Eighteenth Century Cape Society and its Historiography: Culture, Race, and Class

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Journal Title

Social Dynamics

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Taylor & Francis


University of Cape Town

The revisionist literature of the 1970s approached social stratification in South Africa with the insistence that proper 'weighting' of the race and class factors should occur. Arguing that class and not racial consciousness was the key determinant of social structure in pre-industrial South Africa, it concluded that eighteenth century Cape society in certain areas of the colony was characterised by greater fluidity than the caste system of the AmericanSouth or industrialised South Africa. George Fredrickson's comparative analysis of American and South African history rejects the first mentioned approach but agrees with the conclusion. This article argues that Fredrickson erred by characterising Cape society as being largely based on class and a permeable colour line. The extent to which Cape Town or frontier society can be categorised as such was limited,while the agrarian Western Cape, in terms of manumission rates and the incidence of mixed marriages, was one of the most rigid caste societies in the world.The article concludes by observing that only by studying how political and class relationships reinforced each other can the full complexity of eighteenth century Cape society be revealed.