From the earliest times of European contact with the subcontinent, the West Coast of South Africa and its forbidding interior was shrouded in mystery. The illustrious Bartolomeu Dias sailed down the Namaqualand coast in the first few days of 1488 and he reputedly sighted the mountains near Clanwilliam and named them Serra dos Reis. Near Lambert’s Bay he seems to have encountered the famous southeaster, which blew him offshore, and that was the last he was to see of the subcontinent until he made landfall after having rounded the Cape. Some nine years later Vasco da Gama clapped his eyes on the forbidding coast in the region of Hondeklip Bay and he landed in St Helena Bay. He and his men made contact with Khoi tribesmen, and though relations were cordial at first, a misunderstanding occurred soon enough and a fight ensued in which several people were wounded. Both accounts only made it into print second- or even third-hand, much later.
The death of Francisco d’Almeida with some 57 of his compatriots in Table Bay in 1510, during a pitched battle with the local Khoi, did not endear the Cape to the Portuguese, and they tended to steer clear of it subsequently. In the course of the next one and a half centuries, the British, Dutch and French made sporadic landings on the West Coast, but the scarcity of water, exposed anchorages with the exception of Saldanha Bay, and generally uninviting appearance of the barren shores, meant that by the time van Riebeeck started the settlement at the Cape, very little was known beyond St Helena Bay. Before the days of the Dutch occupation, the numerous landings at, or near the Cape, were chronicled in the book “Before van Riebeeck” by R. Raven-Hart.
The good van Riebeeck had his hands full for the first few years of his occupation, but soon mention was made in his Daghregister that his thoughts were turning to the exploration of the northern interior. The visiting Commissioner Ryklof van Goens in 1657 spurred him on to discover the whereabouts of the River Spirito Santo and the fabled city of Monomotapa. The semi-myths of these places, the fabled empire of Prester John, names like Vigiti Magna, Davagul and the like – all these were the drawcards that led the commander to send out men like Gabbema, van Harwarden, Danckart, van Meerhoff, Everaert, de la Guerre, Cruythoff and others in search of the untold riches that were to be found to the north and northwest. Some of the reports that these men brought back with them, can be considered to be the first ‘Northwest Literature’, although the reports were not published as such at the time. Nowadays they can be found in compilations, such as the first two volumes, subtitled ‘Tochten naar het Noorden’ contained in E C Godee-Molsbergen’s work “Reizen in Zuid Afrika”, E. E. Mossop’s “Old Cape Highways”, and lastly the three volumes of Jan van Riebeeck’s Daghregister or Journal, which is available in English, Dutch and with Afrikaans footnotes and summaries.
Needless to say, the commander’s brave explorers met with little success in their quest for walled cities, cloaked people, precious metals and jewels. Instead they met unforgiving deserts, mountains and extremes of climate. They did meet up with the Nama people; the rumours of the existence of at least copper in the north, was confirmed, and yes, there was a ‘big river’. Van Riebeeck’s term at the Cape ended, and his successor Commander Zacharias Wagenaar, made one half-hearted attempt towards the fabled region, but an early upset caused him to abandon the attempt, and from then on his expressed opinion was that the fabled cities of the North were travellers’ tales, not worthy of being followed up.
The next traveller was Olof Bergh, who was despatched on two expeditions in 1681 and 1682, following contact with copper-bearing Namaquas who visited Governor van der Stel at the Cape. His expeditions penetrated as far as present-day Garies, and his journals are available in print in the VRS first series, No 12, translated by E E Mossop. Bergh’s superior was to follow in style, mounting a huge expedition in 1685, which was successful in reaching present-day Springbok, and the famed ‘Koperberg’, where a trial adit was sunk, samples were taken and smelted and a full report was written, which appeared in print for the first time in Valentyn’s five volume work, the English title of which is ‘Description of the Cape of Good Hope’. This is then the first printed work on the region to appear, by Johannes van Braam, Amsterdam, Gerard onder de Linden 1724-6. Although my copy lacks the title page, it is one of my really treasured items. Also contained in the same volume is the travel diary of the Landdrost Johannes Starrenburg, who led a trading expedition north of the Olifants River in 1705.
The next publication took more than fifty years to eventually appear. Although several trading journeys had been made towards the North, as evidenced by the inscriptions left on the walls of the famous Heerenlogement Cave, north of Graafwater, the travellers Slotsbo and Hem did not leave any published record of their trips. However, the next traveller, I T Rhenius, left a journal of his 1721 trading trip, which again has been published by the VRS in 1947 (#28). The names of Messrs Blass, Breedt, Giebeler, and Lourens then appear, as they passed the cave between 1721 and 1739. In 1760 a short record appeared in the records of the Council of Policy, of one Jacobus Coetze Jantz, a farmer from the Aurora region near Piketberg, who went on a hunting expedition, and became the first European to cross the Orange, Eyn or Gariep River, and to penetrate into what is now Namibia. This short report appears in both a VRS volume (#15) as well as in Godee-Molsbergen’s books, Vol 2.
A most informative record of life along the Great River, was left by one Henrik Jacob Wikar, who deserted from the Company’s service in 1775. He lived an adventurous life with the Khoi tribesmen along the Orange, and returned to the Cape in 1779 to be reinstated by the Company. A copy of his manuscript was preserved, among others in the Swellengrebel Archive – it appeared in print for the first time in 1926, and in book-form in1935 by the VRS (#15). However – back to the second book to be published about Namaqualand – it was Carel Frederik Brink’s ‘ Nieuwste en Beknopte Beschryving van de Kaap der Goede Hoop, nevens een Dag-Verhael van eenen Landtogt naar het Binneste van Afrika door het Land der Kleine en Groote Namaquas’ published in 1778, that is, some fifteen years after the journey was actually made.. The first part of the book was compiled by R S Allemand and J C Klockner, while part two describes the journey made by H. Hop, whom Brink accompanied as surveyor and scribe. During the return trip, one Scheffer (hopefully no relation – but one can’t be sure) murdered one of the Khoi servants while in a demented state. Scheffer was later tried for the crime and banished to Robben Island. To return to the journey; it did break some new ground, crossing the Orange River near Raman’s Drift and penetrating deep into Namibia, it is thought, just short of Windhoek, which makes it also the first published work of Namibiana
The rest of the 18th century saw much exploration. Col. R J Gordon explored the lower reaches of the Orange River, which he named, as well as penetrating to Warmbad in Namibia, and inland way past where Upington is now located. In part he was accompanied by William Paterson, who was to have his journal published in 1789 – while the more illustrious traveller Gordon’s manuscript was lost for almost two centuries, and only saw the light recently in the Brenthurst Library’s fine work.
The inimitable Francois le Vaillant was there too. Fresh from his successful “Voyage de M le Vaillant…” covering the first five years of meandering through the southern and eastern Cape, he now tackled the northwestern route. Admittedly, his three volume work on his latest expedition “New Travels into the Interior of Africa ” translated into English in 1796, could have been considerably condensed, but it was written for a public eager to share in the intrepid voyageur’s privations. A modern publication on le Vaillant’s travels, and especially paintings of the Library of Parliament’s 1973 “Francois Le Vaillant – Traveller in South Africa, with contributions by a number of historians and specialists, is also a very worthwhile investment. The last great, enduring book of travels in the North West during the 18th century, must surely be John Barrow’s “An Account of Travels into the Interior of South Africa” during 1797-8, though published after 1800.
Shortly after the turn of the century, the first missionaries appeared on the scene. From humble beginnings in a hostile land, men of the calibre of Christian Albrecht and Johannes Seidenfaden endeavoured to start a mission among the Namaqua, first near present-day Kakamas, as the Cape Government was against any form of missionary endeavour within its boundaries, then at Warmbath in Namibia. The Cape authorities relented a few years later and the missionaries were able to establish themselves with Cornelis Kok’s people in the Kamiesberg region. However the Great Namaqua chief Jager Afrikaner came into dispute with mission’s people and razed the fledgling stations to the ground. Then Messrs Sass, Helm, Ebner and Schmelen of the LMS took to the field. The latter was to play a huge role in furthering the aims of the missions in the region, besides establishing numerous stations in Namaqualand and across the river in Namibia. But it was Ebner who was to get into print; all that is left of Schmelen’s efforts are the reports, that were included in the annual publications of the London Missionary Society. Ebner’s “Reise nach Süd Afrika…etc’ was published in 1829 in Germany.
1813 saw the advent of Rev John Campbell on a prolonged tour of inspection. His charming book “Travels in South Africa”, published in 1815, is a delight to read, and is therefore the first work on missionary endeavours to get into print. The Wesleyans established their first mission in 1816 at Leliefontein, and the Rev Barnabas Shaw was to spend several years there, of which he wrote in his ” Memorials of South Africa”, published in 1840. A young missionary, by name of Threlfall, made the mistake of wanting to explore terra incognita in bad company in 1825. One of his companions, named Naugaap, murdered him, which led to reams of martyrdom being published about the lad for more than a century subsequently. The said Naugaap was later apprehended and tried by Cornelis Kok, whose followers executed the miscreant at Silverfontein. There was Robert Moffat, who also had his introduction to missionary labours in Namaqualand before departing for Afrikaner’s kraal in Namibia, as described in his ‘Missionary Labours and Scenes in South Africa’ published in 1844. The same year too, saw the publication of James Backhouse’s “Narrative of a Visit…”, during which he did the Grand Tour of the missionary establishments of the Cape as well as in the Northwest. James Kitchingman’s short term at Leliefontein was described in ‘The Kitchingman Papers” published relatively recently by the Brenthurst Press. So there is no real shortage of hearing about the experiences of the men of the cloth. More recently, during the second half of the 20th century, it became the fashion to publish a swathe of books, usually entitled something to the tune of ” Eeufeesgedenkboek van die Gemeente…”, referring to each and every community of the NG Church in the region. I have assiduously collected as many of these I could find, since not only do they document the ecclesiastical matters of the region, there are usually short, regional, general histories, names of early farms and their inhabitants, construction of churches, irrigation projects, roads and a host of other detail.
The era of grand exploration may have been past, but there were still some intrepid souls who wished to experience the hardships and dangers of the road untrodden. A good example was George Thompson, a man of commerce from the Eastern Cape, who professes some curiosity about the lesser known regions. While earlier traveller recorded the natural history, tribes and geography, all Thompson desired was to be on the move and to experience new scenes. The second volume of his work “Travels in Southern Africa” sees the author coming down the Orange river into a desperately drought-ridden Namaqualand. His adventures are well-described, so much so that it is thought he received more than passing assistance from Thomas Pringle in writing up his journal. No matter, as long as it is entertaining. The next explorer was James Edward Alexander. After a stint of soldiering in the Eastern Cape, he was intent on exploring the West Coast of Africa – starting at Cape Town. Under the aegis of the Royal Geographical Society and with the blessing of the Governor of the Cape, the intrepid soldier set off, getting as far as Walfish Bay. His 1837 account is most entertaining, and has been reprinted in USA, as well as relatively recently by Struik. After the first half of the 19th century had passed, there is almost an abrupt halt to all information published about the region in books. True, short articles appear in periodicals and reports, but it seems that copper-fever has overtaken the region – so this is the subject of a book that I assembled, entitled ‘Life and Travels in the Northwest – 1850-1899 – that ‘lost’ half century.
A few other books deserve mention in the annals of exploration and missionary work in the Northwest. They are A A Anderson’s “Twenty-five Years in a Waggon” published in 1888 – but infuriatingly he gives very little data of where he was travelling and when – instead these are discontinuous episodes strung together into a book. The there is Benjamin Ridsdale’s “Scenes and Adventures in Great Namaqualand” which mainly describes missionary work at Nisbeth Bath in Namibia, but has some absolutely charming and humorous experiences during his travels through Namaqualand as well. The book was published in 1883. Lastly there is the stern and scientific work by Leonard Schultze, entitled “Aus Namaland und Kalahari”. No light reading this, but rather an enumeration of geological and topographical features, tribes of peoples; their appearance, habits, economies etc, lists of plants, and animals – but nowhere is a trace of the author and his travels up the Orange river to be found. Only for real enthusiasts!
Maps are an integral part of many books on exploration. So it is natural that sooner or later maps find their way onto the shelves as well. There are several dozen maps in my collection. The oldest are French maps of portions of the West Coast by de Maurepas and Bonne, from the early and late 18th century. One could amass literally hundreds like this, but to do them justice, a lot of wall-space is needed, which I do not have. So maps are not of great importance as items of my collection, though I have a complete set of British Intelligence Maps from the Boer War period, mostly on my computer. Another desirable set of detailed maps was made before and during WWI by the Union Government, since they anticipated trouble in the region as well as hostilities with the Germans across the Orange River. My most-used map is a three and a half metre long by one a half metre wide abomination, which I have taped together from a number of 1:250 000 sheets of maps from the Topocadastral Survey. It has travelled with us all over the region and led us onto some memorable places.
This sparsely populated region was inhabited by some of the most hated, feared, despised – and romanticised people in the subcontinent – the San or Bushmen. There are a number of more or less recent books on the cave-art sites, as well as rock engravings that are to be found in the region. An early book on the prehistory is E J Dunn’s “The Bushmen” published in 1931. It relates the author’s encounters with some of the remnants during his career as a geologist, and also gives an overview of the Middle Stone Age in the region. There is G W Stow’s Book “Native Races of South Africa” which deals extensively with Khoi and San. Although the author only met a few tribespeople, and he based most of his work on other sources, his findings are still consulted today, though first published in 1904. Other seminal works were J A Engelbrecht’s work “Koranna”, Isaac Schapera’s “Khoisan Peoples of South Africa”, Winifred Hoernle’s and Peter Carsten’s several works on the Nama people of Steinkopf and the Richtersveld, among others. Most of these books are for the specialist student, though there are a number of lesser, general publications.
1899 saw the start of the Ango-Boer war, which heralded the establishment of the Border Scouts, who were made up of local coloured people, a move which caused much animosity between segments of the Northwest population. The first invasion led by Gen. Herzog early in 1901, took the towns of Calvinia and Vanrhynsdorp among others, and the Boers penetrated as far as Lambert’s Bay, but this was not to last. The last part of the war was bitterly contested in Bushmanland as well as Gordonia and the copper-mining district around O’okiep. There are about two dozen works dealing with the conflict in the region, mostly in Afrikaans – generally in the genre of ” My part in the war..” – touching on the conflict in Namaqualand and Bushmanland. Many of these are poorly written, and equally poorly published. Probably the most readable account of the war was by Deneys Reitz – “Commando”, and two in-depth books on the siege of O’okiep by P Burke and B L Kieran for ardent students of military matters (by the way, such is the nature of the rough terrain around the mining town, that one can still discover previously unknown small fortifications or ‘sangers’, complete with cartridge cases and empty bully-beef tins, among the rocks surrounding the town ), and lastly, Bill Nasson’s book” Abraham Esau’s War”.
Mining and geology has been of great importance to the region. Although its mineral wealth has been largely stripped; the copper mines have ground to a halt, the yield of diamonds has dropped, but is continuing, while there are still reserves of metals like zinc and titanium to keep the industry going. There may still be some undiscovered lodes or deposits. One of the classics of the search for riches is, of course F C Cornell’s ” Glamour of Prospecting”, first published in 1920. Cornell spent months, literally sleeping metres away from untold riches, which he never found; though I know that when he died in a tragic street accident in London, he was carrying two small, uncut diamonds for which he had a permit (which I have seen). Hans Merensky too, was involved in the search for diamonds, and he and his partner Reuning, persevered and reaped the benefits. Reuning wrote a lengthy article on the finds. Merensky had a biographer who chronicled his life, Olga Lehmann, who wrote the book ” Look Beyond the Wind”. There are dozens of theses, articles, contributions to learned journals on earth sciences – all dealing with the Northwest, only one has become an enduring standard work on the subject: Henno Martin’s “The Precambrian Geology of South West Africa and Namaqualand”. UCT has published a whole series of geological work done in the area, most of which I have been fortunate to acquire – though I don’t profess to read and understand the contents. Though geology might not seem much of a spectator sport for most laymen – I would recommend the glacier track, south of Niewoudtville to the most blasé observer. It is almost inconceivable how a layer of ice, carrying boulders and pebbles, will melt the rock surface it is sliding over through the friction exerted upon it. Truly awesome.
Talking of nature, there are few books on the fauna of the region. Barry Lovegrove’s fine work, “The Living Deserts of Southern Africa”, published by Fernwood in 1993, is probably the closest you can get to an all-encompassing book on the arid ecosystems of the region. To my mind, it is a wonderful work and succeeds admirably in explaining the secrets of survival of life in a mainly hostile environment. There are a number of bird-lists, and a few booklets on the fauna of reserves of the region. A more general, but very worthwhile work, is Joan Schrauwen’s “West Coast – a Circle of Seasons in South Africa”, published by Winchester 1991. There are also more scientific works – the reports of museum expeditions, led by men such as H H W Pearson who led the Percy Sladen Memorial Expedition of 1908-9 as far as the Kunene, describing the fauna and flora as they wended their way up the coast through Namaqualand; in 1930 there was the Vernay-Lang Kalahari expedition which researched the inland fauna and flora.
In addition, there are large numbers of publications dealing with the palaeontology of the region, especially so since the vast fossil beds of Langebaanweg are still giving up their secrets and increasing our knowledge of the period between 1 and 25 million years ago. Up on the Gariep River, at Arrisdrift, there are river terraces containing similar fossils, while in the Cederberg, once over the Pakhuis pass, there are hundreds of square kilometres of rounded hills containing fossils by the million – dating back up to 400 million years ago – and of which there are also learned monographs to consider.
Since the epic explosion of spring flowers is a yearly phenomenon, which some say, is visible from space; it is fitting that some truly beautiful books have appeared to celebrate this event. Even Sima Eliovson’s 1972 book ” Namaqualand in Flower” still never fails to enchant me, though the photo reproduction may not be as good as in modern books. Enid du Plessis’ and Hilda Mason’s book, “Western Cape Sandveld Flowers”, published in the same year, is an evergreen of the artistic sort, to be ranked with Barbara Jeppe’s work in “Spring and Winter Flowering Bulbs of the Cape”, OUP 1989, which contains much of the regions’ flora. There is Cowling, Pierce & Paterson-Jones’ “Namaqualand – a Succulent Desert”, and Williamson’s ” Richtersveld – the Enchanted Wilderness” among a large number of mainly photographic works. The guidebooks published by the Botanical Society, covering the various floristic regions contained within the area under consideration, are not to be despised either, and no visitor to the spring flower display should be without the full complement of four volumes.
A scarce genre is that of hunting books. With the exception of the millions of springbuck that gathered periodically for their migrations, which were described by Cronwright-Schreiner in “The Migratory Springbucks of South Africa”, as well as by Scully and Conradie, game was scarce, and even the noblest of desert antelope, the gemsbuck or oryx, hardly rated expeditions by the Nimrods of the period. There is only one regional work which richly deserves a place in a collection of books on the chase – Scully’s ” Lodges in the Wilderness”. Unlike most hunters of the day, he creaks off into the waterless desert in an ox-wagon, to a strange Bantomberg, out on the endless plains, where he and his companions ambush passing game.
But back to people – as they are a necessary ingredient in ‘fleshing out’ a geographic region. There are a number of biographies, mainly autobiographies, some of which I have already mentioned above, as the lives described were those of missionaries, explorers and discoverers of mineral wealth. There are many more of the same – all giving the reader pictures of life at different times and milieus in the arid zone. From V C Malherbe’s “Krotoa, Called Eva” which chronicles the largely forgotten life of the brave Khoi lass who accompanied van Riebeeck’s early explorers into the Northwest as an interpreter ( and later married the surgeon van Meerhoff), to Ursula Trüper’s ” Die Hottentottin” – which describes the life of the shadowy Nama woman, Zara Schmelen, wife of the missionary at Komaggas, who helped him with the almost insuperable task of translating the bible into Nama. There are a number of biographies of Gordon, who played a large part in the exploration; Lady Anne Barnard travelled as far as Langebaan, where she spent some time with friends on a farm; Louis Leipold spent some of his early years in the Clanwilliam district; Frank Wightman, the intrepid sailor of Wylo fame, whiled away a few years as a hermit on his yacht moored at Kraal Bay, as recorded by Lawrence Green. The quirky magistrate, poet and writer, William Charles Scully, although rather sparing with his Namaqualand experiences in “Further Reminscences of a S African Pioneer”, contributed much to our knowledge of the people of Namaqualand in the 1890’s, with snippets in a number of other works. In Afrikaans there are a number of well-written biographical works by such as F A Venter, with “Die Middag voel na Warm As”, “Werfjoernaal” and “Kambro-Kind”, A A J van Niekerk’s ” Boetie van Namaqualand”, W Conradie’s “Ondervindingen van een Jong Predikant in Namaqualand” – as well as a number of fairly rustic memoirs by people from all walks of life, from fishermen to farmers and shopkeepers; yet all contribute a little something to the overall picture.
What is a region without its own literature? There is a lovely word in Afrikaans for it – kontreistories, which could be loosely translated as ‘country-tales’. Namaqualand is rich in those, but mainly in Afrikaans – to which we will return a little later. What, then, is the first novel to be published on the region. Anthony Trollope visited there in the 1870’s – but his Namaqualand experiences seem to have left no permanent impression as the region gets only a fleeting mention in his work ‘South Africa’ published in 1878. That able writer, W C Scully, wrote several novels with a Northwest background. His most well-known is “Between Sun and Sand”, which features trekboer life and the lonely existence of a young Jewish smous, or shopkeeper. Another of his novels is “Vendetta of the Desert”, but both of these appeared only in the 1890’s. No, it was a French novel, by none less than the master of science fiction Jules Verne, that had a setting in Namaqualand. His “Aventures de trois Russes et de trois Anglais dans l ‘ Afrique Australe” was published in Paris by Collection Hetzel in about 1872. The English translations followed from 1873 onwards under various titles like my copy ” Adventures of three Russians and Three Englishmen in South Africa”. His characters embark on an unlikely voyage of exploration by steam boat up the Orange River ( totally ignoring the Augrabies Falls, and meeting with a further series of unlikely adventures on their quest to Central Africa). John Galsworthy too has a connection with the region. His father was the Copper Company’s solicitor, and John trekked round the region and even rode the copper train to Port Nolloth. He is reputed to have written a crime story set in the desert, but so far I have not been able to identify it – any help would be welcome. Galsworthy started the O’okiep library with works selected by himself in London, so it would only be right if one of the volumes there was his tribute to the desert. Except for a few minor, historical novels, juvenile adventure books and the like – that seems to be the sum total of English literature.
In the Afrikaans language we are absolutely spoiled for choice. The pithy Namaqualand Afrikaans idiom, as spoken by white and brown, combined with Cederberg, Sandveld, West Coast, and Bushmanland idioms and variations, are a pure delight. I must mention authors such as van Niekerk, von Wielligh, Suttner, Rossouw, Murray, Leipoldt, E Kotze & T Kotze, Joubert, Deist, Deacon, de Roubaix and Branca, among many more. These writers have done much to record the trials and tribulations of the rural people, the shepherds and goatherds, the tillers of the soil, the craftsmen and the crafty, the rich and the poor, the transport riders and the prospectors, the law-breakers and the lawmen. Even though some of the language used is so ‘foreign’ to city-dwellers’ ears that it is almost unintelligible – and I would challenge some of the Afrikaans speakers here to translate a few choice pages from a book such a T Kotze’s ‘Latjiesboud en Horingsmanooi’ – larded as they are with antiquated stock-farming terms and Nama words, yet they are part of a unique regional linguistic heritage, well worth treasuring.
As mentioned before, there are a number of charming children’s books, some in English, but most in Afrikaans. G Sauerman’s “Roep van die Riviervoels”, Willem Steenkamp’s “Namakwalandse Oustories”, and several books by A A J van Niekerk are good examples of what is on offer.
Lastly, there is poetry. Yes, again W C Scully comes to the fore with several poems featuring his beloved Bushmanland. Unfortunately there was never a collection of verses dealing with the region only. The honour of having a book published containing that, must go to padre Henry Wigget of “West Coast Poems” fame.
I hope that this not so short presentation on the literature of the “wild west” has explained and shared with you my fascination with the region and my desire to amass a collection of its written work. For those of a practical bent – the northwest is ideal since the subject is reasonable in size and scope (my collection contains about 1000 items, ranging from pamphlets to tomes). Although some of the earlier works are scarce and expensive, these are in the minority; many of the Afrikaans novels can still be picked up for a song at charity sales.
This was a lecture to illustrate an exhibition of a selection of books, given to The Society of Bibliophiles in Cape Town in 2008.