Accepted Paper:

Plant histories of fencing: multispecies makings of Van Riebeeck's Hedge, 1660-2017  


Melanie Boehi (University of Basel)

Paper short abstract:

The paper focuses on how wild almond trees planted as part of Van Riebeeck's Hedge were associated with material, symbolic and political meanings, how these impacted on the lives of the trees, and how the trees themselves can be understood as historical actors and witnesses of fencing histories.

Paper long abstract:

Histories of fencing are predominantly told as histories of humans who built or were segregated by them. They sometimes include animals but largely ignored plants. Against this trend this paper focuses on vegetal histories of fencing. It argues for reconsidering Van Riebeeck's Hedge, often called southern Africa's oldest colonial fence, as a site of multispecies makings and in particular plant histories of fencing. In 1660, Jan van Riebeeck ordered the fencing of the land occupied by the VOC at the Cape. This fence included a hedge of wild almond trees with characteristically large intertwined branches. The planted trees likely didn't grow fast enough but their symbolic impact outgrew their material impact. When the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden was established in 1913, remnants of the hedge within the garden became subjected to "monumental gardening". The trees were pruned and cleared of encroaching "exotic" plants. In 1936, the hedge became a national monument and during apartheid era the state deployed it for political spectacles. To celebrate its tercentenary, Kirstenbosch distributed young trees for replanting along the original fence's line. Trees of the original hedge as well as such planted in 1960 have continued to grow to this day. They have numerous functions, ranging from loved or despised monument to popular jungle gym. Some trees also grew without human interference. The paper discusses how the changing material, symbolic and political meanings impacted on trees' lives and how the trees themselves can be understood as actors and witnesses of fencing histories.

Panel P141
Lines of Control - Lines of Desire: Towards an Integrated History of Fencing in Southern Africa