Natures of Colonial Change: Environmental Relations in the Making of the Transkei
In Natures of Colonial Change, Jacob Tropp's intent is to reveal previously unrecognized factors and dynamics in the forest history of South Africa. The book charts the history of environmental access in the Transkei, a space of coastal forests in a largely grassy country. The Transkei, home to Xhosa people, is the largest region in the country not penetrated by white settlers. This is not to say its environment was spared a colonial encounter. Readers of this journal will be interested in the first section of this book for its account of negotiations between Xhosa-speaking people (often gendered) and the state. The second section of the book is notable for its focus on the ways that local understandings of forests and resources informed such negotiations.
The book adds considerably to the growing understanding of South African environmental history and also of forest history in Africa. Until now, we have had no study of the political and social history of South African forests. Forests make a different sort of environmental resource than farms or pastures. In South Africa, the colonial remaking of rights to them was more protracted than on private settler-held land or on the agro-pastoral spaces in black communal reserves. Chapter 1 charts the structuring and restructuring of forest management between 1880 and 1915. The chapter could be read as an exposition of the impact of direct and indirect rule on forest access, although Tropp does not emphasize these categories. Rather, the story is of the personal, sometimes violent, and sometimes contradictory relations between local people, headmen, and forest officials. Headmen and chiefs were not able to command resources as they had before annexation, nor were they able or willing to exclude their subjects from the forests. The concept of a moral economy of forest use is implicit throughout this chapter.
Chapter 2 explains how people used the forest between 1888 and circa 1905. In the beginning, Transkei men cut, carted, and sold forest resources. This required permits, and sometimes men claimed an entitlement because of the tax they paid. Forest policy was gendered, allowing women customary rights to gather fallen wood for subsistence only. As often was the case, the rights endorsed by the state as "customary" were actually an innovation. As the state restricted men's ability to harvest wood, it became women's work to carry it home on their heads. In defiance of law and a twist on custom, women innovated, wielding axes and selling some of the wood they gathered. The political story in this chapter is about protests over the restrictions. Continued use of the indigenous forests raised concerns among conservationists. Chapter 3 describes how the state put forestry in Transkei forests. In the 1930s, conservationist principles trumped women's customary uses of wood and the government restricted gathering rights. African leaders registered a lot of complaints about shrinking access to forests. As an alternative wood supply, officials created tree plantations and required Transkei residents to buy wood for subsistence needs. The wattle in the plantations became an important source of fuel wood, but that species was not acceptable for all local needs.
The first section of the book is well researched and well presented, but the book's analytical ambition lies in the last two short chapters, where Tropp intends to push the genre of South African environmental history in new directions. Earlier chapters drew on interview data, but oral evidence drives the analysis in the second section. Combined with rare archival data that recorded cultural forms, the chapters in this section distill a reconstruction of the meanings of forests and trees. Chapter 4 considers how people used trees other than burning or building with them. As Tropp admits, this chapter is less grounded in a narrative about time (144). The topics – boys' stick fighting, medicine, and sorcery – are not connected to political economy as fuel or building materials are, so putting them together creates supports an analysis that be dominated by structural considerations. The survey of these practices leads to Tropp's conclusion that people turned to forest resources to negotiate the dynamics of their wider everyday worlds . . . men and women continued to pursue those trees and plants that they felt could best meet their unique social and cultural needs" (144).
Chapter 5 is the most original of the book. In 1889 Caesar Henkel, the first head of the Transkei Forest Conservancy, recorded local beliefs about dangerous forest landscapes and noted that he himself was accused by locals of having killed a forest python. This chapter draws on oral, ethnographic and archival evidence to explore the meaning of the assertions that Henkel killed the python. Tropp identifies the forest as Nocu and shares accounts from his interviews about the power of that specific place. For example, several people testified that an undlebe tree category which includes a wide variety of scientifically defined species) in the forest bleated like a goat when cut. Ritual specialists had the power to cut dangerous trees without coming to harm and some forest patches were associated with specialists. Pythons were powerful animals connected with ancestors and ritual specialists. The fact that Henkel was said to have killed one draws the stories of colonial negotiations and local meanings together: "The popular stories about the python and the forest encountered by the conservator commented upon this broadening, yet immediately perceptible, expansion of colonial power into local landscapes" 158).
The second section of the book is an experiment, and a worthwhile one. The unavoidable problem of the exercise is that historically grounded evidence for environmental meanings is nowhere near as strong as that for forest permits. Tropp concedes that the processes are "not easily resolved into a seamless narrative" (160). But the goal in the book has been more to reveal unrecognized complexities than to marshal evidence for arguments or reinterpretations. It ably makes a case that historians must create space for local perspectives in environmental histories.