The Project

Biography of an Uncharted People

“Digital Humanities” operates at the intersection of the humanities and computing. Scholars using the methods of the Digital Humanities can make use of a variety of tools, from algorithms that help with textual analysis, to image recognition, or Big Data techniques. They can digitize and transcribe large databases and analyze individuals’ characteristics and behavior. In the absence of other information of South Africans, particularly black citizens, who were often excluded from censuses and reports and underrepresented in other types of archival records such as personal collections of letters, individual-level records are a treasure trove of information about the economic, social, demographic, health, labor, genealogical and migration histories of the Cape Colony and South Africa.

The good news is that such individual-level historical records in digital format are rapidly becoming more available. The life histories of individuals can now be reconstructed at a fraction of the research cost of manual archival research. This is important, because even though digitised records are available online, they are mostly inaccessible to most South Africans. In fact, the only systematized series of birth, marriage and death records available at present represents only the white population. By making historical information easily accessible, the Biography of an Uncharted People project will thus give dignity to black, colored and Indian South Africans, enabling them to bring to light histories of families that were overlooked in the past.

Besides transcribing and disseminating these large, previously unexplored datasets of microdata, the project will also begin to analyze the information systematically in order to contribute to debates in South African history.

In addition to the research topics to be undertaken by masters and honors students, five flagship projects for PhD students have been identified. These sources and the methods of the Digital Humanities will also be introduced into undergraduate and graduate teaching curricula. This will equip a new generation of historians to engage critically with primary sources and large amounts of quantitative and qualitative evidence.

We acknowledge the tension that can exist between quantification of data on the one hand and the traditional analytical tools of the humanities on the other. Yet this project, which will include compelling visualizations of the data to communicate with both a scholarly and a lay audience, draws heavily on humanistic methods and goals. Easily accessible charts and videos of historical data will encourage historians and the general public to reflect on South Africa’s history and the way previously hidden archival data can reveal more about that history.

Because the apartheid system handicapped South Africa by imposing on it a higher education system designed to maintain social and economic inequalities of race, class, gender, region and institution, this project is also an attempt to narrow the methodological divergence that have occurred in the discipline. We see historical privilege or disadvantage reflected in students’ varying ability to work with large sets of quantitative and qualitative historical evidence using technological tools. This project aims to remove the handicaps and produce young scholars skilled in the Digital Humanities and able to teach the next generation.

The Book

Quantitative History and Uncharted People

Case Studies from the South African Past

One of the biggest challenges in the study of history is the unreliable nature of traditional archival sources which omit histories of marginalised groups. This book makes the case that quantitative history offers a way to fill these gaps in the archive.

Showcasing 13 case studies from the South African past, it applies quantitative sources, tools and methods to social histories from below to uncover the experiences of unchartered peoples. Examining the occupations of slaves, victims of the Spanish flu, health of schoolchildren and more, it shows how quantitative tools can be particularly powerful in regions where historical records are preserved, but questions of bias and prejudice pervade. Applying methods such as GIS mapping, network analysis and algorithmic matching techniques it explores histories of indigenous peoples, women, enslaved peoples and other groups marginalised in South African history.

Connecting quantitative sources and new forms of data interpretation with a narrative social history, this book offers a fresh approach to quantitative methods and shows how they can be used to achieve a more complete picture of the past.

List of Figures
Foreword, Robert Ross

1. Quantitative History and Uncharted People, Johan Fourie (Stellenbosch University, South Africa)

2. Bridal Pregnancy in the Mother City, 1900–1960, Laura Richardson (University of Cambridge, UK) and Jan Kok (Nijmegen University, The Netherlands)

3. Sex Ratios and Girl Preference in the Cape, 1894–2011, Johan Fourie (Stellenbosch University, South Africa) and Francisco Marco-Gracia (University of Zaragoza, Spain)

4. Khoe Households in Swellendam, 1825, Calumet Links (Stellenbosch University, South Africa)

5. Race Reclassification in Cape Town, 1950–1984, Brittany Chalmers (Stellenbosch University, South Africa), Johan Fourie (Stellenbosch University, South Africa) and Kris Inwood (Guelph University, Canada)

6. Advertising the Enslaved for Sale: A Quantitative Approach to the Zuid-Afrikaan, 1830–1834, Wouter Raaijmakers (Radboud University, The Netherlands) and Kate Ekama (Stellenbosch University, South Africa)

7. Domestic Service in Cape Town Before the Second World War, Amy Rommelspacher (Stellenbosch University, South Africa)

8. Female Investors at the Cape, 1892–1902, Lloyd Maphosa (Stellenbosch University, South Africa) and Edward Kerby (Stellenbosch University, South Africa)

9. Black Africans in Cape Town, 1890-1939, Nobungcwele Mbem (Stellenbosch University, South Africa) and Michiel de Haas (Wageningen University, The Netherlands)

10. Political Innovation in African Nationalist Organisations, 1880–1890, Jonathan Schoots (University of Chicago, USA)

11. Petitions to the Cape Parliament, 1854-1909, Kara Dimitruk (Swarthmore College, USA) and Kelsey Lemon (Stellenbosch University, South Africa)

12. Death During the Influenza of 1918, Jonathan Jayes (Lund University, Sweden) and Johan Fourie (Stellenbosch University, South Africa)

13. Quantitative History in Practice, Johan Fourie (Stellenbosch University, South Africa)

Charting the Uncharted. An exhibition.

11 February to 27 March GUS (Gallerv Universitv Stellenbosch)

The Exhibition Video

The institution of marriage and other aspects of human relationships in twentieth century Cape Town is at the core of this research project. We seek to understand women’s position in society, their movements into and within the city, their navigation of romantic relationships and their work. A vast array of sources and methodologies positions us to bring unexplored aspects of women’s history to the fore.

View LEAP lecture 2020 – Women and work

Amy Rommelspacher uses a variety of sources including survey data and marriage records to investigate marriage patterns, female labour force participation and women’s wellbeing in the city.
Nobungcwele Mbem focuses on African migration to Cape Town at the beginning of the twentieth century. She is using marriage records and survey data to trace the movements of people from the Eastern Cape.
Brittany Chalmers (Masters, graduated 2022): By the stroke of a pen: An evaluation of the Cape Times and Die Burger’s portrayal of racial reclassification from 1980-1990
Laura Richardson (Masters, graduated 2020): Between Duty and Desire: Pre-Nuptial Pregnancy and Unmarried Motherhood in Anglican Cape Town during the first half of the Twentieth Century.
Emmanuel Akyeampong (Harvard University), Michiel de Haas (Wageningen University), Wayne Dooling (SOAS), Kris Inwood (Guelph University), Jan Kok (Nijmegen University), Auke Rijpma (Utrecht University) and Robert Ross (Leiden University).
  • Fourie, Johan, and Kris, Inwood. Interracial marriages in twentieth-century Cape Town: evidence from Anglican marriage records. The History of the Family 24, no. 3 (2019): 629-652.
  • Rommelspacher, Amy and Fourie, Johan. Marriage in the Mother City: The Anglican marriage records of Cape Town, 1865-1960. New Contree.
  • Richardson, Laura. ‘Too Unsavoury for Our Fastidious Tastes’: Unmarried Motherhood in South Africa’s Mother City, Cape Town, 1910–1948. South African Historical Journal 73, no. 2 (2021): 381-405.

This project examines the development of political participation and exclusion during a key period of political and economic transition in the British Cape Colony (1854-1909). A team of historians and economists use an interdisciplinary approach to study the effect of developing relatively more democratic institutions on governance, the politics of exclusion, and the consequences of disenfranchisement. We draw on a number of government publications, such as Voters’ Rolls, the Blue Books of the Cape Colony, and parliamentary records.

Jonathan Schoots investigates the origins of African nationalist movements in the Eastern Cape during the late nineteenth century.
Kara Dimitruk studies the political economy of revising labor regulations and infrastructure building using petitions to the Cape Parliament.
Farai Nyika (PhD, graduated in 2021): Early effects of legacies of Cape Colony legislation on black disenfranchisement, education and migration
Lauren Coetzee
investigates electoral outcomes and voter registration in the post-war Cape Colony.
Beaurel Visser (Masters, graduated in 2021): Enfranchised Africans and disfranchising legislations: An analysis of the educated landowners of Queenstown as an African middle class, c.1872-1909.
Dan de Kadt (UC Merced), Laura Montenegro Helfer (University of Chicago), James Robinson (University of Chicago), Jonathan Schoots (University of Chicago), and Joachim Wehner (London School of Economics).
  • Nyika, Farai, and Johan Fourie. Black Disenfranchisement in the Cape Colony, c. 1887–1909: Challenging the Numbers. Journal of Southern African Studies 46, no. 3 (2020): 455-469.

Emancipation of the enslaved in the Cape Colony brought about a transformation in society that some historians liken in impact to the Mineral Revolution, or the ending of Apartheid. This project seeks to understand that transformation from slavery to freedom for the enslaved themselves as well as for the economy of the colony more generally. In this way it contributes both to research on the life trajectories of the former slaves and apprentices and to the growing, international fields of financial history, and legacies of slavery.

Kate Ekama’s research focusses on the financial underpinnings of Cape slavery in the period of the institution’s demise. She uses account books, mortgage records and contemporary newspaper reports to better understand how compensated emancipation worked in the Cape Colony and its connection to the formalisation of financial institutions.
Lisa Martin uses a large dataset compiled from micro-level records of compensation to study geographical and social mobility of the formerly enslaved after emancipation. For her PhD project, she applies econometric techniques and machine learning processes to historical data to illuminate life trajectories and choices of these individuals.
Karl Bergemann works on runaway apprentices during the period of emancipation, 1834 to 1838.
Christiaan Burger
investigates the origins of the opgaafrolle, the eighteenth and nineteenth-century tax annual tax censuses.
Bronwen Everill (Cambridge University), Robert Ross (Leiden University), Leonard Wantchekon (Princeton University), Laura Mitchell (UC Irvine).
  • Ekama, Kate, Johan Fourie, Hans Heese, and Lisa-Cheree Martin. When Cape slavery ended: Introducing a new slave emancipation dataset. Explorations in Economic History 81 (2021): 101390.
  • Bijsterbosch, David, and Johan Fourie. Coffee, Slavery and a Tax Loophole: Explaining the Cape Colony’s Trading Boom, 1834–1841. South African Historical Journal 72, no. 1 (2020): 125-147.
  • Ekama, Kate, and Robert Ross. The Emancipation of the Enslaved in the Cape Colony: Historiography and Introduction. Journal of Southern African Studies 47, no. 3 (2021): 405-416.
  • Ekama, Kate. Bondsmen: Slave Collateral in the 19th-Century Cape Colony. Journal of Southern African Studies 47, no. 3 (2021): 437-453.

The Frontiers of Finance is a research project that studies the financial and business history of the British Cape Colony. We seek to study how the spread of the joint stock company with its multiple shareholders, limited liability and professional managers ushered in a period of rapid growth, globalisation and innovation. By digitising, transcribing and curating the largest joint-stock archive in Africa, this project investigates the emergence of early capitalism at the Cape Colony and Southern Africa from 1862 onwards. By bringing together economists, historians, sociologists, genealogists and geographers, the project will systematically explore the links between early capitalism, businesses and the broader context of economic change in Southern Africa.

Edward Kerby uses the Joint Stock records to explore the depth and breadth of modern capitalism across the Cape Colony and Southern Africa in the late twentieth century.
Munashe Chideya
considers how companies took on the role of the state in areas with poor institutions.
Kereeditse Tsokodibane investigates the black-owned limited liability companies in the late nineteenth-century Cape Colony.
Lloyd Maphosa (PhD, graduated in 2021): A historical analysis of joint stock companies in the Cape Colony between 1892 and 1902.
  • Maphosa, Lloyd Melusi, Anton Ehlers, Johan Fourie, and Edward M. Kerby. The growth and diversity of the Cape private capital market, 1892–1902. Economic History of Developing Regions 36, no. 2 (2021): 149-174.

Death and patient records provide glimpses of the lived experiences of people that are often excluded from the archives. This project uses a variety of individual-level sources and censuses to better understand the health and living standards of South Africans in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.


Jonathan Jayes (Masters, graduated in 2021): Examining mortality from the Spanish flu of 1918 in 15 districts across the Cape Province
Kelsey Lemon studies the medical inspections of schools in the Cape Province in the early twentieth century.

  • Fourie, Johan, and Jonathan Jayes. Health inequality and the 1918 influenza in South Africa. World Development 141 (2021): 105407.
  • de Kadt, Daniel, Johan Fourie, Jan Greyling, Elie Murard, and Johannes Norling. Correlates and Consequences of the 1918 Influenza in South Africa. South African Journal of Economics 89, no. 2 (2021): 173-195.

Hilary Sapire (Birckbeck College, University of London)


Our Team

A global network of scholars:

Principal investigator and project coordinator:

Prof. Johan Fourie (Project coordinator)

Johan Fourie is professor in the Department of Economics at Stellenbosch University and principle investigator of the Biography of an Uncharted People project in the Department of History at Stellenbosch University. Fourie completed his PhD in the Department of History and Art History at the University of Utrecht, Netherlands in 2012 under the supervision of economic historian Jan Luiten van Zanden, on the wealth of the eighteenth-century Dutch Cape Colony. In 2015, he was awarded the “Best Dissertation” prize in the category “Early Modern History” at the World Economic History Congress in Kyoto, Japan. He is co-founder of the African Economic History Network, a former editor of Economic History of Developing Regions, and coordinator of the Laboratory for the Economics of Africa’s Past (LEAP). His book – Our Long Walk to Economic Freedom – was first published in South Africa in 2021.


Kara Dimitruk
Kate Ekama
Francisco Marco Gracia
Young-ook Jang

Karen Jennings

Jonathan Schoots

PhD students

Karl Bergemann

Lloyd Maphosa

Munashe Chideya

Nobungcwele Mbem

Amy Rommelspacher

Masters students

Leila Bloch

Christiaan Burger

Brittany Chalmers

Kudzai Chidamwoyo

Lauren Coetzee

Benjamin Crous

Kelsey Lemon
Cailin McRae
Laura Richardson
Kereeditse Tsokodibane
Beaurel Visser

Honours students

Setshaba Aaron
Ilse Brookes
Robyn Dumas
Aluwani Ramarumo
Rafeeq Daniels
Rabia Abba Omar

Anelisa Majokweni