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  • "This Is the Mark of the Widow":Domesticity and Frontier Conquest in Colonial South Africa
  • Laura J. Mitchell (bio)

There is poignancy to a life represented by a list of things, an existence documented in material possessions whether meager or abundant. The entangled stories of four widows Burger—connected by marriage, maternal kinship, land claims, and frontier living—show the extent to which colonial history became embedded in homes, familial relationships, and household composition. In South Africa, settlers eventually established hegemony, especially in frontier regions, not only through armed occupation—although violent land alienation was admittedly a crucial feature of eighteenth-century settlement—but primarily in the realm of the domestic. Eventually, the settlers achieved success through the intimate, quotidian structuring of survival in an uncertain landscape; its progress was marked by increased creature comforts from one generation to the next, including the proliferation of European markers of status and civility. From a few iron cooking pots and pewter plates to copper tart pans and porcelain teacups, the material success of frontier farmers entailed more than extensive land claims and fat livestock; it dwelled significantly on such subjects as furniture, crockery, and other symbols that connected scattered homesteads to the heart of colonial society in Cape Town, and thus to European-derived cultural norms. Women and men forged these connections, creating households and domestic space that came to mark their sites of settlement as colonial—neither African nor European but distinctively "of the Cape."

The frontier was a place of cross-cultural contact, the effects of which emerge in subdued dialogue with the more obvious markers of European customs evident in estate inventories, reinforcing the perception of colonial hybridity. These documents offer a particularly focused lens through which to examine settler households and their material culture. Read in conjunction with property records, tax rolls, and travelers' accounts, the inventories offer a unique, if partial, perspective on the domestic life of colonial settlers. The [End Page 47] records describe material circumstances, evaluate wealth, enumerate children, suggest close relationships among other family members or neighbors, and hint at settlers' ideas about domesticity and class.

The inventories let us see, however darkly, inside settler homes, revealing aspects of what emerged as hegemonic during 350 years of contested cultural interactions. Moreover, by looking inside the homes of an eighteenth-century frontier region, we begin to see the ways that hegemony became established. We can also see traces of subordinated people and their contributions to a Creole society that colonists subsequently claimed as "Afrikaner." Thus, an inquiry into the domestic emphasizes the colonial, hybrid characteristics of South African history as it reveals the power latent in claiming connections to European culture. As Antoinette Burton and Ann Stoler eloquently argue, the colonial was created in the quotidian; power was embedded in the intimate. Thus, we need to challenge a presumed distance between state politics and family life, and explore those tangled linkages. In this context, the personal and its records are an invaluable source for explaining how one society exercised political, economic, and social control over another.1

This essay presents a careful reading of a set of household inventories, analyzed because of the relationships among the decedents and their survivors. Although five documents selected from the copious archive of the Dutch East India Company cannot by themselves tell the story of European colonization in South Africa, the probate remnants from two generations of the Burger family illustrate trajectories—both geographic and economic—of frontier settlement. The inventories reflect general patterns evident in the records of other frontier households; this history is representative of patterns of land acquisition, material accumulation, marriage strategies, and household composition typical of frontier settlers.2 The inventories also reveal aspects of generational change and cast light on shifting frontier dynamics.

In a family's life cycle, widowhood was a moment of reckoning that produced a specific set of records, overseen and subsequently preserved by the state. Dutch practices of community property in marriage and partible family inheritance assured a surviving spouse of half of the couple's wealth and an equal portion for each child. When a marriage partner died and minor children survived, the government required an official tally of...


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