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  • Childbirth and Infancy in the Formation of a New Society at the Cape of Good Hope in the Early Eighteenth Century: The Evidence From Peter Kolb
  • Anne Good (bio)

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“Indian Baby,” ca. 1900 to 1930, LC-DIG-ppmsc-02494. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, DC.

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Most adults cannot actively recall life before age four, and yet child development specialists have taught us that these early years lay the foundation for everything that is to come: health, physiology, cognition, attachments, even character.1 Although this essay does not speculate in historical biology or psychology, it does assume that the experiences of early childhood were similarly essential in creating identities and forming perceptions of social relationships in the eighteenth century. Indeed, this essay argues that we can better understand the new colonial society at the Cape of Good Hope in the early eighteenth century if we focus on issues surrounding infancy—including marriage patterns, birth practices, and the care of infants and toddlers—issues pertaining both to the individual and to society. To be sure, babyhood was a time for indelible interactions among Europeans, slaves, and Khoikhoi that shaped a new cultural order.

The starting place for this essay is a fairly well-known primary source for Cape history, Peter Kolb’s Caput Bonae Spei Hodiernum (“The Cape of Good Hope Today,” first published in German in Nuremberg in 1719).2 I use this work in a novel way to show how the youngest members of colonial society were not marginal, but rather essential in the way the new cultural order took shape between ca. 1680 and 1720. Peter Kolb (1675–1727), was a German man of letters—specifically an astronomer and mathematician, and he certainly wrote with the intention of impressing other members of the Republic of Letters. His book is the first comprehensive description (840+ folio pages) of the Cape of Good Hope in the early eighteenth century. Kolb goes into great detail about the physical setting of the Cape, its natural history, and the history of the Dutch settlement there. He also provides the first full account of the daily life and social customs [End Page 17] of the indigenous people of the Cape, the Khoikhoi (then known as Hottentots), and for modern scholars this has been the most controversial section of the book. Although Caput Bonae Spei Hodiernum is certainly not about babies and children as such, Kolb comments frequently, and at length, on the youngest members of the Cape colony. They appear regularly in anecdotes about life at the Cape, and he also focuses particular chapters or parts of chapters on childbirth, infancy, childhood, and youth—among the settler population as well as among the Khoikhoi. Since Kolb’s perspective is adult and male, and he was neither married nor had children of his own, the appearance of babies and children in his narrative underlines their significance in the colonial world he was describing.3 The book gives us the opportunity to see both how mothers, infants, and children were considered and represented, and how they lived their lives.4 While it would be naïve to simply take Kolb at his word without being aware of the constructed aspects of his text, I want to suggest that his work is a kind of archive of perception, and that we can detect in it a deeper level of cross-cultural interface than has previously been allowed. Kolb’s Caput Bonae Spei Hodiernum allows us to explore the way that the people at the Cape interacted with one another in the complex and long-term process of forming a new society.

Kolb compares customs among the various people groups and shows how their lives were intertwined. He creates—sometimes consciously, sometimes not—a picture of a society gradually weaving a web of understandings out of shared space, language, and habits. Although it was often difficult to pinpoint exactly what was different, there was a consciousness of transformation. For Kolb, writing from a European perspective, change meant new opportunities as well as anxiety about moral and cultural decline. This new society was exciting...


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