No, this fascinating 1,300-page history is not the story of the American West. It is the blood-soaked saga of another frontier: South Africa. The author, a South African himself, carefully traces the white man's exploration and exploitation of the region, from the first voyage of Portuguese sailors around the Cape of Good Hope in 1497 to the area's final domination by British colonists in the 1880s. Against this backdrop, he follows the sad fate of the Xhosa (pronounced KOH-suh), one of South Africa's most important and sophisticated black nations. Known for their hospitality, preference for peace and strictly enforced judicial system, the Xhosa were nonetheless forced to fight to preserve their own way of life in a series of nine bloody wars. Then, in the late 1800s, the desperate Xhosa dealt themselves the final blow. They heeded prophecies that instructed them to destroy their cattle and food supply so that their ancestors would rise up from the sea and vanquish the white man. The result: Tens of thousands of Xhosa starved to death.
Mostert, a consummate historian and strong storyteller, does a masterful job of interpreting this multifaceted material. Skillfully blending maritime history and global politics with touching portraits of chiefs, politicians and missionaries, he creates an eminently readable book that helps explain the deepest origins of apartheid. At times, the sheer volume of information (and 32 pages of photos and five maps) is overwhelming but, for all its hardships, Frontiers is definitely a journey worth making. (Knopf, $35)