Frontiers used to be thought of in purely linear terms. Such an obsession with linearity arose from cultural tunnel vision. The frontier was an identifiable physical entity which advanced, or retreated, across the landscape, suggesting a range of contrasting economic and political, environmental and social criteria operating on each side of its imaginary line. As frontiers turned into borders, those lines became geographically and legally defined. To be sure, the character of the frontier had the power to transform and define the societies on each side of it, but given the nature of most Eurocentric scholarship, ‘side’ was indeed the word. Such an approach is no longer possible. Frontiers (and the plural is essential) are now recognised to be very much more complex phenomena, hidden as well as visible, mentally and psychically constructed as well as geographically expressed and surveyed.
In the year 2000, some aspects of the complexity of the frontier became apparent in the land controversy that broke out anew in Zimbabwe. There it emerged that one aspect of the frontier was constructed from a complex mosaic of white and black land, a frontier based upon soils and micro climates, on crop types and relationships with international trade, on vegetation cover and the built landscape, as well as on colour and employment relationships. Such a mosaic produced a form of social and economic civil war, bound up with complex issues of post-colonial politics and black elite manipulation of electoral processes. The psychic character of the mosaic frontier is also well illustrated in India, where a number of recent studies have demonstrated the manner in which the frontiers between the forests and the plains were fluid and interactive in pre-colonial times, but became much more clearly defined and geographically distinct during the British period. Post-colonial India continues to grapple with the resulting social, cultural and economic divisions.
But the frontier has been reconfigured in even more complex ways than this. The imperial frontier can be shown to lie within each city and town as well as in the countryside. It is embedded in concepts and mentalities, in texts and art, even in music, design and the theatre. It is in organisations and entertainments, from the boy scouts (an improving image of the frontier brought into so-called metropolitan societies and then re-disseminated back to the supposed frontiers themselves) to ‘native villages’ at exhibitions. It is re-created in the new patterns of post-colonial migrations, fresh and often contested invasions of the various white metropoles in Europe and the territories of white settlement in North America and Australasia. So if the frontier exists almost everywhere, does it become so speculatively amorphous that it can scarcely be pinned down at all?
The essays in this collection suggest some ways in which it can be. The three-fold division of the book proposes the possibility, at the very least, of some form of triangulation, embracing representations of the frontier; resistance and response; and approaches ‘from the other side’. Comparative insights are attempted from North America, southern Africa, Australasia and the Pacific. These analyses will surely stimulate much more debate, for the concept of the frontier still has many tendrils, a sinuous multiplier that should lead us into other regions and fresh configurations. Not the least of the qualities of this book is that it seeks to unravel the indigenous response, though we do need more studies by indigenous peoples themselves.
John M. MacKenzie