The Quagga and Colonialism

Written by: Lewis Twiby.

On 12 August 1883 the last known quagga died in captivity in Amsterdam Zoo; surveys could find no traces of quagga in the wild, confirming its extinction. Long thought to be a species of zebra, DNA tests in the 1980s found it to be a subspecies, once common across the plains of what would become South Africa. Unlike other infamous cases of animals being driven to extinction by human activity – most notably the moa of New Zealand and dodo of Mauritius – quagga had lived alongside humans for millennia. In fact, the name ‘quagga’ partially comes from the local Khoikhoi name. Instead the extinction of the quagga was deeply entwined with imperial culture and the formation of settler rule in South Africa.

From the early-1600s Dutch settlers created colonies on the southern coast of what would become South Africa. From 1795 the British took over the colony to secure shipping routes to India, and clashes began between the Dutch and British settlers. To avoid British rule the Dutch farmers began what has since been known as the ‘Great Trek’ after 1836; these ‘voortrekkers’ would later become a key part of Afrikaner national identity, especially as British rule tried to reassert itself over the voortrekkers. The white settlers claimed they were pushing into ‘free’ land where they could make a new start, however, this claim was at the expense of Africans. Although there was no intensive sedentary farming, that did not mean that the land was actually unclaimed. Various African peoples made claim to the lands, hosting a range of different states and economic structures ranging from pastoralists to small-scale farming to the expansionist Zulu Empire. These voortrekkers enslaved or displaced Africans from their land and helped destabilise the Zulu Empire to prevent them from being a threat.

The arrival of Europeans changed how the environment was treated. Although it is important not to fetishize pre-colonial land usage – wide-scale pastoralism had caused increased pressure on the land in Zulu and Xhosa communities – it is important to stress how land usage shifted dramatically. Just as in the American West, land areas of the southern African land were divided between individual farms (of varying sizes) which limited where wild animals could move. For herding animals, like the quagga, wide areas are needed so they have plenty of food to eat without destroying the local area – millions of zebra and wildebeest make the trek from the Serengeti in Tanzania to the Masai Mara in Kenya for this reason every year. Herds of quagga, therefore, tried to go on their regular grazing grounds but were faced with Boer farms. To prevent the quagga from competing with their own grazing herds, or from eating their own crops, farmers resorted to shooting stray herds of quagga. Quagga meat was also a good way to get quick food without killing off a possibly prized animal, and their skins could be sold for extra funds.

At the same time, the quagga became a prized animal for menageries back in the metropole. The quagga’s unique skin made it an interesting addition for any wealthy elite’s personal collection – Cusworth Hall in my own town of Doncaster even had quagga grazing on its grounds in the 1700s. When the first zoological gardens started emerging in the 1820s, such as London Zoo, quaggas were in high demand for their appearance and for colonial experiments. Naturalists hoped to breed quaggas with horses to create a new species that could be used in both Europe and Africa. There is also an underlying colonial ideology about why exotic animals were in demand for zoos and menageries. As argued by Harriet Ratvo, having a seemingly rare, unique, or exotic animal was part of a wider imperial power dynamic – if you could have an animal from a colonised region it showed by the power of empire and your own wealth. It showed Britain’s power to be able to move an animal across the world, and the owner’s importance by engaging in this power play.

However, many zoos were unequipped to look after exotic animals initially, and it was not uncommon for new animals to die within a year. London Zoo’s A.D. Bartlett, who oversaw the animal population during the late-nineteenth century, wrote how they had to invest a lot to look after elephants and rhinos because they were hard to get, but as monkeys were cheap to obtain, they did not have to worry in case they died. Initially the quagga was viewed this way. Their large herd sizes and apparent abundancy meant that they were seen as dispensable, but still sought after, animals. Furthermore, brutal capture and transport of animals meant that many more had to be caught than what was needed due to high mortality.

These factors mentioned are what drove the quagga to extinction. Demand to fill zoos in Europe, and policies of extermination to preserve farms in Africa, meant that quagga numbers quickly dwindled. As they were only found in southern Africa it meant that the population rapidly went extinct – although common, they were only common in one area. London Zoo’s single mare was photographed five times between the 1860s and 1870s, before she died, by the zoo’s chief photographer Frederick York. The rapid extinction of the quagga meant that these are the only photos of a living quagga. The last known wild quagga was shot in 1878, and when the last one died in captivity in 1883 the zoo requested hunters find another, not realising how quickly it had gone extinct. Albeit, locally all zebras were referred to as ‘quaggas’ which may have caused the confusion. Thanks to colonial settlement and exploitation the quagga had gone extinct.

Studying the quagga shows the various ways colonialism impacted colonised societies. Unfortunately, the quagga was not the only case of settler colonialism driving animals to extinction – passenger pigeons, thylacines, and almost the bison suffered the same fate. The quagga offers a warning for the future. Neo-colonialism means the natural world is being destroyed in order to fund the economies of the global north threatening both humans and nature. Colonialism very likely will drive orang-utans, macaws, and caimans, just to name a few, to extinction.

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