This lecture focuses on the responsibilities – indeed, duties – of an historian today. It asks about the value - asks how do we write about them now? In this time of global crisis, with a world on fire in many senses of the word, what can historians do in and about the Anthropocene? A key approach – so evident from all of us gathered here at this conference – is writing “more than human history”. Because one way to render the past edifyingly unfamiliar in these strange times is to reconstruct histories of the ultimate others – to tell a multi-species story. What I want to do today is reconsider horsepower in reconsidering the great equine experiment in history of Africa – an experiment almost 400 years old in southern Africa. I want us to see how we can write it: because as fires burn around literally and figuratively, we do have a duty as historians to respond with the stories we choose to tell. It is impossible to ignore the changing animal body’s relationship with the changing body politic. Animal bodies are sites where human histories are contested and fancies and fantasies are enacted. Horse bodies changed and were changed by their move to Africa and the great equine experiment on the continent. The first hardy, rugged ponies developed through anthropogenic selection coupled to a harsh and rapid process of survival of the fittest to survive a new and hostile environment. They became a key technology of conquest used in multiple arenas - in exploration, in transport, in farming and in war – but from the early nineteenth century they were replaced by a new kind of creature who could do only one thing well: run. Once racing was entrenched under the British occupation, there was a concomitant recalibration of what ‘good horseflesh’ meant. The common herd of horses was leavened by the importation of pedigreed Thoroughbred horses. In so doing, breeders tapped a social vein. They fed the public’s growing thirst for blue-blooded horses as desirable commodities to white settlers who were beginning to consider their own sanguinary consequence. A key point is that discourses of breeding were not hermetically sealed away from political discourses. Breeding debates, in both state and popular milieu, drew on ideas about race, class and gender. The blood-based idiom spread and changed as the ideas of animal breeders and their buying public became a synthesis of folk belief and fresh scientific advances. This combination, epitomised by faith in the pedigree beasts ‘of pure race’, drew on and sustained the popular vocabulary of race theory that was strongly evident in the colony. Although the Thoroughbreds may have been granted some relief from the menial burdens carried by the other horses of the colony, perhaps they carried a heavier load still: the egos and self-identity of the elite. Horses were, however, more than just signifiers of elite status, they could contribute towards creating elite status. Once the public was persuaded that pedigree and purity actually mattered, there was serious money to be made as a thoroughbred breeder. Ironically, the elitist insistence on the primacy of blood and populist fears about polluted and tainted blood, actually contributed to the ‘breed’s’ downfall. Buyers infatuated by Thoroughbred bloodlines snubbed the qualities of the other horses, the hybrid pool homogenous enough to be branded a breed – the so-called Cape Horse, which thus lost robustness and utility – and even its ability to survive in Africa. Human obsession with mixing – perceived variously as mongrelisation, miscegenation, and bastardising in the animal world – works through transference, to explain, rationalize and patrol the human socio-political hierarchy. The vocabulary of breed and breeding wordlessly encrypts human fears, fantasies and fictions in racial rhetoric and sexual stratification. The world of animal breeders has sustained, until late into the twentieth century some of the most antiquated ideas like telegony (sustained by and, arguably, sustaining socio-political ideas codified into apartheid) where foals and calves and puppies (and human babies) were considered forever stained by their mother’s original sin of carnal categorical crossing. So, ‘blood did tell’, but it exposed far more about the humans consumed by it, than it did about the horses in whose changing bodies it flowed.
Keynote presentation delivered at the 44th International Congress of the World Association for the History of Veterinary Medicine held from the 27-29 of February 2020 at The Farm Inn Hotel and Conference Centre, Pretoria, South Africa