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BUSHMEN IN A VICTORIAN WORLD (article first published : 2006-08-15)

Colonialism is a dirty word these days, among some people anyway, and one may be apt to overlook the very considerable achievements of the colonial era in South Africa and elsewhere. Not least among these were the labours of scholars who sought to study and write about the history and languages of indigenous peoples who were unable to record these matters themselves except orally.

One such scholastic hero was Wilhelm Heinrich Immanuel Bleek, who was born in Germany in 1827 and died in Cape Town in 1875. Bleek and his sister-in-law Lucy Catherine Lloyd learned and recorded the language and customs of the Bushmen people (San). Bleek, a formidable philologist, also coined the term Bantu, which was to be a bone of political contention a century later, becoming first a favourite word and then a distinct unfavourite. Bleek himself was an innocent, a scholar, not a politician.

The findings of Bleek and Lucy Lloyd, and later of his daughter Dorothea Bleek, are well-known, through their own writings and the tributes of others (Dorothea’s own Bushman dictionary appeared as late as 1956). What is less familiar is their modus operandi, how they learned what they did, and this is the theme of Bushmen in a Victorian World, a fascinating book by Andrew Bank who teaches history at the University of the Western Cape in Cape Town.

In what must have seemed a quite scandalous permissiveness at the time (the mid-nineteenth century), the Cape government authorities allowed a succession of Bushmen from the Breakwater Prison at the Table Bay Harbour to live with Bleek and Lloyd in their suburban home at Mowbray.

Andrew Bank has unearthed a wealth of detail in telling this remarkable story of patience, wisdom and perseverance on both sides of a wide cultural gap. It is quite a long book, about 400 pages, and I suppose its appeal will be for the serious reader. I found it unfailingly interesting, and many others will think likewise.

Natal has quite an important role in the story. Bleek came to this part of the world in 1855, conducting research into the isiZulu language. And he married Jemima, daughter of the Anglican archdeacon of Durban, William Lloyd.

Bushmen in a Victorian World has a generous selection of old photographs and drawings. It is published by Double Storey and retails at R185.- Michael Green




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