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Sunday, 4 October 2009



Let us consider the Victorian novel as placed in a South African environment. After all, so many of the soldiers, administrators and business-people were educated men; men who could write a fair description of an outlandish scene, people and their habits. So where and when did writers start using the subcontinent’s veld as a backdrop to their works of imagination? No, I’m not going to put my foot in it and declare this or that author and title to be able claim primogeniture, as such; that is too dangerous, and just asking for a rebuttal by someone with a better knowledge of the genre than myself. What we shall do is to browse around the shelves; revisit old favourites, and discover a few which are gems, and many that are not.
To date I have not come across any early books for the very young with a local backdrop or from the pen of a local writer. It would seem that the classic nursery tales, rhymes and fables of European origin were thought to be quite sufficient, or alternatively it may have been judged that the rough, colonial scene was not fit for the tender hearts and ears of Victorian sprouts. So it is only in the first decade of the twentieth century that we find a collection of adaptations from native tales by E J Bourhill and J B Drake, called simply Fairy Tales from South Africa (Macmillan, 1908). I can find no further information on the two authors, except that the introduction ends with the legend ‘Barberton, Transvaal, 1908.’ Speaking of introduction, this one goes to great lengths to explain the way of life of the black people, how each little tribe had its chief (hence all the kings, queens and princesses in the tales); how a man’s ambition was to have an impi of warriors to fight for him in his many battles; how they hardly ever worked except for a little cattle-herding, as work is what wives were put on earth for; that they had two or more wives, for whom they had paid lobola, and how they only lived in the idyllic surroundings of the Eastern Transvaal, Natal and the Eastern Cape. All a little patronising and full of generalisations and most certainly not PC – however, I must applaud the writers for a labour of love that might have been a very worthwhile introduction for a European child into another culture and belief system at the time. The tokoloshes might have become fairies, the chiefs great kings and the ntombis are all princesses; while the unspeakable cruelties and bloodshed are glossed over skilfully so as not to shock and offend, but something of the flavour of tribal legends has survived, and the book is a milestone of sorts in Africana Literature.
Catering for slightly older tastes, the institution of boarding-school life, so dear to the heart of the Englishman, doesn’t escape the colonial writers’ guild either. I cannot profess enough interest to have scoured the shelves in search of the subject, so I can’t speak of its full extent in the subcontinent, but I did run across one quite readable little effort by one ‘Natalian’, actually a gentleman by the name of Albert Weir Baker, who seemed to have been more famous for writing on serious subjects, such as the ‘effects of liquor on the natives’, ‘the evils of Freemasonry and its incompatibility with Christianity’ as well as a personal statement of faith, when he was director of the South African Compounds Commission. The book in question was A South African Boy; Schoolboy Life in Natal, (Marshall Russell, 1897). While the plot made no lasting impression on me (at a distance of some 12–15 years of having last read it) it was entertaining enough to keep me at it throughout, and I found it reflected the flavour of schooling in what must have been a vastly different environment from even what I experienced some sixty years later.
Some of the earliest works written to appeal to young minds, which I read, must have been those classics by G A Henty – With Buller in Natal, The Young Colonists, and With Roberts to Pretoria are three with a South African flavour that come to mind. All jolly good fun, British imperialism, courage, honour, adventure and the like; the baddies, ie Boers/Zulus etc got their come-uppance and the young hero either settled down to a long, productive and esteemed existence, or else he returned Home and became a sitting MP or JP or something. During my pre-teenage years I could find no fault with these adventure yarns, but even then the basic similarity of the above stories, each in a slightly different Victorian historical scene, came to my attention, and their attraction waned.
R M Ballantyne was another notable Victorian who wrote books with African, and in three instances South African background. He was a scion of a reputable firm of printers and publishers, and had the great good fortune to do an early stint of work in Canada, which stood him in good stead when he decided to devote himself to writing juvenile literature. While a large number of English-speaking people will have read at least his most famous work, Coral Island (1857), he wrote more than a hundred books, mostly characterised by meticulous attention to detail (said to stem from his making one colossal error about the thickness of a coconut shell in Coral Island) and he tried whenever possible to write from personal experience. Of his South African books, Hunting the Lion and The Settler and the Savage are pretty standard fare, while his third book is, in fact, the story of his Six Months at the Cape (1879), a light-hearted reminiscence of an extended vacation in the Eastern Cape and Karoo; an interesting and entertaining read for readers of all ages. The rest of Africa is not ignored, and we can find another half dozen or so novels, set in the Dark Continent. One of these, dealing with slavery, Black Ivory (1873), was in all likelihood inspired by David Livingstone and his crusade against this evil, as the author wholeheartedly endorsed the latter’s views. Ballantyne inspired not only generations of youngsters, with the dictum ‘that he believed that boys must be trained up from boys to be true men and not just left on their own to be boys’ , he also inspired other writers, among whom was Robert Louis Stevenson, who reputedly incorporated several of Ballantyne’s ideas in Treasure Island.
Almost certainly the next in line were those wonderful books by H Rider Haggard. She, King Solomon’s Mines, Alan’s Wife, Allan Quatermain, Ayesha – and dozens more titles that flowed from this talented man’s pen. His phrase of ‘She who must be obeyed’ has passed into the English language as all that stands for female authority over the hapless male of the species. Haggard spent a while in the Transvaal, where he had a position under Sir Theophilus Shepstone in the years leading up to the First Anglo-Boer War. During this period he met a number of the hunter-adventurers, like Selous and Burnham, on whom his most endearing character, Allan was based. There was romance, tragedy, battle, adventure and lost treasure and lost civilizations galore – but I have a sneaking suspicion that old Haggard actually had talent. While I find the MGM versions of King Solomon’s Mines and Mogambo a bit insipid after two viewings of Deborah Kerr and Grace Kelly each doing her vapid siren-thing, even separated by some thirty years; but I can still read his description of that noble Zulu warrior, Umslopogaas, swinging his deadly war axe and picking off enemies at will while chanting that wild war-song; and get a thrill from the heroic prose. Two of his books, Swallow (Longmans Green, 1899), dealt with the Great Trek, and Jess (1887), were probably aimed more at the fair sex, I seem to recall, being the adventures of young heroines. His books did not all end well, or tamely, nor did they always promote British suzerainty over the remote regions touched upon. I seriously doubt that they were intended to portray life as it was lived in the second half of the 19th century, but they were imaginative, well-written adventure yarns, which deserve to stand next to classics like Stevenson’s Treasure Island.
Still on the subject of juvenile literature, let us consider that phenomenon which is Jock of the Bushveld. Not a Victorian novel, you will say – well, almost, would be my reply. Though it was published in 1907, the experiences which led to the writing of the book were during Fitzpatrick’s years on the Eastern Transvaal Gold Fields from 1884 onwards, and when he accompanied Lord Randolph Churchill to Mashonaland in the late 1890s. Although presently not considered PC, as it reflects terminology, social attitudes and racial stereotyping which were common during the period, it is unlikely that even attempts at sanitising a book of such stature will succeed in killing off its popularity. This book has a genuinely wide appeal. Although written for the ‘lickle people’, ie Fitz’s children, there is enough meat on the bones to arouse every hunter’s and bush lover’s enthusiasm – anybody who wants to experience the flavour of the Gold Rush, the smell of the campfire, the heat of the fever-stricken Lowveld and the rough camaraderie of the men of the trails and tracks. The book certainly has enough literary merit to survive for many more generations. A less widely known work of fiction, which predated Jock, was published in 1897. It consisted of a number of short campfire-stories, quite readable and entertaining, entitled The Outspan – probably the best of a number of such volumes from different authors of the period.
Just from the above three authors and their dozen-odd books one can already see a theme developing. The subcontinent was portrayed as a blank canvas for adventurers; scope for explorers, prospectors and hunters. There were wild beasts aplenty, and wild people too, that would need subduing. So primarily the backdrop was portrayed as being attractive to the young would-be adventurer; there were riches to be found and fame to be won. South Africa was a man’s country, and a steady stream of hunting, travelling and soldiering books emanated from the gentry that forsook the shores of old Blighty, so perforce the tellers of tales had to follow the same paths, with their inventions ever surpassing reality. While a few hardy ladies followed in their footsteps, the raw environment did not endear itself to the female novelist as a backdrop.
A Victorian lady who entered the early literary fray was Harriet Ward, wife of an officer stationed on the Eastern Frontier. Her first effort was Five Years in Kaffirland (Colburn, 1848) in which she faithfully describes the ‘War of the Axe’, and displays great sympathy for soldier and colonist alike. This was followed by her editorship of a minor work on The Past and Future of Emigration, before she launched into a work of fiction, which was very much in the male domain of the ‘wild frontier, peopled by savage warriors and an intrepid bunch of colonists’ entitled Jasper Lyle; a Tale of Kaffirland (G Routledge, 1851–2). I have to admit that the lady’s style, plot and execution was not to my taste and some forty to fifty pages of her work were sufficient for the day for my needs. Nonetheless, I recall that her book did present life as it was then with a touch more realism than was generally incorporated in the fiction of the period by her male counterparts.
Olive Schreiner can be considered a rare exception with her books Story of an African Farm (1883) and Trooper Peter Halket of Mashonaland, but while the former faithfully describes the dreary lot of womankind and tackles the issues of the period, the latter was not just another tale of derring-do in the wilds with a political agenda thrown in for good measure, but a rather wearisome allegorical satire against the greed of one C J Rhodes in nabbing an entire country from the inhabitants. So one could say that Schreiner was the first to break out of the adolescent view of the Dark Continent and who painted the human canvas within the strictures of culture rather than physical environment.
Another fine craftsman of the adventure yarn was John Buchan. Although his book Prester John did not appear until 1910, the writer’s experiences during the last phases of the Boer War, and his later travels around the Transvaal, gave him the rich background into which he placed the young Scottish lad, David Crawfurd, who became embroiled in an uprising of the black tribes under the leadership of the messianic John Laputa. The setting is absolutely authentic; the two main characters are utterly believable and the plot is not that far-fetched that it could not have happened somewhere in Africa under British colonial rule, although some of Buchan’s work is nauseatingly jingoistic and racist, with archetypal villains – Jew, Levantine, Bolshevik, Portuguese halfbreed, Boer drunkard, Fuzzy Wuzzy and Boche or Hun – leaping off every other page. I have to concede that he writes a mean adventure yarn, which involves the reader sufficiently to make the book enjoyable almost a hundred years after it first appeared. His other books, though featuring a touch of South African flavour in the personages of Richard Hannay and the aviator Pieter Pienaar, have very little to do with Africa, and are thus outside the focus of this essay.
It would seem that a number of sportsmen, after having had their fill of the chase, decided to settle in their upholstered chairs and to allow their memories and imaginations free rein. One of these was the renowned naturalist and hunter, Henry Anderson Bryden, a great friend of Selous’, with whose cousin, Percy, he collaborated on a volume entitled Travel and Big Game, in addition to a number of hunting, natural history and historical books. In his latter days he also decided to branch out into fiction, and the result was the rather disappointing volume, From Veldt Camp Fires (1900), a rather nondescript collection of anecdotes. I read it recently, and apparently he wrote a few others, Don Duarte’s Treasure (1904) and The Gold Kloof (1907), which I have not seen to date, but I doubt that they contributed much to twentieth century literature.
A little earlier, similar tales were penned by one Captain Alfred W Drayson, who found enough time in his busy military schedule to embark on several hunting trips in the Eastern Cape and Natal. His real-life adventures are ably described in the hunting book Sporting Scenes among the Kaffirs of South Africa (G Routledge, 1858), even though the finish of his book left a lot to be desired due to the ghastly colour plates that adorned its pages in greasy splendour. Obviously his imagination became inflamed with all he had seen and heard, so he followed up his success with a series of books filled with ‘sporting narrative and daring adventures among savage beasts and hardly less savage men’, such as Tales at the Outspan (1865), White Chief of the Caffres (1887), Diamond Hunters of South Africa (1889), and From Keeper to Captain (1889) – the latter being the only volume I have actually looked through. Generally fairly standard adolescent fare for the period, but one does glimpse a few passages where the soldiers’ and hunters’ lots are sketched without the addition of excess purple prose.
The able historian, Joseph Forsyth Ingram, started off his literary career with an eminently collectible work with the snappy title of The Land of Gold, Diamonds and Ivory – being a comprehensive handbook and guide to the colonies, states and republics of South and East Africa (W B Whittingham & Co, 1889). It would seem as if Ingram assembled a wealth of material which he was unable to place in his tour de force, so he was motivated to offer his readership a collection of tales under the title of Story of a Gold Concession and other African Tales and Legends (W H Griffin & Co, 1893). The book is a strange mixture of fact, legend and pure fiction, which is very difficult to classify. The first tale, after the title of the book, is obviously fiction as it deals with the fate of a crazed prospector and his fabulously rich gold find in the Lebombo mountains of Swaziland. Another such prospector’s tale, this time set in Natal, also smacks of a fertile imagination. Then follow a number of tales with a tribal setting. Some of the personages mentioned are historical, and the stories run very much along the lines of a Victorian reinterpretation of African fireside tales. Lastly, there are a few oddments, about Paul Kruger, an Arab slaver, and hunting trips along the Pongola and Zambezi rivers. An odd assortment indeed. After this brief flirtation with fiction, he returned to write another three books on the early history of Natal, Pietermaritzburg and Durban, respectively; each a serious and sought-after work of Nataliana.
The institution (one hesitates to call it a firm) of the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge also played a role in publishing a number of, presumably inspirational works, on a number of subjects, which one would not necessarily associate with devotional teachings. There were biographies of numerous missionaries, and heroic descriptions of their good works; one described the Herculean task of shipping a motor boat cross-country from the Cape to the Vaal River and then on to Mozambique; travels in the Transkei after the great famine caused by Nonquause’s prophecy; Mrs Charlotte Barter’s lone travels in Zululand; African language primers and dictionaries; works with some ethnographical pretensions, as well as a little piece of fiction, by a Charles Henry Eden, entitled An Inherited Task (1874), sketching the miseries of life as a missionary in Natal under the rule of Shaka. This author too, had a serious geographical work on the continent to his credit, while he also wrote another romance entitled Ula in Veldt and Laager (1879).
Lastly, let us consider one of my all-time favourites – William Charles Scully. In some of my other writings I have already waxed lyrical about his engrossing autobiographies, as well as his sole hunting title, Lodges in the Wilderness (H Jenkins, 1915). But Scully had a lively intellect and imagination, as well as having his work bring him into contact with many different people under varying circumstances. His work as a magistrate probably gave him a certain number of leisure hours, not least in Namaqualand, where, if his autobiography is to be believed, he was almost marooned in his house due to his feud with the mine manager. Whatever the reasons, he wrote three works of fiction before the turn of the century: The White Hecatomb (1897), A Vendetta of the Desert and Between Sun and Sand (both 1898). The first book consists of a number of short stories with an Eastern Cape background, as he had been stationed in various locations as magistrate for a number of years. From these years among the tribespeople, another book, Kafir Stories (1895) also emanated, and it is considered to be one of the early records of black folklore. The latter two novels are based on his Namaqualand and Bushmanland stints. The former is an adventure yarn of revenge and pursuit into the inhospitable wastes across the Gariep, while the latter is a romantic tale of the love between an itinerant trekboer’s daughter and a young Jewish smous, set in the now ghost town of Namies, near Pofadder. Both are well worth reading as they give the reader a fine snapshot of the meagre society and landscape that they have been set in. Another volume of short stories was to follow in 1907, entitled By Veldt and Kopje, and after many years of self-imposed silence due to his disgust with the way the British treated the Cape Boers during the war, he finally sent The Harrow to the publishers in 1921 – a book which castigated British authority and military to the utmost. In 1923 his last work of fiction, Daniel Vananda, was published. This can be called a precursor to Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country, with a similar theme, that of a rural African running afoul of European culture, with dire results.