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 St. On this infamous day, after state-supported militiamen, some of whom had fought against Napoleon at Waterloo, 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. Thompson 689; 1963)—the so-called “Peterloo Massacre” was born: a journalese coinage linking class struggle at home, on St.Peter’s field, outside Manchester, in the largest working-class protest yet “seen. Peter’s field (“Peter-“), with international struggle across the English Channel, on the battlefields of Waterloo (“-loo”).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.
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.
“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.
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).