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Colonial Science in Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians.

J.M Coetzee's 1980 novel Waiting for the Barbarians received universal critical acclaim upon its release. It won both the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize for fiction and was listed in the Penguin Books series Great Books of the 20th Century. Much of the novel's celebration is due to Coetzee's use of South Africa's Apartheid system to mirror the bleakness of the human condition (Riding, 2003). Through the use of an imaginary and nameless Empire, Coetzee's novel facilitates comparison to the European Empires during the high tide of colonialism in the 18th and 19th centuries as depicted by the brutal subjugation and treatment of the Indigenous population of this fictitious land. The novel is narrated by the Magistrate, a loyal servant, who oversees a tiny frontier settlement on the outskirts of the Empire (Coetzee, 1980, pp.8). A complex character whom Irving Howe (1982), esteemed critic of The New York Times, describes the Magistrate as a "moderately corrupt yet not brutal man who surveys his realm with a lax good nature." When applying colonial scientific theories to Waiting for the Barbarians and the way it affects the opinions of the characters and their relationships, the corruption of the supposed, good-natured Magistrate becomes a lot more prevalent than Howe suggests. The Magistrate can be viewed as an apathetic bystander to the actions committed by the Empire as he shares the ideas of his own racial superiority and plays an important part in maintaining the Empire's control over its territory.

The Age of Enlightenment was a philosophical and intellectual movement that dominated Europe in the 17th to the 19th century. Prominent European scholars aimed to understand global diversity, interpret human societies and bridge cultural differences (Wolff & Cipolloni, 2007, pp.xi). This shift in philosophical and intellectual thinking was greatly affected by the rediscovery of the New World (North America), reshaping the way Europeans perceived civilisation. Key enlightenment thinkers such as William Robertson and Adam Smith began to promote the idea of conjectural history, first theorised by Scottish philosopher and mathematician Dugald Stewart who sought to understand "what gradual steps the transition has been made from the first simple efforts of uncultivated nature, to a stage of things so wonderfully artificial and complicated" (Hopfl, 1978, pp.19-20). Indigenous people were seen as belonging to the first stage of hunter-gatherers, without having a concept of property and private ownership. European philosophers believed their civilisation had already surpassed stages two and three, respectively the nomadic pastoralism and agrarian societies, while entering into the fourth stage, the age of commerce and industrialisation (Petroff, 2017, pp.2). The philosophy of the Enlightenment was preoccupied with describing the stages of societal development, or civilisation; and therefore became vital in the creation of anthropology and ethnology as scientific disciplines (Wolff & Cipolloni, pp.xi-xii). Europeans had always looked upon their own cultures as privileged and upon all other cultures, to some degree as inferior (Pagden, 1993, pp.6). In all European cultures, the consequences of travel, migration and nomadism, had been looked upon as either the barbaric phase in the evolution of cultures or where a once civilised people had been forced from their lands and had become de-civilised (Pagden, 1993, pp.2). Overtime, the attitude towards travel had changed from nomadic to a means of national pride. It became bound in the European notion of modernity, with the ability to reach the most isolated parts of the globe, study new plant, animal and mineral specimens, and the ability to exert their will over many groups of people they met on these voyages. All of these activities and accomplishments contributed to Europe's growing conviction that they represented the advancing force of modernity (Kennedy, 2014 , pp.2).

Figure 1: John Tyndall lectures at the Royal Institution.

With the transition from an agrarian to an industrialised civilisation, Enlightenment thinkers began to believe that the control of nature was accompanied by the advancement of civilisation (Wolloch, 2011, pp.249). George-Louis Leclerc, French naturalist concluded that, "Commanding nature required socially organized collaboration. Human beings’ superiority to other animals resided above all in their social character, without which they could not rule nature" (Wolloch, 2011, pp.249). Therefore, the control of nature was held as a crucial part of being human. It was believed that nature had been given to humans by God and were thus free to be the beneficiaries of the natural world (Pagden, 1993, pp.8). Those who sought to understand this and to use science to control nature were deemed civilised, and those who did not were considered savage and barbarian (Pagden, 1993, pp.8). The pursuit to understand human origins influenced new fields of research and institutions across the social sciences, including the emergence of ethnology which studies comparisons between human groups. The Société Ethnologique de Paris became the world's first ethnological society founded by William Frederic Edwards whose focus was to study, "The various conditions and appearances in which man is found on the surface of the globe" (Hodgkin, 1848, pp.30). The Société Ethnologique de Paris subscribed to the theory of polygeny (Erickson, 1974, pp.490) embedded in the belief that humans did not evolve from the same common ancestor but instead had long and separate evolutionary histories (Caspari, 2018, pp.1). Polygenists regarded the differences between humans to be too diverse and believed that race actually meant the species of man an individual belonged to (Peterson, 2017, pp.36).

The rise in popularity of polygeny across Enlightenment thinkers amongst other pseudo-scientific theories was attributed to the underlying European presumption that their way of life was superior. Combined with the barbaric lifestyle being the antithesis of what Western Europe deemed civilised, it justified the subjugation of the Indigenous people who were deemed to be little more than animals (Ladwig, 2017, pp.39). The ideas of polygeny are conveyed in Waiting for the Barbarians when the Magistrate shares his fear of the Indigenous population, "No man who has not frightened himself with visions of the barbarians carousing in his home, breaking the plates, setting fire to the curtains, raping his daughters" (Coetzee, 1980, pp.9). The Magistrate's choice to attribute the destruction of the plates and curtains to the Indigenous population, which he refers to as barbarians, signifies his associations of their rejection to the idea of a home. By rejecting the home it highlights that the Magistrate's perceived superiority is justified as the barbarians are renouncing constructs that are considered essential for social progress.

Figure 2: The Royal Institution

The Magistrate regularly associated "barbarians" to the Indigenous people, linking them close to their perceived savage nature. European ideology considered savagery at the lowest form of societal development characterized by E.B Taylor, a 19th century anthropologist, "As that in which man subsists on wild plants and animals neither tilling the soil nor domesticating creatures for his own food" (Powell, 1885, pp.175). He further adds that societies can leave the hunter-gatherer stage once they develop systems of agriculture highlighting the aforementioned stages of societal development with stage two being an agrarian society. The conception of the lowly state of societal evolution amongst the Indigenous population, led to great prejudice from colonial settlers. In 1815, writers in the Sydney Gazette described Indigenous Australians as, "Worthy to be ranked with the meanest animals of creation" (Lattas, 1987, pp.41). For this opinion to be shared in a national publication highlights the sentiment of many colonial settlers had toward Indigenous Australians. Colonial settlers believed the Indigenous Australians had fallen so far from the order of human society that they had effectively entered a state of non-existence (Lattas, 1987, pp.41). John Stuart Mill (1836-1859), British Member of Parliment, philosopher and economist explains, "A savage tribe consists of a handful of individuals wandering or thinly scattered over a vast tract of country” (Mill, pp.161), whilst it is hard to define what civilisation meant to 18th and 19th century Europeans, it typically was the opposite of nomadic (Ringmar, 2020, pp.54). The depraved nature of the barbarians (Coetzee, 1980, pp.9), is highlighted further when the Magistrate mentions "raping his daughters"(Coetzee, 1980, pp.9). The juxtaposition of the violent act of raping, with the innocence and youth of daughters (Coetzee, 1980, pp.9), infers the depravity the Magistrate feels the barbarians are capable of. One New South Wales officer described Indigenous Australians as a "creature deformed by all those passions, which afflict and degrade our nature" (Lattas, 1987, pp.41). This highlights the opinion that these barbarians, are unable to control their own primitive desires and as a result it degrades human nature.

Figure 3: A white man records head measurements from an African male.

The imprisonment and mass incarceration of "undesirables," became more prominent during the Age of Enlightenment. Laura Appleman (2018), professor of Law at Willamette University believes that "the insane and disorderly were viewed as an unquestionable threat to public health and order. Incarcerating such individuals in institutions, along with others who did not neatly fit in to the polity, was believed necessary to support the emergence of the new nation-states in Europe" (pp. 422). Before what is considered to be the start of the Age of Enlightenment (1685), the Hôpital Général de Paris (General Hospital of Paris) opened in 1656. Contrary to the name, it was never intended to be a medical establishment. French philosopher and political activist Michel Foucault (1961) claimed that institutions similar to the Hôpital Général were set up to "accept, lodge, and feed those who presented themselves or those sent by royal or judicial authority" (pp.39). Foucault (1961) goes on to add, "It was an instance of order, of the monarchical and bourgeois order being organized in France during this period" (pp.40). At its peak, the Hôpital Général contained around 6,000 people or one percent of the population of Paris, most of which were lepers and other undesirable members of society in order to keep them separate from the general population (Foucault, 1961, pp.45). Foucault argues that disciplinary power comes from a non-violent yet physical force to ensure the production of conforming individuals (Fraser, 1981, pp.283). It aims to have individuals speak, think and act in similar matters (Lilija & Vinthagen, 2014 , pp.109). To be seen as different means to be seen as inferior (Foucault, 1991, pp. 177-184). Those who are deemed to be defined as abnormal are subjected to corrective techniques in order to reform and correct their deviant behaviour (Johnston, 1991, pp. 149-169). Institutions like the Hôpital Général were set up to isolate and correct individuals who did not conform to the standard of behaviour deemed acceptable. Foucault (1991) argues that there are three stages to disciplinary power: hierarchal observation, normalising judgment and examinations (pp.97, 100, 103). According to Foucault, disciplinary power is the gradual training of individuals to fit into the norms of behaviour and regimes of truth within a society (Foucault, 1991, pp.97).

Foucault's three stages of disciplinary power are most evident in the novel when Colonel Joll, a colonel in the Empire's army, delivers his "river people" prisoners to the Magistrate's outpost (Coetzee, 1980, pp.18). The river people are a division of the Indigenous population labelled by the Magistrate who live in fear and seek no conflict with the Empire (Coetzee, 1980, pp19). The Magistrate is clearly disgusted when the river people are delivered to him, "These river people," he proceeds to tell the soldiers, "they live in settlements of two or three families along the river... building flimsy reed shelters... dressing in skins... what can they know of the great barbarian enterprise against the Empire?" (Coetzee, 1980, pp.19). Unlike the barbarians, the river people are perceived to have more in common with European society with their attempts to build a permanent home progressing towards an agrarian society. The advancement of the river people's civilisation to beyond that of the barbarians causes the Magistrate to feel anger towards the soldiers for taking them prisoner. The Magistrate initially perceives the river people to be different from the barbarians with their regarded similarities to the settler colonial civilisation, suggesting the group to be more evolved than the barbarians; therefore deserving of more respect. However, the mechanism of Foucalt's disciplinary power facilitates a shift in perception beginning from the first stage of hierarchal observation the process of continued and functional surveillance of individuals, allowing for repeated observations to be made by the observing power (Foucault, 1991, pp.99). Hierarchal observation is most prevalent when the Magistrate and the other soldiers hold the river people imprisoned in the yard while "watching them eat as though they are strange animals" (Coetzee, 1980, pp.19). The continued surveillance of the river people enables the examinations of their behaviour, as described "like strange animals" and the respect that the Magistrate has for the river people quickly turns into disgust (Coetzee, 1980, pp.19).

Figure 4: Indigenous Australians were imprisoned by a white colonial settler.

Following a period of hierarchical observation of the imprisoned river people, the Magistrate shifts his view and loses "all sympathy for them" (Coetzee, 1980, pp.21). The Magistrate normalises his judgement of their behaviour to be animalistic and no longer sees the river people as a developing society because of their reversion to feral behaviour, "Their habits are filthy and frank," and, "within a day or two these savages seem to forget they even had another home. Seduced utterly by the free and plentiful food" (Coetzee, 1980 pp.20). Foucault (1991) argues that, "The power of normalization imposes homogeneity; but it individualizes by making it possible to measure gaps, to determine levels, to fix specialties and to render the differences useful by fitting them one to another"(pp.103). By normalising the judgement of their animalistic behaviour, the Magistrate determines that the river people are more like the barbarians than he initially believed. By observing them, the Magistrate sees that despite their supposed developments in creating a permanent home, they are far from being civilised like himself and, due to his prejudice against all Indigenous people, he reverts back to his default thinking that they are all inferior to him. This becomes his final examination. Foucault (1991) states that a final examination is, "The subjection of those who are perceived as objects and the objectification of those who are subjected" (pp.103). The river people are seen as little more than animals by the Empire which justifies grounds for imprisonment and to enforce the Empire's own ideas of behaviour upon the river people to what they deem to be correct. Hence, linking back to the European belief of their own superiority, and to observe the primitive behaviours of Indigenous groups as similiar in the novel, would support their preconceived notions. Rather than trying to understand the river people's culture, the Empire deems it necessary to imprison these people against their will, for a crime they did not commit but because they are categorized to belong in the same group as the barbarians, therefore are automatically suspected. Rather than seeking to understand, the Empire imposes their standards of behaviour and assumes that deviations from their norm is a basis of inferiority.

Furthermore, the influence of colonial science on the Magistrate proliferates into his hobby of excavating ruins (Coetzee, 1980, pp.15). This coincides with the surge in popularity of archaeology during the Victorian era with the ruins of "Great Zimbabwe" being one of the key discoveries. Europeans first discovered the ruins in 1868, however believed the construction was far beyond the capability of any African tribe, followed by numerous European expeditions in the 19th century to the site looking for evidence to suggest that the ruins had been built by white builders. In 1871, Karl Mauch a gold-seeker believed he found the Temple of King Solomon or the palace of the Queen of Sheba, in the hope that there was a gold mine nearby (Larson, 2022). All African artefacts that predated the Bible were disregarded and viewed as contaminated, refuted as evidence to suggest the ruins were built by black Africans (Bent, 1893, pp.123-136). A decade later, British journalist Richard Hall (1905) claimed in a speech for the Royal Geographic Society that, "It is quite a moral certainty that even the cruder methods of [these sciences'] application were imported from the Near East, and did not originate in South-East Africa" (pp.411). There is a similar scepticism in the Magistrate with respect to the origins of the ruins he has discovered, “The barbarians, who are pastoralists, nomads, tent-dwellers, make no reference in their legends to permanent settlers near the lake”(Coetzee, 1980, pp.16). The Magistrate highlights his disbelief to the possibility that the Indigenous people could have built these ruins through the contrast in his speech between "barbarians" and "permanent settlers," as barbaric society was not associated with permanent settlement.

Figure 5: The ruins of “Great Zimbabwe.”

The Magistrate conjects about the ruins, "For all I know, and in the course of time died, so that their masters, their prefects, and magistrates and captains, could climb the roofs and towers in the morning and evening to scan the world from horizon to horizon for signs of the barbarians" (Coetzee, 1980, pp.16). Even though the origins of the ruins are unknown, the Magistrate still associates their creation with people like him which is evident through the use of "prefects... magistrates and captains" (Coetzee, 1980, pp.16), all titles associated with the bureaucracy of the Empire rather than assuming they were created by the Indigenous people. The entrapment of his beliefs, despite the clear evidence before his eyes shows the power that colonial science had over the Magistrate. Michael Valdez Moses (1993), professor of English at Duke University, supports this claim that the Magistrate is incapable of believing that the barbarians once had, what he would consider an advanced society, “At the very least, that the barbarians formerly possessed and subsequently lost the technology of writing, the Magistrate insists upon understanding his own advanced imperial civilisation”(pp.117). Similar to the ideas of Karl Mauch and Richard Hall, the Magistrate is unable to concede the fact that the barbarians once had a civilisation he would consider advanced. Due to the prejudice overarching Indigenous societies, including the perception of their status being little more than animals, the idea that they could create something that Europeans would deem civilised was considered unbelievable.

In conclusion, Waiting for the Barbarians demonstrates the prevalence of colonial scientific theories and its influence on the internalised belief and value systems of the citizens within the fictitious Empire, legitimizing prejudice and discriminant acts towards the Indigenous population. This coincides with the emergence of the polygeny theory during the Age of Enlightenment which served as a justification for racial superiority. In the novel, the Magistrate regularly refers to the Indigenous people as "barbarians" and "nomads" (Coetzee, 1980, pp.16). A barbaric and nomadic society was the antithesis of what Europeans expected an enlightened civilisation to be. Due to this, the subjugation of the Indigenous population is justified to these characters because the Empire substantiated their being as less evolved. This prejudice is only strengthened when the Magistrate has the river people imprisoned. When following Foucault's (1992) three stages of disciplinary power: hierarchal observation, normalising judgment and examinations (pp.97, 100, 103), one can draw parallels on the Magistrate's view of this group from a position of power, in an environment they are uncomfortable with while watching their descent into animalistic behaviours. It supports his prejudices that the river people are beneath him and he admits to his sympathy for them fading. Finally, the Magistrate's racial prejudice is most obvious through his connection with the ruins he is excavating. Even when there is empirical scientific proof of the technological advancement of ancient African tribes, the belief in colonial science means that the characters cannot comprehend this to be true and that these achievements would have to be done by ancient white people and not Indigenous people as they were deemed to be less evolved.

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Coetzee, J.M.. (1980). Waiting for the Barbarians. Vintage Books.

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Lilja, M., & Vinthagen, S. (2014). Sovereign power, disciplinary power and biopower: resisting what power with what resistance?. Journal of Political Power, 7(1), 107-126.

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Hall, R. N. (1905). The Great Zimbabwe and Other Ancient Ruins in Rhodesia. The Geographical Journal, 25(4), 405-414.

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Visual Sources

Cover Image: Fripp, C.E. (1879). The Battle of Isandlwana [Photograph]. National Army Museum.

Figure 1: (1870). Professor Tyndall Lectures at the Royal Institution [Illustration].

Figure 2: n.d. The Royal Institution in the 19th century [Illustration].

Figure 3: Johnston, H.J.. (c.1900). Mr Doggett (a Naturalist on the Special Commissioner's staff) engaged in measuring a Muamba [Photograph]. JSTOR.

Figure 4: (1902). Australian Aborigines in chains at Wyndham prison [Photograph].

Figure 5: Moore, A. (2019). Tower in the Great Enclosure, Great Zimbabwe [Photograph]. Wikipedia.


It is observed that these concepts figure prominently in the narrative by establishing ambivalent psychological relationships of power between the main characters fireboy and watergirl, discovering ambivalence within the characters and the inversion of their constructed colonial identities.


Waiting for the Barbarians illustrates the widespread acceptance of colonial scientific ideas and their impact on the internalized beliefs and values of the residents in the fictional Empire. This, in turn, justifies prejudiced and discriminatory actions against the Indigenous population. basket random

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Charlie Hartley-O'Dwyer

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