‘The Truest Native of South Africa’: Representing the ‘Bushman’ in Anglophone Nineteenth-Century Literature

Lara Atkin is a fifth year part-time PhD student at Queen Mary, University of London. Her thesis examines representations of South African ‘Bushmen’ in nineteenth-century literature and popular culture. She’s reviewed on popular science and exhibition culture for the Journal of Victorian Culture and has written on ‘human zoos’ for Safundi: The Journal of South African and American Studies. Lara tweets sporadically @LaraAtkin and can be found on academia.edu.

‘The Truest Native of South Africa’[1]: Representing the ‘Bushman’ in Anglophone Nineteenth Century Literature

Britain’s involvement in South Africa spanned the entire nineteenth century, from its first occupation of the Cape Colony in 1795 to the advent of the Union of South Africa on May 31 1910. During this whole period, British literary culture was awash with representations of South Africa and its indigenous peoples. Yet in the British academy, the dominant view is that Anglophone literary depictions of South Africa began with Olive Schreiner’s The Story of An African Farm (1883).

Schreiner’s karoo is a barren wasteland in which the indigenous presence is marked only by an absence. In chapter two, Lydell and Em sit in the shadow of an overhanging rock ‘on the surface of which were still visible some old Bushman paintings, their red and black pigments having been preserved through long years from wind and rain by the overhanging ledge; grotesque oxen, elephants rhinoceroses, and a one-horned beast, such as no man ever has seen or ever shall.’[2]

Image: Watercolour of San cave painting by British geologist George Stow dated May 1867 ].

Image: Watercolour of San cave painting by British geologist George Stow dated May 1867 < http://lloydbleekcollection.cs.uct.ac.za/stow/STOW_009.html>%5D.

The ‘bushman’ refers to the San people, South Africa’s earliest indigenous inhabitants, whose cave paintings depicting their daily life and religious rituals populate rocky overhangs across South Africa to this day. Schreiner’s narrator sees in the San’s representations of their culture beasts ‘no man has seen or ever shall’, effectively relegating the San to a pre-modern, quasi-mythological past. This temporal distancing, which historical anthropologist Johannes Fabian has termed the ‘denial of coevalness’, framed cultural difference within an evolutionary discourse structured around notions of ‘progression’ and ‘regression’, and was deployed throughout the nineteenth century by ethnologists, government surveyors and gentleman travellers, as well as the poets and novelists who imbibed their works.[3] By relegating the San to the distant past, Schreiner’s narrator fails to acknowledge the history of systematic dispossession and genocide that marred settler-San relations from the eighteenth century onwards, and which continued apace during the period in which she was writing The Story of an African Farm.

Yet this failure of representation did not always characterise colonial writing about the San. Amongst the early-nineteenth-century British travel narratives, the most influential and frequently cited was John Barrow’s Travels into the Interior of Southern Africa (1801 and 1802). In the following extract, Barrow, a government agent whose primary objective was to survey the territory first acquired by the British in 1799, and consider its suitability as a colony, recounts a commando against the ‘Bushmen’ that he was taken on. Barrow describes the incident as follows:

Day was but just beginning to break; and by the faint light I could discover only a few straw-mats, bent each between two sticks, into a semicircular form; but our ears were stunned with a horrid scream like the war-hoop of savages; the shrieking of women and the cries of children proceeded from every side. […] I certainly had seen neither arrows nor people, but had heard enough to pierce the hardest heart; […]In justification of their conduct they [Dutch-African colonists] began to search on the ground for the arrows, a search in which they were encouraged to continue, in order to give the poor wretches a little time to scramble away among the detached fragments of rocks and the shrubbery that stood on the side of the heights. On their promise I could place no sort of dependence, knowing that, like true sportsmen when game was sprung, they could not withhold their fire. Of this I was perfectly convinced by the report of a musquet on the opposite side of the hill; and, on riding round the point, I perceived a Bosjesman lying dead upon the ground.[4]

Here, Barrow’s narrative cannot maintain a position of dispassionate observation that is often thought to characterise ethnographic travel writing, in the face of the murder of innocent people. The calm of the daybreak is ruptured by ‘a horrid-scream[..] like a war-hoop’ which would appear to signify an attack from the infamously ‘wild’ bushmen. However, the ‘shrieking of women and the cries of children’ are enough to ‘pierce the hardest heart’, a metaphor which vividly evokes the bodily penetration inflicted on the Bushmen by the deadly shots of the Dutch-African colonists. While the colonists continue to insist that they were fired upon first, and the bushmen are the threat, Barrow’s affective responses reveal the fallacy of this logic – with the colonists the brutal, callous murderers, and the bushmen the innocent victims. There is a further modulation in his tone when he states that he could not trust the members of the commando to stop firing because ‘like true sportsmen when game was sprung, they could not withhold their fire’, playing on the liminal position that bushmen occupied in the socio-evolutionary classificatory systems of the day as on the boundary between man and beast to acerbically condemn both the commando itself and the relish with which it was carried out.[5]

Image: William Burchall, ‘View of a Bushman Kraal’, Travels in the Interior of Southern Africa. 2 vols. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme & Brown, 1822-1824. (vol 2),

Image: William Burchall, ‘View of a Bushman Kraal’, Travels in the Interior of Southern Africa. 2 vols. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme & Brown, 1822-1824. (vol 2), <http://libweb5.princeton.edu/visual_materials/maps/websites/africa/burchell/burchell9.jpg&gt;

In the above extract, Barrow’s account of his emotional reaction to the commando creates a sense of horror on the part of the reader which exposes the limits of the discourse of imperial disinterest, and becomes a critique of the genocide enacted by the colonists. This humanitarian critique of colonial treatment of indigenous peoples also ran through the first literary representations of South Africa. The first literary representations of South Africa and its peoples came from the poet, journalist and editor Thomas Pringle. Best known today for his editorship of the first female slave narrative The History of Mary Prince (1831), Pringle’s South African poetry circulated in a broad range of periodicals and annuals in the 1820s and 1830s, and was never out of print through the whole nineteenth century. In his sonnet ‘The Bushman’ (1827), Pringle’s account of a commando bears similarities both structurally and rhetorically to Barrow’s account in Travels. The poem begins with a pastoral scene of quiet retirement.

The Bushman sleeps within his black-browed den,

In the lone wilderness. Around him lie

His wife and little ones unfearingly –

For they are far away from “Christian Men”’ [6]

As well as linking the ‘Bushman’ with the ‘lone wilderness’ in which he inhabits, Pringle aims to create a sense of sympathetic identification between his assumed reader and the ‘Bushman’. He is surrounded by ‘His wife and little ones’, a sentimental image which stresses both the innocence and vulnerability of the group. As with Barrow’s description, the tranquillity of the scene is ruptured by a surprise commando raid.

But he shall dance no more! His secret lair,

Surrounded, echoes to the thundering gun,

And the wild shriek of anguish and despair!

He dies—yet, ere life’s ebbing sands are run,

Leaves to his sons a curse, should they be friends

With proud “Christian-Men”—for they are fiends!

This scene is disrupted by the ‘thundering gun’, a symbol of both modernity and colonial aggression. As with Barrow, the initial absence of any colonists from this scene allows Pringle to focus on the psychological and physical damage wrought upon the Bushmen by the commando: the scene of tranquil domesticity is punctured by ‘wild shrieks of anguish and despair’ which enlist the reader’s moral sympathy by stressing the asymmetry between the colonist’s violent attack, and the tragic desperation of their defenceless victims.

Like Barrow, Pringle ends the poem by questioning the ontological basis of the colonists’ self-representation. The use of inverted commas around the phrase “Christian men” and the final assertion that ‘they are fiends’ emphasises the disjunction between the ideology of the ‘civilizing mission’ in Africa and the brutality of the violence wrought upon the indigenous population. Meanwhile, the transformation of the peaceful Bushman into an insurgent figure vowing revenge suggests that, far from pacifying the Bushmen, the commando system is actually making them less likely to want to integrate into the colonial state and more of a threat.

Images: cover of The Lady’s Monthly Museum (vol. 27, 1828) and engraving of Thomas Pringle by William Finden. From the National Library of Scotland

Images: cover of The Lady’s Monthly Museum (vol. 27, 1828) and engraving of Thomas Pringle by William Finden. From the National Library of Scotland < https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Thomas_Pringle.jpg&gt;

This forceful strain of critique is perhaps surprising if we consider the places in which British readers would have encountered this poem. As well as appearing in Pringle’s two poetry collections, Ephermides (1828) and African Sketches (1834), ‘The Bushman’ appeared in The Monthly Magazine and, perhaps most intriguingly, The Lady’s Monthly Museum (1828). Quite what these fashionable ladies made of Pringle’s persecuted Bushmen and savage colonists remains an open question, but the presence of ‘The Bushman’ in such a publication demonstrates the breadth of Pringle’s readership, and his ability to use popular poetic forms to disseminate his colonial critique beyond the pages of liberal newspapers and abolitionist pamphlets, and into the popular literary imaginary of the period.


[1] J.M. Coetzee, White Writing: On the Culture of Letters in South Africa, (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1988), p. 177.

[2] Olive Schreiner, The Story of An African Farm, (London:Virago Press, 1989), p.28.

[3] Johannes Fabian, Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes its Object, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983; 2001), p. 25.

[4] Sir John Barrow, Travels into the Interior of Southern Africa: In Which Are Described the Character and the Condition of the Dutch Colonists of the Cape of Good Hope, and of the Several Tribes of Natives beyond Its Limits : The Natural History of Such Subjects as Occurred in the Animal, Mineral and Vegetable Kingdoms : And the Geography of the Southern Extremity of Africa : Comprehending Also a Topographical and Statistical Sketch of the Cape Colony : With an Inquiry into Its Importance as a Naval and Military Station, as a Commercial Emporium; and as a Territorial Possession (T. Cadell and W. Davies, in the Strand, 1806), pp. 272–3.

[5] See Dirk Klooper, ‘Boer, Bushman, and Baboon: Human and Animal in Nineteenth-Century and Early Twentieth-Century South African Writings’, Safundi, 11 (2010), 3-18 (5).


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