Pringle’s defence of civic values

The South African Letters of Thomas Pringle edited by Randolph Vigne, Van Riebeeck Society, 2011

The South African Letters of Thomas Pringle, edited and introduced by Randolph Vigne,
Van Riebeeck Society for the Publication of Southern African Historical Documents: Second Series No. 42, Cape Town, 2011.

This is a meticulously researched and magnificently produced book. Its editor, Randolph Vigne, and the Van Riebeeck Society remind us that South Africa retains the potential for intelligent literary and political intervention beyond the debased language that has characterised – in fact, continues to characterise – much of our public life.

During his six years at the Cape (1820-1826), Thomas Pringle offered thoughts and sentiments at odds with both the majority of British settlers on the Eastern frontier and the Tory governing class in Cape Town. Ironically, it was his exposure of the neglect by colonial authorities of the “Albany” settlers that was the final nail in his confrontation with the autocratic governor of the Cape, Lord Charles Somerset. (Some Account of the Present State of the English Settlers in Albany, South Africa, an expanded version of his article in The South African Journal, was published in London in 1825.) Pringle’s “humanitarian” concern, however, was hardly appreciated on the frontier itself. His attachment to so-called “negrophilic” causes – anticipating his key role in the anti-slavery campaign – was anathema to the workaday settler; anathema, too, to the Dutch on the frontier, many of whom would leave the Cape Colony to embark upon the Great Trek. Pringle’s collection of poems, African Sketches, was reviewed in The Graham’s Town Journal (January 1835) as the scribbling of “this ungrateful viper”. Sadly, public commentary in South Africa is still quick to resort to the animal insult.

What might have provoked the reviewer’s ire? Probably not the poems of African Sketches in themselves. For Pringle’s strong ideas – particularly in his poetry – do not always escape his inherited and, at times, somewhat archaic diction and form. In his sonnet, “Slavery”, for example, literary convention mutes rather than accentuates the contentious subject-matter:

Oh Slavery: thou art a bitter draught!
And twice accurséd is thy poisoned bowl…

In contrast, and with an acerbity that probably offended The Graham’s Town Journal reviewer, Pringle’s prose commentary adjusted its “literariness” – sometimes in ironical understatement – to the immediate purpose at hand:

The mildness of Slavery at the Cape has been much dwelt upon by certain travellers, whose opinions on the subject, being re-echoed by the Quarterly Review and similar publications, seem to be generally admitted in England as perfectly just and incontrovertible. I am satisfied, however, that the term, except in a very restricted sense, is altogether inapplicable.
(“Letters from South Africa No. 1 Slavery”)

And lest the reader not identify the simmering anger, the “Letter” ends on what I think is Pringle’s peculiar strength, whether in his poetry or prose. It is fact infused with telling emotion. From the Annual Lists of trials before the Court of Justice and its Commissioners, as inserted in the Cape Gazette, he juxtaposes the judgements in the form and function of a shocking “found” poem:

Jacob, of Mozambique, slave of W. Servyntyn, for threatening the life of his master, and making resistance against the Veld-Cornet: condemned to be exposed to public view, made fast by a rope under the gallows; thereupon to be flogged, branded, and confined on Robben Island (to work in irons) for life.

C. A. Marais, on the charge of ill-treatment, preferred against him by his female slave Kaatje: defendant sentenced to a penalty of 25 rix dollars, and severely reprimanded.

April, slave of A. de Villiers, on a charge of murder: condemned to be hanged at the village of Stellenbosch, and his head and right hand to be cut off, and exposed to public view on a pole.

P. S. Bosman, on the charge of ill-treatment, preferred against him by his slave July. The complaint having been proved groundless, the plaintiff condemned to be flogged.

Pringle continues to list the judgements, in which punishment is meted out disproportionately between “Master” and “Slave”. His is not the scribbling of an ungrateful viper, surely; rather, it is a stinging rebuke of cruelty and injustice. He may be thought of as a precursor of what in SA lit has become a “genre” in its own right: that of creative non-fiction.

In African Poems of Thomas Pringle, in 1989, the late Ernest Pereira and I argued in our Introduction that Pringle continued to merit attention because his poetry and prose, born of his African experience, presented in microcosm many of the issues that had dominated the South African scene for the past 150 years; that the problems with which he wrestled – racial conflict, political oppression, censorship, economic exploitation – remained relevant to the 1980s. The same “relevance” applied to the questions his work raised concerning literature as propaganda (or “protest”), distinctions between “literature” and other forms of writing such as social documentation and, indeed, what might be meant by “South African Literature”. Here was a Scottish poet and writer – one whose style and thought had to a great extent already been formed by the influences of the Enlightenment and the Romantic revival – transplanted in a completely alien environment, lacking in almost everything that had conditioned his life up to then. How to locate his “self”; what language resources might he find to be at his disposal?

Certainly Pringle’s voluminous letter-writing complements his literary output while taking us beyond the comparisons that Pereira and I drew in 1989. Instead, we may draw illuminating comparisons with South Africa of today. In his letters, Pringle struggles against an uncaring and inefficient bureaucracy. Blinded by the arrogance of power, Somerset chose to interpret Pringle’s liberal constitutional propensities as an attack on a Tory class-sanctioned, military-sanctioned, even God-sanctioned, right to rule. (He did not declare, as far as we know, a time scale of millennia: until Jesus comes again!) Many of Pringle’s letters to the authorities in defence of his stance on justice, particularly on freedom of opinion, go unanswered; frustration besets the letter writer.

In his Preface to the Letters, Howard Phillips (Chair of the Van Riebeeck Society) refers to my observation that a critical method involves a return of the text to the particularities of its period as a necessary prerequisite for understanding its passage through the culture. In the light of this, we may recollect Somerset’s knee-jerk reaction to criticism of his authority. He sought to ban the source of the criticism: if not, as his venom probably wished, Pringle himself (our Suppression of Communism Act would be a later tyranny), then, at least, the print media – The South African Commercial Advertiser and The South African Journal – in which Pringle had a prominent investment. Although he eventually received grudging acknowledgement of the moral rightness of his cause – Somerset by then had been “recalled” under a cloud – Pringle received no financial recompense. To employ the discourse of today, he had brought the institution – in his case, the Colonial Office – into disrepute.

But let us turn from Somerset. My point is hinted in analogy. Has our current ruling class, in its threats against the media, learnt too little from our shared, even if it is a resentfully shared, history? In this history Pringle played a prominent role, his voice not confined to its times, but persisting in unexpected ways. Having struggled to modify his observations and writings to the demands of the frontier – the Xhosa bard Ntsikana, for example, would influence the words and rhythms of his earlier Walter Scott-like border ballads – he included in his “Letters from South Africa (No. 2 Caffer Campaigns. The Prophet Makanna)” the dramatic voice of this “red”, or ochre, person, a Xhosa traditionalist who, in resistance to colonial expansion, would lead a desperately repulsed attack on the British fortress at Graham’s Town and who, in trying to escape his consequent imprisonment on Robben Island, would drown in the attempt. Through the work of several later writers, including Mtutuzeli Matshoba, Makanna, or Makana, has become a leitmotif in our literature.

To reiterate, this publication re-affirms Thomas Pringle as a figure of significance in our public life, whether political or literary. As our leaders flip-flop around the issue of human rights – from the Dalai Lama to Damuscus – Randolph Vigne’s editorial commitment acknowledges a courageous and consistent defence of civic values.