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On-line version ISSN 2309-9585
Print version ISSN 0259-0190


VAN SITTERT, Lance. Writing on skin: The entangled embodied histories of black labour and livestock registration in the Cape Colony, C. 1860-1909. Kronos [online]. 2014, vol.40, n.1, pp.74-98. ISSN 2309-9585.

It has been suggested that nineteenth-century colonial states in South Africa exercised 'power without knowledge' and that 'archival government' was the product of a post-South African War alliance between the British administration and mining capital in the Transvaal. This argument privileges writing on paper as the only form of archival government. Yet the Cape Colony in the latter half of the nineteenth century used record systems founded instead on writing on skin. Paper registration had failed because there was no reliable way of linking paper identities with the human and animal skins they referred to. Faced with this problem, colonial officials resorted to using the older scheme of writing on the skins of people and animals. The resulting body marks were recorded and the registers or excerpts of registers were distributed in cheap printed form as archives enabling the reliable recognition of men and private property and of pedigree in livestock. This was the recognisable forerunner of twentieth-century registration systems of much greater reach and ambition that transcribed skin mechanically through photography and fingerprinting and so aspired to registering whole populations of people and animals.

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