Tyd om te trek?

Hello Internet!

Allow me to introduce myself.  My name is Robin Crigler.  I’m a history and religious studies double major and a sophomore year transfer to William and Mary.  I’m active in the theatre department, the Canterbury Association, and last summer I had the extreme good fortune to walk two hundred miles of the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route in Spain, carrying out ethnographic research with two excellent professors at the College.  I am preparing to write a thesis in history this year—“Trekking Towards Empire: South African Empire and American Identity, 1880-1910”—with the help of my advisor Robert Vinson, and to that end I am extremely grateful to the Roy R. Charles Center, the Lyon G. Tyler Department of History, and all my Honors Fellowship donors for their encouragement and financial support for my project.

In Afrikaans the phrase “tyd om te trek” means “time to head out,” recalling the Great Trek of the mid-nineteenth century that ended with Afrikaner farmers wresting from indigenous peoples the same mineral-rich tracts of the Transvaal that would by the end of the century be so hotly coveted by British empire-builders.  It is a phrase bound up in notions of self-conscious heroism that will perhaps counteract the sense of trepidation I feel as I sit down to begin my “trek” in earnest.

Paulus Kruger, president of the South African Republic during the 1899-1902 war.

Paulus Kruger, president of the South African Republic during the 1899-1902 war.

Alfred Milner, wartime Governor of the Cape Colony and British High Commissioner for Southern Africa; Kruger's greatest foe.

Alfred Milner, wartime Governor of the Cape Colony and British High Commissioner for Southern Africa; Kruger’s greatest foe.

You see, we are currently in the midst of finals week at William and Mary, and as I write this seniors across campus are preparing for their thesis defenses.  Some have already gone through the ordeal and have taken to social networking to announce their successes, emphasizing in equal measure both the exhilaration of a mission accomplished and the sweat and stress of the honors process.  I enter the heady world of the thesis with their voices ringing in my ears; I am both thrilled and nervous, excited and slightly intimidated.  I have no idea quite what the next year will bring—but, if you’re reading this, I invite you to join me in sojourning towards the unknown (or at least watching me do so).

As I’ve explained in various funding applications this semester, my interest in southern Africa and its history has been growing since at least 2010, when I inadvertently stumbled upon an internet video of a white German-speaking Namibian rapping about his hometown.  I had no idea there were German-speakers left in Namibia, and I remember being utterly transfixed by the novelty of it all.  As I learned more about the cultures and pasts contained within that complex region, my amusement became an interest, and after four semesters at William and Mary, my flirtation with becoming an African historian has matured into a true life goal.

Even now this project has been long in incubation.  I remember vividly last year around this time trying to think of an honors topic that would incorporate southern Africa without necessitating the expensive outlay of a trip there.  It was then that I first struck upon the South African War and its relation to American identity.  Almost nine months ago I remember cautiously knocking on Prof. Vinson’s door for the first time, knowing that I was disturbing him during his semester of research leave, not quite knowing what to do when he answered the door and graciously brought me into his office, rapidly recalling articles and books that I needed to be looking into.  Since then a great deal of research has occurred, and an even greater amount remains to be done this summer, including travel to various archives across the country.  I am very lucky to have such a dedicated advisor as well as the opportunity to dedicate the next few months full-time to this effort.

“It may come as a surprise to you that South Africa was not always the raceless, classless utopia you see in beer adverts.  Once upon a time this was a dark and dangerous place, beset by racism and violence.  Like America, but with elephants.”  These are the sarcastic words of the South African comedic duo of Nik Rabinowitz and Gillian Breslin, a sound bite that captures a sense not only of the ever fluctuating notion of the ‘South African past,’ but also the comparisons both Americans and South Africans continue to draw between their respective nations.

Though largely ignored by most Americans through most of the nineteenth century, the wars and crises which wracked southern Africa in the last quarter of the century (culminating in the 1899-1902 Anglo-Boer or South African War, both imperfect names) inspired many Americans to take notice, for just as southern Africa seemed to be at a crossroads, so too was America—well on her way from backwater republic to geopolitical power player.  Patterns of American involvement with the conflict (and many were deeply involved) necessarily had implications for identity—whether Americans saw themselves as plucky frontiersmen with a legacy of resisting British oppression like the Boers or cosmopolitan statesmen bearing the torch of Anglo-Saxon democracy on the world stage, hand in hand with the British.  My project seeks to trace these patterns and what they say about the American landscape at the turn of the twentieth century.

 

Comments

  1. mkbentley says:

    Robin this is exciting stuff! I’m going to have to read the rest of your posts when I have time and I’m looking forward to the conclusion of your research! What you’re looking at seems very much akin to the types of things I studied as a Women’s Studies / Hispanic Studies major at the college—the ways the United States (and/or the West) influenced other communities…well, I love the way you put it in your penultimate sentence. I have never focused very much on Africa (would that there had been more time in my four years of undergrad!!) and so I’m very interested in reading what you discover. Anyway, best of luck to you on your thesis—I’m certain that it will be wonderful.