n English in Africa - Literacy and land at the Bay of Natal : documents and practices across spaces and social economies

Volume 35, Issue 1
  • ISSN : 0376-8902



How did indigenous African societies and individuals respond to particular kinds of literacy practices brought by Europeans to Africa? According to Jan Blommaert the historiographic "problem of the document" is at its most acute in the study of Africa because of the view of Africans as primarily members of oral cultures (Blommaert 643). Drawing on the examples of linguistic anthropologists such as Johannes Fabian and Dell Hymes, Blommaert suggests that the techniques of historical criticism applied to documents may need to be complemented with ethnographic, linguistic and sociolinguistic research that is sensitive to the changes produced when documents move across spaces and economies of social and communicative practices. He suggests that we need a greater sensitivity to the document as formally and functionally relative to particular linguistic, cultural and political systems. I take up this concern by way of a study of historical documents and secondary analyses around two distinct historical events : first, the attempt of a seventeenth-century Dutch captain to purchase the Bay of Natal on behalf of the Dutch East India Company; secondly, the attempts of Piet Retief, renowned Boer leader, to get a document granting his group rights to the same tract of land signed by Dingane towards the middle of the nineteenth century.

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