Changing models of social status and political power at the Cape of Good Hope: the cross-colonial connections of William Edwards/Alexander Lockaye.

People Involved

Associate Professor Kirsten McKenzie

Project overview

In 1824, a man calling himself William Edwards played a significant role in the political contest between autocratic Cape Governor Lord Charles Somerset and the colony's emergent urban middle class. Edwards was subsequently revealed to be an escaped convict from New South Wales named Alexander Lockaye. This project uses the figure of William Edwards/Alexander Lockaye to explore the cross-colonial connections between Australia and the Cape. It will uncover a transnational story of how disputes over the nature of social status informed political power struggles in the context of new ways of thinking about race, gender and class.

Project details

In 1824, the British colony of the Cape of Good Hope was undergoing profound political and social upheaval. The autocratic administration of Governor Lord Charles Somerset was under attack from two fronts. In the first place, the attempt to establish a free press in Cape Town was indicative of the rising political ambitions of the city’s middle classes. In the second place, a shift in the emphasis of imperial governance had brought increased metropolitan scrutiny over the local administration. The presence of a Commission of Enquiry into the conduct of the Cape government fuelled an atmosphere of speculation and rumour. Arrests were made, presses were sealed, houses were searched, and the streets were daily papered with satirical placards. The notorious agent provocateur ‘Oliver the Spy’ (who had been exposed as a government informer on radical British political mobilization and subsequently shipped off to the Cape) was said to be active on the governor’s behalf.

It was in these tense circumstances that a man describing himself as an English lawyer, William Edwards, orchestrated a series of court cases in Cape Town, alleging government corruption over the assignment of ‘Prize Negroes’ (slaves captured by the British from rival powers and ‘liberated’ into indentured service at the Cape). Somerset was outraged. Edwards was arrested and the newly-formed independent colonial press was shut down for reporting the details of the corruption cases. The result only inflamed local opinion against Lord Charles Somerset’s autocratic style of rule. For members of the colonial middle classes, such as the diarist Samuel Hudson, Edwards was the hero of a new model of anti-aristocratic politics: “Edwards must triumph in thus humbling the pride and arrogance of these degenerate sprigs of the Patrician Class.” (Diary of Samuel Hudson, 5 April 1824). It was subsequently revealed that William Edwards was in reality an escaped convict who had been transported to New South Wales under the name Alexander Lockaye in 1819 and absconded some years later, making his way to the Cape.

The political crises which wracked the Cape in the 1820s, and which ultimately led to the recall of Somerset and the reinstatement of a free press, are well known to historians of South Africa. (Miller, 1965; Meiring, 1968; Botha, 1984; Keegan, 1996; McKenzie, 1999) What remains unexplored, however, is the significance of the cross-colonial connections in this process, exemplified in the life and activities of the convict impostor William Edwards/Alexander Lockaye.

The aim of this project is to move beyond nationally-focussed narratives of South African history to demonstrate the importance of understanding the events of 1824 as part of a much wider process. Both Cape Town and Sydney saw the establishment of independent colonial newspapers (The South African Commercial Advertiser and The Australian) in the same year, 1824. Both colonies were caught up in a power struggle between emergent local elites and autocratic imperial governors such as Somerset at the Cape and Darling in New South Wales. Both were subjected to metropolitan Commissions of Inquiry into their administrations in this period (even involving the same commissioner, John Thomas Bigge). Both colonies need to be situated within a wider story which saw the emergence of distinct patterns of social status and the operation of new forms of political power in Britain and its colonies in the first decades of the nineteenth century.

This study of the cross-colonial connections inherent in the Cape political crisis of the 1820s, exemplified in the activities of the convict impostor Edwards/Lockaye, will act as a companion project to the 2005 R&D study on convict impostor John Dow and the political and social debates in New South Wales in the 1830s (see attached report). Both projects feed into a wider study on status and political power in the British empire. Civil liberties were fundamentally transformed on a variety of fronts over the course of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. These changes need to be understood as part of new ways of thinking about status and identity. British and colonial societies alike were convulsed in this period by debates about the proper nature of the public sphere and about the exercise of political power. Such discussions were given a heightened tension in the light of the shifting ideas of race and labour associated with controversies over emancipation and convict transportation. These big picture questions can only be understood in a transnational way. But unless histories of globalising forces are grounded in concrete situations and archival specifics they risk coming to vague, diffuse and meaningless conclusions. In the variant of transnational history offered by studies of the British empire, it is also important to move beyond a limited metropole/periphery model, a model which simply presents a study of ‘British influence on the colonies’ in another guise.

Using the story of Edwards/Lockaye as a route into wider questions of social status and political power will expand our knowledge of how these issues played out in Australia and South Africa. Drawing on my previous work on colonial identity in the Cape and New South Wales, in particular in Scandal in the Colonies, I will proceed from the contention that the small politics of everyday life and social interaction cannot be separated from the large politics of constitutional change. Questions of personal demeanour, the source of wealth, and the manner in which wealth was displayed were closely related to different styles of elite masculinity, styles that we might loosely call either ‘aristocratic’ or ‘bourgeois’. The right to act within the public sphere in both Britain and the colonies was claimed and defended by rhetoric that emphasised particular models of masculine identity. Feeding into this identity were issues such as wealth (and its source), demeanour (which could be racialised as ‘civilisation’) and social influence. All of these changing ideas had important implications for the ways in which white masculine status was defined, and, correspondingly, for the possession of political power. Bonded labour, both slave or convict, played a similarly important role in the economic and imaginative conceptions of those laying claim to elite status.

By using the figure of Edwards/Lockaye as a focus to discuss changing models of political power in the British imperial world, this project will therefore de-centre the metropole without losing sight of the inequalities that structured the relationship between centres and peripheries. Even histories of the British empire that ostensibly do draw transnational links find it difficult to break free from a metropole-centred analysis. A cross-periphery approach will underline the importance of understanding how central communities like the Cape and New South Wales are in understanding how social hierarchies were understood, asserted and contested in both Britain and the empire.