The South African Literary History Project comprises a loose affiliation of scholars dedicated to the rediscovery of South African literary history. The project seeks neither to write nor to rewrite this history, but rather to recirculate and re-engage with its textual products, contributing thereby to a 'thick' description of South African literary memory as material for a local cultural imaginary.
In the years since the Second World War, most attempts at explaining manifestations of racism have hinged on the trope of displacement intrinsic to the concept of "ideology." What is posited is a historical process in which social groups rationalize their pursuit of advantage by displacing it onto contiguous, justificatory discourses. While gesturing towards the origins of racism in pre-modern, rigidly stratified forms of social organization, such a narrative emphasizes the modernity of the phenomenon as it is generally understood today by construing it as a product of the competition for advantage - power, status, authority, material well-being - in a (world) system which is based on such competition, capitalism.
The three narrative strands that inform this essay - the life-story of George McCall Theal, the history of colonialism in South Africa which he wrote, and the Xhosa folktale - are, to a large extent, incongruent with each other, and their interweaving produces an ungainly, sometimes ambivalent overarching narrative. The narrative nevertheless hangs together, perhaps as much because of its gaps and contradictions, as by dint of its points of contiguity. In postcolonial terms, Theal's influential historical and ethnographic texts can be seen to "[employ] a system of representation, a regime of truth that is structurally similar to realism" (Bhabha 1994, 71), but their dissonances point to their contrivance - and that is the point of departure for this study.
In the preface to Nada the Lily (1892), H. Rider Haggard wrote that his aim, in producing a romance of Zulu life at the time of Shaka and Dingane, was to "convey, in a narrative form, some idea of the remarkable spirit which animated these kings and their subjects, and to make accessible, in a popular shape, incidents of African history which are now, for the most part, only to be found in a few scarce works of reference" (9-10). He notes, however, that "such a task has presented difficulties, since he who undertakes it must for a time forget his civilization, and think with the mind, and speak with the voice of a Zulu of the old régime" (10, emphasis added). This remark, positioned at the beginning of the text, is neither incidental to the narrative that follows nor meant purely sensationally. It is rather of central importance to the generic structure of Nada the Lily, and provides, through the kind of authority it invokes, the first of many insights into the ways in which Haggard conceived of romance as operating within an anthropological as well as a literary paradigm.
Walking up the slopes of Table Mountain on Woolsack Drive, one soon reaches the Cape Dutch cottage the road is named after: whitewashed curvilinear gables and teak shutters just visible behind the security gates of what is now a postgraduate residence. The Woolsack was commissioned by Cecil John Rhodes, mining magnate, sometime Cape prime minister and fervent builder of the British Empire. Designed by Rhodes's protégé, the architect Herbert Baker, this sunny atrium protected from the winds that buffet Devil's Peak was first occupied by that empire's most famous chronicler: Rudyard Kipling.
The purpose of this essay is to present a broad outline of ways in which literary or imaginative texts were circulated and consumed in Natal Colony in the years 1843-1910. It shows how, at least initially, the majority of these texts originated abroad, but how increasingly colonials began to supply their own literary marketplace. While recognising that the thematic preoccupations of Natalian writers potentially offer a fruitful field for further research, these are not my immediate concern. My essay will be concerned instead with reading practices within the colony and those writing practices that aimed to satisfy a local appetite for imaginative texts.
When William Plomer's The Child of Queen Victoria and Other Stories was published by Jonathan Cape in 1933, his literary reputation was well established: he was the author of two novels, two volumes of short fiction, and three collections of poetry. In addition, he was widely regarded in British literary circles as a significant talent. Edward Garnett, for example, the reader for Cape and the first person in publishing to recognise the talents of Lawrence and Conrad, wrote in a report on The Child of Queen Victoria and Other Stories that "Plomer is certainly the most original and keenest mind of the younger generation" (quoted in Alexander 1990, 192). In short, at the time of writing this story Plomer was operating within a milieu dramatically different from the geographical and artistic isolation in which, aged only nineteen, he had written Turbott Wolfe (1925), the novel on which his South African literary reputation rests. Yet one of the many fascinations of "The Child of Queen Victoria" is that it entails a fairly exact reprise, in the realist mode, of the central thematic strand of his first novel: interracial sex or 'miscegenation.' A question immediately arises: what motivated the return to this vexed thematic, and what did Plomer seek to accomplish in this second attempt that, we must assume, he was not able to accomplish in the first?
The status of the coloniser's language during a period of colonial rule will be fixed in many colonies by the fact that it functions as the language of government, of the courts and the law, of official documents and of the institutions which the coloniser imports. But "fixed" does not mean that the population en masse will necessarily become familiar with it, especially where the proportion of indigenes to colonists is large, as has often been the case in Africa. In countries with great numbers of English-speaking settlers, as in Australia or most of Canada, English in some form, even after colonisation has receded, is likely to remain the language of the cities - and in many cases, urbanisation will mean the adoption of English as the language of exchange with the outside world.