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Lowveld cotton : a political ecology of agricultural failure in Natal and Zululand, 1844-1948 Schnurr, Matthew A.


This dissertation is a study of agricultural failure. It follows the efforts of settlers, then scientists, to impose cotton as a commodity crop in the eastern region of South Africa, known today as KwaZulu-Natal. Touted as a commodity crop capable of remaking land and life in this region in the 1850s, the 1860s, at the turn of the century, and again in the 1930s, cotton never achieved more than marginal status in the agricultural economy. Its story is one of historical amnesia: although faith in the region’s cotton prospects dipped following each spectacular failure, it was routinely resurrected once previous failures had been accounted for, or memories of them had faded. Two crucial issues are at the centre of this episodic history. First, I explore the enthusiasms that underpinned successive efforts to introduce cotton, the logistics of planned expansion, and the reasons for the repeated collapse of cotton-growing schemes. My primary argument is that cotton failed because colonists lacked the technology to overcome natural constraints to production, in the form of temperature, rainfall, soils and insect pests. Settlers and scientists could not remake the land, the climate, or the cotton plant to meet their needs or realize their dreams. They attempted to overcome obstacles to production through settlement schemes, new agricultural inputs, and breeding technologies, but were unable to conquer the ecological incompatibilities between theoretical ambition and practical cultivation. This dissertation stresses the limits of colonial agriculture when confronted with unsuitable growing conditions. Second, I aim to unravel the side effects of the repeated failures of cotton production in Natal and Zululand. I turn the question of agricultural failure on its head to ask what was achieved through these repeated attempts to develop cotton as a commodity crop. I concentrate on the outcomes of these difficult and disappointing efforts at cotton cultivation – increased settler presence, stronger delineation between settler and African space, expanded state control into rural areas – and argue that, despite repeated failure, cotton facilitated important structural changes to the region’s agricultural, political and economic landscape.

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