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Journal of Interdisciplinary History 32.2 (2001) 344-345

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Book Review

Status and Respectability in the Cape Colony 1750-1870:
A Tragedy of Manners

Status and Respectability in the Cape Colony 1750-1870: A Tragedy of Manners. By Robert Ross (New York, Cambridge University Press, 1999) 203pp. $54.95

At first glance, Ross' important Status and Respectability in the Cape Colony 1750-1870 appears determinedly nontheoretical. Ross remarks at the outset that he has "absorbed through a process of osmosis, if at all, those changes in international intellectual fashions which have probably made the choices of material to be presented rather easier," and continues in a footnote that he does not feel "competent, or inclined, to give a full theoretical expose of what lies at the back of my work in this sense" (2-3). This is nonetheless a subtle and indeed methodologically innovative work of considerable interdisciplinary interest. Ross deploys literary narrative rather than programmatic statements of theory, but giving priority to narrative is itself a theoretical choice. Ross uses narrative to restore agency to individuals, even as he explores cultural norms.

Status and Respectability examines the semiotics of status at the Cape from the later period of Dutch occupation through the first seventy years of British presence. This periodization is innovative, since most South African historians tend to draw artificial lines between the Dutch and British periods and thus to downplay continuities. Ross is particularly interested in the public performance of status and respectability, and in the ramifications of such performances both for high politics and for what Lonsdale has termed "deep politics"--in Ross' words, "the politics of kinship and family, of gender, of the relations between master and servant, of identity, of respect and so forth" (165). 1 Ross claims that Dutch colonial society knew a wide range of statuses. During the nineteenth century, British class-based ideas about social order and respectability laid a particular emphasis on the supposed innate virtues of the English. Indeed, Ross claims that English nationalism was the dominant nineteenth-century nationalism. Those who were marginalized within Cape society used the signs of British respectability to make (often unsuccessful) bids for acceptance. The book explores in detail the changing consequences of this contestation through time, with particular attention to social identity and the politics of race.

Ross' arguments about the importance of colonial ideas about status and respectability will have a familiar ring for many Europeanists. An important innovation of the book, however, is its close look at how notions of class, race, and respectability interacted in a highly racialized society. Above all, Ross stresses competition between different semiotic systems rather than cultural stasis. Cape society's obsession with respectability did not necessarily mean that the oppressed colluded in their own oppression. Many Africans and enslaved, or formerly enslaved, people in [End Page 344] the Cape Colony struggled to negotiate a way between competing systems, including Islamic notions of respectability.

Ross implicitly criticizes the dualist tack taken by many writers who see cultural colonialism as a form of dialectic. 2 Ross argues, in contrast, that many "respectable" members of marginalized communities were opposing the efforts of their enemies to degrade them, rather than acquiescing in cultural colonialism. His work suggests that one can only understand the complex dynamics of respectability by considering the existence of multiple interlocutors and the underlying material politics that determined the interpretation of the performance of respectability. But Ross may underestimate the difficult issue of self-denigration, particularly among Khoikhoi people whose societies were in a state of collapse.

The book foregrounds the voices of the past; Ross zestfully uses much rich anecdotal evidence. Another strength is Ross' use of visual sources, as well as written records of public ceremonies designed to have a visual impact. Ross might have been less ascetic in his deliberate avoidance of model building. More discussion of the distinction between "status" and "respectability," for example, as well as a more pointed dissection of the terms "nation" and "nationalism," would have been welcome. These omissions, however, are...


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