Conceptions and implications of a ‘civilising mission’: Roman views of Germans, Gauls and Britons compared with the perception of the Xhosa by Sir Harry Smith

A van Wezel


Roman descriptions of remote and strange north-western peoples were fraught with images of wildness and an idea of the ‘barbaric’. Barbari was a term loaded with negative connotations, the antithesis of the concept of Roman humanitas. Descriptions of the ‘other’ by British colonials in the 19th Century Cape, such as Sir Harry Smith, differ little. Smith describes the Xhosa as a savage and barbaric people, in comparison to the seemingly superior ‘civilization’ of the British. In both situations, these stereotypical negative portrayals of an inferior or even inhuman people, served to justify a policy of conquest, domination and very often maltreatment. The question of whether or not barbarism was innate or learnt has implications for the idea of the ‘other’ as ‘convertible’ to the culture of the ‘civiliser’. Both Cicero and Smith write of barbarism as a state of society that has the potential to change, reflecting on their own societies’ progression to a supposed state of ‘civilisation’. The assumption that their own ‘civilised society’ had been the outcome of adopted behaviours provided much potential justification for cultural intervention in the society of the ‘other’.


Roman; Harry Smith; Civilising; Humanitas

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