There is a temptation to approach Noël Mostert’s Frontiers (1993) circumspectly, as you would the Grand Canyon or the Great Pyramid of Giza. It’s monumental – 1,292 pages, not counting index and notes ‒ and frankly imposing, a doorstopper to stop the largest door. The story it tells is of vast proportions too. Do not, however, be unnerved. This is a book which for originality, historical depth and sheer narrative richness has been compared to Gibbon ‒ and it deserves the comparison. It also deserves a great many readers.
Do those last sentences sound like something extracted from the jacket copy? Maybe a bit hyped? They might, because as editor of the book I wrote the jacket copy for it in the first place. But I wouldn’t want to give the impression that I praised Frontiers then only in order to sell it, and that I am now inclined to back away. On the contrary. Having spent a couple of weeks reading it all the way through again, my admiration for what Mostert achieved is greater than ever.
Frontiers started out as a much smaller book, intended to deal primarily with one of the most shocking and tragic episodes of the nineteenth century, the mass starvation and death of the Xhosa people. The Xhosa, South Africa’s most populous and sophisticated group, had made the terrible mistake of listening to the teachings of native prophets and in consequence committed a sort of national suicide. In researching these mysterious events, however, it soon became apparent to Mostert that to do justice to his subject he would need to move back in time. His idea of what the book should be grew and grew, stretching further and further back into South African history and even prehistory.
I don’t mind admitting that, as his editor, this expansion of the project made me nervous ‒ I had signed Frontiers on the strength of his earlier splendid (but normal-sized) book Supership
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