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German Settlers to the Eastern Cape

Decline of the
German peasantry

Keith Tankard
Updated: 14 October 2009
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It was during the Dark Ages following the collapse of the Roman Empire in Europe that the societal structure known as feudalism arose -- and on the bottom rung of the feudal ladder were the peasants.

The peasants were nobody. They were of no class, with no-one to look up to them, no-one to give them honour or fealty. They were simply the labourers who tilled their lord's fields, chopped his wood, baked his food, milked his cows.

They did own small portions of soil but it was interspersed with their lord's land so that nobody was sure whose was whose. Each day they went out and laboured, tilling and harvesting the lord's fields while at the same time caring for their own theoretical plots.

They were not slaves, nor were they serfs. Indeed, they were not actually bound to the land at all but were free to move if they so desired. There was, however, nowhere for them to go except to another manor -- and one manor was much the same as the other. Life was just harsh.

A system which had taken centuries to evolve would also take centuries to disappear. The High Middle Ages saw the re-emergence of the towns but did not witness any significant change in the country. Peasantry and manorial dues remained much as they had always been.

With the return of trade and a monetary economy, however, the lords found themselves forced to pay wages to their peasants. Initially, therefore, the peasants were better off as labour became a marketable commodity and open to negotiation for a fair wage.

The course of the High Middle Ages, however, saw a population explosion which meant that there came to be too many peasants and not enough work, and they therefore became more susceptible to exploitation and so lost much of their earlier gains.

Moreover, unlike the earlier times, the peasants no longer lived communally on the manor but were forced to fend for themselves to a much greater degree. They now often had to pay rent for their rooms which further taxed their frugal income.

The peasants in northern Germany were always worse off than their counterparts in western Europe and especially France. With the onset of the industrial revolution, however, things could only get worse because peasants were still at the bottom of the working pile.

While cottage industries dominated the pre-industrial world, the rise of factories quickly eroded the ability of traditional manufacturers to make ends meet. Peasants were forced off the land to join the rising unskilled and shockingly paid workers in the growing industrial towns.

Those who remained on the land were doomed to a life of poverty, hoping only to earn enough during the summer months to carry them through the frigid winters. It was during these winter months, therefore, that thoughts turned to the attraction of overseas colonies.

The German nobility had no reason to prevent this emigration because, with growing mechanisation, there was always less work for the peasants. On the other hand, an exodus from the land would in fact lead to a diminishing likelihood of peasant revolutions.

A well-planned emigration scheme would therefore have been a major attraction for the German peasants and would carry the blessing of many of the country landlords. This was especially so in Prussia where life was harsher than in the rest of Germany.

America was always the prime destination but, by the mid-1850s, there was a growing crisis because of the southern states threatening secession. Open warfare with the north was imminent. With the glamour of the United States flagging, peasants began to think of elsewhere.

On paper, Sir George Grey's immigration scheme appeared generous. Most peasants owned no more than an acre of land and so would have viewed the offer of 20 to 40 acres in British Kaffraria as being the opportunity of a lifetime.

Since all advertisements claimed that the climate of southern Africa was quite the same as that of Germany, what more could they want? Their land would be awaiting them when they arrived and, by the time that repayment came round, they would be set fair for a prosperous future in a new world.

British Kaffraria therefore looked as good as anywhere else and, with the German military settlers already there, the colony had the added attraction of posing as a German state.

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