Like water and air, land is a necessary and unvaried condition of our physical existence: but perceptions of land and social relations with land used, occupied, claimed, exchanged, won, divided, destroyed, lost and longed for are as vast, varied and dynamic as life itself.
This paper examines some aspects of changing attitudes to, and concepts of, land in relation to an extent of territory on the south east coast of Africa, between the Indian ocean and the Drakensberg escarpment, known as Natal. It should be a read as a draft chapter of a study of Theophilus Shepstone and deals with the situation before his arrival in 1846 and prepares the way for it. African attitudes to land are not dealt with explicitly – although a main objective is to point to the significance of the African presence and its historiographical neglect as a determining force. African land policies are dealt with explicitly in the next chapter, which I summarise as a postscript in order to provide a context and to situate this already too long paper in some of the debates which have already taken place in the seminar.
In the writing of the chapter I have had to confront some of major historical questions of the era. The movement of Afrikaner1 pastoralists into South Africa in the late 1830s, their conflict with the Zulu kingdom, the establishment of an Afrikaner republic in Natal and its annexation as a British colony in 1843 have been the subjects of research and controversy over historiographical generations. The debates raised have been important: was Natal occupied, empty, or emptied of Africans when they arrived there in the late 1830s? how can the trekkers best be characterised? as frontier farmers seeking to continue older ways of life in the face of modernity and the spread of capitalist relations, or were they early manifestations of these forces?2 Were they a threat to Zulu autonomy or did they release divisive tendencies already existing within the kingdom? Why in a time of retrenchment, social unrest, and the ascendancy of free market ideologies did the Britain government assume responsibility for a region in which potential revenues were so tenuous and administrative costs likely to be so burdensome? Historians have dealt in detail with the proximate causes of the annexation of Natal,3 but in so doing have overlooked the economic framework in which the acquisition took place and its role in decision making. This paper seeks to compare attitudes to land, land policy and the legal status of land amongst different groupings as they struggled to occupy and obtain rights to land in what became the territory that became known as the colony of Natal.