Making the Past for South Africa's Future: The Prehistory of Field-Marshal Smuts (1920S-1940s)

Article excerpt

Introduction: turns and returns

When politicians engage in archaeology, it is convenient for all concerned to say that they `turn' to it: for both parties, this move confirms that the discipline itself is essentially neutral and independent from extrinsic considerations. Already subject to much suspicion, this comforting conception can be further undermined with the case of Field-Marshal Jan Christiaan Smuts (1870-1950), (1) for half a century South Africa's leading soldier, statesman and intellectual, as well as a driving force behind the setting up of the Commonwealth and the United Nations (FIGURE 1). Smuts' own interests and abilities, coupled with his country's specific geo-political and demographic circumstances, gave him the unique opportunity literally to create a prehistoric past to the measure of his world-view. Like many politicians before and since, Smuts did indulge in conventional acts of interference and patronage for symbolic or personal reward. (2) But his engagement in prehistoric archaeology went well beyond that -- reaching into the very contents, structure and research agenda of the discipline, he crucially influenced its professionalization and recognition in South Africa and abroad. What is more, his involvement with prehistoric archaeology represented an immediate and seamless entanglement of scientific and political concerns: `I am writing a paper on "Climate and man in Africa" dealing with our prehistoric climates and peoples', he informed his friend Gillett -- `I hope to finish it before I start my political campaign on 3 Jan.' (30 December 1931, 48/202). Smuts may have finished his paper in time, but it would be illusory to believe that he then `returned' from archaeology to politics. On the contrary, an examination of Smuts' prehistory helps us appreciate how political considerations enable and invigorate archaeological research, and how archaeological conditions can for their part inform or underpin political designs.


Smuts, I have suggested, was no late-coming neophyte to the study of the past. His recorded interest in the topic dates from as far back as 1910, when the visiting Oxford anthropologist Henry Balfour contacted him with the desire to speak `with someone in authority on the question of the preservation of Bushman records in S. Africa generally'. Symptomatically, their scheduled meeting was postponed when Smuts had to depart in haste to Natal -- no doubt in connection with the intensive campaigning surrounding the constitution of the Union of South Africa. (3) Ten years later, granted rare respite from these earthly distractions by a transatlantic return journey from Europe, Smuts engrossed himself in Miles Burkitt's newly published Prehistory (1921). Still on the boat, he wrote enthusiastically to Gillett (16 August 1921, 24/301):

Nothing could be more interesting than such a book. In historic times our race has made little progress except in outwards growth (institutions etc.). It is only when we study our very humble beginnings beyond history that we see what enormous progress has been made. The Java Erect Man Ape -- the Piltdown Man Monkey -- the Neanderthal Gorilla Giant -- the Small Painter Cro-Magnon people (forbears perhaps of the Bushmen) -- and then the historic races one after the other, the inferior little Browns to whom you, dear, belong, and the superior Blond Beasts to whom I belong; what a story of growth in say 100,000 years. And what will another 100,000 years produce? And midway between stands the Great Suicide of 1914-1918.

This sweeping historical pathos will always remain integral to Smuts' vision, and indeed he will go so far as to consider prehistory as revealing the Divine character of the universe (cf. his foreword to Breuil 1949). The sensationalist labels and facetious raciology, on the other hand, were very soon replaced by unprecedented commitment and seriousness of purpose. Significantly, this development followed the emphatic electoral defeat suffered by Smuts in June 1924. …