Robert Ross and the voyages of discovery
I was fortunate to attend a workshop on African history in Leiden this week. The workshop, organised to coincide with Robert Ross’ valedictory lecture tonight, brought together his students and colleagues from all over the world: Austin (Texas), Livingstone, London, Melbourne and seemingly everywhere in-between. It was a testament to the immense impact Robert Ross, who has been at Leiden’s Center for African Studies for nearly 40 years, has had on the field. Although I know him as one of the most prominent historians of South Africa, the papers presented over the last two days reflected his wide-reaching interests: from the puzzle of the slave trade in Saudi Arabia, the lives of African interpreters in the Congo, the rise and fall of a pineapple canning factory in Zambia, to the conservation efforts of a mid-twentieth century chief in Northern Malawi.
To me, though, Robert Ross is South Africa’s foremost historian of the colonial period. His books have made telling contributions to our understanding of slavery (Cape of Torments: Slavery and Resistance in South Africa), race relations (Beyond the Pale: Essays on the History of Colonial South Africa), and, probably his most well-known, class and status (Status and respectability at the Cape of Good Hope: A Tragedy of Manners). He was senior editor of the Cambridge History of South Africa Volume 1 to appear in 2010, and has just published a book on a group of fascinating South Africans: Khoe farmers in the nineteenth century Kat River Valley of the Eastern Cape.
One of Ross’ most important contributions, I argued in my talk yesterday, is a manuscript he published with his student, Pieter van Duin, in 1987. The Economy of the Cape Colony in the 18th Century used statistics from the vast VOC records in Cape Town to show that the Cape economy was more dynamic than earlier historians had assumed. Here is the introduction to my paper, available online, that explains this important contribution:
For much of twentieth century scholarship, the capitalist, industrialising South African economy began with the 1860s discovery of diamonds in the interior. The Cape Colony of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was, to quote some prominent authors, a ‘social and economic backwater’, ‘more of a static than a progressing community’, a slave-based subsistence economy that ‘advanced with almost extreme slowness’. The traditional view was that although pockets of wealth emerged close to Cape Town during the eighteenth century, this relative affluence was overshadowed by the increasing poverty of the frontier farmers who, ‘living for the most part in isolated homesteads, gained a scanty subsistence by the pastoral industry and hunting’.
In the 1980s Robert Ross, economic and social historian of the Cape, subverted this view by extolling the virtue of numbers. He was the first to recognise the value of the mass of Cape production statistics assiduously collected by the Dutch East India Company. Ross argued that the belief that early Cape farmers ‘overproduced’ during the first half of the eighteenth century – that the market was too small to absorb the rising production of wheat, wine and meat – was ‘not only empirically false, but also conceptually absurd’. He showed that consumption was rising too, driven not only by the demand from ships sailing between Europe and the East, but also by an expanding domestic market of Company officials and settler farmers.
Ross’s seminal arguments of the 1980s, and his hard work digitising the production records of the Colony, breathed new life into a neglected area of South African history. Yet more than two decades later his cliometric contribution often goes unnoticed. In this paper I summarise a new body of work that uses econometric techniques and largely confirms Ross’s arguments. In the introduction to her recent history of mining in South Africa, Jade Davenport suggests that before mining began in the latter half of the nineteenth century, ‘South Africa was a sleepy colonial backwater whose unpromising landscape was seemingly devoid of any economic potential’. Robert Ross and his students would not agree.
Because Ross’s earlier work was central to my PhD research, I visited him several times in Leiden while writing my dissertation. During one of these visits, knowing my interest in historical data, he showed me a census of missionary stations that had been collected in 1849. As he browsed through the data, I realised that this was a wonderful source to test the then fashionable technique of age-heaping, a way to estimate numeracy by exploiting the statistical properties of a society’s age profile. We agreed to investigate this further, hoping that it might say something about the different strategies missionary societies used in their ‘civilizing’ efforts. And it did. Together with Russel Viljoen who collected the original data from the archives, we co-authored a paper on literacy at the Cape’s mission stations. I wrote about the paper in this 2012 blog post, and it has just appeared in the Journal of Southern African Studies.
Scholars such as Robert Ross leave a legacy much deeper than they might ever know. Often working on their own in archives or in one-on-one conversations with students, their legacies may not be as easily quantifiable as those of an entrepreneur or engineer. They often battle the publish-or-perish incentive system of universities focused on immediate outputs. And they often struggle with funding in disciplines that are not considered to have much economic value.
Yet their ideas have shaped – and continue to do so – how we understand ourselves. Their words and books uncover the unknown, hidden or forgotten; much like the European discoverers of the Middle Ages, they sail on fledgling ships to report of great riches and great knowledge. We sit at their feet. They are the interpreters from a distant land called The Past; they allow us to not only learn about it, but to learn from it. They inspire us to travel too, to take the leap. And so we find ourselves in dusty archives one fine Saturday morning. In search.