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date: 20 February 2018

Technological Change in Late 19th-Century South Africa

Summary and Keywords

Societies and technologies were deeply intertwined in the history of late 19th-century South Africa. The late 19th century saw the significant development of capitalist agriculture, together with the expansion of mining. The technological side of farming and mining had a significant influence on social and political development. Meanwhile, as in many other colonial outposts, local innovators and entrepreneurs played significant roles in business as well as government. Technological developments were not simply imported or imposed from Great Britain. Everyday technologies, ranging from firearms to clothing, were the subjects of extensive debate across southern Africa’s different cultures.

Keywords: technology, environment, agriculture, railroad, harbor telegraph, mining, diamond, gold, missionary

Historical Perspectives on Technology

The history of South African technology is in its infancy. The historiography contains very few specific discussions of technology compared to other industrialized countries. Historians of South Africa have instead focused on the origins of racial discrimination and its effects, an understandable choice given the dire situation imposed on the nation by supporters of segregation and apartheid. The scholarship that developed in economic, political, and social history often referenced technological matters, but scholars tended not to treat technologies with methodological depth. Meanwhile, from the late 1970s to the early 1990s, when the apartheid regime was expiring, methodologies in the social and historical study of technology made noteworthy progress in North America, Europe, and Asia. Long misrepresented as either antiquarians or as “technological determinists,” many historians and sociologists of technology embraced social constructivism, the theory that scientific and technological development are best understood in their social context. As historians debated social constructivism, the historiography itself became more robust. The Society for the History of Technology expanded its membership, and the circulation of its journal, Technology and Culture, grew proportionally. Meanwhile the interdisciplinary field of science and technology studies became instituted at many universities. In South Africa, since the mid-1990s there has been increasing interest in the political and social history of technology, while kindred fields such as environmental history and medical history have attracted more scholarly interest, too.

Beginning in the 1980s, historians began to pay special attention to the relationship between industrialization and imperialism in the 19th century, when Western countries secured global dominance by using new technologies such as breechloaders, quinine, and steamships. Headrick and Adas highlighted the ways in which technology and ideas about technology were central to the formation of the modern European empires.1 Headrick sought to explain why modern European empires expanded so much during the middle and end of the 19th century, as opposed to the Early Modern period, or the 20th century. Headrick examined the histories of steamships, breechloaders, quinine, and other technologies, showing that in the 19th century, European industrialization opened a window of time during which Europeans enjoyed a temporary technological advantage. This temporary advantage enabled the “new” imperialism through the intertwining of the means and the motives. Following on Headrick, Adas showed the ways in which modern European imperialist ideologies had become strongly correlated with technology. Before the modern, industrial era, Europeans tended to think that it was their Christianity that explained their superiority. Modern Europeans, however, believed that superiority in technology underlined their claims to imperial dominance. Some scholars feared that such arguments amounted to “technological determinism,” a great taboo. History, even technological history, is supposed to be about people first, a common belief of historians that has attenuated the exploration of the relationship between technology and the material world, on the one hand, and ideology and embodied consciousness, on the other. Actually there are a variety of ways in which historians may describe the relationship between technology and the human capacity to change the course of events, or “agency.” Smith and Marx demonstrate that technology can still be understood as a force influencing history in many different ways;2 it is a force whose creation and use is subject to human decisions.

The path-breaking studies by Adas and Headrick have been confirmed, extended, and complicated by the new social histories of technology that have emerged since the 1970s. A methodology developed during the 1970s and 1980s known as the “social construction of technology” (SCOT) reveals the ways in which technologies never stand alone but receive social support from networks of scientists, engineers, and politicians.3 Networks of support can be both local and global, an insight that raises questions about older, Eurocentric approaches to technology and imperialism. In a recent study of the history of bicycles, rice mills, sewing machines, and typewriters in British India, David Arnold highlights the importance of technology’s users for the formulation of broader visions of modern Indian technology and politics.4

In India, South Africa, and other countries under colonial domination, promoters of metropolitan technologies had to persuade people to adapt new technologies to local economic, political, and social systems. Different classes and cultures in different locations came to understand the same technologies in different ways. The SCOT approach highlights the complex role of technology in the history of empires. SCOT also helps historians to think in more complex ways about what it means, exactly, to call an object a technology. Typically, when historians of empires discuss technology, they think of hardware, such as the railroads, ships, and weapons that symbolized and enforced modern Europe’s global hegemony in the late 19th century. Imperial historians also think of irrigation, sanitation, and dams, as well as mines for diamonds, gold, and tin. Historians of empires may broaden their understanding by considering other material objects as technologies. In fact there is much overlap between things that are often described as “natural,” “human,” and “technology.”


Mining and industrial development attract the most attention from students of late-19th-century South African history, but farming remained central to the lives of most people. Farms were the site of complex interactions between people, crops, and animals, much of it mediated by changing technologies. Technology may be defined broadly to include not only farm implements, such as wells, harrows, and plows, but also other material elements created in part by human hands, such as bred plants and animals, as well as crop fertilizers, irrigation techniques, and veterinary medicines.

There was great variety in South African agriculture, but some regional patterns can be observed.

In the Western Cape, wheat farms and vineyards had dominated agriculture since the arrival of the Dutch East India Company in the 17th century. At the Cape, indigenous Khoisan peoples were pushed off the land by disease and by settler violence. The remaining Khoisan people, mixing with each other as well as with migrants from Europe and Asia, formed the new mixed-race “Coloured” communities that provided the lion’s share of farmworkers. Not only did they gain knowledge of how to cultivate and harvest European crops by means of European technologies, the very technologies that produced wine also helped to control the labor force, as many European farmers paid wages in part with “tots” or rations of wine. Alcohol became a “tool of empire,” insofar as it helped to control workers, along with exploitative lending practices. In the late 19th century, this agricultural and technological system was disrupted to some extent by the appearance of a louse, the Phylloxera, a worldwide pest that attacked the roots of the vines. The advent of progressive, scientific farming in the Western Cape persuaded growers to adopt a technique, developing in other wine-growing regions, for grafting the roots of American grape varieties onto the stems of the traditional grapevines. This technological intervention would help the survival of the South African wine industry, while imported cultivation techniques also helped the establishment of fruit farming in the 1890s.

In the Eastern Cape sheep farming was prevalent. At first, European colonists in South Africa had adopted the local fat-tailed sheep that was raised by the Khoisan. With the help of the technical knowledge of Khoisan herders, these sheep provided a ready source of meat for frontier outposts, while sheep were also driven to Cape Town and other developing ports to supply meat to those communities. From the 1850s to the 1870s, sheep farming changed significantly with the introduction of woolly Merino sheep. Wool production became one of South Africa’s most important industries. Numbers of sheep rose, from 1.5 million fat-tailed sheep in 1806, to 5 million mostly woolled sheep in 1855, to 10–12 million during the period 1875–1900.5 Toward the end of the century, sheep became susceptible to “scab,” a disease spread by mites. Veterinarians and state officials persuaded wealthier sheep farmers to adopt progressive, scientific methods and to restrict the movements of their sheep and to “dip” them in chemical solutions. This key veterinary technology achieved credibility among the educated classes of farmers but became resented by poor, less educated farmers who resented the ways in which the technology was associated with surveillance and control.

In Natal, sugarcane growers depended on technological innovation, too, which also tended to benefit wealthier concerns. The Natal sugar industry was founded in the 1840s, along the southern coast of the colony. Fierce competition with Mauritius and the rise of beet sugar production in Europe meant that Natal’s growers depended heavily on state interventions. These came in the form of protective duties as well as support for the recruitment of indentured laborers from India. These state interventions, combined with the opening of markets for sugar in Kimberley and the Witwatersrand, kept sugar planters in business. The small sugarcane plantations of the mid-19th century had to have their own small mills. At harvest time, sugarcane juice must be boiled within two days, lest it start to ferment and thereby reduce the amount of sugar that can be crystallized. As early as the 1860s, Natal sugarcane farmers were employing steam engines in their mills, with 56 out of 60 employing steam power. As in many industries, advantages accrued from the simultaneous improvement of technologies and from centralization of production. From the 1860s through the 1890s, mills increased in size while they also added new technologies such as mechanical centrifuges. This process of modernization began to bear fruit in the 1880s and 1890s, but production did not become fully centralized until new productive lands were opened after Natal annexed Zululand (1897) and the South African War concluded (1902).6 In any event, the history of sugarcane cultivation in Natal, as in the rest of the world, was driven to a significant extent by the need for ever-improving industrial technology. That technology tended to give greater economic and political clout to banks and investors as well as to the remaining owners of the large plantations.

Industrial technologies had to be introduced together with industrial ways of thinking. Historian Keletso Atkins shows in her monograph, The Moon Is Dead! Gives Us Our Money!, that Natal’s sugarcane planters had trouble introducing Zulu workers to consciousness of clock time and calendar time. Zulu workers who signed up for a month of duty tended to think that they were signing up for a lunar month of twenty-eight days, rather than a Gregorian calendar solar month that varied between twenty-eight, twenty-nine, thirty, and thirty-one days. Disagreements about the exact timing of payday exacerbated tensions between employers and workers. In addition, there was misunderstanding about the nature of the working day and the need for labor at different times of year. Sugarcane has relatively low labor requirements during cultivation, but harvesting and planting seasons require extra labor. At harvest time, planters achieve efficiencies by running the factory around the clock, necessitating longer hours for cane-cutters and factory hands. Zulu workers resented having to work overtime. Working during cold nights frustrated them, too, as did written systems for keeping track of time at work. African workers preferred to keep time by marking notches in sticks. During the second half of the 19th century, there were so many misunderstandings surrounding timekeeping at work that in 1894, the Master and Native Servant Law made a compromise. All twelve months were recalculated to contain thirty days, while record-keeping was still done on sticks. In this way, local solutions were incorporated into practices that were at once technological and ideological.7

In Natal and the Eastern Cape, as well as in much of the South African interior, stretching from Basutoland and the Orange Free State to the platteland of the Transvaal, one particular economic and environmental issue was coming to the fore, which may also be thought of in terms of technologies. The middle and latter decades of the 19th century were noted for the spread of diverse types of agriculture. Contact with white missionaries and farmers, combined with the new interior markets around Kimberley and the Witwatersrand, stimulated the production of traditional items such as cattle and sorghum, as well as the spread of newer types of farming, such as maize and even wheat in some locations. Market-gardening of vegetables even received a boost. The changes tended to favor farmers who saved and borrowed capital to buy European implements, such as plows and harrows. Some historians have even described these African farmers who adopted European technologies and techniques as a nascent class of indigenous capitalists. In any event, the late 19th century witnessed droughts nearly every six years, plus the devastating epizootic rinderpest, which decimated cattle populations in the 1890s. If farmers were able to expand production for the market, their dependence on the market rendered them immobile and vulnerable. Finally, increases in taxation to generate labor for the mines, together with measures taken by the Cape government, especially the Glen Grey Act of 1894, restricted the freedom of African farmers. Their technical abilities as farmers, which had blossomed over two generations, were now limited, which was almost certainly a cause of political frustration.


“The Mineral Revolution” is often used as a reductionist shorthand term for late 19th-century South African history. Indeed, the mining industries, particularly diamond mining and gold mining, did much to revolutionize the subcontinent. The revolution proceeded in several phases. Starting in the late 1860s, prospectors dug for alluvial diamonds as part of small-scale operations along the Vaal River. The richest diamond-bearing territory was incorporated as Griqualand West in 1871, with claim-holding limited to small-scale diggers, even as large diamond deposits were found in the vicinity of what is today the city of Kimberley. African and European migrants moved to the area in great numbers. Two large open-pit mines, the Kimberley Central Mine and the DeBeers Mine, became difficult to manage with so many small claims. In 1875, fallout from a digger’s rebellion resulted in the emerging white, entrepreneurial class being able to purchase multiple claims. As a result, mining operations became larger in scale, and the 1880s saw a wave of buyouts and mergers. The advantages of scale became quite apparent in the mid-1880s, with the advent of tunneling under the pits and the creation of closed compounds for African workers. The capital needs of deep-level mining culminated in the creation of the DeBeers Consolidated Mining Company in 1888. That company, led by the visionary imperialist Cecil Rhodes, monopolized diamond production at Kimberley from that time forward. At the same time, in the late 1880s, Rhodes, his associates, and his rivals all began to invest in gold mining along the Witwatersrand. The area around present-day Johannesburg has the world’s largest seams of gold hidden in some of the world’s poorest quality ore. By the 1890s, a full-scale gold boom commenced, with laborers migrating to the gold fields from all parts of southern Africa, driven in part by regional famine and pestilence.8

This story of mine discovery, corporate consolidation, and migrant labor is well known thanks to the research and writing of many historians. Less well known is the technological history of the mines, a history that has been told mainly in the memoirs of mine engineers. The early diamond diggers employed pans and sieves, which were soon replaced by frames for sifting diamonds as well as simple centrifuges. As the open-pit mines went deeper into the ground, the equipment for diamond washing grew larger, with miners using ever larger centrifuges, powered by people and animals. At the edge of the mines, horse-powered whims pulled containers of dirt along wires, up and out of the pits and onto the sorting tables. Steam pumps removed the water, and eventually steam power was applied to the hauling of dirt. Blasting was made more effective by shifting from black powder to dynamite. The mid-1880s saw tunneling begin underneath the Kimberley Central and the DeBeers mines, with engineers mainly from Britain’s coal, copper, and tin mines showing South Africans how to shore up the shafts with timbers and how to install tramways to haul up the diamond-bearing “blue ground.” The arrival of the American mine engineer Gardner Williams saw even greater industrial development. The mine tunnels were constructed better and were mapped carefully by surveyors. More powerful engines hauled up ever-greater quantities of blue ground, which rode trams to the “floors,” open expanses where the earth was dried out and then crushed by steam-powered tractors. The crushed earth was then trucked to industrial, steam-powered centrifuges, and finally the diamonds were sorted by hand on large tables. It would have been apparent to black workers that all this machinery was operated and maintained exclusively by white engineers and machinists, who had protested against allowing non-white workers to hold skilled positions.

These techniques of mapping, hauling, crushing, and sorting were transferred to the gold mines of the Witwatersrand, where many of the same entrepreneurs and engineers worked. As gold mines were dug into the ground, African migrants, experiencing the acute hardships of the 1890s, shifted to the Witwatersrand, with 100,000 workers present by the end of the 1890s. Even so, the gold industry’s success depended on several simultaneous developments in economic and technological history. At the end of the 1880s, with gold-field exploration in full swing, it was difficult to extract gold from the rocks. Giant steam-powered stamp-mills were required to crush the ore. Fortunately for the gold-mining companies, coal was becoming cheaper, thanks to the expansion of mining in Natal and the spread of railways. Still, the process of extracting the gold from the ore involved an expensive process of roasting the ore and then washing it with a solution of chlorine. In the early 1890s, the new MacArthur-Forrest process, invented by a team of Scottish chemists, made it economical to mine gold from the Rand. Crushed ore was now poured into large vats and treated with a solution of potassium cyanide, which separated out the gold. The liquid gold solution was then sent through zinc shavings, thereby producing gold powder. The process was cheap and effective.

The story of mining technologies could be seen as a tale of progress, with small-scale technologies overtaken by increasingly complex technological systems. However, many of the older technologies did not go away. Some remained part of the mines, while others remained in use as part of marginal operations by small-scale entrepreneurs, helping to keep alive their dreams of mineral riches. Down in the mines themselves, older tools were of course used, such as picks, drills, and miners’ helmets with candles, yet the prevalence of these everyday technologies, used by ordinary people, is often overshadowed by more elaborate and seemingly impressive technological systems. In some cases, newer technologies had obvious origins in older technologies. The architecture of the closed compound system, for example, that developed first in Kimberley and then spread to the Witwatersrand resembled nothing more than the old Dutch East India Company’s Slave Lodge in Cape Town, a rectangular structure built in the 17th century with windows that only faced inward, toward the courtyard, in order to restrict the inmates’ freedom. Surveillance in the much larger Kimberley compounds took the shape of body searches, techniques familiar since ancient times that still provided security in the modern industrial setting. Meanwhile, it was difficult to achieve surveillance down in the mine shafts, tunnels, and stopes, where foremen had to manage workers who achieved a degree of personal freedom simply by dint of having to spread out within the strange, dark world of the mine’s shadowy caverns. As historian of technology David Egerton has pointed out in his book, The Shock of the Old, some attention to the persistence of old, mundane technologies can yield a better understanding of social history than a simple focus on the ever-newer, ever-better technological achievements of industrial engineers.

Communications and Transportation

Industrial development, imperial expansion, and labor migration depended on the technologies of communication and transportation. Europe’s Industrial Revolution made possible a communications and transportation revolution in late-19th-century South Africa, thanks to telegraphs, railroads, and steamships. There was undoubtedly a multiplier effect: better communication and transportation technology made possible industrial development, while industrial development helped to pay for better infrastructure. The need for better infrastructure was evident by 1859, when the Cape Town Railway and Dock Company began construction of South Africa’s first railroad. Sailing ships made do with primitive docking facilities in Cape Town and other harbors, while producers and shippers of wool, wine, and sugar made do with primitive roadways. The opening of the London and South Africa Bank and the Standard Bank in the early 1860s made possible investment in better harbor facilities as well as the first sixty-three miles of railways at the Cape.

The economic downturn of 1860s restricted the flow of credit and development, but the mineral revolution of the 1870s and 1880s provided the impetus for greater investments to be made in transportation and communication. The value of the Cape’s imports doubled, while the inflow of capital made it possible for the colonial governments of the Cape Colony and Natal to borrow more money for infrastructure projects. In 1873, the first “responsible,” or quasi-independent, Cape government under Prime Minister John C. Molteno borrowed money and bought the Cape’s railways from private owners, as well as the colony’s telegraph lines, which tended to run along railway lines. This established the principle of state ownership at a time when the new, responsible form of government was testing its powers. The new government also arranged for better steamship service and embarked on a project to build better port facilities. Meanwhile, the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879 provided the pretext for the imperial government to connect South Africa to its global telegraph lines by running a cable from Durban to the Eastern Telegraph Company’s nearest node in Zanzibar.

In the Cape Colony, intercolonial rivalries resulted in equal consideration being given to harbor and rail projects in Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, and East London. The Cape Government Railways, under the new Railway Department, hired the engineer William Brounger to supervise the expansion of the lines. In 1873 and 1874, the Cape’s government approved rail projects that connected the three principal ports to the interior: the Cape Western Line, the Cape Midland Line, and the Cape Eastern Line. The principal engineering challenge was to construct the bridges and tunnels of the Cape Western Line over the mountain ranges that separate Cape Town from the interior. The Cape’s railwaymen made a study of rail development in mountainous areas of Eastern Europe, which led them to abandon the standard rail gauge of 4 feet, 8.5 inches, in favor of the 3 feet, 6 inch gauge that was more efficient in mountainous conditions. That narrower gauge remains, to this day, the standard gauge in southern Africa. According to plan, the rail network spread from ports to mining centers. (Railways would only spread to rural areas in the early decades of the 20th century.) By the start of the 1880s, the rail lines reached the interior towns of Beaufort West, Graaff-Reinet, Cradock, and Queenstown. By 1885, it was possible to reach Kimberley by rail from Cape Town and Port Elizabeth, which were now themselves connected by rail. The line from East London reached Kimberley in 1892.

Early railroad development was state-supported and state-supporting. This approach was not confined to the Cape. Natal government railways were constructed in the 1870s and 1880s with the objective of supporting settler sugarcane farmers. Most of the colony’s borrowing related to infrastructure. The “Overberg” trade between Durban and the booming interior was initially carried by wagons over rough roads; it was only in the early 1890s that rail construction began to shift toward making connections to the Orange Free State and the Transvaal. Trade also depended on the improvement of Durban’s harbor facilities. By the early 1890s, a breakwater moderated the effects of scouring tides on the harbor. The colony dredged a deeper channel, too, while installing better wharves, cranes, and winches.9 As historian Vivian Bickford-Smith has demonstrated in his comparative history of Durban, Johannesburg, and Cape Town, improvements in transportation and communication facilities helped to spread cosmopolitan knowledge. Ideas about “progress,” “reform,” and “improvement” became closely associated with British identity, as ties with the metropole seemed to grow closer.10

Starting in the mid-1870s, the Transvaal (officially known as the South African Republic) began a struggling effort to raise funds for a railway to connect it to Delagoa Bay (Maputo) in Portuguese Mozambique. That way, the Boer republic could bypass British colonies and have access to the sea. Railway construction was hampered by the Transvaal’s poor credit and by a brief British takeover from 1877 to 1881. In 1889, a rail line finally connected Delagoa Bay to the Transvaal border; the line finally reached Pretoria in 1894. The rail link to the sea became an emblem of the white, Boer settlers’ desire for freedom from Britain. Meanwhile, the gold boom meant that Transvaalers were being drawn inexorably into the orbit of the Cape Colony and Britain. In 1892, the Cape Free State railroad finally connected to the Transvaal’s capital, Pretoria.11

The key political debates among white settlers, Boer and Briton, during the late 19th century revolved around the extent to which the Cape Colony, Natal, the Orange Free State, and the Transvaal should be independent or confederated, with advocates for confederation tending to favor closer ties with Great Britain. The most fervent advocates of confederating Britain’s two colonies and the two Boer republics stressed the advantages of shared infrastructure, while ardent Boer republicans recognized the importance of securing the path of an independent rail link to the sea. Advocates for industrial development, such as the diamond magnate and imperialist politician, Cecil Rhodes, hoped that the rail network would extend from the Cape through the republics and northward into central Africa. When Rhodes was serving as the Cape Colony’s prime minister in the early 1890s, he very nearly concluded a deal with Portugal to buy Delagoa Bay, annexing it to the Cape and eliminating the Transvaal’s rail access to the sea. Opposition came from many quarters in Britain, Portugal, and Germany, now heavily involved in southern African politics, too. The purchase was scuttled by Britain, although Rhodes’s overall ambitions did not diminish. Negotiations between colonies and republics regarding a customs union and shared railway and telegraphy involved much bickering, with the republics fearing that Rhodes’s technopolitical schemes might have negative implications for their independence as well as their worldview. These sentiments were shared by the Tswana chiefs, who toured Britain in order to make their case against a related scheme by Rhodes to build a railway through their territory, British Bechuanaland, today known as Botswana. As a result of protracted disagreements about sovereignty, finance, and culture, infrastructure development proceeded separately in each colony or republic, prompting one historian, C. W. de Kiewiet, to comment that “It would be vain to relate in further detail the quarrels over tariffs and railway rates in those years. The promise that telegraphs, roads, bridges, and engineering would forge the links that politics had failed to do was not kept.”12 These debates ended with the South African War of 1899–1902 and with the creation of the Union of South Africa.

In the late 19th century, throughout South Africa, governments played a strong role in railway development, raising funds and directing them toward strengthening mining and farming in the interior. Among some settlers, provincial and even national identities began to form around these rail links. Even so, there are few good recent studies of rail and infrastructure development in South Africa. Overviews were given in histories by Walker and de Kiewiet, which are obviously now quite dated. More recent surveys of South African history barely make reference to infrastructure, while it is clear from primary sources that 19th-century South Africans cared very deeply about the social and political aspects of technological development.13


On the Rand and at the diamond fields, late-19th-century South Africans experienced new industrial technologies. Very few of these technologies have been the subject of extensive social-historical study, but one, the gun, has attracted some attention. South Africa has even been called a “gun society.” Firearms were signature technologies, subject to much pride and discussion. Firearms were also widespread, thanks to light restrictions on the gun trade at Kimberley and in the wider Cape Colony before tighter restrictions on African arms purchases came to be implemented starting in 1878. Once again, a confluence of economic and technological circumstances aided the spread of guns. At the start of the 19th century, the most common shoulder firearm was the smoothbore flintlock musket, which could be loaded and fired once every thirty seconds. The military versions, such as the .75 caliber Brown Bess, had an effective killing range of 50 meters. It was designed mainly for volley firing. The civilian versions of firearms in South Africa ranged from smaller caliber fowling pieces, designed to kill birds with shot pellets, to a massive musket used for hunting large game animals. Known as the roer, these 1.00 caliber weapons could fire a lead ball weighing a quarter of a pound. While these weapons appear to be primitive by modern standards and required a great deal of skill and practice, they had the advantage of being easily repaired in the field, while ammunition could be adjusted depending on the needs of the shooter.

The smoothbore musket remained essentially the same from the late 17th century to the mid-19th century, when many technological changes improved the accuracy and power of firearms, while also increasing the rapidity with which shots could be fired. Rifling on the inside of barrels imparted spin and accuracy to bullets, but tight-fitting bullets were difficult to ram down the barrel of a gun. A new bullet, called the Minié ball, was developed at mid-century. It could fit down the barrel loosely, so could be loaded easily. It had a hollow base, so that upon ignition, the base expanded, gripping the side of the barrel and imparting spin. These weapons began to spread throughout South Africa in the late 1850s. As European armies made the transition to even better and more expensive weapons that fired bullets pre-loaded in metallic cartridges from the back end, or breech, these older muzzle-loading rifles, which were still highly effective, flooded onto world markets—just in time for the migration of thousands of African men to the diamond mines. White settlers fretted about the risks of arming Africans, leading to the passage of some of South Africa’s earliest racially discriminatory legislation, the Peace Preservation Act of 1878, which allowed colonial governors to name districts as zones in which Africans had to surrender their firearms.

In the 1880s and 1890s, firearms continued to improve from a technical standpoint. European armies made further expensive upgrades, buying rifles that could fire multiple bullets from magazines. The Boer republics’ shrewd adoption of the top-of-the-line German Mauser rifle is generally credited with giving their forces an advantage of British soldiers during the opening rounds of the South African War of 1899–1902. Boer soldiers are also widely credited for having superior marksmanship, thanks to their involvement in hunting and shooting clubs. The migration of some Boers to the cities, the disappearance of game animals, the prevalence of shooting clubs among English-speaking South Africans, and the initial tactical blunderings of British generals suggest that multiple factors were at play in descriptions of marksmanship. The most significant disparities now occurred between Europeans, heavily armed with advanced weaponry, and Africans, who had typically not been able to afford upgrading their arsenals. The arrival of Maxim machine guns in southern Africa at the end of the 19th century caused further disparities to arise between Africans and Europeans.14

Everyday Technologies

As Storey has traced in his book, Guns, Race, and Power in Colonial South Africa, British and Dutch settlers debated about whether or not the possession of firearms changed the ways in which African people thought. The initial studies of technology and materiality actually pertain more to everyday technologies, such as household goods and clothing. Jean and John Comaroff’s study, Of Revelation and Revolution, Vol.2, The Dialectics of Modernity on a South African Frontier, traces the “long dialogue” between Southern Tswana people and Nonconformist Protestant missionaries in the northern reaches of the Cape Colony during the 19th century, especially as it pertains to farming, money, clothing, architecture, and medicine. The Comaroffs focus their attention on everyday practices with technologies, calling attention to the diverse ways in which the transformations of colonial domination are complicated on the local level. The missionaries hoped to integrate Tswana people into a Christian and capitalist worldview, yet Nonconformist origins often made it difficult for them to articulate an overweening worldview with Europeans and Africans alike. Tswana people, for their part, “received and redeployed” plows, dresses, and windows, which were understood in variable and evolving symbolic and practical contexts.15

The Comaroffs note that missionaries spread everyday technological practices as a way of propagating a Christian and capitalist worldview. They quote one missionary, John Mackenzie, who wrote in 1858 that “[A Christian] cannot continue to live in the habits of a heathen. The African who believes that Jesus is preparing him for a glorious mansion in Heaven, will endeavour to build for himself a decent house on earth; and he who anticipates being hereafter attired in the pure white robe of the Redeemer’s righteousness, will now throw aside the filthy garments of the heathen.”16 The adoption of everyday technologies were heavily freighted with ideology. Nineteenth-century Western medical practices did not necessarily cure diseases—in fact bloodletting and purgatives may have even done more harm than good. Western soap may have promoted cleanliness—although the germ theory of disease was not known until the end of the century. Western clothing was often hot and uncomfortable in some of the climates of southern Africa. The region’s climate also meant that Western-style architecture was not necessarily better than African architecture from a practical standpoint. Yet all these technologies and practices opened up ways of dialogues between missionaries and Tswana in the context of increasing Western dominance.

Surveillance, Control, and Bodies

Some of the most suggestive recent works by historians involve tools of surveillance—technologies that were used to study and control the health and movement of people in late 19th-century South Africa. Keith Breckenridge’s monograph, Biometric State, extends our thinking about the ways in which technological history is inseparable from scientific and ideological developments. A succession of segregationist governments experimented with and deployed, in various ways, centralized fingerprint registration. That is largely a 20th-century story that is beyond the scope of this article. Breckenridge informs readers that these efforts originated in 19th-century exchanges of scientific and technical information between South Africa, India, and Britain. The key figure in the development of fingerprinting and its associated record-keeping measures is Francis Galton, one of the pioneers of statistics. In the early 1850s, Galton traveled in Namibia, where he formed a negative impression of local people. While observing these people and their cattle, he formulated the concept of statistical regression as well as a related eugenic twist—that while there was a tendency in a population toward mediocre qualities, selective breeding might bring improvements. His assessment of African people was brutally racist and contributed to the origins of “social Darwinism,” especially in the 1890s when his ideas were taken up by mine engineers as well as by Milner’s government.17

Fingerprinting and other forms of biometrics became part of the state’s ideologically motivated surveillance of southern African societies. These technologies of macro-surveillance may be compared in a general way to technologies of micro-surveillance, medical technologies, which help providers of health care to see and manipulate the body. Earlier medical histories focused on the activities of doctors from the dominant white racial group. Recent medical histories have shown the ways in which South African medicine shaped—and was shaped by—discrimination based on race and gender. Pioneering studies in the 1970s revealed the ways in which racial ideas permeated ideas about public health and sanitation, particularly with regard to the development of the mining industry and the diseases most closely associated with it, silicosis and tuberculosis. Historians now pay more attention to a wider array of people involved in health care, ranging from African, Indian, and Coloured doctors and nurses to sangomas and herbalists.18 Throughout this new historiography, technologies are typically mentioned in passing. These tools of health-care providers have received relatively little scrutiny from historians. In many cases, medical technologies may have been developed in other places and imported to South Africa. That being said, recent histories of technology have shown that while the inventors of technologies may have rich histories, so do the users and maintainers.

Discussion of the Literature

Historians of South Africa have tended to think about technology as an instrument of imperial and capitalist domination. Empires helped to spread technologies through trade and political interventions, while technologies—and debates about who should and should not have technological skills—played an important role in the intertwined histories of capitalism and racial segregation. The relationship between invention and inequality was beginning to be recognized by some South African intellectuals at the time. In 1883, Olive Schreiner published The Story of an African Farm, which contained a famous passage in which the white villain, Bonaparte Blenkins, discourages the teenage African inventor, Waldo. Waldo is tricked by Blenkins into showing his prized invention, a model of a machine for shearing sheep.

“Oh, it is such a nice little machine,” said Bonaparte, “one can’t help feeling an interest in it. There is only one little improvement, one very little improvement, I should like to make.”

Bonaparte put his foot on the machine and crushed it into the sand. The boy looked up into his face.

“Looks better now,” said Bonaparte, “doesn’t it? If we can’t have it made in England, we’ll send it to America. Good-bye; ta-ta,” he added. “You’re a great genius, a born genius, my dear boy, there’s no doubt about it.”19

It is clear from this passage and also from more recent writing that technological dissemination in the colonies often produced results that were unexpected as well as disappointing. A young African man can be an innovator as well as a victim. Some recent studies have highlighted the ways in which dominated people have reshaped technology and politics as a way of asserting their autonomy. This view contradicts the most typical stories told about empires and technologies. Historians of empire and technology once focused almost exclusively on Europe and the United States, believing that the countries outside of the “West” that adopted Western technologies did not modify or change them in interesting ways. Instead, innovations occurred at the imperial “cores,” with processes of “technology transfer” moving out to the peripheries. It was also widely believed that imported technologies “transferred” with little debate, as they were often rationally and demonstrably superior to technologies that came before them. Such assumptions about the global effects of industrialization have changed a great deal in the past forty years, as historians of technology have developed a stronger interest in empire building.

That being said, South Africa does not yet have a rich scholarly literature about technological history. Historians have not yet generated a sufficient quantity of articles and monographs upon which a truly comprehensive review can be based. Instead, this essay has drawn upon scholarly investigations that are currently available, while making an effort to set down some guideposts for future consideration. When it comes to the historiography of technology in South Africa, the glass is either half-full or half-empty: half-empty because our knowledge of the region’s technological history is scant, half-full because there are plenty of technologies and sources for future historians to study. There are also plenty of libraries and archives to complement the numerous memoirs and newspapers available for the late 19th century. In some areas, such as everyday technologies and firearms, there are baseline monographs that may be enhanced and contested. Other important technologies, such as railroads, telegraphs, ships, and plows, are still awaiting focused scholarly investigation. Most intriguingly, very little has been written about the environmental and technological side of mining, the country’s most important industry. Late-19th-century South Africa’s history may have a bright future.

Primary Sources

There are abundant primary sources for South Africa’s technological history, although these must often be found in sources and collections that are principally concerned with other topics in economic, political, and social history. The provincial archives in the old capital cities of Cape Town, Durban, Bloemfontein, and Pretoria all contain extensive references, as do the archival collections of key university libraries, such as the University of Cape Town, and provincial museums, such as the McGregor Museum in Kimberley. Corporate archives, such as the DeBeers Archive in Kimberley, also contain important documents about technology, while collections of journals, newspapers, and parliamentary papers, like the ones at the National Library, Cape Town, are priceless. In Britain, the National Archives at Kew and special collections, such as the former Rhodes House manuscripts now held by the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Library, contain massive amounts of information that is relatively unexplored by historians of technology.

Influential figures in South Africa’s technological history published books and memoirs that shed light on key technologies. Missionary memoirs, like the ones by Robert and Mary Moffatt, provide much evidence about material culture and colonial interactions.20 Published memoirs by outdoorsmen, such as F. C. Selous, and artists, such as Thomas Baines, provide rich descriptions of hunting, camping, and material culture.21 American engineers like Gardner Williams and John Hays Hammond published memoirs that revealed much about mining technologies, but also about the transnational networks of engineers and financiers who exerted a great deal of influence over South Africa’s development.22 These published sources are almost exclusively written from the perspective of South Africans of European descent. Records of African experiences of technological development tend to be scarce. African viewpoints may often be deduced by reading colonial transcripts “across the grain,” but future research into African experiences is absolutely essential.

Further Reading

Adas, Michael. Machines as the Measure of Men: Science, Technology, and Ideologies of Western Dominance. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1989.Find this resource:

Arnold, David. Everyday Technology: Machines and the Making of India’s Modernity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013.Find this resource:

Atkins, Keletso. The Moon Is Dead! Give Us Our Money! The Cultural Origins of an African Work Ethic, Natal, South Africa, 1843–1900. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1993.Find this resource:

Beinart, William. The Rise of Conservation in South Africa: Settlers, Livestock, and the Environment, 1770–1950. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.Find this resource:

Bickford-Smith, Vivian. The Emergence of the South African Metropolis: Cities and Identities in the Twentieth Centuries. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2016.Find this resource:

Bijker, Wiebe. Of Bicycles, Bakelites, and Bulbs: Toward a Theory of Sociotechnical Change. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1995.Find this resource:

Breckenridge, Keith. Biometric State: The Global Politics of Identification and Surveillance in South Africa, 1850 to the Present. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2014.Find this resource:

Burman, Jose. Early Railways at the Cape. Cape Town: Human and Rousseau, 1984.Find this resource:

Comaroff, Jean, and John Comaroff. Of Revelation and Revolution. vol. 2. The Dialectics of Modernity on a South African Frontier. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.Find this resource:

Davenport, Jade. Digging Deep: A History of Mining in South Africa, 1852–2002. Cape Town: Jonathan Ball, 2013.Find this resource:

Digby, Anne. “The Medical History of South Africa: An Overview.” History Compass 6.5 (2008): 1194–1210.Find this resource:

Edgerton, David. The Shock of the Old: Technology in Global History Since 1900. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.Find this resource:

Guest, Bill. “The New Economy.” In Natal and Zululand from Earliest Times to 1910: A New History. Edited by Andrew Duminy and Bill Guest, 302–323. Pietermaritzburg: University of Natal Press, 1989.Find this resource:

Headrick, Daniel. The Tentacles of Progress: Technology Transfer in the Age of Imperialism, 1850–1940. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.Find this resource:

Headrick, Daniel. The Tools of Empire: Technology and European Imperialism in the 19th Century. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981.Find this resource:

de Kiewiet, Cornelis W. A History of South Africa: Social and Economic. London: Oxford University Press, 1941.Find this resource:

Kubicek, Robert. “British Expansion, Empire, and Technological Change.” In Oxford History of the British Empire. vol. 3. The 19th Century. Edited by Andrew Porter, 247–269. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.Find this resource:

Marks, Shula. “Class, Culture, and Consciousness in South Africa, 1880–1899.” In The Cambridge History of South Africa. vol. 2. Edited by R. Ross, A. Mager, and B. Nasson, 102–156. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2011.Find this resource:

Parle, Julie, and Vanessa Noble. “New Directions and Challenges in Histories of Health, Healing and Medicine in South Africa.” Medical History 58.2 (2014): 147–165.Find this resource:

Richardson, Peter. “The Natal Sugar Industry, 1849–1905: An Interpretive Essay.” Journal of African History 23 (1982): 515–527.Find this resource:

Smith, Merritt Roe, and Leo Marx. Does Technology Drive History? The Dilemma of Technological Determinism. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1994.Find this resource:

Storey, William Kelleher. Guns, Race, and Power in Colonial South Africa. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008.Find this resource:

Walker, Eric A. The Cambridge History of the British Empire, vol. 8. South Africa, Rhodesia, and the Protectorates. Edited by J. H. Rose, A. P. Newton, and E. A. Benians. Cambridge U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1936.Find this resource:


(1.) Daniel Headrick, The Tools of Empire: Technology and European Imperialism in the 19th Century (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981); and Michael Adas, Machines as the Measure of Men: Science, Technology, and Ideologies of Western Dominance (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1989).

(2.) Merritt Roe Smith and Leo Marx, Does Technology Drive History? The Dilemma of Technological Determinism (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1994).

(3.) See Wiebe Bijker, Of Bicycles, Bakelites, and Bulbs: Toward a Theory of Sociotechnical Change (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1995).

(4.) David Arnold, Everyday Technology: Machines and the Making of India’s Modernity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013).

(5.) William Beinart, The Rise of Conservation in South Africa: Settlers, Livestock, and the Environment, 1770–1950 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 9.

(6.) Peter Richardson, “The Natal Sugar Industry, 1849–1905: An Interpretive Essay,” Journal of African History 23 (1982): 520, 526–527.

(7.) Keletso Atkins, “ ‘Kafir Time,’ Wage Claims, and Other Sociocultural Antecedents of Togt, or Day Labor,” in The Moon Is Dead! Give Us Our Money! The Cultural Origins of an African Work Ethic, Natal, South Africa, 1843–1900 (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1993), 78–99.

(8.) For an excellent, concise survey of the economic and social history of the Mineral Revolution, see Shula Marks, “Class, Culture, and Consciousness in South Africa, 1880–1899,” in The Cambridge History of South Aftica, vol. 2, eds. R. Ross, A. Mager, and B. Nasson (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 102–156.

(9.) Bill Guest, “The New Economy,” in Natal and Zululand from Earliest Times to 1910: A New History (Pietermaritzburg, South Africa: University of Natal Press, 1989), 305–311.

(10.) Vivian Bickford-Smith, The Emergence of the South African Metropolis: Cities and Identities in the Twentieth Centuries (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 62–64.

(11.) Jose Burman, Early Railways at the Cape (Cape Town: Human and Rousseau, 1984); Eric A. Walker, The Cambridge History of the British Empire, vol. 8, South Africa, Rhodesia and the Protectorates (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1936), 522–524, 778–795.

(12.) Cornelis W. de Kiewiet, A History of South Africa: Social and Economic (London: Oxford University Press, 1941), 125.

(13.) See Walker, Eric A. The Cambridge History of the British Empire. vol. 8. South Africa, Rhodesia, and the Protectorates, eds. J. H. Rose, A. P. Newton, and E. A. Benians (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1936); and Cornelis W. de Kiewiet, A History of South Africa: Social and Economic (London: Oxford University Press, 1941).

(14.) William Kelleher Storey, Guns, Race, and Power in Colonial South Africa (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

(15.) Jean Comaroff and John Comaroff, Of Revelation and Revolution, vol. 2. The Dialectics of Modernity on a South African Frontier (Chicago: Chicago Uniersity Press, 1997), 407–409.

(16.) Comaroff and Comaroff, Of Revelation and Revolution, 274.

(17.) Keith Breckenridge, Biometric State: The Global Politics of Identification and Surveillance in South Africa, 1850 to the Present (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2014), especially 27–62.

(18.) Anne Digby, “The Medical History of South Africa: An Overview,” History Compass 6, no. 5 (2008): 1194–1210; and Julie Parle and Vanessa Noble, “New Directions and Challenges in Histories of Health, Healing and Medicine in South Africa,” Medical History 58.2 (2014): 147–165.

(19.) Olive Schreiner, The Story of an African Farm (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 73–74.

(20.) Robert Moffatt and Mary Moffatt, Apprenticeship at Kuruman: Being the Journals and Letters of Robert and Mary Moffatt, ed. Isaac Schapera (London: Chatto & Windus, 1951).

(21.) William Barry and Thomas Baines, Shifts and Expediences of Camp Life, Travel, and Exploration (London: 1876. Facs. Repr. Johannesburg: Africana Book Society, 1975); and Frederick Courteney Selous, A Hunter’s Wanderings in Africa, 4th ed. (London: Bentley, 1895).

(22.) John Hays Hammond, The Autobiography of John Hays Hammond, 2 vols. (New York: Farrar & Rinehart, 1935); and Gardner Fred Williams, The Diamond Mines of South Africa. 2 vols. (New York: Buck & Company), 1905.