An entirely different world’: Russian visitors to the Cape, 1797–1870.
Edited by Boris Gorelik
Van Riebeeck Society (VRS), Second Series No 46, Cape Town 2015
For the first time, we have the benefit of an English text outlining some of the experiences of Russian visitors to the Cape for the period 1797–1870. It is edited by Boris Gorelik. He is well positioned to do so as a Russian writer. Considering his background in linguistics and history, especially his research into the history of Russian immigrants to South Africa and his comprehensive study of the Russian community living here, one imagines him to be so well placed.
An entirely different world offers a unique view of the Cape by important Russian writers and personalities such as Yuri Lisyansky, Vasily Golovnin, Ivan Goncharov, Konstantin Posyet and others. As with several other cases of travellers rounding the Cape, Russian travellers saw it as a convenient stopover, although it became more than that – a place worthy of a visit. While what they experienced here was markedly different from what they saw in their country, there were nevertheless certain parallels between life there and at the Cape. Contact between Russia and the Cape ceased when the Suez Canal was built in 1869. Had it not been constructed, Russian visits to the Cape might have continued. Had it been constructed earlier, there would probably not have been such a rich historiography from a Russian perspective.
The five-and-a-half-page introduction contextualizes the historical connections and background for the book. This is followed by six chapters, each with its own heading, containing the accounts or memoirs of Russians who spent some time at the Cape.
Yuri Lisyansky visited the Cape between 1797 and 1798, being the first of these Russian visitors to the western Cape. He is well known for leading the first Russian ships to circumnavigate the earth, which he did with Ivan Krusenstern. Lisyansky’s dream was to visit the place of Constantia wine, of which he had heard so much. He sings the praises of the place and wine, but must have been disillusioned when it seemed that he and his party would have to make their way home. Why could the proprietor not have put them up for the night? Weary and probably disorientated, they were compelled to ask for help, and a warm reception followed from Mr Becker, a German immigrant of the farm Goedgeloof, who had already been living in Cape Town for 30 years. The diary of Lisyansky contains pearls of descriptions of the countryside and surroundings as far as Stellenbosch and Somerset West, as well as of the climate, the inhabitants and the beautiful landscape.
The image of Lisyansky was downloaded from http://book.russ.co.za/ on 4 July 2017.
Vasily Golovnin (1808-9) commanded the sloop Diana, which was detained by the British at Simon’s Bay (Simon’s Town). He subsequently was appointed admiral of the Russian navy. His account provides, among many other things, the details of an amusing incident involving a supposed Frenchman who had lived for a long time in Russia, and who now resided at a place ten hours’ walking distance from Simon’s Town. He spun a nice story about his past and how he had ended up living at the Cape. Notwithstanding the first encounter with him, when he would not reveal his true origin and left a Russian party with the impression of being a Frenchman, he subsequently confessed with tears in his eyes that he was Russian, by name of Ivan Sezyomov, the son of Stepan from Novgorod. Sezyomov was just as surprised to find Russians at the Cape, as the Russians were themselves. Golovnin reports on a broad range of topics. His writing on the character, customs and way of life of the local inhabitants probably ranks as one of the most significant, as it offers a unique perspective, describing the locals as having an “appearance of modest courtesy and of a quiet disposition”, but “very cautious in conversation”. The description of the treatment of slaves by slave-owners provides invaluable detail for Cape historiography. He also explains how the Cape colonists have reason and right to ridicule and hate the British.
The image of Golovnin was downloaded from http://book.russ.co.za/ on 4 July 2017.
Alexey Butakov, an explorer of the Aral Sea and a lieutenant in the Russian navy, visited the Cape on the Abo, a military transport ship, in 1841. Of his first descriptions of the voyage is the sighting of whales, although we are not told which kind. Soon after the shout “Land ho!” rang, Table Mountain was spotted through the mist. The Russian officers were ashore in no time and found themselves in what Butakov called “a perfectly European place”. Yet the descriptions of Malay life are vivid, some locals singing Mozambican songs. Further descriptions include meeting Baron Ludwig, internationally renowned in natural sciences and botany. This reference is to Baron Carl Ferdinand Heinrich Ludwig, whose collection of trees was transferred to the Company’s Garden after his death. The houses of Cape Town are described as “very pretty, neat and [looking] like toys”. As did Yuri Lisyansky, Alexey Butakov and his colleagues visited Constantia. Of special note are his descriptions of the wine of the region. He goes into detail about the different varietals, and most champions the Cape Madeira, “sweet to the point of cloyingness and amazingly succulent” (the grape?). Hiking up Devil’s Peak provided a new experience, described with sensibility to include descriptions of the geraniums and aloes. These vivid descriptions end as the ship weighs anchor and departs for the high seas, parting “as good friends”.
The image of Butakov was downloaded from http://book.russ.co.za/ on 4 July 2017.
The accounts of the aforementioned Russian visitors would not easily have reached a Russian readership. Possibly, the writings of Ivan Goncharov, who visited the Cape in 1853, formed some ideas of South Africa, and conveyed them to those who were interested in reading about such topics – through travelogues, itineraries … He was one of Russia’s great novelists and, thus, spending a month at the Cape was enriching for South African historiography. His arrival aboard the Pallada was soon followed by excursions into the Boland and western Cape, including visits to Stellenbosch, Paarl and as far as Worcester. His memoir, At the Cape of Good Hope, was published in Russia ahead of some of his other well known works. His writings of his experience abroad, covering several places on the globe and lasting two years, are a remarkable account from a great author – a highly sought after travelogue historiography.
According to Apollon Davidson in a paper entitled Russia and South Africa before the Soviet era, “Goncharov’s 156-page book … At the Cape of Good Hope became the standard text which formed the Russian reader’s view of pre-industrial South Africa not only in the nineteenth but even in the twentieth century. And his novel, The frigate Pallada, which had a slightly shorter chapter about the Cape, was translated into many languages.” For further reference to Davidson, go to https://www.hse.ru/data/2013/04/18/1297820237/21HUM2013.pdf.
The magnificent prose of the writer describes the landscape in majestic terms. At first, Goncharov found it hard to write. Then his voice must gradually have come through, as he describes important social historical scenes, such as Malays, blacks and “Afrikanders”. Goncharov explains how everything is so different: even the dogs’ barks are different … “as if it were barking in a foreign language”. The amateur naturalist was intrigued by the museum among the rocks, shells, molluscs, sea urchins and crabs. Asking why Table Mountain was named that way, he was ironically told that it resembled a table, or a trunk, or a piano, or a wall – “anything you please rather than a mountain”. The Garden is hardly half the size of the St Petersburg Summer’s Garden. Goncharov goes into detailed descriptions of the trees and shrubs. Descriptions include a black man and an old black woman with a “kerchief on her head”. “A crowd of boys and girls, ranging from jet-black to pure white, are running about, laughing, crying and scuffling.” His descriptions of the locals, the landscape and escarpment, the natural beauty, the architecture and the customs of inhabitants are uncannily perceptive. No wonder he ranks among Russian writers Turgenev and Dostoyevsky in A common story (1847). And no wonder the editor has assigned no less than 52 pages of the publication to him. Reading the descriptive prose (even in translation!) is sheer joy. He is well known for his novels, one mentioned elsewhere in this article, as well as Oblomov (1859) and The precipice (1869). Visit http://russiapedia.rt.com/prominent-russians/literature/ivan-goncharov/ to read more of him.
The image of Goncharov was downloaded from http://russiapedia.rt.com/prominent-russians/literature/ivan-goncharov/ on 4 July 2017.
Konstantin Posyet (a companion of Goncharov who later became a high-ranking Russian official) arrived at the Cape coast on 10 March 1853 (in the Julian calendar), and the first things he saw were “the high coast of South Africa and … cliffs”. This should not be confused with Table Mountain; rather, he referred to Simon’s Town, with its small semi-circular harbour. This was the preferred site for ships docking, given the protection it offered from the more severe elements in winter. For the researcher of South African social historiography, the records of writers such as Posyet are invaluable for their descriptions of minutiae, such as “bright-white and yellow little houses” (about 120 in number). He describes being met by a poseur claiming to be from the Russian consulate … except that at that stage, Cape Town had no Russian consulate. He conjectures (possible with his experience of these things) that tavern and inn keepers were quick to seize the opportunity to “welcome” guests – for their own commercial ends. Graphic descriptions of the escarpment abound (as with many of these Russian writers). For the interest of current motorists irate at paying toll taxes on many of South Africa’s highways, there were already two major toll gates between Simon’s Town and the centre of the city – one at Muizenberg and the other at Papendorp (now Woodstock). As did some of the other Russian visitors, he refers to the “sweet aromatic wine” from Constantia.
The image of Posyet was downloaded from http://book.russ.co.za/ on 4 July 2017.
Of great significance for South African art iconologists is the section on Alexey Vysheslavtsev, who visited the Cape in 1858, two years subsequent to the war between Russia and Britain waged in Crimea between 1853 and 1856. The good relations that had existed between the two countries deteriorated, and the war took its toll on the populations of both: 22 000 British soldiers and 13 000 Russian troops died in the bloody conflict, today memorialised in well known pieces of literature and in etchings and photogravure prints, such as Alfred Lord Tennyson’s narrative poem “The charge of the light brigade” (1854) and The Battle of Balaclava in pictures.
The image of the Battle of Balaclava (1854-5) was downloaded from https://www.military-art.com/mall/images/var203.jpg on 4 July 2017.
Vysheslavtsev’s accounts are that of an artist, both literarily and pictorially. Not only did he provide descriptions imbued with a strong sense of sensibility and appreciation for the natural beauty of the western Cape, but he also created a number of ink, pencil and watercolour sketches. These are invaluable in so far as they reflect scenes of Cape Town and Simon’s Town at the time. His descriptions are those of a medical doctor and artist combined, a rare quality when it comes to the littérateur. Qualified thus, he sees phenomena from a totally different angle. Travelling in the footsteps of the great Goncharov (Vysheslavtsev was 27 years old when he came to the Cape, coming at the same time as Goncharov, although staying twice as long) must have been an added advantage, as it would have provided some historical contextualization of what to expect … and look for! For the benefit of 19th century Cape historiography, Vysheslavtsev’s sketches of places and people are reproduced in the VRS volume for the first time ever. It must have been an exciting moment in Cape and Russian literary history when Vysheslavtsev visited Goncharov at his flat, and listened to a reading by the author himself of the yet unpublished The precipice. Vysheslavtsev, the Renaissance man, was passionate about art: small wonder that he edited the three-volume collection of The art of Italy, XV century, and Florence (1883). For more information, go to https://www.bol.com/nl/p/italian-art-xv-century-florence/9200000051803579/. Such was the virtuosity of Dr Vysheslavtsev – medical doctor, writer and art critic! The 18 pages of – until now – an unpublished account of his Cape visit is a true treasure, including descriptions of the landscape and inhabitants of the Cape (western Cape).
The image of Alexey Vysheslavtsev was downloaded from http://book.russ.co.za/ on 4 July 2017.
The book ends with the writings of Baron Alexander Wrangel, who came to the Cape in 1858, before setting out on his very successful diplomatic career. Of particular importance is the description of his stopovers at some of the hotels in Cape Town and environs, including Gilman’s (Kalk Bay) and the Masonic (centre of Cape Town). These are snippets surely interesting for Cape Town’s early hospitality history. The curio shops, the Museum of Natural History, Parliament, and several other important landmarks are discussed in his vignette. The last of the Russians to visit discussed in the book is Vilgelm Linden, who stayed over at the Cape for a few days in 1870. Sadly, the opening of the Suez Canal heralded the end of the sailor-memoire genre that has enriched western Cape historiography. Passing by Somerset’s hunting lodge, from where the British governor might have shot lion and leopards, and Lion’s Head are some of the topics covered by Linden. His departure from this historic place, with Table Mountain as a backdrop, remained indelible on his mind … probably so with many travellers. With Linden a lieutenant in the Russian navy, one imagines there are not many stopovers along his sea-route itinerary that could beat the view of Table Mountain. His prose is poignant and captures the splendour that is the western Cape’s natural beauty. It seems to be characteristic of these Russian writers.
The images of Baron Alexander Wrangel and Vilgelm Linden were downloaded from http://book.russ.co.za/ on 4 July 2017.
The book has been properly edited and is accompanied by informative and descriptive footnotes. There is a table of contents following the chronology of the visits of the writers; the book is well-indexed; the illustrations are noted on p vi. The foreword by Professor Lionel Phillips explains the importance of this publication for the VRS. Gorelik’s introduction brilliantly contextualizes the history, and the References and Bibliography section distinguishes archival sources from secondary sources.
If the visits from these Russian officers, writers, officials, intellectuals – whatever the designation – provided a view of an entirely different world (to the Russian visitors and, by inference, to the Russian reader), then South African historiography is co-victor … and its trophy this tome, thanks to Gorelik and the VRS!