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 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.

Johan Fourie uses the Anglican marriage records to explore marriage patterns in early twentieth century Cape Town.

Young-ook Jang’s work explores intermarriage in Cape Town using marriage records. He focusses specifically on intercultural marriage trends.

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 focus 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.

Laura Richardson considers illegitimacy in the city, and she draws on a variety of sources including the records of maternity homes. She finds that illegitimacy rates are higher than previously thought.

Bokang Mpeta investigates the feminisation of the South African labour force over the twentieth century.

Brittany Chalmers uses marriage records to understand racial reclassification amongst Anglican couples in Cape Town during apartheid.

Paige Smith uses Anglican marriage records to observe the Anglicisation of Cape Town, focussing on the marriages of British immigrants in the city.

Johan Fourie and Kris Inwood (Guelph University) use Anglican marriage records to explore the impact of the 1949 Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act on “mixed” marriages in the city. Available here.

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.

Kara Dimitruk studies the political economy of revising labor regulations and infrastructure building using petitions to the Cape Parliament.

Farai Nyika uses the Cape Colony voters’ rolls to measure the economic impact of disenfranchisement on Africans in the late nineteenth century Transkei territories.

Anneke de Ruyter uses newly transcribed data from the Cape Colony Blue Books between 1839-1879 to investigate the change in colonial governance after the implementation of Representative Governance in 1854.

Beaurel Visser makes use of the voters’ rolls to explore the position of an African middle class during the period of disenfranchisement in the late 19th century.

Kelsey Lemon’s research employs petitions found in government publications to understand Cape Colonial women’s interests and motivations to influence policy-making.

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.

Data source: Cape of Good Hope Panel

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.

Jason Lord is a masters student in economics whose thesis focusses on auction records, specifically slave sales in the Cape Colony. These prices for the enslaved, detailed in the auction records, were used by the colonial government to determine how much compensation would be paid to slave-owners after emancipation.

Ilse Brookes examines auction records and probate inventories to see patterns in buying and selling of enslaved people by small farmers in the vicinity of Cape Town in the 1720s. Her Honours thesis research shows that the enslaved were used for far more than only their labour, and these ‘uses’ of the enslaved had profound effects on the enslaved themselves.

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.

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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.

Lloyd Maphosa works on the diversity of capital markets in the Cape Colony, focusing on how women and farmers participated in joint stock investment and diversification of assets. He finds that farmers and women had a much higher participation rate in the ownership of businesses.

Betty Chiwayu works on more contemporary business history and examines how Britain joining the European Economic Community in the 1972 left a void in South Africa’s bilateral trade. Using history as a guide, her research indicates that South Africa quickly adapted and provides insight into future trade patterns after Brexit.

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.


Francisco Marco Gracia investigates the unbalanced sex ratios in early South African censuses.

Elie Murard investigates the intergenerational consequences of those detained in the South African war concentration camps at the start of the twentieth century.

Lesego Mabapa uses patient records of the Grahamstown Lunatic Asylum to write about the lived experiences of black South Africans during the late nineteenth century.


Our Team

A global network of scholars:

Principal investigator and project coordinator:

Prof. Johan Fourie (Project coordinator)

Johan Fourie is associate professor in the Department of Economics and Department of History at Stellenbosch University and project coordinator 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-editor of Economic History of Developing Regions, co-founder of the African Economic History Network and coordinator of the Laboratory for the Economics of Africa’s Past (LEAP). He has published in leading local and international journals, including the Economic History Review, South African Historical Journal, Journal of African History, Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Journal of Southern African Studies and European Review of Economic History.

Francisco Marco Gracia
Kate Ekama
Young-ook Jang
Amy Rommelspacher
Nobungcwele Mbem
Beaurel Visser
Laura Richardson
Lesego Mabapa
Leila Bloch
(Masters, research assistant)
Rouzanne Carstens
(Masters, research assistant)
Cailin McRae
(Masters, research assistant)
Ilse Brookes
Brittany Chalmers
Paige Smith
Kelsey Lemon
(Honours, research assistant)
Aluwani Ramarumo
(Honours, research assistant)
Kudzai Chidamwoyo
(Honours, research assistant)

Former students

Setshaba Aaron

Graduated in 2018

Robyn Dumas

Graduated in 2018

Rabia Abba Omar

Graduated in 2018

Local partners:

Vivian Bickford-Smith (History, Stellenbosch University), Anton Ehlers (History, Stellenbosch University), Hans Heese (History, Stellenbosch University), Lindie Koorts (History, University of the Free State), Bheki Mngomezulu (Political Science, University of the Western Cape), Bokang Mpeta (Economics, Stellenbosch University), Michelle Sikes (Sociology, Stellenbosch University), Christie Swanepoel (Economics, University of the Western Cape), and Leslie van Rooi (Senior Director: Social Impact and Transformation, Stellenbosch University).

International partners:

Emmanuel Akyeampong (History, Harvard University), Jeanne Cilliers (Economic History, Lund University), Latika Hartmann Chaudhary (Public Policy, Naval Postgraduate School), Dan de Kadt (Political Science, University of California, Merced), Kris Inwood (History, Guelph University), Erik Green (Economic History, Lund University), Martine Mariotti (Economics, Australian National University), Felix Meier zu Selhausen (Economics, University of Sussex), Nonso Obikili (Economics, Stellenbosch University), Robert Ross (History, Leiden University), Auke Rijpma (History, Utrecht University), Dmitri van den Bersselaar (History, Leipzig University), Leonard Wantchekon (Politics, Princeton), and Joachim Wehner (Public Policy, London School of Economics and Political Science).

Our Visual Diary