 61). Although the success of the 1820 settlers could not be measured in terms of agricultural sustainability, British cultural identity in the region began to feel far more permanent and significant after their arrival.

What was behind this success (or failure, if you trust Thompson’s verdict)? While an exhaustive answer to this question would require more space than this limited entry allows, I try to establish how one settler’s poetic engagement with the labor crisis in Britain helped shape the colonial logic of “evangelical humanitarianism” (75) in South Africa: a Non-conformist ideology, founded upon “a notion of collective responsibility for the plight of distant others” (Lester 25), that had a lasting impact in the region. Thomas Pringle (1789-1834), the settler-poet in question, lived a remarkable life both before and after his six-year tenure in South Africa (he would return to England in 1826). The first co-editor of the Blackwood’s Edinburgh Monthly Magazine (what would become, soon after Pringle’s departure, Blackwood’s or “Maga,” one of the signature periodicals of the Victorian age); a founder of The South African Commercial Advertiser, the Cape’s first independent newspaper; Secretary of Britain’s Anti-Slavery Society upon his return to England; and the editor of The History of Mary Prince: A West Indian Slave (1831), a polemic penned by Pringle’s Bermudan servant that inflamed public opinion on the eve of Britain’s Slavery Abolition Act of 1833—Pringle also came to be known, at least until the end of apartheid, as the “father of South African poetry.”[4] His longest poem advertising settlement in the region—The Emigrant’s Cabin, begun on his eastern Cape farm in 1822, only to be completed twelve years later in England just before his death—envisions a more humanitarian model of time in the ordinary working day, without the distress of slavery and unemployment, for Africans and Britons alike. As I will suggest, while the rationale behind the 1820 settlement scheme was in no way determined by Peterloo, the rhetoric of The Emigrant’s Cabin attempts to reform, on foreign shores, something of the everyday distress that lead up to the massacre. Before Peterloo, and in the period anticipating the first of the Victorian Factory Acts (1833), the ordinary working day remained unreformed in Britain. (On the Factory Acts, see Elsie B. Michie, “On the Sacramental Test Act, the Catholic Relief Act, the Slavery Abolition Act, and the Factory Act.”) Spinners in map iconManchester, for instance, routinely “worked a fourteen-hour day in steaming temperatures up to 90 degrees Fahrenheit,” and “were heavily fined for sending out for a drink of water, or opening a window, or whistling, or slipping with a gas lighter, or falling asleep at their machines” (Marlow 16). Pringle, an map iconEdinburgh University educated Scottish journalist and poet, could hardly speak for working-class spinners in Manchester (though his own social status as a struggling writer from a family in decline would remain somewhat “anomalous,” caught “in the fissures of the class structure. . . between the privileged. . . and the impoverished” [Comaroff 58]). His South African poetry nevertheless advertises a less distressing, time-laden day of work for all prospective British immigrants, regardless of their station.

Part of the idea behind this emphasis is to broaden James Chandler’s pioneering study of time and history in 1819. Influenced by Karl Marx’s so-called “day” book, the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852), Chandler’s influential monograph, England in 1819 (1998), highlights how the Peterloo Massacre ignited a profound interest in representing extraordinary days of history and “popular activity” (19). According to Chandler, British writing in 1819 cultivated a “national operation of self-dating”: writers explicitly represented, like never before, pivotal days of national change and trauma in their work (5). My approach, influenced by Marx’s chapter on “The Working Day” in the first volume of Capital (1867), argues that, during this same general period, British writing in colonial South Africa sought to represent not extraordinary days of history, but, rather, ordinary and relatively unremarkable days of labor. While such days may seem historically inconsequential, their general make-up nevertheless remained an important barometer of an individual’s, and a nation’s, quality of life. In essence, then, Chandler’s preoccupation with specific days of history in England gives way, in this account of Pringle’s colonial verse, to a dramatization of general days at work—that is, to the pace, length, and temporal organization of any day of labor, regardless of its immediate historical resonance. While this argument, and my reading of Pringle’s poem, may not address the full range of experiences that the 1820 settlers confronted, it will attempt to underscore some of the “humanitarian” underpinnings that the 1820 settlers brought with them from Britain and attempted to instill not only in their own daily lives, but, perhaps more importantly, in the hearts and minds of their African charges—servants and field hands employed on settlement farms in the eastern Cape. Pringle’s frontier verse imagines African laborers integrated into “Heaven’s evolving plan,” into a rigorous daily program of temporal discipline developed around “humanitarian,” Christian teaching (Emigrant’s Cabin 165). Envisioned in verse, Pringle’s disciplinary model of time embraces “the everyday lives of its [African] participants in a continuous regime of instruction, veneration, and surveillance” (Comaroff 234). Under this framework, I suggest in what follows, it was not simply the spatial, but the temporal axis of the eastern Cape that is imagined under British hegemony.[5]

In Pringle’s South African verse, the specter of joblessness alone appears—at least at first glance—to have catapulted the 1820 settlement scheme from conception, in Britain, to fruition, in the colony. In The Emigrant’s Cabin, the settlement scheme is advertised through a surplus of morally invigorating, productive labor that Britain seemingly lacks: “For in this wilderness there’s work to do; / some purpose to accomplish for the band / Who left with me their much-loved Father-land,” the poem promises. “Yes! here is work, my Friend, if I may ask of Heaven to share in such a hallowed task!” (225-7, 233-4). Cruikshank’s parody seems to reinforce this idea. In the cartoon, the opening lines of Castlereagh’s monologue (“As you can’t find any work”) suggest that all solutions to British troubles, however radical, stem from a primary cause: unemployment. In The Journal of “Harry Hastings” Albany Settler (1847?), an unfinished and posthumously published novel by the 1820 settler John Ayliff (1797-1862), something of this same logic recurs. Opening in a bitterly cold English town during “the latter end of 1819,” the eponymous hero is informed by his foreman that the company he works for has “no foreign orders,” so it must “refrain from having any more work done at present” (17). Feeling “strong and able” and knowing his “trade well” (18), Hastings begins to “feel [his] thoughts wander away to Africa, to the new settlement to be found in the Cape of Good Hope” (23).

The problem of joblessness would remain Janus-faced in the Cape, however. As the obese settlers in Cruikshank’s cartoon indicate, South Africa came to be seen in certain quarters as a “land of ease and plenty,” a place encouraging sloth and indolence, as well as dubious forms of moral and intellectual lethargy (Coetzee 2). Some assumed, in other words, that settlers would barely have to lift a finger to fatten up in the Cape. As Castlereagh tells the potential immigrants, a starving family before him: “You’ll have no occasion to work” in South Africa; “victuals will run into your mouth ready chew’d.” To be unemployed in Britain may have been deeply distressing; to be without any kind of work or moral direction in the Cape, on the other hand, appeared almost grotesque, disturbingly out of step with the Puritanical, proto-Victorian philosophies of self-help and improvement.

South Africa’s reputation for indolence and inanition stemmed in part from stereotypical views of the “Hottentot” or Khoikhoi. Originally migrating to the western Cape around the first millennium AD, the Khoi differed from the amaXhosa and other Bantu-speaking groups of the eastern Cape due to their lighter skin color, unassuming physique, and seemingly anarchic social and military organization. In British eyes, the Khoi appeared to emblematize—through a general disinterest in private property, cultivation of no crop except dagga (marijuana), and apparent determination not to work—the “degeneration of man into brute” (Coetzee 2). Yet this negative perspective may have been shaped in relation to rival French attitudes, and by evangelical antipathy to the French philosophes. Over the course of the eighteenth century, Romantic French philosophers and travel writers began to idealize the state of Khoikhoi life compared to European rigidity. A disciple of Rousseau, Francois le Vaillant (1753-1824), author of Voyage dans l’intérieur de l’Afrique (1790), a popular account of travels in the Cape and beyond, believed that the Khoi continued to exist blissfully apart from European time, in a stage of human development balanced perfectly “between savage indolence and the cultural revolution that [gave] rise [to] social inequality, and the growth of work into an unavoidable part of human life” (24). In le Valliant’s travel books, and in Rousseau’s own Discourse on Inequality (1754), the “true nobility” of the Khoi, who flourished “outside the parlours of Europe,” is continually juxtaposed to the decline and degeneration of European man (Gray 45).

Rousseau’s account of the “Hottentot” stage of development as “the happiest and most stable of [human] epochs” clashed with proto-Victorian notions of improvement presented in poems like The Emigrant’s Cabin, in which “cheerful toil” is “prescribed against Africa’s insidious corruptions” (Coetzee 24, 3). It seems significant that “Rousseau” rhymes with “human woe” in the poem (130-1). Pringle and his fellow settlers rejected Rousseau’s notion of the Noble Savage since it conflicted with, among other things, an imperial belief in historical progress—or what Dipesh Chakrbarty calls “historicism,” a concept of time and development that “enabled European domination of the world in the nineteenth century” (7). Since historicism created a rigid hierarchy of development vis-à-vis stages of civilizational progress, the idealized “Hottentot” stage of human time remained anathema to its framework. Consequently, from the very beginning of the second British occupation of the Cape, which began in 1806, colonial authorities, such as the Earl of Caledon (1777-1839), would proclaim that “individuals of the Hottentot nation. . . be subject to proper regularity in regard to their places of abode and occupations, but also, that they should find encouragement for preferring entering the service of the [colonial] inhabitants, to leading an indolent life, by which they are rendered useless both for themselves and the community at large” (“Lord Caledon” 10). In this way, Britain’s disciplinary engagement with the Khoikhoi subject mediated anxieties about “ease and plenty” in the Cape, while also addressing worries about the availability of labor in the region, an ever-present concern.

In British rhetoric, however, “the true scandal of the nineteenth century was not the idleness of the Hottentots,” but “the idleness of the Boers” or Afrikaners: Europeans, mostly of Dutch descent, who began to permanently settle in the Cape in 1652, originally under the auspices of the Dutch East India Company (Coetzee 28). While the 1820 settlers sought to maintain overseas connections to capital and community in Britain, the Afrikaners often cultivated severe isolation as “the essence of the frontier experience, isolation from metropolitan civilization, from ordered government and law, and from markets” (Keegan 1). Disconnected from the global economy and any semblance of metropolitan activity, the Afrikaner in the interior of the Cape provided “sinister evidence,” at least in many British minds, of “how European stock can regress after a few generations in Africa” (Coetzee 30). For this reason, the “diligent English yeoman” was repeatedly compared to the “listless Dutch boer” (31). And the “further one travelled away from map iconCape Town and towards the frontier, the more poverty-stricken, indolent and brutal, the more generally degraded, Dutch colonial burghers seemed to become within British official discourse” (Lester 16). The laziness of the Afrikaner appeared particularly “scandalous” because it was seen as dependent upon the labor of slaves—and therefore immoral (Coetzee 31). From the evangelical humanitarian’s point of view, Afrikaner indifference to, or strong belief in, slavery confirmed a “dictum going back to antiquity,” that “slaveholding corrupts the slaveholder” (31). But slavery also corrupted the productive powers of the slave. As Adam Smith observes in The Wealth of Nations (1776), since the slave has nothing to gain by working harder, he “consults his own ease by making the land produce as little as possible” (490). It was precisely such “ease,” and such independent, isolated forms of “consultation,” that the 1820 settlers intended to retract.

It was against this backdrop of working conditions—laziness and unemployment, on the one hand, the evils of slavery and African resistance to slave labor, on the other—that Pringle and his fellow 1820 settlers forged a rhetoric of evangelical humanitarianism on the eastern Cape frontier. “If military governors tended to see the eastern Cape as the front line of a fragile colonial order,” the 1820 settlers conceived of it as a place where “a utopian order of Christian, British civilization could be continually extended over those previously denied its benefits” (Lester 23). The type of abolitionary ideology the settlers brought with them to the Cape “became an emblem of national virtue, a means by which the British could impress [Afrikaners and Africans alike] with their innate love of liberty” (Colley 354). Parliament’s abolition of the slave trade in 1807 served, then, “both to secure national atonement for the wrongs which Britons had inflicted on the world,” when map iconLiverpool merchants made exorbitant profits from the trade, “and to reinforce,” in the present, “patriotic discourse by distinguishing between freedom-loving Britons” and European competitors in the colony, such as the Afrikaners (Lester 25). Moral, physical, and spiritual labor—removed from slavery—thus became the focal point of this humanitarian construction. Still, this ideology in no way hampered the advance of free market capitalism. On the contrary, since “coerced labour was widely perceived as an inadequate base on which to build dynamic and prosperous colonial economies,” the “moral and material” strategies of the 1820 settlers became “inseparably linked” (Keegan 78).

The Emigrant’s Cabin, as much as any literary work composed by the 1820 settlers, amplifies the dimensions of these strategies. Addressed to Pringle’s friend, John Fairbairn (1794-1864), a Scot living in England in 1822 (a friend who would later move to Cape Town and make his mark in the colony as a journalist and free press advocate); and oriented around picturesque visions of Pringle’s farm in the eastern Cape, the poem attempts to draw on emerging levels of transatlantic connectivity between Britain and South Africa. By addressing itself “o’er ocean’s wide expanse” (284), in other words, and to a friend living abroad, the poem tries to weave together colonial and domestic concerns into the fabric of single, dialectical discussion. When Pringle says, “Yes! here is work, my Friend,” the assumption is that, back in England, where Fairbairn resides, there is none. Pringle’s arguments for South African settlement cannot help but reflect back across the sea, upon the condition of England. In fact, the poem’s assertive belief in “open debate, in the power of public opinion,” may have been a reaction to Parliament’s notorious Six Acts, laws that shut down newspapers and banned mass gatherings in the wake of Peterloo (Mostert 25). In the colony, settlers hoped to create some distance between themselves and these draconian measures.

And yet the conceit of The Emigrant’s Cabin calls for a certain feeling of proximity and friendship between metropole and colony. Indeed, by structuring the poem as a kind of Platonic dialogue or “colloquy” between peers—between male friends who debate the merits and occasional troubles of the immigration scheme—the poem substitutes a feeling of great distance across the Atlantic with a more intimate sense of “homosocial” relations: what Eve Sedgwick characterizes as patterns of “male friendship, mentorship, entitlement [and] rivalry” understood in contradistinction to “women and the gender system as a whole” (1). Pringle achieves part of this relationship through formal literary means. Although composed in heroic couplets, a “model of formal decorum” suited “for the task of defining issues and balancing arguments for creditable public discussion,” the poem excludes women from its “public” domain, from its open debate (Wolfson 29, 143). Pringle’s wife and his wife’s sister, Susan Brown, make a brief appearance in the poem, but neither speaks at length, and both are ushered out before the debate over settlement enters deeper waters. A friendly Khoi kitchen servant, described as a “Nut-Brown Maiden” (41), is also silent, but nevertheless represented (as for the field hands: they are summarily described as “sad Natives of the soil” [228]).[6] However, the connection between the Nut-Brown servant and her master is oriented not around a homosocial relationship between peers, but a friendship of a slightly different register. Because of Pringle’s humanitarian sympathy for and commiseration with slaves or former slaves (abolitionists saw themselves as “friends of slaves” and “friends of humanity”), he felt compelled to represent their oppression in his own voice, “speak[ing] on [their] behalf” even in their presence (Baucom 208).

After a short overture explaining how the settler, in a daydream, imagines his friend alongside him in Africa, an enormous feast is depicted, complete with “light and racy” wine (77). “You’ll find. . . my friend, we do not starve” (37), Pringle tells his guest—again gesturing, albeit indirectly, at the food troubles in his native land. Plates of mutton, springbok, guinea fowl, as well as more eccentric dishes, such as ham of porcupine and tongue of gnu, begin to appear—all prepared behind the scenes by the Nut-Brown Maiden. Fears of hunger in the Cape, described in the alarmist pamphlets that preceded the long sea voyage to the colony, are allayed from the very outset of the poem—as are fears of “ferocious beasts that roam the waste” in Africa, as such “beasts” appear before the men as dinnertime delicacies (28). And while the agricultural system represented in the poem seems far from perfect, Pringle assures his friend that, in a matter of years, all will be well: “Our fruits, I must confess, make no great show:  / Trees, grafts and layers must have time to grow” (58-9).

The feast is superseded by a discussion of healthy “social life” (163) in the eastern Cape: fulfilling engagements with nearby neighbors, scholars, amateur anthropologists, fellow missionaries, and even a peace-pipe-smoking amaThembu chief, who has come to pay “a friendly visit” (256). Such engagements belie suspicions not only of violence on the frontier, but of moral and intellectual devolution in the Cape as well. Having established the availability of food and basic needs, as well as “civilizational” requirements for progress, the poem then proceeds to describe how, during an average working day, settlers “roam untired to eve from early morn” (293). To roam and ramble in this Romantic fashion is, as David Bunn suggests, “a massive presumption, since it assumes a form of. . . control of leisure time completely at odds with rigorous life and labor on the frontier” (139). If Pringle remains so busy roaming from “early morn” to “eve,” how does his farm develop and improve? And with all this movement, how can the settler remain “untired”?

What makes this logic tick is the disappearance of a minute-by-minute interrogation of time, of temporal restrictions that structure and discipline the settler’s working day. In other words, while Pringle continues to be active, what appears vanquished in his vision of African settlement is a nagging feeling of “time-sense”: what E. P. Thompson described as the “inward apprehension of time” that developed during the long and uneven rise of industrial capitalism in Britain (1967; 354). Founded on managerial surveillance and the disciplinary constraints of clocks and watches in workplaces, this feeling of “time-sense” restructured “working habits” around an oppressive awareness of temporality (354). The Emigrant’s Cabin envisions a reformation of this system on South African soil—at least for the settler. For while the busy immigrant “fills the active day from morn to night” (153), he loses track of this “inward apprehension” of time altogether, appearing astonished “when the week is gone” (155). Useful, productive, and generous, helping those less fortunate while also finding time to wander and roam at length, the settler discovers that the first “two years” of his African tenure have “lightsomely. . . flown” (154). In the pastoral wilderness of the colony, the leaden impression of industrial “time-sense” has been replaced by a “lightsome” feeling of colonial weightlessness, free of the clock’s disciplinary hands.

To maintain this liberating feeling, settler rhetoric had to—if I can paraphrase Marx—“make two working days out of one” (344). The Emigrant’s Cabin envisions entirely separate models of labor time within the span of a single working day: one for settlers, and one for the African servants and field hands attached to the settlements. This division of labor anticipates not only the separateness of apartheid, but also, and more generally, the “several temporalities” Europeans sought to impose upon Africa in its colonial state (Mbembe 15). On the one hand, the fictional settler in the poem, by escaping the heavy, imprisoning pace of the industrial clock, attunes himself to a comforting rhythm that recalls an earlier “patriarchal time” (246)—an Arcadian age before the oppressive constraints of industrial capitalism, yet without any devolutionary Rousseauian trappings. African workers on the settlement, on the other hand, are trained to march in step with the “chime” of the “sabbath-bell” (151, 150), one of the instruments gradually integrating the subject labor force into the imperial economy and “Heaven’s evolving plan.” Pringle’s poem echoes, in this way, some of the fundamental strategies of British missionaries in the region. In 1818, the London Missionary Society began to transport mechanical clocks to their parishes on the frontiers of the Cape, insisting that Africans begin to “proclaim the value of time in Christian” terms (Comaroff xi). As a result of this temporal intrusion, while settlers and missionaries often sought to lose track of time, “the religious calendar of the church” began to mark “out a moral order” for African workers that subsumed their entire existence (Comaroff 234).

How did Pringle and his fellow 1820 settlers countenance this “regime” of discipline within the fold of a purportedly “humanitarian” ideology?  Paradoxically, the settlers employed passionate, Christian, anti-slavery rhetoric to imagine a more efficient system of exploitation. Imposing the temporal logic of industrial capitalism within agrarian pockets of the Cape, the indolence and inefficiency associated with slavery were thought to be morally and materially cleansed. As Africans provided much of the backbreaking work on the settlements, the settler imagined that his own benevolent guidance, which steered unenlightened souls toward the historical horizons of Christian salvation, came to represent divine labor unto itself.

Once settled on plots of farmland in the eastern Cape, Pringle and his fellow settlers found themselves scrambling for a subject labor force, for “a class of laborers who would not be able or permitted to own land, but who could only work” (Shell 1). Through a variety of means, including “amelioration” and “apprenticeship” decrees that anticipate the petty reforms of apartheid (Mason 46-67), this population of dispossessed—though not literally enslaved—workers was eventually culled from various regions of the Cape and sometimes from further afield—from the refugee population coming from wars known in South African history as Mfecane, for instance. To legitimate an oppressive program of labor management within the constraints of a seemingly humanitarian program, the settlers conjured a “humanitarian,” proto-Victorian regime of “improvement”—a regime aligned to the clock’s disciplinary authority over black consciousness, one that would ultimately guide backward African minds and bodies into progressive patterns of capitalist modernity. Appearing humanitarian and draconian at once, imbuing pastoral scenes with an undercurrent of industrial discipline, the moral outlook of the 1820 settlers would thus remain “profoundly ambiguous. Its rhetorical commitment to the legal formalities of equality and freedom was in sharp contrast to its fundamental compatibility with cultural imperialism, class domination and, ultimately, racial subjugation” (Keegan 13).

published August 2013

Timothy Johns is Associate Professor of English at Murray State University. His work has recently appeared in Victorian Studies, Journal of the African Literature Association, Journal of Narrative Theory, African Literature Today, and in two edited books on the “New South African” novel. He is currently working on a book provisionally titled “Labor and Literature in Victorian South Africa.”


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[1] For a discussion of “booster literature” (advertisements for settlement abroad), especially after 1815, see Belich, 147-8; 153-5.

[2] Manchester, the second largest city in England, had “no member of Parliament” to represent its interests (Marlow 23).

[3] To view the cartoon, go to:  http://www.wikigallery.org/wiki/painting_228628/George-Cruikshank-I/A-Strong-Proof-of-the-Flourishing-State-of-the-Country-exemplified-in-the-Proposed-Emigration-to-the-Cape-of-Good-Hope

[4] A brief debate on Pringle’s status as the “father of South African poetry” appears in the Periera and Chapman’s introduction to African Poems of Thomas Pringle, xi.

[5] Part of the language in this passage is borrowed from the Comaroffs, who, in referring to an hourglass in a mission church, write: “The anachronistic timepiece reminds us yet again how thoroughgoing were the disciplinary and didactic techniques of the evangelists; how intent they were upon colonizing both the temporal and the spatial axes of this African world” (236).

[6] A far more thorough treatment of the color question on the early nineteenth-century frontier can be accessed in the work of Jeff Peires, Martin Legassick, and Clifton Crais.