Historian at the Amathole Museum, Dr Stephanie Victor, has spent the last ten years proving that 19th century AmaXhosa queens were powerful mediators between the indigenous people of the Eastern Cape and the colonial authorities.
Contrary to stereotypical portrayals of colonial subjects as submissive, Victor’s work proves that AmaXhosa queens in the Eastern Cape were esteemed, wielded power and used strategy to negotiate their way out of land dispossession and destitution.
On November 15, Victor presented her dissertation at a public meeting at the East London Museum.
Her work is regarded by local historians as vital to understanding how power relations shaped the Eastern Cape. Colonial authorities in the 19th century took control of land and other resources, and previous research on the Eastern Cape shows that backlash against this was spearheaded by missionaries.
However, Victor has proven that AmaXhosa queens regularly submitted petitions and grievance letters to colonial authorities demanding the reversal of unfair policies.
Drawing from the lives of five Amaxhosa queens, Victor shows that previous understandings of Eastern Cape history wrongly reduced AmaXhosa queens to footnotes.
Furthermore, the queens’ petitions were successful in their outcomes.
Queen Emma, for instance, wrote to the authorities of being unfairly dispossessed of her land and was subsequently the first black woman in the Eastern Cape to secure farming land in her name.
Victor’s research also proves that these royal women were valued as advisors and leaders, independent of ruling kings.
They served as peace envoy’s and represented the face of the kingdom where bargaining with colonial authorities was called for.
The earliest example, from 1839, was that of Queen Ntonto, who was imbued with the powers of a chief.
She petitioned the colonial government to assist her with finding her son and when they ignored her, she wrote further petitions and threatened war until her demand was acceded to and her son was found.
“Her petition makes it clear that the queen understood she had every right to ask for assistance and was determined to be given an answer.” Victor hopes her work will prove that Eastern Cape history is far more nuanced than assumed when it comes to gender and race.
“We have a huge issue today with gender- based violence and we forget that in the 1650s there were women who were chiefs, there were women who were traditional leaders, and there was a woman who was the [leader] of the Mpondo mission.
“These examples reference women who had power once upon a time in the Eastern Cape and this encourages us as women today to keep fighting against contemporary narratives, violence and stereotypes that undermine the power we had in society.
“Black women in the Eastern Cape especially, come from strong women,” she said.
Victor hopes to adapt her research into other mediums such as theatr