Early Southern African History-a book review.
Sometimes one just comes across a real gem and this is one.
In a collection of letters, journals and reports written by early explorers and officials about the southern part of the African Continent, Ben Maclennan has put together a fascinating picture of life in this part of the world as experienced by European visitors to the African shores and interior. The collection, in the book called "The wind makes dust", spans the time period between 1497 and 1900.
The back cover describes it as "An off-beat anthology spanning four hundred years of travel in and around the southern tip of Africa" and that certainly is accurate. The excerpts from various writings read like a who's who of explorers, officials and other historical people. Where possible Maclennan includes local inhabitants whose insight to these early visitors has unfortunately often been lost, as written records never existed.
Names that catch the eye are Joao Dos Santos, Francois Le Vaillant, Anne Barnard, Robert Moffat, Louis Trigardt, David Livingstone, Tomas Baines, Frederick Selous, William Burchell and Mohandas Gandhi, to mention just a few of the over 140 people quoted from. Anonymous appears quite a few times and then local people like //Kabbo, Dinya ka Zokozwayo, and Nzunzu add a local viewpoint.
The articles vary from the hilarious (the account of Sir George Grey's altercation with his unfaithful wife Eliza), the horrific (the slaughter of about a 1000 animals by a royal hunting party for Queen Victoria's son Alfred) and the sad (the account of the /Xam San man called //Kabbo who was arrested for stock theft and sent to prison in Cape Town and shared some of his stories).
Many of the visitors were Missionaries who came to Africa to share the message of Christ and set up mission stations. Some were government officials who came to serve in this outpost of "civilisation", first controlled by the Dutch and then the English. Then there were explorers, adventures, big game hunters, scientists, soldiers, ship's captains and then just ordinary people who had the gift and desire to record what they saw and experienced. Some arrived because of a strong desire to visit the "Dark Continent" with its allure and mystic attraction. A few were shipwrecked along the dangerous coastline. Then there were those living here as early colonists or the tribes that existed here before the Europeans arrived.
One of the very interesting accounts that I really enjoyed was of a soldier who deserts from the army in King Williams town and then ends up on the diamond mines where he makes a fortune. He writes a letter to a friend while he is on a boat travelling to America to start a new life there. In it he tells the friend, whose name he has taken over, about his adventures since deserting.
John Campbell who was a director of the London Missionary visited South Africa during the period 1813 - 1820 and describes some of the local customs that he noticed during his travels. Robert Moffat, another early missionary, during the same time period developed a good relationship with the Ndebele king Mzilikatzi who executed his prisoners by having them thrown into a crocodile pit. His description of his dealings with Mzilikatzi gives us insight into the famous king and also the work of early missionaries.
Andrew Smith, a close friend of Charles Darwin, was the first superintendant of the South African Museum (appointed in 1825) and led expeditions to collect specimens that included a mass of scientific information.
Mohandas Gandhi's account of his famous unsuccessful train trip from Durban to Pretoria in 1893 makes fascinating reading.
As an amazing view into the early history of this part of Africa it is in my opinion a valuable addition to the library of any one even remotely interested in this part of the world or in history in general.
The book has on almost every page black and white copies of paintings depicting the events described in the text and also many copies of photos. Some of these photos are of famous people in Southern African history such as Jan van Riebeek, Lady Ann Barnard and Shaka Zulu.
"Fact is often more interesting than fiction", and this book proves that saying. But at the same time it must be remembered that every piece of writing is what some person saw and recorded in a personal way. It would have been great to have more accounts by the original inhabitants of this area but to a large degree their views are lost in the mist of time.
Maclennan has done a thorough job of researching old documents and writings as his list of sources at the end of the book shows.
"The wind makes dust" by Ben Maclennan, published by Tafelberg Publishers in Cape Town in 2003.
Johan Smulders (author) from East London, South Africa on January 15, 2017:
Thanks for to comment and the reference. Will read it!
Martie Coetser from South Africa on January 14, 2017:
I enjoy reading these old journals and accounts of travelers and missionaries.
One of my ancestors was a tracker during 5 of the Frontier wars between British and Xhosas. I found the book he wrote and published in 1889 extremely interesting and quite an eye-opener.
Here is the link to an old book you may enjoy. It contains among others narratives written by William John Burchell and Thomas Pringle. One of my ancestors is thoroughly described in Chapter 6, “THE DUTCH FARMER AT HOME” - and this is nothing to brag about, but so true and typical of the Dutch settlers and their descendants until quite recently. Although my SA-PROG was actually from Hungary, but in the army at Weenen.
This book, turned into an e-books, is free - and there are more of them in that archives -
Thanks for an interesting review!
Johan Smulders (author) from East London, South Africa on January 14, 2017:
I strongly recommend it Eric!
Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on January 14, 2017:
Really interesting. Perhaps I shall get the book. Thank you.