by Nicole Ulrich, 2011
Framed by an anarchist reading of Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker’s The
Many Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners and the Hidden History of the
Revolutionary Atlantic (2000), this study examines the dynamic nature of colonial and
class rule in the eighteenth-century Cape of Good Hope in southern Africa, and the
forms of belonging and traditions of political protest developed by the labouring poor.
This study draws on archival material from national and international repositories,
focusing on government records, criminal court trials, and travellers’ accounts.
Colonial rule, the under-class, and resistance in the Cape are located in a global
context, with special attention being paid to changes associated with the ‘Age of
Revolution and War’ and rise of the modern world. Breaking with the tendency to
treat different sections of the motley (many-hued) labouring poor in the Cape as
discreet, often racially defined, and nationally bounded population groups, segmented
also by legal status, this study provides a comprehensive study of labour in the Cape
that includes an examination of slaves, servants, sailors, and soldiers recruited, or
imported from, Asia, Europe, and other parts of Africa.
I contest the established approaches to under-class resistance. In place of a
socially fragmented labouring poor, solely engaged in ‘informal’, individualized, and
uncoordinated resistance, this study reveals the spatially stretched and inclusive
connections created by the labouring poor across gender, nation, race and status,
which underpinned modes of protest that were confrontational, and often collective, in
nature, including desertion, insurrection, mutiny, strikes, and arson. In spite of the
harsh regime of class and colonial control developed under VOC rule, the labouring
poor forged notable class solidarities.
The Cape Colony was influenced by two interrelated political processes
unleashed by the Age of Revolution and War, including the global spread of radical
political ideas, and the modernisation and strengthening of the European imperial
states. The labouring poor in the Cape was also infected by and contributed to a
radical consciousness of freedom and rights, leading to the 1797 naval mutinies, the
(1799-1803) Servant Rebellion, and the 1808 Revolt. New political strategies and 6
identities emerged, and under-class struggles contributed both to the decline of the
VOC, and to the adoption of reforms and a new ethos of governance that altered
relations between masters, the labouring poor, and the state.
This study is critical of ‘new cultural history’, which entrenches an
economistic understanding of class, and detaches the study of identities from larger
social structures and processes. To deepen our understanding of class, this study
draws on left critiques of Marxism, especially anarchist ideas, which highlight the
links between class and state-making, citizenship, and the law. This helps contest the
often false distinctions drawn between the ‘economic’ and ‘cultural’ elements of classand inequality.
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