In This Article Southern Africa to c. 1850

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Historiographical Essays
  • Bibliographies and Lists of References
  • Reference Works
  • Journals
  • Published Compilations of Primary Documents
  • Major Shifts in Thinking about the Preindustrial Past
  • Thinking Critically about Concepts, Methods, and Sources
  • Intellectual History before the Mid-19th Century
  • Hunter-Gatherers, Pastoralists, and Farmers in the First Millennium ce
  • Southern Africa and Indian Ocean Trade, 900–1300
  • The Limpopo-Gariep Region, 1300–1800
  • The Karoo and Northern Cape, 1500–1800
  • The Southern and Western Cape 1500–1800
  • Colonial Expansion and Its Impact, 1750–1850: Direction-Setting Studies
  • The Cape Colony, 1750–1850
  • The Interior, 1750–1850
  • The Eastern Cape, 1750–1850
  • The KwaZulu-Natal Region, 1750–1850
  • The Northeast, 1750–1850

African Studies Southern Africa to c. 1850
John Wright, Simon Hall
  • LAST REVIEWED: 06 May 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 November 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0003


This article focuses on the history of the region that now comprises South Africa, Lesotho, Swaziland, and adjacent areas of Botswana and Mozambique. The era covered dates from the first establishment of pastoralist and farming societies in this region about two thousand years ago to the beginnings of the period that saw the shaping of its modern-day societies. This era straddles the conventional divide between “history,” as understood through written sources, and what is still too often called “prehistory,” as served predominantly through archaeological and ethnographic sources. The authors of this bibliography seek to work across this divide and also across the conventional divide between the “precolonial” and “colonial” periods, and, in doing so, to unpack deep-seated stereotypes about both. Since the collapse of apartheid in the early 1990s, long-established “colonial” views of South Africa’s history have become largely discredited, but they have left a residue of ideas and assumptions about the centrality of “tribes” and “tribal histories”that remains deeply sedimented in both public and academic discourses. Critical examination of the era before the mid-19th century has in effect come to be the preserve of three groups of scholars. One consists of the country’s several dozen archaeologists; a second comprises the small handful of academic historians who have studied the history of African societies in the late 18th and the 19th centuries; a third is made up of historians who have researched the history of the Cape Colony in its preindustrial age; that is, from the 1650s to the 1860s. For the most part, these scholars worked in separate enclaves and produced ideas about the past that scarcely overlapped. Beginning in the mid-1990s, however, their concerns and perspectives began to converge slightly, to the accompaniment of often vigorous debates about concepts, sources, and methods. The two prime concerns of this article are to point readers toward the current state of knowledge in these three fields and to highlight the nature of the debates that scholars of the preindustrial past continue to engage in. At a time when racial profiling remains important in much of South African political, social, and intellectual life, the historical point needs to be made that the great majority of these scholars are still white. Only very recently have black students in South Africa begun studying archaeology in any numbers, and most of the country’s black historians still focus their research on the period of colonialism and resistance to it. The authors’ thanks go to the Archive and Public Culture Research Initiative at the University of Cape Town, and to the Rock Art Research Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand.

General Overviews

Many general histories of South Africa have been written over the years, and new ones appear with some frequency. Until the very late 20th century, most of them devoted no more than a single cursory chapter to the period before the coming of European colonists in the 1650s. As popular writings on the archaeology of South Africa make the earlier history of African societies more accessible, so general histories are beginning to pay more attention to it. Giliomee and Mbenga 2007 is a recent and readable, if not particularly probing, example. Hall 1987 is an older work that manages to make archaeological evidence understandable to a general readership, as does Mitchell 2006, a brief and more recent survey. Hamilton, et al. 2010, an academic overview, breaks new ground in giving detailed attention to the precolonial as well as the colonial past. Mitchell 2002 is a more specialized survey that delineates recent lines of academic thinking in archaeology. For coverage of colonial times to the mid-19th century, Elphick and Giliomee 1989 still serves as an authoritative introduction. Etherington 2001 takes up critiques of the mfecane and Zulu-centric history to present a lively reexamination of the history of the interior and eastern regions of South Africa in the first half of the 19th century.

  • Elphick, Richard, and Hermann Giliomee, eds. The Shaping of South African Society, 1652–1840. Cape Town: Maskew Miller Longman, 1989.

    E-mail Citation »

    Series of closely linked narrative essays that focus on the history of the Cape Colony and its expansion. An older work, but still an authoritative introduction. First published in 1979.

  • Etherington, Norman. The Great Treks: The Transformation of Southern Africa, 1815–1854. Harlow, UK: Longman, 2001.

    E-mail Citation »

    A novel account of a key period in the shaping of modern South African society. Engages critically with orthodoxies about the so-called mfecane and the “great trek.”

  • Giliomee, Hermann, and Bernard Mbenga, eds. New History of South Africa. Cape Town: Tafelberg, 2007.

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    An illustrated history whose first four chapters (of a total of fifteen) cover the era to the mid-19th century. Written mainly by historians, they summarize evidence from archaeology and from documentary sources to provide an accessible if not always entirely up-to-date introduction to the period.

  • Hall, Martin. The Changing Past: Farmers, Kings, and Traders in Southern Africa, 200–1860. Cape Town: David Philip, 1987.

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    The first of its kind: a highly readable narrative history based mainly on archaeological evidence. An older work, but an often stimulating introduction to the period covered.

  • Hamilton, Carolyn, Bernard Mbenga, and Robert Ross, eds. The Cambridge History of South Africa. Vol. 1, From Early Times to 1885. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

    DOI: 10.1017/CHOL9780521517942E-mail Citation »

    Seeks to present an authoritative reassessment of South African history, aimed in the first instance at an academic readership. Chapters 2 to 6, written by two archaeologists and three historians, cover the period from the beginnings of food production early in the first millennium CE to the mid-19th century.

  • Mitchell, Peter. The Archaeology of Southern Africa. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

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    A comprehensive and authoritative synthesis. Chapters 8 to 13 (of a total of fourteen) provide a very useful, if densely written, guide to the archaeological literature on the history of southern Africa over the last two millennia.

  • Mitchell, Peter. “Rediscovering Africa.” In Origins: The Story of the Emergence of Humanity in Africa. Edited by Geoffrey Blundell, 118–165. Cape Town: Double Storey, 2006.

    E-mail Citation »

    An outline of southern Africa’s history before the industrial era, written for a popular readership. Draws strongly on archaeological evidence.

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