Review: Storm Over the Transvaal by TV Bulpin

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stormoverthetransvaal300Title: Storm Over the Transvaal
Author: TV Bulpin
Publisher: Protea
ISBN: 9781485304142

A quirk of consuming media in so thoroughly globalised an era as this one is that we get to experience, not infrequently, the strangeness of recognising that the books we’re reading, or films we’re watching, are not made with us in mind.

Reading stuff when you’re outside of the cultural hegemony is a little like eavesdropping on someone else’s conversation – although we’ve been doing this for so long that we barely notice the strangeness of books that assume an intimacy with the London underground, or an understanding of what it was like to be in New York before 9/11. South African readers, any readers who import large chunks of their media, will by this time have developed a talent for interpreting books directed at cultures, and demographics, different from their own.

This is a talent that needs to be exercised less than one might hope in reading TV Bulpin’s Storm Over the Transvaal. The book deals with the two decades of brutal colonial adventurism in the former Transvaal and surrounds leading up to the Anglo-Boer War, shifting its focus from nascent border towns to doomed mining ventures to especially infamous bar fights to broader geopolitical manoeuvring, depending more on the author’s whims than on strict chronology.

Storm, first published in 1955 by Howard Timmins, is republished this year by Protea Book House as part of their apparent, and inexplicable, project to get Bulpin’s works back into print – from biographies of poachers in Southern Africa, to rambling travel guides, to recollections of disastrous hunting expeditions, to whatever other form would best allow Bulpin to cram in the various yarns dug up during his frontier researches. The first of Bulpin’s books resurrected by Protea was Islands in a Forgotten Sea in 2010, a series of anecdotes from the Seychelles, Mauritius, Réunion and Madagascar strung together into a loose history of the region. The publisher’s blurb informs us that Bulpin “has … left an invaluable account of an enchanting and often brutal world far removed from the air-conditioned resorts and package tours so familiar to tourists today”.

This seems to be the implicit value of Bulpin’s work, then – that it offers insights into a version of the world which no longer exists, that it is a book addressing itself to a vanished audience, but from which we can derive some useful insight. One might ask what benefits there are to be derived from another white man’s account, but one should know better than to expect an answer. The incredibly brief editor’s note which prefaces the book, and which is the sole effort made to contextualise this half-century-old text, is at pains to inform us that

Storm over the Transvaal was originally written in the 1950s and much of the scenery described by TV Bulpin has changed considerably since then, but the author’s account has been left unchanged … Please note that some quotes may contain offensive words. The Editor has chosen not to alter such words in order to retain the authenticity of the reprinted work.

“Authenticity” is a strange word. Bulpin’s account of various happenings in the Transvaal – stolen lands, ridiculous scams, eccentric stories and pithy putdowns – is obviously heavily curated. This can’t be a surprise; obviously a popular book of South African history written by a white South African in the 1950s would have had a largely white South African audience in mind, and as such the narrative is chiefly concerned with the lives and misadventures of white settlers, even as their misadventures were largely bent towards circumscribing the lives of indigenous peoples. Within the first six pages, Bulpin compares the depletion of antelope around Ermelo to the devastation of the “Bushman” population in that same region; 30 pages later his account of the massacre of 150 Griqua men, women and children by armed Europeans commences with the line “and so the fun began”; the sixth chapter offers the extended account of a lynching of one “Jim Zulu”. The symbolic and actual acts of violence do not diminish as the book proceeds. As a historical document, as an artefact demonstrating a specific sensibility and set of interests in the publishing world of mid-20th-century South Africa there can be no question but that Bulpin’s text is authentic; but as a piece of historical writing, to be engaged with uncritically or sympathetically as the editor’s hand-wringing note seems to suggest, is ridiculous. Bulpin’s text is a product of its times, and they were not good times.

Nor, distressingly, are they wholly unfamiliar times; as jarring as the elisions of history and casual accounts of violence may be, they depict an occasionally recognisable country, and addresses an audience that isn’t entirely unfamiliar. It is a book more familiar to me than many contemporary novels, which is a difficult thing to acknowledge in light of the book’s offensiveness, its unsurprisingly insensitive racial, sexual and religious politics, and its wilful obscurantism. Because in spite of these, his accounts of doomed mining ventures, smuggled diamonds buried and lost again, should be familiar to most white South African readers – excepting those from successful mining families. His depictions of grim Highveld towns are pithy and remain accurate, in a few cases.

There are some damning similarities between the heavily curated version of South African history that Bulpin offers and the one we live in; commenting on the South African Republic's immigration policy in 1880 he observes, "The idea of protection or privilege by means of artificial legal barriers had always seemed logical to the Republic."

like_litnet_op_facebookThis – alongside his accounts of a corrupt and stubborn government, of indignant citizenry protesting and getting manhandled by thuggish police, of constant highway robbery between Johannesburg and Pretoria, and of another, higher kind between Pretoria and London, can’t help but be familiar. And so while it is perplexing that Protea should see fit to resurrect unwanted parts of our history, they’re clearly not the only ones doing it.


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