Cattle, Currencies, and the Politics of Commensuration on a Colonial Frontier


Encounters between different regimes of value – regimes divided by cultural space and time — presume mediation, translation, and communication. And, therefore, currencies, at once verbal and material, that objectify them. This, in turn, depends on one thing above all else: on mechanisms of commensuration, mechanisms that render negotiable otherwise inimical, apparently intransitive, orders of signs and practices. Without such mechanisms, which have often been the object of conflict and contestation, large scale projects of world-making, like colonialism, would have made no sense, neither as a world-historical undertaking on the part of colonizers nor as a lived reality to those upon whose worlds it was wrought. Jane Guyer (2004: 13), in an acute reading of the West African archive, warns against the assumption that commensuration, especially that attributed to the alchemy of money, necessarily dissolves all distinctions between disparate scales and measures of worth. In Africa, she insists, nonequivalent exchange has been pervasive. If anything, it has been facilitated by the spread of quantifiable currencies: as people became adept at deploying monetary scales, they frequently used them for negotiating intervals, “exchanging goods and services that were explicitly not the match of each other” (Guyer 2004: 47). In similar spirit, the following essay interrogates the role of the commensuration in the colonial encounter: How might the management of value conversion – efforts, that is, both to facilitate and to impede it — play into larger processes of political contestation and incorporation at the edges of empire?


Money is sacred, as everyone knows… Barry Unsworth (1992: 325)

This essay explores a very specific obsession with very general historical implications: the effort of Nonconformist evangelists to introduce coinage, to replace beads and cattle with banknotes, among Tswana peoples in South Africa. At its broadest, it posits a postmarxist argument, rooted in the concerns of both marxist and liberal theory, about the salience of commensuration in the modernist construction of society and history. And above all, in the forging of empires. For, we shall claim, at the heart of all “modern” colonialisms, a condition of their possibility perhaps, were mundane mechanisms that made ini- mical kinds of value, with different cultural roots, at once objectifiable, comparable, and negotiable–me- chanisms, that is, which permitted the up- and downloading of unlike forms of wealth, both human and inanimate. Commensuration and objectification, standardization and abstraction, equilibration and con- vertibility, of course, all feature prominently in classic theories of commodification; also in theories of the workings of money. But their significance in the construction of modernity as an ideology of global scale, and in the encounter between Europe and its others, has not been adequately plumbed. Nor, we believe, have their various media, their poetics and magicality, been adequately theorized..

In order to make our general point, and to explore its further theoretical consequences, we interro- gate processes of commensuration in one African colonial theater, focusing on the material transactions they enabled across semantic frontiers; on their diverse, and differently endowed media, alike in- digenous and imported; on their implications of the long-run for cultural constructions of wealth; on their existential effects upon all involved. We ask why it was that the campaign to convert Tswana to Christianity, and to the ways of the West, concentrated so centrally on recasting their currencies: on tea- ching them to use cash, to make good by buying and selling goods, to commodify their labors by transfor- ming the wages of sin into virtuous incomes. We trace how these ventures were challenged by African conceptions of value; how they called into being hybrid tokens of exchange; how they set in train strug- gles to domesticate new alchemies of enrichment while striving to protect local means of storing wealth. We shall show that, for nineteenth-century colonial evangelists in South Africa, saving savages meant teaching savages to save. If Jesus was to redeem them, his sable followers had to learn to invest. Also to produce providentially, using God’s gifts to bring forth the greatest possible abundance. Or at least marketable surpluses. Only then would Africa become part of the Christian commonwealth and its sacred economy. Drawing “native” communities into that body of corporate nations meant, first and foremost, persuading them to accept money, the ultimate currency of conversion, commerce, civility, salvation. In their efforts to do this, the Protestant missions took the waxing spirits of capitalism, its specie and its signifying conventions, on a world-historical journey.

In recuperating that journey, we seek to make visible the hidden hand, sometimes the sleight of hand, behind the political economy of nineteenth-century European colonialism. Which returns us to the broad outlines of our argument: (i) inasmuch as the building of empires depended on processes of commensuration, on rendering epistemically equivalent and transitive once incomparable objects and ideas, signs and meanings, it demanded media–beads, coin, contracts, and the like–with the capacity, simultaneously, to construct, negate, and transfigure difference; and (ii) inasmuch as those media, those currencies of conversion, opened up new lines of distinction, new languages of value, new forms of inequity, new objects of desire, new possibilities of appropriation and exploitation, they took on magical properties; this because (iii) they appeared, in and of themselves, to objectify history-in-the- making, even to make history of their own accord. Which, we shall demonstrate, is why banknotes, beads, and bovines became the objects of a protracted struggle in the South African interior; why, more generally, they became metonymic of the antinomies of value on which the colonial encounter, tout court was played out.

As this suggests, we seek here to make two species of theoretical claim. Both are instantiated by our South African story, both extend far beyond it. One is about “modern” European colonialism, whose historical logic, we propose, is incomprehensible without an understanding the processes of commensura- tion and conversion that allowed various worlds to be brought into the same orbit of being, both imagina- tively and concretely–and made phenomenological sense of the politics, economics, semantics of the en- counters to which it gave rise. The other is about commensuration itself and about the media upon which it depends: media are fetishized not merely because they congeal labor power and/or obscure relations embodied in processes of production, nor because they displace unspeakable passions from people to obj- ects or vice versa, but because , being uniquely endowed things, they take on a social life of their own. Their genius, we shall show, does not lie in their being empty, or emptied, signifiers, just as their meaning does not derive from their relations to other, equally empty signs. It is owed in part to their intrinsic properties, in part to the moral, material, and magical work they are made to do in the exigent course of history.


Christian Political Economy: secular theology, sacred commerce

If early modern European political economy was a secular theology (Hart 1986: 647), contempo- rary Nonconformist theology sanctified commerce. During the “second reformation” of the late 1700s, British Protestantism had refashioned itself with cultural fabric milled by the industrial revolution.
Indeed, the interplay of church and business, realms never fully separate, produced a rich discourse, at once religious and temporal, about value and its production (Hempton 1984: 11; Waterman 1991: 3f). Eighteenth-century evangelicals, Rack (1989: 385f) claims, had been more influenced by the language of practical reason than their espousal of scripture and spirituality might suggest; similarly Warner (1930: 138), who long ago linked the “empirical temper” of Methodist lore to the central place it accorded econo- mics.

But the discourse of political economy, which fused a belief in the beneficence of existing econo- mic institutions with a whiggish desire for reform, was especially audible among abolitionists and “impro- vers” in the first years of the nineteenth century (Waterman 1991: 6). As a call to practice, moreover, it was particularly congenial to the spirit of the great evangelical societies. While liberal theory per se was seldom a subject of open discussion among missionaries to South Africa, most of them were guided, more or less, by its material and moral principles. Some actually did cite it as a charter for their labors: the LMS Superintendent, John Philip (1828,1: 369), for example, quoted Adam Smith on the need to stimulate the indigent to industry; and David Livingstone (1961: 194) made mention of Malthus on the subject of re- production. As this implies, Nonconformist theologians and their followers were advocates of moral deregulation. According to the “New System” Calvinism of the Congregationalist clergy, everyone, not just the elect, were candidates for salvation. They also sought to remove the spiritual “ceiling” that the Anglican hierarchy put in the way of aspiring dissenters (Helmstadter 1992: 15,23). These men set all available means, including economic ones, to work for their cause. Likewise the Methodists; in line with early champions of free trade, Wesley saw nothing intrinsically unworthy or antisocial in riches (Semmel 1974: 71f). Quite the reverse. The “lusty zest” with which he advocated the quest for gain went further than most previous Puritans, who tended not to celebrate wealth but to condone it as a necessary compromise with evil (Warner 1930: 138f). For him, “business” did not “interrupt communion with God.” It was merely one of its channels.

“Business,” in fact, seems to have served as a synecdoche for human action in the world,1 just as “usefulness” conveyed a sense of virtuous efficacy (Helmstadter 1992: 9). Not that commerce did not pose its own dangers. Wesley’s economic teachings were, in many ways, a lifelong effort to counter those implications of The Wealth of Nations that he saw to be corrupting (Outler 1985: 264). But therein lay the challenge: “Make yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness,” he preached (1985: 266), citing Luke’s injunction (16: 1-2) to redeem the potential of wealth. In his sermon on “The Use of Money,” he (1985: 267-8) chides fellow Christians for acquiescing in an “empty rant” against the “grand corrupter of the world.” The duty of the faithful was to deploy, to the greatest possible advantage, all that providence had provided. Money was a precious “talent”; the word evoked both biblical coinage and a sense of spe- cial, God-given capacity:

[It] is of unspeakable service to all civilized nations in all the common affairs of life. It is a most compendious instrument of transacting all manner of business, and (if we use it according to Christian wisdom) of doing all manner of good.

Money, he went on (p.268), was “food for the hungry” and “raiment for the naked.” Even “father to the fatherless”–surely one of the most genial images of cash in contemporary European moral discourse. As a compendious instrument, it was an ur-commodity, condensing in itself the essential quality of all good/s. Reciprocally, it could stand for all things, even the closest of human connections.

Wesley seems to have seen coin as the servant of existing laws of value and a neutral vehicle of trade; he subscribed to the “commodity theory” of currency shared alike by classic liberal theorists and by Marx (Hart 1986: 643). Marx, of course, also stressed that money, as capital, was uniquely equipped to extract value from human producers. Wesley would himself inveigh against dishonest industry and fetter- ed exchange, but not against the powers of cash itself. In his simpler moral economy, its poison was drawn if it was used in ways pleasing to God. And it made all virtuous effort measurable and com- mensurable, permitting the conversion of worldly enterprise into spiritual credit. In this sense, the most “precious talent” of money was its capacity to enable mortals to “trade up.” Salvation itself became obtainable on free market terms. These fiscal orientations also suffused Wesleyan practice. “As a voluntary organization,” says Obelkevich (1976: 206), “Methodism…fostered in its members a new outlook, individual and collective, towards money.” Finances were a constant matter of concern and collections were taken up for many causes, not least foreign missions. In Britain, as among African converts, a ceaseless stream of demands and appeals highlighted the meliorative qualities of cash.

The great evangelical societies, in fact, were run like businesses, with men of commerce actively investing their resources and managing their affairs (Helmstadter 1992: 10). In the field, the Nonconform- ists put their trust in the power of money to bring progress, and to place all things, even God’s grace, with- in human reach. This faith in the creative powers of cash recalls Simmel’s Philosophy of Money, perhaps the most refined statement of the nineteenth-century European belief in the transformative power of coin. For Simmel (1978: 291), man was by nature an “exchanging animal” and, by this token, an “objective animal” too: exchange, in its “wonderful simplicity,” made both the receiver and the giver, replacing selfish desire with mutual acknowledgement and objective appraisal. Transaction, he went on, begets rationaliza- tion. And the more that values are rationalized, “the more room there is in them, as in the house of God, for every soul.” Because of its unlimited convertibility (p. 292), money was uniquely capable of setting free the intrinsic worth of the world to be traded in neutral, standardized terms. And so it enabled the con- struction of an integrated society of morally dependent, but psychically self-sufficient persons (Simmel 1978: 297f).

While they might never have put it in just these terms, the Nonconformists missionaries in South Africa devoted much of their effort to making Africans into “exchanging animals,” an enterprise in which cash played a pivotal role. They, too, nurtured the dream of an expansive civil society built not upon sav- age barter but upon transactions among self-possessed, moneyed persons. According to this dream, the liberation of “natives” from a primitive dependence on their kin and their chiefs lay in the creation of a higher order, a world of moral and material interdependence mediated by stable, impersonal media: let- ters, numbers, notes, and coin.

There was, as everyone knows, another side to money: its long-standing Christian taint as an in- strument of corruption and betrayal. In part, this flowed from the power of cash, indeed all instruments of commensuration, to equate disparate forms of value. It could dissolve what was unique, precious, and per- sonal, reducing everything to the indiscriminate object of private avarice: the Savior, note, had been sold for thirty pieces of silver, monastic relics melted into gold. What was more, the ability of coin to trans- pose different forms of worth enabled profitable conversions to be made among them; in particular, it allowed the rich to prosper by using their assets to control the productivity of others. Parry and Bloch (1989: 2f; cf. Le Goff 1980) remind us that this sort of profit was anathema to the medieval European church, which saw productive work as the only legitimate source of wealth and condemned, as unnatural, the effortless earnings of merchants and money-lenders. Capitalism was to exploit the metabolic qualities of money in unprecedented ways, of course–especially its capacity to make things commensurable by turning distinct aspects of human existence, like land and labor, into alienable commodities. And Protestantism would endorse this process by sanctifying desire as virtuous ambition; also by treating the market as a realm of provident opportunity. Yet its medieval qualms remained. As Weber (1958: 53) stressed, those Christians who most aptly embodied the spirit of capitalism were ascetics. They took little pleasure in wealth per se. For them, making money was an end in itself, a transcendental value. It gave evidence of ceaseless “busy-ness” and divine approval.

In so far as money remained demonically corrosive, there was only one way to avoid its corrup- ting qualities: to let it go. If it was to generate virtue, it had visibly to circulate. Hoarded wealth was “the snare of the devil” (Wesley 1986: 233). It made men forsake the inner life for superficial pride, luxury, and leisure. The Divine Proprietor required that his stewards put his talent to work either by cycling it back into honest business or by giving it away in charity; the proper movement of wealth was both creative and positive. By those lights, exchange was production (Parry and Bloch 1989: 86). Non- conformists still held to a labor theory of value, but now the notion of industry was cast in terms of manu- facture and the market, of wage labor, the circulation of wealth, and the productive character of capital.

For Nonconformists like Wesley, in short, assiduous effort and ethical dealing–the market, lite- rally, as a “moral” economy–were enough to curb the malignancy of money. Charity, itself a high yield investment in virtue, was the main means of redistributing wealth, a way to “lay up…treasures in the bank of heaven” (Wesley 1984: 629). Humble toil also paid spiritual dividends, but at a lower rate. In the here-and-now, Methodism tended to endorse existing labor relations; during the late 1700s, even child workers were said to profit from industrious discipline (Warner 1930: 151). And the just wage was just, for exertion in one’s allotted calling was its own reward. Hence it behooved the faithful to strive cease- lessly to produce all they could, an injunction that gelled well with the expansive ethos of humane imperialism.

Read in this light, it is clear that the economic emphasis of missionary practice in South Africa expressed more than a mere effort to survive or even to profit. It expressed the spirit of liberal modernity, being part of the attempt to foster a self-regulating commonwealth, for which the market was both the model and the means; also, to induce what Unsworth (1992) has aptly termed a “sacred hunger,” an insatiable desire for material enrichment and moral progress. As we shall see, the task proved onerous, for the “mammon of unrighteousness” was never easily befriended. By the mid 1820s, some of the more radical evangelicals in England were denouncing the reduction of human qualities to price. And, in the mission field, the Nonconformists were caught, time and again, in the double-sided implications of money. Meanwhile, the kind of value carried by coin would come face to face with African notions of worth, setting off new contrasts, contests, and combinations.

The Southern Tswana world of the early nineteenth century bore some similarity to the one from which the missionaries set out. Stress was laid here, too, on human production as the source of value. Here, too, communities were understood as social creations, built up through the ceaseless actions and transactions of people eager to enhance their fund of worth. Here, too, exchange was facilitated by versatile media that measured and stored wealth, and permitted its negotiation from afar.

These parallels, we have argued (1992: 127f), are sufficient to cast doubt on the exclusive asso- ciation of commodities and competitive individualism with industrial capitalism. Or modernity. But, by the same token, similar practices do not necessarily have the same genesis, constitution or meaning. Al- though Southern Tswana subscribed to a fundamentally humanist sense of the production of wealth, their understanding of value–and the way it vested in persons, relationships, and objects–was different from that of their interlocutors from abroad. Thus, while early missionaries thought they detected in the Af- ricans a stress on self-contrivance, a dark replica of Western economic man, they found, on longer acquaintance, that this person was a far cry from the discrete, enclosed subject they hoped to usher into the church. Indigenous “utilitarianism,” Tswana literati like Molema (1920: 116) insisted, was unlike European “egoism”; the evangelists referred to the “native” variant as “selfishness.” Indeed, closer en- gagement of previously distinct economies on the frontier would reveal deep distinctions behind superficial resemblances. And it would give birth to a dynamic field of hybrid subjects and signs.

The Setswana verb go dira meant “to make,” “to work,” or “to do.” Tiro, its noun form, covered a wide range of activities–from cultivation to political negotiation, cooking to ritual performance–which yielded value in persons, relations, and things. It also produced “wealth” (khumô), an extractable surplus (of beer, artifacts, tobacco, stock, and so on) which could be further deployed to multiply worth. Sorcery (boloi) was its inverse, implying the negation of value through attempts to harm others and/or unravel their endeavors. Tiro itself could never be alienated from its human context and transacted as mere labor power; that experience still awaited most Southern Tswana. Rather, it was an intrinsic dimension of the everyday act of making selves and social ties.

This vision of the production of value, based on close human interdependence, bore little resem-blance to that of liberal economics, which saw the commonweal as the fruit of impersonal transactions among autonomous beings. For Tswana, wealth inhered in relations. Which is why its pursuit involved (i) the construction of enduring connections among kin and affines, patrons and clients, sovereigns and sup- porters, men and their ancestors; and (ii) the extension of influence by means of exchanges, usually via the medium of cattle, which secured rights in, and claims over, others. But, while these rights and claims were constantly contested, the productive and reproductive properties of a relationship, be it wedlock or serfdom, could not be separated from the bonds that bore them (Molema 1920: 125; Schapera (1940: 77). The object of social exchange was precisely not to accumulate riches with no strings attached: the traffic in beasts served to knit human beings together in an intricate weave, in which the density of linkages and the magnitude of value were one and the same thing.

Because they were the means, par excellence, of building social biographies and accumulating capital, cattle were the supreme form of property here; they could congeal, store, and increase value, hol- ding it stable in a world of flux (Comaroff and Comaroff 1992: 139). Not surprisingly, their widespread use as currency in human societies was noted by early theorists of political economy (Smith 1976: 38; Marx 1967,1: 183). While Adam Smith (1976) judged them “rude” and “inconvenient” instruments of commerce, he appreciated that they embodied many of the elementary features of coin, being useful, alienable, relatively durable objects. Although standardized as species, moreover, stock come in different sizes and colors, genders and ages, and so might be utilized as tokens of varying quality and denomination. (Many African peoples, of course, have long elaborated on the exquisite distinctions among kine). True, cattle are not as divisible as inanimate substances like metal and tend, therefore, to be more gross, slow-moving units of trade. But, as we shall see, Southern Tswana took this to be one of their advantages over cash, whose velocity they regarded as dangerous. Herds were movable, of course, es- pecially for purposes of exchange, a fact stressed by Marx (1967,1: 115); for him, the apparent self-propulsion of currency was crucial to its role in animating commodity transactions. Affluent Tswana men exploited this ambulatory quality, dispersing bridewealth to affines and loaning stock to clients as they strove to turn their resources into control over people. They also rotated animals among dependents, and between cattle-posts, both as a hedge against disaster and as a way of hiding assets from the jealous gaze of rivals (Schapera 1938: 24).

It is as exchange value on the hoof, then, that cattle occupied a pivotal place in Southern Tswana political economy. Their capacity to objectify, transfer, and enhance wealth endowed them with almost magical talents. Much like money in the west. The beast, goes the vernacular song, is “god with a wet nose” (modimo o nkô e metsi; Comaroff and Comaroff 1992: 127). This is a patent instance of fetishism in bovine shape–of the attribution to objects, that is, of value produced by humans–which suggests that the commodity is not specific to capitalism. At the same time, the case of Tswana stock also shows that commodification need not be an all-or-none process; and that it is always culturally situated in a meaningful world of work and worth. Here, for example, while animals enabled rich men to lay claim to the labors of others, they did not depersonalize relations among people. Quite the contrary. They drew atten- tion to the social embeddedness of those very relations–while making them seem part of the natural order of things.

The complex qualities of cattle currency would intervene in mission efforts to transform the Sou- thern Tswana sense of value. For beasts were enough like money to be identified with it, yet enough unlike it to make and mark salient differences. On one hand, they could abstract value. On the other, they did the opposite: they signified and enriched personal identities and social ties. The capacity of animals in Africa to serve both as instruments and as signs of human relationship has long been noted; the so-called “bovine idiom” is an instance of the more general tendency of humans to use alienable objects to extend their own existence by uniting themselves with others (Mauss 1954; Munn 1977). Both in their individual beauty and their collective association with wealth, kine were ideal–and idealized–personifications of men. A highly nuanced vocabulary existed in Setswana to describe variations in color, marking, disposition, horns, and reproductive status (Lichtenstein 1973: 81; Sandilands 1953: 342). Named and praised, they were creatures of distinction. Not only did they bear their owners’ stamp as they traversed social space (Somerville 1979: 230). They also served as living records of the passage of value along the pathways of inheritance, affinity, alliance, and authority.

The intricate patterns of stock deployment among Tswana made it difficult for early European vi- sitors to assess their holdings. Longer-term records suggest a history of fluctuations in animal popula- tions, with cycles of depletion being followed by periods of recovery, at least until the end of the nine- teenth century (Grove 1989: 164). But there is clear evidence of the existence, at the beginning of that century, of large and unequally distributed herds. Observers were struck by blatant discrepancies in cattle ownership, and by the unambiguous association–Burchell (1824,2: 272) used the word “metonymy”–of wealth in kine with power (cf. Lichtenstein 1973: 76f; Molema 1920: 115). Thus the chief was the sup- reme herdsman (modisa) of his people, a metaphor that captured well vernacular visions of value and political economy. Situated atop the morafe (“nation”), he presided over a domain marked not by fixed boundaries, but by an outer ring of water holes and pasture–in other words, a range (Comaroff and Co- maroff 1992: 141). Royal stock also built relations beyond the polity, being used to placate and to trade with other sovereigns.

It was not only chiefs who mobilized cattle as a currency of power: other men of position also ac- cumulated stock and set up networks of alliance and patronage. Ordinary male citizens, however, relied on inheritance, bridewealth, and natural increase to build their modest herds. Some–serfs, and others laid low–had no animals at all. They made up what Burchell (1824,2: 348) termed an “ill-fated class,” eternal- ly dependent on their betters. In the bovine economy of the Southern Tswana, in sum, an indigenous “stock exchange” underwrote inequalities of class, gender, generation, and rank. As the pliable media used to forge all productive relations, human and superhuman alike, cattle were the quintessential form of social and symbolic capital. They moved men to intrigue, sorcery, and warfare, to deep contemplation about the nature of life and worth, and, as Somerville (1979: 134) witnessed in 1801, to passionate public poetry.

Cattle were also a prime medium in the exchanges that, by the late eighteenth century, linked Southern Tswana to other peoples on the subcontinent, yielding beads from the Kora and Griqua to the south, and iron implements, copper jewelry, and tobacco from communities to the north and northeast (Lichtenstein 1930,2: 409; Stow 1905: 449,489). Bovine capital also gave access to the ivory and pelts desired by white travelers, who arrived in growing numbers from ca.1800 (Shillington 1985: 11). And pack-oxen enabled the long-distance haulage of sebilô, a sought-after hair cosmetic, from its source in Tlhaping territory (Campbell 1813: 170). But the earliest European explorers already noted that Tswana were reluctant to trade away their beasts. Somerville’s (1979: 140) expedition to the interior failed in its mercantile objectives because of the “[natives’] unwillingness to part with their cattle.” The Englishman found this “difficult to account for, since they convert them to no useful purpose whatever.”

Nonetheless, regional exchange networks were active enough to persuade the Europeans that they had stumbled upon the “essential principles of international traffic,” or “mercantile agency in its infancy” in the African veld (Burchell 1824,2: 555; original emphasis). Andrew Smith (1939,1: 251), in fact, ob- served that chiefs managed production explicitly to foster alliances; they tried, as well, to monopolize dealings with foreigners and to control commerce across their realms (Campbell 1822,2: 194). Indeed, whites found these men aware of discrepancies in going rates for such items as ivory, and keen to profit from them. Notwithstanding the reluctance to sell beasts, occasions to traffic with Europeans–in the early years for beads, later for guns and money–were eagerly seized. When Lichtenstein (1930,2: 388) visited the Tlhaping in 1805, before a permanent mission was established, he noted that a “general spirit of trade” was easily roused. The Africans kept up an energetic exchange until his party had naught left to sell. A few years on, Burchell (1824,2: 555) was struck by the existence of enduring trade partnerships (maats; Dutch) between individual Tlhaping and Klaarwater Khoi.

We shall come back, shortly, to the entry of the civilizing mission into Southern Tswana commer- ce. Already, however, two things are clear. The first is that the Africans had long channelled their surpluses into trade, bringing them a range of goods from knives and tobacco to widely circulating forms of cur- rency. Of the latter, second, beads had become the most notable. By the turn of the nineteenth century,2 they were serving as media of transaction that articulated local and global economies, linking the worlds of cattle and money (cf. Graeber 1996). Along with buttons, which were put to a similar purpose, they were portable tokens that, for a time, epitomized foreign exchange value beyond the colonial frontier. Beads were “the only circulating medium or money in the interior,” Campbell noted (1822,1: 246), adding that every “nation” through which they passed made a profit on them. Different kinds composed distinct regional currencies; Philip (1828,2: 131) tells us that no importance was attached to particular examples, however beautiful, if they were “not received among the tribes around them.” At the same time, African communities showed strong preferences, in the early 1800s, for specific colors, sizes, and degrees of transparency (Beck 1989: 220f).3

Even as they became a semi-standardized currency for purposes of external trade, beads served internally as personal adornments; in this they were like many similar sorts of wealth objects. Their at- traction seems to have stemmed from the fact that particular valuables could be withdrawn from circula- tion for display, itself a form of conspicuous consumption.4 But men of means also accumulated hidden stocks: “their chief wealth, like that of more civilized nations, [was] hoarded up in their coffers” (Camp- bell (1822,1: 246; cf. Graeber 1996). Here it stayed, in precisely the manner abhorred by the Protestants, until favorable opportunities for trade presented themselves. Market exchange was, at this point, a spora- dic activity directed at specific exotic objects. It was set apart from everyday processes of production and consumption.

Some observers stressed the monetary properties of beads: “They answer the same purpose as cowrie shells in India and North Africa,” Campbell (1822,1: 246) wrote, “or as guineas and shillings in Britain.” But others were struck by the differences. For a start, aesthetic qualities seemed integral to their worth. “Among these people,” offered Philip (1828,2: 131), “utility is, perhaps, more connected with beauty that it is with us.” Simmel (1978: 73) would have said that the separation of the beautiful from the useful comes only with the objectification of value: the aesthetic artifact takes on a unique existence, sui generis; it cannot be replaced by another that might perform the same function. Such an artifact, therefore, is the absolute inverse of the coin, whose defining feature is its substitutability.

Among Southern Tswana, the increasing velocity of trade did render some media of exchange–first beads, then money–ever more interchangeable. But the process was never complete. And it did not eliminate other forms of wealth in which beauty and use explicitly enhanced each other. Indeed, the longevity of cattle currencies in African societies bears testimony to the fact that processes of rationa- lization, standardization, and universalization are always refracted by social and cultural circumstance. In the cow, aesthetics and utility, uniqueness and substitutability complemented each other, coloring Tswana notions of value in general–and of money in particular. Black wage laborers in early twentieth century South Africa, Breckenridge (1995: 274) notes, set special store by the physical qualities of metallic coins; in explaining their attitude, public intellectuals John Dube and Sol Plaatje contrasted “flimsy” paper money with “the good red gold we know and love.” Comeliness and usefulness play off each other in the west as well, of course; modernists, after all, insist that form should follow function. The Tswana appreciation of prized beads and beasts, similarly, expressed a sense of “attractiveness” that fused the per- fect with the practical. Persons or objects possessed of it were thought to draw towards themselves desirable qualities dispersed in the world at large. Ornamental baubles or celebrated stock were the very epitome of attractiveness: held apart from the everyday cycle of exchange, they congealed precious po- tential.

Objects that come to be invested with value as media of exchange vary greatly over time and space, a point well demonstrated by the emergence of new currencies as formerly distinct economic ord- ers begin to intersect. Marx (1967,1: 83) once said that, when the latter happens, the “universal equivalent form” often lodges arbitrarily and transiently in a particular commodity. So it was with beads, which had been mass-produced for different ends in the West, but turned out to serve well, for a while, as a vehicle of commerce beyond the colonial border. Marx also added that, as traffic persists, such tokens of equivalence tend to “crystallize…out into the money form.” So, once again, it was with beads. While Tswana would accept various articles as gifts, these were of little use in trade. “They want money in such a case,” Campbell (1822,1: 246) found, “that is, beads.” As transactions increased in volume, standards of value in the worlds linked by this new currency began to affect each other: merchants noted that rates charged by Africans in the interior rose and became more uniform.5 By the 1820s, the demand for beads at the Cape had driven up prices dramatically, to the extent that missionaries tried to secure supplies from England at one-third of the cost (Beck 1989: 218f).

The bottom soon fell out of the frontier bead market, however (although not so further north; see Chapman 1971,1: 127). That market seems to have been sustained by the dearth of fractions of the rix- dollar, the currency at the Cape in the early 1800s (Arndt 1928: 44-6). After 1825, Britain introduced its own silver and copper coinage to its imperial possessions, and paper dollars were replaced by sterling. Once the new supply had stabilized, and had filtered into the interior, its effect on bead money was devas- tating. In 1835, Andrew Smith (1939,1: 250) wrote that a white merchant

inform[ed] me that when first he began to trade in this country about 1828, nothing was desired by the natives but beads, etc., but now they are scarcely asked for; indeed nothing is to be purchased by them [beads] but milk or firewood…They understand reckoning money quite well, and if told the price of an article… they reckon out the money with the greatest precision.

Ironically, while Tswana came to reckon in money, many traders preferred to deal in kind. But, even more important than changes in the cash supply, a shift was occurring in the structure of wants and in lo- cal notions of value. It was encouraged, above all, by the presence of the evangelists and by the entry onto the scene, at their urging, of a cadre of itinerant merchants and shopkeepers.

Here, then, were two distinct regimes of value, one European and the other African, whose engagement would have a profound impact on the colonial encounter. To the Nonconformists, economic re- form was no mere adjunct to spirituality: virtue and salvation had to be made by man, using the scarce material resources bequeathed by providence for improving the world. Commercial enterprise allowed the  industrious to turn labor into wealth and wealth into grace. Money was the crucial medium of convertibi- lity in this. It typified the potential for good and evil given as a birth-right to every self-willed individual. Southern Tswana, upon whom the evangelists hoped to impress these divine possibilities, also inhabited a universe of active human agency, in which riches were made through worldly transactions. Exchange, in their case, was effected primarily through cattle. In contrast to cash, stock socialized assets, measuring their ultimate worth not in treasures in heaven, but in people on earth. We move, now, to examine how these regimes of value, already in contact in the early 1800s, were brought into ever closer articulation.


Civilizing Commerce, Sanctified Shopping: The Early Years

“You white men are a strange folk. You have the word of God…but [your traders] are giving beads to the girls [and] corrupting the women of my people. [T]hey are teaching my people abominations of which even they were once ignorant, heathen as they are. Here are traders enough.”

Chief Sechele, 1865 6

British observers in the early 1800s might have acknowledged that Southern Tswana showed a lively interest in exchange. But they also stressed the difference between “native commerce” and orderly European business. Thus Burchell (1824,2: 536-9) noted that “mercantile jealousy” had produced compet- ing efforts to monopolize traffic with the colony to the south. He proposed a “regulated trade for ivory… with the Bichuana nations,” to be vested in an authorized body of white merchants who would institute “fair dealing” to the advantage of all. Like liberal economies before and since, his “free” market required careful management.

The founding evangelists shared this trust in the beneficent effect of trade. Some said that the ve- ry “sight of a shop” on mission ground roused savages to industry (Philip (1828,1: 204-5). The equation of civilization with commerce might have become one of the great clichés of the epoch. But, for the Nonconformists, it was far from a platitude. The point was not to create an exploitable dependency; al- though that did happen. Nor was it simply to play on base desire to make people give ear to the Gospel; although that happened too. It ran much deeper. Trade had a capacity to breach “the sullen isolations of heathenism,” to stay the “fountain of African misery” (Livingstone 1940: 255). All of which made materi- al reform an urgent moral duty. The optimism of the missionaries in this respect was to falter in the face of the stark realities of the colonial frontier. The Christians had eventually to rethink their dream of a commonwealth of free-trading black communities, actively enhancing their virtue and wealth. But they continued to hold that the market would rout superstition, slavery, sloth; this even when, later in the century, market forces undercut their own idyll of independent African economies, compelling “their” peoples to become wage vassals in their own land.

There was, in other words, more to championing commerce among heathens than merely making virtue of necessity, as some have suggested; although it is true that many pioneer evangelists had to ex- change to survive (Beck 1989: 211). In fact, the most ardent advocates of free enterprise were often those most opposed to clergy themselves doing business. Livingstone (1857: 39) held that, while missionary and trader were mutually dependent, “experience shows that the two employments can not very well be combined in the same person.” Ironically, he was to be accused of gun-running by the Boers. But then, on the frontier, the lines between prestation, purchase, and profit were very fine indeed. And frequently in dispute. While traffic with peoples living beyond colonial borders was forbidden by law, missionaries were de facto exempt, except for the ban on selling liquor, weapons, and ammunition. Dealings with Afri- cans often went well beyond the procuring of necessities, involving considerable capital outlay. In the upshot, competition and accusations of dishonorable practice among the brethren soon became common (Beck 1989: 214). As early as 1817, the LMS at the Cape had had to confront the issue as a matter of poli- cy. Its members agreed that, while trade was forced on them by the inadequacy of the Society’s support, they should make their stations self-sustaining through agriculture and handicrafts. The quest for profit, however, was specifically discouraged.

From the first, Tswana associated evangelists, like all whites, with barter. Moffat (Moffat and Moffat 1951: 18) reports that when he and the Rev. Kay of the WMMS traveled among Tlhaping in 1821, “the Bootchuanas flocked around us with articles for exchange.”7 The clergymen tended to be less than open in their formal correspondence about their dealings; this notwithstanding the fact that, in the 1820s, the mission societies considered entering the lucrative ivory business to raise funds for projects in the Co- lony (Beck 1989: 217; Moffat and Moffat 1951: 62). Cooperation between the Nonconformists and mer- chants was close: traders journeying beyond the Orange River tended to lodge at mission stations and of- ten accompanied evangelists on their travels (Livingstone 1960: 141).

The Nonconformists also gave out goods for purposes other than trade. Early on they dispensed tobacco, beads, and buttons to encourage goodwill, only to find that prestations came to be expected in re- turn for attending church and school.8 Few Tswana seem initially to have shared the precise European dis- tinction between gifts and commodities, donations and payments. Yet one thing was widely recognized: that whites controlled desirable objects. As a result, they soon became the uncomfortable victims of deter- mined efforts to acquire those objects. Their correspondence declared that all Africans, even dignified chiefs, were inveterate “beggars”; that they persistently demanded items like snuff, which the missions were assumed to have in large supply; and that their behavior violated Protestant notions of honest gain (Moffat and Moffat 1951: 63). It took a while for the Christians to realize that “begging” was also a form of homage to the powerful (Price 1956: 166; Mackenzie 1871: 44f). Burchell (1824,2: 407), a naturalist and not a cleric, discerned that these requests were limited largely to a specific category of goods:

...they never asked for sikháka (beads); these being considered more especially as money, to be employed only as the medium of trade with distant tribes, and for the purchase of the more expensive articles; while muchúko and lishuéna (tobacco and snuff) being consumable merchandise, are…regarded as a less important species of property. (Original emphasis).

A similar contrast between treasures and trifles seems to have obtained in the brazen “theft,” in the first years, of the evangelists’ belongings, especially their produce and tools (Moffat and Moffat 1951: 57). Previous visitors, interestingly, had remarked on the virtual absence of pilfering.9 Lichtenstein (1973: 75) was struck by the fact that only items not considered as property were ever taken. But Broadbent’s account of the severe response of a Rolong chief to one such incident10 makes it clear that the sudden pre- sence of quantities of desirable goods had raised unprecedented problems of defining and maintaining ownership. The missionaries tended to see this as a lack of respect for private effects: Hodgson (1977: 336) mused, in 1826, on the “precarious tenure upon which the natives [held] their possessions.” Obviously, conventions of acquisition, proprietorship, and remuneration were being tested on both sides of the encounter.

As Beck (1989: 224) confirms, the evangelists introduced more European goods than did any other whites at the time. Their dealings eroded the local desire for beads and buttons in favor of a comp- lex array of wants, primarily for domestic commodities like clothes, blankets, and utensils. But this transformation, as we have suggested, entailed far more than the mere provision of objects. Changing patterns of consumption grew out of a shift in ideas about the nature, worth, and significance of particular things in themselves. Which, in turn, was set in play by the encounter of very different regimes of value. Thus, even where their uses seemed obvious, such goods as clothes and furniture were given meanings irreducible to utility alone, meanings which often made the Europeans uneasy (Comaroff and Comaroff 1997: Chap.5).

Yet more basic than this was the fact that, as the century wore on, it was less missionaries than the merchants they brought in their wake who were responsible for the supply of goods. Discomforted by the image of men of God haggling over the price of trinkets (Beck 1989: 213), most evangelists encouraged independent traders to settle on their stations. By 1830, John Philip (1828,1: 204f) had al- ready publicized the success of his “experiment” to have one open a store at Bethelsdorp:

The sight of the goods in their windows…produced the effect anticipated: the desire of possessing the articles for use and comfort by which they were constantly tempted, acquired additional strength on every fresh renewal of stimulus.

Money, he added, had gone up in the people’s estimation. They had begun, enthusiastically, to bring pro- duce to the trader to exchange for goods. Bechuanaland soon followed Bethelsdorp. The introduction of stores in this manner–all the better to instruct non-Western peoples in “the economic facts of life”–was a high priority among British Protestants in many parts of the world; Miller (1973: 101) describes similar ventures in the Argentine in the 1930s.

Time would mute the idyll of cooperation between missions and merchants. Already in 1841, Mary Moffat (1967: 18), while reiterating the need to foster a desire for commodities, bemoaned the high prices charged by local dealers for “worthless materials.” A decade later, Livingstone (1959,2: 152) wrote in acerbic terms about traders of all stripes. While they reaped huge profits, he complained, these men re- sented the evangelists, accusing them of driving up the price of African goods. While the whites squabbled over their dealings with Africans, Tswana sovereigns–witness the words of Chief Sechele–had their own reasons for being wary of merchants. The latter paid scant respect to long-standing mores or monopolies, being ready to buy from anyone who had anything desirable to sell; the purchase of ivory and feathers from Rolong “vassals” in the Kalahari, for instance, cost the life of one businessman and his son (Mackenzie 1871: 130). Such friction was frequent beyond the mission stations (Livingstone 1959,2: 86). But even when storekeepers operated under the eyes of the evangelists, their behavior often gave offense. Brawling, theft and sexual assault were common; Sechele banished two of them for an “indecent” attack on a Kwena woman in broad daylight near Livingstone’s home (Livingstone 1974: 120). No wonder that local rulers developed a “well-known” reluctance to allow itinerant traders to traverse their territories (Mackenzie 1871: 130). Or that, later in the century, strong chiefs would try to subject European commerce to strict control (Parsons 1977: 122).

The evangelists would have to wrestle constantly with the contradictions of commerce. In embra- cing its virtues, they had to deal with the fact that the two-faced coin threatened to profane their sacred mission. Yet the merchants were essential in the effort to reform local economies by hitching them to the colonial market–and the body of corporate nations beyond.

Object Lessons

And so the merchants remained on the mission stations. Where they prospered. Storekeepers stocked all the quotidian objects deemed essential to a civil “household economy” (Moffat 1842: 507, 502f): clothes, fabrics, furniture, blankets, sewing implements, soap, and candle molds; the stuff, that is, of feminized domestic life, with its scrubbed, illuminated interiors. Shops also carried the implements of intensive agriculture, and the guns and ammunition required to garner the “products of the chase,” inc- reasingly the most valuable of trade goods. Colonial whites abhorred the idea of weapons in African hands. But, by the 1830s, “old soldier’s muskets” were being sold for “6,7 and 8 oxen,” and three or four pounds of gunpowder for a single animal (Smith 1939,1: 232)11–although, after the midcentury, the expanding arms business was mostly in the hands of well-capitalized Cape entrepreneurs, a fact that would have far-reaching consequences for game stocks and for the economic independence of Southern Bechuanaland (Shillington 1985: 13f,21f).

Mission accounts from the late 1800s show that European commodities had begun to tell their own story in the Tswana world. As Wookey (1884: 303) wrote:

Through the settlement of missionaries, and the visits of traders and travellers, the country became known and opened up. Cattle first, and then ivory, feathers, and karosses, were the principal things brought by the natives for barter. They were exchanged for guns and ammunition, cows, wagons, horses, clothes, and…other things. To-day a trader’s stock is not complete unless he has school material, stationery, and even books…

Ornaments, cooking utensils, and consumables were widely purchased, as were coffee, tea, and sugar. The foreign goods that seemed everywhere in use spoke of far-reaching domestic reconstruction.

At least in some quarters: the acquisition of these commodities required surplus production and disposable income, which was restricted to the emerging upper and middle peasantry. At the same time, despite their taste for European things, many wealthy men remained reluctant, save in extremis, to sell stock (Schapera 1933: 648). On the other hand, the market was particularly attractive to those excluded from indigenous processes of accumulation. Client peoples, for example, were easily tempted to turn tribute into trade–which is why some chiefs lost their monopolies over exchange (but cf. Parsons 1977: 120). Especially along the frontier, ever more Tswana, citizens and “vassals” alike, entered into commer- cial transactions; as a result, they acquired manufactured goods well before the South African mineral re- volution of the 1870s and the onset of large-scale labor migration. Small objects may speak of big chan- ges, of course. Rising sales of coffee, tea, and sugar marked important shifts in patterns of nutrition and sociality. They also tied local populations to the production and consumption of commodities in other parts of the empire (cf. Mintz 1985). As George Orwell (1982: 82) once said, in this respect, “changes in diet are more important than changes of dynasty or even of religion.”

But Wookey’s account also suggests that things had veered out of mission control (1884: 304): Changes, however, have taken place in the trade of the country. A few years ago many thousands of pounds’ worth of produce annually changed hands and passed through to the colony. Now ivo- ry has become scarce…[and] the [ostrich feather] trade has dwindled down…But another door was opening for the people…I mean the Diamond Fields.

Proletarianization was an almost inevitable consequence of the economic revolution encouraged by the Nonconformist mission. Wookey (1884: 304) admitted that the material developments promoted by the evangelists had not been an “unmixed good”; in this, he anticipated the concerns of African critics, voiced later, about the impact of sugar, alcohol, and imported provisions on the health of black populations. Not only had new diseases appeared, but drink had become “one of the greatest curses of the country.” The most profitable and addictive of commodities, its effects were a sordid caricature of the desire to make “natives” dependent on the market. Despite Christian efforts to limit its distribution (Mackenzie 1871: 92), brandy was being supplied in ever growing quantities to Bechuanaland by the second half of the nineteenth century.

The issue was not trivial. Several Tswana rulers had already tried to banish brandy from their realms, and Khama III expelled traders who failed to comply (Holub 1881,1: 278). Plaatje (1996), using the black press, was to champion the Liquor Proclamation of 1904, a law prohibiting the purchase of “white man’s fire water” by “natives” in South Africa. But the flow of alcohol had been eroding the cul- tural and physical defenses of many frontier communities for decades. Holub’s (1881,1: 236) graphic account of his tour of Tlhaping territory belies Wookey’s paean to the positive, “opening” effect of Eu- ropean commodities. It sketches a dark picture of the corrupting force of the colonial market:

…men, in tattered European clothes, except now and then one in a mangy skin, followed by as manywomen. ..and by a swarm of childre n as naked as when they were born, came shout- ing ea- gerly towards us. They were nearly all provi- ded with bottles, or pots, or cans, and cried out for bran- dy…Th ey had brought all manner of things for barter for spirits. One man held up a jac- kal’s hide, another a goat-ski n;…It was a disgus- ting scene… One of the men made what he evi- dently imagi- ned would be an irresistible appeal, by offering me a couple of greasy shillings.

In the nineteenth-century colonial imagination, as we have shown (Comaroff and Comaroff 1997: Chap.5), “grease” evoked the clinging filth of savagery, the grime of uncontained bodies and unsavory as- sociations. Money was meant to promote the kind of industry and lifestyle that would dissolve its dirt. But in this instance it had failed, merely adding to the muck of heathenism, its own non-stick surfaces becom- ing coated with residues of depravity.

Accounts of this sort soon became more frequent. As new industrial centers sprang to life around the diamond fields, the satanic underside of commerce came all but to the Nonconformists’ door. And, as it did, it exposed their naivety in hoping to befriend the “mammon of unrighteousness” by introducing Tswana to the market in a controlled, benevolent manner. By then, in any case, the traders they had brou- ght into their midst had already helped to set a minor revolution in motion through the “magic” of their commodities. That magic had ambiguous effects. It led, at one extreme, to the contrivance of a polite bourgeois life-world; also, among ordinary people, to forms of consumption in which objects were de- ployed in new designs for living, newly contrived identities, all of them stylistic fusions of the familiar and the fresh. At the other extreme, it conjured up the “disgusting scenes” of poverty described by Holub and others. To be sure, the merchants had also given Southern Tswana practical lessons in the exploitative side of enlightened capitalism. From the very first, these entrepreneurs engaged in the infamous practice of buying local produce for a pittance and then, when food was short, selling it back at exorbitant profit.

The missionaries themselves had also played a crucial role in determining the ways in which wes- tern objects and market practices had entered into Tswana life, however; as we have stressed, there is more to commodification than the mere provision of goods. The Christians set out to instil a “sacred hunger,” a sense of desire that linked refined consumption to a particular mode of producing goods and selves–and that encouraged continuing investment in civilizing enterprise. Above all else, this required a respect for the many talents of money.


…money’s educational. It’s far more educational than the things it buys. ([1910] 1992: 133) E.M. Forster

In so far as colonialism entailed a confrontation of different regimes of value, the encounter bet- ween Tswana and the missionaries was most clearly played out–and experienced–through the media most crucial to the measure of wealth on either side: cattle, money, and the trade beads that, for a while, strung them together. Encounters of this sort, especially when they involved European capitalism in its expansive form, often ended in the erasure of one currency by another. But they sometimes gave rise to processes a good deal more complex than allowed by most theories of commodification. For value is born by human beings who seek actively to shape it to their own ends. Along the frontier, cash and cows became fiercely contested signs, alibis of distinct, mutually threatening modes of existence. The Noncon- formists found themselves deeply mired in this struggle, not least in the early years.

To Tswana, it will be recalled, beasts were the prime means of storing and conveying wealth in people and things; also of embodying value in social relations. In fact, control over these relations was one of the objects of owning animals. Thus, while cattle were sometimes dealt on the foreign market, the bulk of both internal and long-distance trade seems to have been directed toward acquiring more stock.12 In ordinary circumstances, barter never drew on capital; this is why Somerville’s (1979: 140) party failed, in 1801, to persuade Tlhaping to part with bovines or to procure a single milk cow. Beads, here, stood for worth in alien and alienated form, circulating against goods on the external market, or those which had been freed from local entanglements. By being transacted with neighboring people for animals, they could also be used to convert value from more to less reified forms.

But this currency had its own logic. With the increasing standardization of the bead market across the interior in the early nineteenth century, the value of certain resources in Tswana life was rendered measurable. And more easily negotiable. Articles formerly withheld from sale, or given only for cattle (such as karosses, made as personal property; Lichtenstein 1930,2: 389), became purchasable (Moffat and Moffat 1951: 262,267). The Nonconformists encouraged this process of commodification, although their real objective was the introduction of money. Hence they used the token currency themselves to put a price on inalienable things, such as land and labor. Not only did they pay wages in it, but, in 1823, used it to acquire (what they thought was) the freehold on which their mission station was built (Moffat and Moffat 1951: 189,113). Beads were also bartered for agricultural surpluses by both missionaries and mer- chants. There is even evidence–vide Sechele’s outrage–that some traders offered Tswana women these baubles for sexual favors.

The effort of the missionaries to commodify African land, labor, and produce, and to foster a de- sire for domestic goods, eventually helped to reorient the bulk of trade from the hinterland toward the Cape. This had the effect of limiting the viability of bead currency itself. The latter had served well as long as token transactions remained relatively confined in space and time; as long as they involved a narrow range of luxuries from a few external sources of supply; as long as exchange was sporadic and did not extend to the procurement of ordinary utilities. But once the ways and means of everyday life began to be commodified, and increasingly to emanate from the colonial economy, a more standardized, readily available, and widely circulating currency was needed to buy and sell them. And so, as Tswana engaged with a broadening range of manufactures and middlemen in the 1830s, money quickly became the measure of worth. This, in turn, posed a threat to vernacular regimes of value, which before had been kept distinct from foreign traffic. Even where coin did not actually change hands, it came to stand for the moral economy, the material values and the modes of contractual relationship propagated by the civilizing mission–and its world.

In spite of this, or perhaps because of it, the first attempts of the missions to teach the value of cash were not a success. Tswana evinced distrust in European tender, most notably in paper money. Not only was it suspected of being an easy medium of fraud, but its lack of durability was also a worry. For good reason. Between 1806 and 1824, rixdollar notes were infamously fragile, and were thought unrelia- ble by many whites as well (Arndt 1928: 44,62). Later in the century, traders would pass illiterate Africans false bills–issued, in one case, by the “Bank of Leather,” entitling the bearer to “the best Value” in “London or Paris Boots & Shoes” in exchange for diamonds (Matthews 1887: 196).

Given the uncertainties of colonial currency, the evangelists did not always entrust the actual in- troduction of money, or the dissemination of its qualities, to the workings of the market. Occasionally they took matters into their own hands. Thus the Rev. Campbell had, on a tour beyond the colonial frontier in 1812-3, decided that the Griqua community merited consolidation both as a “nation” and as a base for expanding LMS mission operations into the interior (Parsons 1927: 198). Crucial to the venture was a proper coinage (Campbell 1813: 256):

It was likewise resolved, that as they had no circulating medium amongst them, by which they could purchase any small articles…supposing a shop to be established amongst them… they should apply to the Mission Society to get silver pieces of different value coined for them in England, which the missionaries would take for their allowance from the Society, having Griqua town mar- ked on them. It is probable that, if this were adopted, in a short time they would circulate among all the nations round about, and be a great convenience.

God’s bankers indeed! This mission money would be dubbed “one of the most interesting emissions in the numismatic history of the British Empire” (Parsons 1927: 202; Arndt 1928: 128). Campbell set about or- dering supplies of special coinage from a well-known English diesinker. We have record of four denomnations, two each in silver and copper. “Griquatown” and the amount were inscribed on one face, the symbol of the LMS on the other. The latter, a dove with an olive twig in its beak, aptly embodied the ideal of pacifying diffusion. Aesthetic considerations were significant on both sides: the Griqua expressly asked Campbell to obtain only silver pieces for them. Consistent with their views of beauty, Africans at the time preferred bright, shiny currency over duller coppers, a fact that seems to have had a tangible effect on the dissemination of this money (Parsons 1927: 199). Shipped to South Africa in two con- signments in 1815 and 1816, it established itself in limited circulation (pace Arndt 1928: 127), a few examples turning up in places like Kimberley in later years.

The evangelists also deployed other means to foster respect for money. At issue, as we have said, was a moral economy in which its talents measured enterprise and enabled the conversion of wealth into virtue. If there was no cash in the African interior it had to be invented–or its existence feigned. The evi- dence shows that, even when little coinage was in circulation, missionaries used it as an invisible standard, a virtual currency, against which to tally the worth of goods, donations, and services. In 1828, a few months after establishing an offshoot from the main Wesleyan station at Platberg, Hodgson wrote of his new school (WMMS 1829-31: 120):

We pay for it four shillings and sixpence per month rent; which sum, however, is raised by the children themselves, most of whom subscribe one halfpenny per week each, which they obtain by bringing us milk, eggs, firewood, &c., for sale… The first week produced three shillings and nine- pence; (the children having been requested to bring one penny each;) the second, two shillings and twopence…

Amidst a barter economy, the missions reckoned accounts with numerical exactitude. In the 1820s, the Methodists on the eastern Cape frontier encouraged offerings of beads and buttons that would be rendered in shillings and pence according to current “nominal” values (Beck 1989: 223). Also at issue in this small grinding of God’s mills was the effort to encourage calculation. Counting–adding up, that is, the margins of profit and loss–enabled accounting, the form of stock-taking that epitomized puritan endeavor. The evangelists associated numeracy with self-control, exactitude, reason; school arithmetic, for example, was taught mostly in fiscal idiom, computation being inseparable from the process of commodification itself. Numbers provided a tool with which to equate hitherto incomparable sorts of value, to price

them, and to allow unconditional convertibility from one to another. Quantification was iconic of the pro- cesses of standardization and incorporation, the erasure of differences in kind, at the core of cultural colonization. Hence the frequent association, in “modernizing” contexts, of religious conversion with various forms of enumeration; an association well captured by Spyer’s (1996) term “conversion to se- riality.” But it was also salient to the exacting logic of evangelical Nonconformism, with its need to mea- sure conquests and count treasures. This emphasis on numbers cannot be taken to imply a trading of quality for quantity, however, as Simmel (1978: 444) might have implied in arguing that the reduction of the former to the latter was an intrinsic feature of monetization. The Protestants were also preoccupied with the morality of money, with the exchange of riches for virtue above price. They sought ceaselessly to reconcile these two dimensions of value. For, just as time always entails space, quantity always entails quality.

Still, by promoting the commodification of the Tswana world–where, in fact, cattle had long been counted13–colonial evangelism spawned a shift from the qualitative to the quantitative as the domi- nant idiom of evaluation. This shift had important consequences for control over the flow of wealth, as men of substance were quick to grasp. In effecting it, the Nonconformists were helped, and soon outstripped, by the European traders. Ironically, while these men preferred to do business by barter (above, p.15), they used monetary values to compute all transactions (Philip 1828,1: 205f)–including the wholesale purchase of local produce, for which they gave goods set at well-hiked retail rates, and the extension of loans, from which they extracted high interest (Shillington 1985: 221; Livingstone 1940: 92). In attempts, later on, to exert influence over prices and profits, some Tlhaping farmers would persuade merchants to pay them in cash for their crops (Shillington 1985: 222). But coin remained scarce for a long time and struggles to elicit it from white entrepreneurs would go on well into this century in some rural areas (Schapera 1933: 649). Not only did storekeepers benefit from conducting business by barter, mediated through virtual money; by using goods as token pounds-and-pence, they also limited the impact of rising prices in the Colony on those they paid in the interior. This form of cash-in-kind was a species of signal currency that had its (inverted) equivalent in Tswana “cattle without legs,” or cash-as-kine. Such were the hybrid media of exchange born of the articulation of previously distinct, incommensurable regimes of value. They expressed the efforts of the different dramatis personae to regulate the conversion of wealth in both directions. We return to them below.

While familiarity with the value of money did not always translate into the circulation of cash, it did bear testimony to the growing volume of Tswana production for the market. Most lucrative were the fruits of the hunt. As they gained access to guns, African suppliers became ever more crucial to the capital intensive colonial trade in feathers and ivory–until natural resources gave out (Shillington 1985: 24). But agriculture was also important, especially among the middle and upper peasantry. Surpluses were sold in increasing quantities, permitting the purchase of cattle, farming implements, wagons, and other commodi- ties. With the discovery of diamonds, but before the territory was annexed by Britain in 1871, Tlhaping, Kora, and Griqua took part in the new commerce, finding stones and selling them to speculators for cash, wagons, and beasts (Shillington 1985: 38; Holub 1881,1: 242). Matthews (1887: 94f) writes that, once this trade had been outlawed, traffic was conducted in an argot in which gems were referred to as “calv- es.”

Although Southern Tswana soon lost all claim to the diamondiferous lands, many remained im- plicated in the local economy around Kimberley–wherever possible, converting their profits into live- stock. Indeed, a report in the Diamond News in 1873 voiced the worry that, by turning their cash into animals, blacks were avoiding wage work (Shillington 1985: 68). Sir Gordon Sprigg, Prime Minister at the Cape, echoed this concern to white audiences on a tour of the colony in 1878. “[L]arge troops of cattle and other stock…[mean] idleness,” he declared, to cries of “Hear, Hear!”14 Such anxieties were not base- less. But they focused only on Africans of means, underestimating the growing impoverishment of the in- terior. While most resources, even water, now had a price in Southern Bechuanaland (Holub 1881,1:231,246), the majority of Tswana were in no position to benefit from new market opportunities. Those with stock and irrigated lands might have been able to provision the diamond fields; however, as John Mackenzie observed, the “poorer classes …[were] often sadly disappointed.”15 Many had already begun to sell their labor either to rural employers or in the Colony.16

Of the ironic history of Southern Tswana proletarianization we have written elsewhere (Comaroff and Comaroff 1987; 1997: Chap.4). Here it will suffice to make two points. First, the workings of the co- lonial economy, of the very mechanisms supposed to “civilize” and enrich Africans, did more than just eat away at their material lives. It also perverted the effort of the Protestant mission to instill in them a com- mitment to the idea of self-possessed labor and enlightened commerce; to seed among them the persua- sive hegemony of the market as sacralized place, practice, and process; to replace their “primitive communism” with a lifestyle centered on refined domesticity, the nuclear family, and money. Second, despite their indigence, most ordinary Southern Tswana remained reluctant proletarians, with strong views about the terms on which they were willing to sell their labor. Even when hunger was rife, and jobs at the diamond fields were scarce, they were loath to toil on the Transvaal goldmines, where there was a great demand for employees, but where workers were known to be ill-treated (van Onselin 1972: 486; Cape of Good Hope 1907[G36]: 20). In fact, observers noted repeatedly that labor migration was not driven by brute necessity. Among other things, it was tied, as an Inspector of Native Locations observed in 1908 (Cape of Good Hope 1909[G19]: 32), to the state of cattle-holding; also, as we have said, to the desire of Tswana to invest, through various forms of stock exchange, in local social relations and political enterprises. It was just this, of course, that decades of colonial evangelism had been designed to trans- form.


Cattle, Currency, and Contests of Value

Cattle are our “Barclay’s Bank”…17 Mhengwa Lecholo, 1970

By the close of the nineteenth century, Southern Tswana communities had become part of a hybrid world in which markets and migration were more-or-less prominent; in which money had become a ubiquitous standard of worth; in which coin undercut all other currencies, including cattle. For many, this last development was neither inevitable nor desirable. Turning cattle into cash was not a neutral act. It en- tailed the loss of a distinctive form wealth and endangered their autonomy. Especially older men, whose power and position derived from their herds, sought to reverse the melting of everything to money. Even more, as we have noted, they tried constantly to convert all gains from the sale of labor or produce into beasts. Their orientation contrasted with that of the rising Christian literati, for whom universalizing me- dia–cash, education, consumer goods–promised entry to a modernist, middle class commonwealth. Not that these families ceased to invest in beasts; correspondence among Southern Tswana elites at the time makes frequent mention of transactions in kine. But, as Chief Bathoen of the Ngwaketse wrote in 1909 to Silas Molema in Mafikeng, he would be happy to take payment for an old debt “in cattle or money.”18

The missionaries knew that livestock enabled Southern Tswana to sustain their independent exis- tence–and to resist the invasive reach of Christian political economy. As Willoughby once put it:19

the whole cattle-post system has been alien to our work… [T]he frequent absence of the people attheir posts has been a break in all their learning, as well as an influence of an alien order.”

Efforts to persuade men to harness their beasts to arable production might have been reasonably success- ful. But, for the most part, the evangelists had failed to decenter the “alien order” inscribed in animals. They had not convinced Tswana to dispense with their herds or the social relations secured by them. Quite the contrary: in 1881, in Kuruman, “[t]he people [were still] almost all engaged in pastoral pur- suits–either being themselves the owners of cattle, or as servicing those who are.”20 What is more, their stock gave the Africans a potent resource–their own cultural expertise–in their dealings with whites.

Here, to their obvious satisfaction, they were on home ground; here their own local knowledge gave them a clear edge; here, within the colonial economy, was one domain, one site of contest, from which they profited (Mackenzie 1887,1: 80). The corollary? By investing in wealth that served as a hedge against the market, they made themselves less dependent, conceptually and bodily, on the cycle of earning-and-spending on which the missions had banked to change their everyday life-ways. Through such ordinary deeds were grand colonizing designs eluded. For a time.

Other whites, in particular those eager to employ black labor, shared the uneasiness of the missio- naries over the enduring African preoccupation with cattle. They, too, were aware that stockwealth allow- ed “natives” some control over the terms on which they entered the market economy; hence Sprigg’s fighting talk of animals, idleness, and wage work. From the very start, the colonization of Southern Tswana society involved the gradual, deliberate depletion of their herds and the dispossession of their ran- ge. It was a process that gained momentum through the century. Early on, Boer frontiersmen tried to press Rolong communities into service by plundering their beasts, seizing their fountains, and invading their pastures. Later, in the annexed territories of Griqualand West and Bechuanaland, settlers impounded “stray” African stock in such numbers that government officials were moved to express concern (Shillington 1985: 99f). Exorbitant fees were charged for retrieving these beasts, cash that had to be borrowed from traders at the cost of yet further indebtedness. The Tswana sense that “money eats cattle” (Comaroff and Comaroff 1992: 151) owed much to such experiences.

Apocalypse, then: Rinderpest

Several of the evangelists working on the unsettled frontier protested the blatant expropriation of African stock.21 At the same time, they did not mask their relief when the rinderpest pandemic of 1896 seemed, along with overstocking and deteriorating pasture, to deal a fatal blow to Tswana herds. The Rev. Williams’s response was fairly typical:22

If the loss of their stock teaches the people the value of labour it will prove a veritable blessing in disguise. The wealth of the people has always been a hindrance to progress. So long as a man had a cattle post he cared little about anything else. The cattle have gone and larger numbers of the people are away at the Diamond and Gold Fields.

Similarly sanguine clergy elsewhere in Southern Africa reported that stricken populations were seeking refuge at missions (van Onselen 1972: 480f). Many of them cheered the apparent demise of pastoralism. A few, though, pondered its implications for the lingering ideal of viable Christian communities in the countryside. While the scourge would probably help their cause, mused Willoughby at Palapye, it had reduced “the capital of the country” by some 50% to 60%. And it had deprived Tswana of their protection from drought, their income from transport riding, and their main means of locomotion.23 From his vantage in the more heavily agricultural district around Taung, John Brown saw a revisitation of the days of Moses, when “all the cattle of Egypt died.” Wagons and ploughs lay idle, and “women and girls, and in some cases men, [were] busy picking [at the ground] in the old way.”24

The Tswana experience of rinderpest was unquestionably apocalyptic in the short run. Stockown- ers large and small lost millions of beasts (Molema 1966: 196). The southernmost peoples, who were al- ready land-poor and widely dependent on the wage labor, never fully recovered. Some communities in semi-arid regions turned to agriculture for the first time, only to be struck by locusts and drought. “Not since the days of Moses,” repeated the Rev. Williams, had there been such a cataclysm. “Re hedile,” in- toned a chorus of local voices, “we are finished!”25 Over the longer run, in fact, herds did recover in most places. But the impact of the devastation was inseparable from that of wider political and economic processes unfolding at the time; most immediately, from the protracted, at times violent, struggle of the Africans to withstand those who would deprive them of their autonomy.26 Beasts were often implicated in acts of rebellion along the frontier; they became highly charged objects of contestation on both sides. For example, Burness, a farmer killed in an uprising in 1898 (Comaroff and Comaroff 1991: 290), was the keeper of an official cattle pound beside the Orange River. When government agents sought to halt the implacable advance of the pandemic by shooting entire herds of Tswana stock,27 they were met with acute disaffection. Rumors spread that the authorities had introduced the rinderpest to reduce blacks to ser- vitude (van Onselen 1972: 487). In the end, some rulers complied with the administration and received compensation. Cattle-to-cash once more.

Africans in the Cape called the rinderpest masilangane, “let us all be equal” (van Onselen 1972: 483), a sardonic reference to its levelling effects and to the power of beasts to make or break people. While the pandemic had ruinous effects, it did not diminish the value of stock among Tswana. If anything, it enhanced the “bovine mystique” (Ferguson 1985). Exploiting the transport crisis caused by the shortage of oxen, the upper peasantry were first to rebuild their herds–and, with them, the distinctions that comprised their world. Their understanding of the economic forces at work was epitomized in the relation of cattle to coin. Not only could coin eat cattle, but the replacement of the second was made pos- sible by the first. And yet animals remained the preferred form in which to store money; a form which, barring catastrophe, allowed it to grow into, and accumulate, social worth. The association of beasts with banks became a commonplace, making livestock synonymous with wealth at its most generative (cf. Alverson 1978: 124). In the event, cash came to be seen as the most fitting recompense for kine (Schapera 1933: 649), kine the optimum medium for the storage of cash. As we said earlier, they were alike special commodities. Both had an “innate” capacity to equate and translate different sorts of value. And to pro- duce riches. It is this capacity to commensurate that give such media their magic. Because of it, they seem to bring about transformations, and so to make history, in their own right.

But cash and cattle were also different in one respect that no European political economist could have anticipated: their distinctive colors, their racination. Money was associated with transactions controlled by whites. It was the elusive medium of the trader, the hard-won wage paid to worker, the coercive currency of taxes levied by the state. It was also a highly ambiguous instrument. On one hand, it opened a host of new possibilities, typifying the culture of the mission and its object-world; and it made thinkable new materialities, new practices, new passions, new identities. Yet, in its refusal to respect per- sonal identities, it also undermined “traditional” monopolies, eroded patriarchal powers, displaced received forms of relationship–which is why, in part, many Southern Tswana rulers found their authority weakened, the centralization of their chiefdoms giving way, the hegemony of long-standing political and economic arrangements in question. “Money,” the vernacular saying goes, “has no owner”; madi ga a na mong. In democratizing access to value, it put a great deal of the past at risk, sometimes in the cause of transitory desire. Formerly inalienable, intransitive values might now be drawn into its melting pot. And, in the name of debt, tax collectors could attach Tswana cattle and force men to sell their labor to raise cash.

Government Stock, Live Stocks

Meanwhile, many observers–besides the evangelists–were announcing the death of African pas- toralism. Prematurely, it turns out. The Report of the South African Native Affairs Commission of 1903-4 (South Africa 1905: 54), concluded that “money [has become] the great medium of business where form- erly cattle were used.” In a post-pastoral age, it went on, Africans should be encouraged to use government savings banks. But the matter was not so straightforward. In 1909, a resigned Rev. Williams wrote to his superiors that, to Tswana, cattle were already like government bonds:28

…the Native is very slow to part with his cattle…Too often he will see himself, wife and family growing thin, whilst his cattle are increasing and getting fat, but to buy food with any portion of them is like draining his life’s blood…His cattle are like Government Stock which no holder will sell for the purpose of living on the Capital unless forced to do so.

The reference to “life’s blood” is telling. Williams understood that beasts, here, enabled a particular kind of existence. It was this, for Tswana, that made them capital in the first place. Indeed, any asset that did the same thing might be treated as if it were stock. Even coin. But all too often coin did the opposite, con- suming cows and threatening relations made through them. Ironically, it was referred to in Setswana as madi, an anglicism and a homonym for “blood.” But this was blood, or perhaps blood-money, in a less sanguine sense. It connoted the alienable essence of the laborer, that part of her or him from which others profited (J. Comaroff 1985: 174). As Williams implies, selling cattle under coercive conditions was tantamount to selling lifeblood.

The Rev. Williams went on to say that Christian teaching had made inroads into the Tswana re- luctance to sell beasts, that many were now willing to part with cattle when corn was scarce. But prices had fluctuated wildly on local markets: during the rinderpest, a “salted” (disease resistant) ox had fetched £30; by 1908, the finest animal brought £6 at most. No wonder, Williams concluded, contradicting what he had just said, that Tswana were slow to retail their stock. Returns on agricultural produce were also erratic. As a result, money was often scarce. Under these conditions, the capacity of kine to serve as the “safe custody” of wealth was underlined. They were a bulwark against the ebb and flow of other, less sta- ble stores of value. Hence their enhanced mystique. Hence, too, the fact that they were exchanged only for coin or other forms of capital; in particular, wagons, ploughs, and guns, which had become the primary means of producing wealth in a receding rural economy.

But as importantly, cattle were also shares–live stocks as it were–in a social community and a moral economy whose reproduction they enabled. While overrule further eroded courtly politics in Sou- thern Tswana chiefdoms, patronage continued to be secured through the loan of cows; young, educated royals seem, in the early 1900s, to have used their cultural capital to shore up family herds, and vice ver- sa.29 Court fines were levied in kine, and marriage involved the transfer of animals, late into the twentieth century. Significantly, where bridewealth came to be given in cash payments, the latter was often spoken of as token beasts, “cattle without legs” (Comaroff and Comaroff 1992: 148).


Livestock, in sum, were still the medium for making the social connections that, by contrast to more ephemeral contracts, formed and reformed a recognizable social world. These “signal transactions” (Sansom 1976: 145)–in nominal animal currency at a rate well below prevailing prices–distinguished pri- vileged exchanges from ordinary commercial dealings. Legless cattle were a salient anachronism, an en- clave within the generalizing terms of the market. Counted in cows but paid in coin, this notional cash-in-kine was the inverse of the cash-as-kind deployed by merchants to compel Africans to barter at non-competitive rates. Both virtual currencies served as modes of surge control that tried to harness the flow of value, if in opposite directions, by putting a brake on the rapid conversion from one form to another.

It was precisely because they experienced colonization as a loss of control over the production and flow of value that so many Tswana–-as Tshidi-Rolong elders at the court of the late Chief Setumo Montshiwa reminded us recently–pinned their hopes on cattle in the early twentieth century. In them, it seemed, lay the means for recouping a stock of wealth and, with it, a sense of self-determination. This did not imply an avoidance of money or wage work. The Africans had been made dependent, to a greater or lesser degree, on the colonial marketplace; their access to beasts and other goods–not to mention cash–lay increasingly in the sale of their produce and/or their labor. Neither did it imply opposition to Christianity. By the turn of the century, as we have seen, most chiefs had joined the church, and many of their people followed suit, even if they were not, in the main, pious converts. The significant contrast in this world did not lie between Christian and non-Christian. It was between those for whom the values and relations inscribed in cattle remained paramount and those more invested, ideologically and materially, in the capitalist economy of turn-of-the-century South Africa. Cows, and the ways in which they were used, were the markers of this contrast. Rather than the bearers of a congealed, unchanging tradition, they were the links between two orders of worth. Thus, even where they served as icons of setswana, they were hybrid signs of identity in the here-and-now; identity that was itself a matter of shifting relations and distinctions.

Remember too, in this respect, that stockwealth was not repudiated by those of more modernist bent; they tended to treat it like other forms of capital in a world of mercantilism, commerce, and commo- dities. It was they–the educated children of old elites, the upper peasantry, and the petite bourgeoisie cultivated by the mission–who were heirs to the liberal vision of the early evangelists. Others, less able to ride the contradictions of colonial political economy and Protestant modernism, remained marginal to the conventions and the cultural practices of the marketplace. They sought to garner what they could of its wealth,30 and to invest it in the social and material assets they knew and appreciated. This was to be an enduring strategy, visible even as the forces of global capital reshaped the post-apartheid Southern Afri- can periphery in the late twentieth century. In August 1995, the Gaming Gazette of the Sun International Corporation carried the story of a man, apparently of modest means, from Ramotswa in Botswana. He had hit the jackpot on a slot machine at the Gaborone Sun Hotel. Ralinki, his given name, would use his winnings to buy beasts. For Tswana, he explained, “cattle are…wealth, and it is traditional to have as many as possible to pass on to your sons.”31

Which brings us back to the matters with which we began.

World historical movements of social incorporation–nation-building, colonialism, globalization, and the like–are all founded on a logic of commensuration and conversion. On the demand that inimical sorts of value–in respect of language and culture, wealth, beauty, even the idea of god–are made equata- ble and translatable; that irreconcilable forms of difference among people and things are rendered reduc- ible, imaginatively and concretely, to common denominators. As our case shows, such processes of com- mensuration and conversion, and above all their enabling currencies, have often been the focus of con- cern, indeed of struggle, among people caught up on all sides of colonial encounters. These people tend to be minutely sensitive to the capacity of diverse media–money, beads, stock, or whatever–to make or to resist convertability and, therefore, the modes of exchange, abstraction, exploitation, and incorporation they allow; modes that sustain or threaten the autonomy, distinctiveness, and control we often associate with the “local.” That is why currencies of conversion often come to be fetishized; why they seem to have a power all of their own; why they loom so large at times of great historical changes of scale in economy, society and culture. Hence the obsession on the part of European missionaries with inducting Africans into the use of money–and the equally impassioned investment, among Tswana, in retaining their wealth in kine. Conversion, after all, was not merely a matter of religious reform. It was the key mechanism of imperialism at large.