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  • A Commonwealth of Knowledge: Science, Sensibility, and White South Africa, 1820-2000
  • Clifton Crais
Saul Dubow . A Commonwealth of Knowledge: Science, Sensibility, and White South Africa, 1820–2000. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. xi + 296 pp. Photographs. Notes. Select Bibliography. Index. $165.00. Cloth.

For two decades Saul Dubow has written on the intellectual history of South Africa, particularly the interstice of science, racism, and state policy. He began this work at a time when radical social history was very much au courant; many scholars suspected the field of intellectual history of elitism. Luckily, Dubow persisted. His work has helped deepen our understanding of South African history by tracing the sometimes odd ancestry and particular legacies of ideas on race, the body, and science in the context of British imperialism and South African nationalism.

A Commonwealth of Knowledge is in one sense interested in beginnings and particularities. South Africa was of course distinctive in Africa for being a settler society of an especially hybrid kind, a Dutch colony incorporated into an expanding British empire, and then a country where Afrikaner nationalism triumphed for nearly half a century. Less well known is South Africa's history of scientific discovery and innovation. The eighteenth century was an especially important period when South Africa's natural history contributed in no small part to Enlightenment science, including new systems of scientific classification.

In most cases this early history was one of visitors taking fossils and specimens back to Europe—particularly to London, Paris, and most notably Sweden, where Carolus Linnaeus wrote his Systema Naturae using newly discovered specimens from South Africa. Dubow's focus, however, is on science and scientific communities emerging from within a settler society: in effect on the relationship between knowledge and identity, particularly nationalism. Conceptually this is an especially difficult task, because we tend to think of the former as boundless and the latter, by definition, as circumscribed (and in the South African case as refracted by Empire). Dubow constantly moves between the ways intellectuals borrowed ideas, produced knowledge, and created institutions, on the one hand, and how they imagined their society and political world, on the other.

A Commonwealth of Knowledge is divided into five densely written chapters. The first two chapters center on expertise, institutions, and the production and circulation of knowledge, primarily in the Cape Colony. Of particular importance is the emergence of a colonial middle class, and in effect the creation of a colonial public sphere within an imperial system. [End Page 185] The efflorescence of scientific inquiry, which produced a number of important discoveries, thus unfolded alongside the creation of a particular colonial identity and the basic changes occurring at the time in the imperial relationship—especially the move toward representative rule.

A good part of A Commonwealth of Knowledge rests on the idea of the rise of a colonial nationalism. Dubow argues, for example, that colonial nationalists in effect pried control from a conservative metropole. This may be slightly overstated. Given their experience in the American colonies, the British were already committed to devolving power, albeit within a broader imperial framework. The issue was never simply one of imperial subjugation or colonial nationalism; there was also the possibility of a broader imperial identity, a kind of imperial citizenship. What particularly complicated the matter during the first half of the nineteenth century was, of course, racial intolerance within the Cape and especially an expanding and very violent (not to mention costly) eastern Cape frontier.

The remainder of A Commonwealth of Knowledge covers the period after 1870, a remarkably complex era. Here Dubow's command of the material shines, particularly his understanding of the changes within South Africa's rococo political landscape. Dubow works against the historiographical grain, which too often has seen the 1910 creation of a unitary state as something of an inevitability. Instead, he holds the focus on the Cape a while longer and looks at the idea of South Africa and how various intellectuals came to define its problems both internally and within the wider British imperial framework. These chapters are particularly rich and defy easy summary. What they do—and largely successfully—is to suggest the many possible roads...


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