Michael Glover, A Cattle-centred History of Southern Africa

The importance of cattle to Southern Africans, many of whom were pastoralists in pre-colonial times, can hardly be overstated. Cattle hold especial significance in pastoral societies inter alia in terms of spirituality (ancestral communication), social and economic structures (bridewealth, initiation, chiefdom structures, family structures, social linkages, initiation, birth and death) and were indeed central to the ordering of pastoral societies. The erosion of Southern African pastoralism was instrumental to the colonisation of Southern Africa; destroying chiefly political orders, agricultural and pastoral self-sufficiency, and compelling Southern Africans to work as migrant labourers for example on South African mines and farms. To date not one study, journal article or book has in a systematic way placed cattle as an organising lens to understand Southern African social and environmental and cultural history.

The role animals have played in constituting contemporary Southern African is almost entirely unacknowledged in the extant literature. Using cattle as a central organising lens, my PhD thesis will ask, in terms of a cohesive and systematic analysis, what role have cattle played in Southern African history since the rinderpest epidemic of 1855 to the collapse of pastorialism as a bedrock feature of Southern African societies in the mid twentieth century?

This question fosters rich insight into the lives of Southern Africans and their changing position from independent pastoralists to subjugated but resisting actors in the colonisation of Southern Africa. It permits a highly relevant exploration of the importance of cattle to the social, cultural, political and spiritual worlds of Southern Africans, and how their relations to cattle have changed over the century covered. Perhaps no greater threat to the independence of Southern Africans was the destruction of Africans’ pastoral relations with cattle in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

With a deep and more cohesive understanding of the importance of cattle to nearly all spheres of the lives of Southern Africans, Southern African history and how we understand ourselves and the past is greatly enriched.

This PhD research projects aims to investigate the core the relevance of cattle to the formation of contemporary Southern Africa, which has to date been studied in unconnected and sporadic ways. As historical investigations go, the aims are initially broad and thematic but become narrower and more specific as the empirical research unfolds.

The thesis aims to show, based on rigorous empirical qualitative research, how the changing position of cattle affected social, environmental, cultural, economic, and spiritual shifts in Southern African societies.


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