Telling a different tale: Karel Schoeman's Seven Khoi Lives

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Title: Seven Khoi Lives: Cape Biographies of the Seventeenth Century
Author: Karel Schoeman
Publisher: Protea Book House, 2009
ISBN: 9781869192785

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It is a predictable truism that contemporary texts concerning the history of South Africa are radically different from those of the 1980s and before. I still remember my awkward school textbooks of the time, their line illustrations benignly depicting scenes from the early "history" of the nation set against the profile of the Castle of Good Hope, their maps, replete with arrows, charting the Cape Colony’s expansion towards the Olifants River. Theirs was, unsurprisingly, largely the story of Jan van Riebeeck, the Dutch and later the English, so as to chart the colonial momentum and the eventual exodus of Voortrekkers from the Cape.

Today we recognise in those accounts their profoundly skewed nature. Of course the comprehensive changes in the political landscape of the 1990s which were precipitated, in part at least, by work done on cultural and intellectual fronts, made it clear that a new kind of text is required, and what is more, one for the general reader who has received only accounts severely distorted by apartheid agendas.

Interestingly, the revision of the history of South Africa arose not solely from a burgeoning new South African nationalism in order to fulfil the ideological needs of the leaders of a post-apartheid country. Rather, rethinking the representation of South Africa’s past has been undertaken as a project by a variety of the nation’s writers, and in varied ways. For example, texts like Nigel Penn’s wonderfully rich Rebels, Rogues and Runaways (1999) and Max du Preez’s Of Warriors, Lovers and Prophets (2004) and Of Tricksters, Tyrants and Turncoats (2008) now characterise the field of popular historical literature from a country intrigued by, if not fixated on, the intricacy of painting the full picture of its own complicated past. And rightly so, it is indeed the utilisation of the past upon which much hinges, not least concerning issues of land, identity, claims to cultural traditions and, significantly, citizenship.

Karel Schoeman’s tireless and detailed research, founded in his deep immersion in the archives and evident in his vast oeuvre, is a beacon in the arena of writing that presents to a contemporary reader those histories that have rarely been told, or freshly retells familiar stories from a different perspective and in this way offers new insights. Seven Khoi Lives: Cape Biographies of the Seventeenth Century (2008) is a text that acquaints its readers with figures who helped shape the early VOC colony, but whose extraordinary stories sadly did not make it into 1980s school textbooks. This text comprises seven translated excerpts from his 2006 Afrikaans volume Kinders van die Kompanje, which in itself offered short biographies of thirty-five people or groups involved in the events of the Cape Colony from 1652 to 1699, including the likes of the second Cape governor, Zacharias  Wagenaer, to name but one. Covered in Seven Khoi Lives are Krotoa, Doman, Sousoa, Oudasoa and Ngonnemoa, Sara and Dorha.

The choice to include only Khoi biographies in this volume perhaps indicates the particularly palpable oversight of Khoi history in South African historical writing before the 1990s, and a widespread longing among South Africans to know more of this all-but-vanished group of people. This selection also implies a desire to access what can be called a pre-colonial archive, that is, to gain knowledge about pre-colonial history and life in Southern Africa – a difficult terrain, however, one that remains inextricably tied to the polemics of colonialism, its modes of knowing and biases of its records.

It is instructive in this respect that Schoeman’s approach has been to focus on the lives of individuals, rather than larger machinations between political or martial forces. As a kind of "micro-history", each of the chapters in Schoeman’s text situates the reader’s encounter with history as one between people – reader and protagonist, if you will. In this way, he evokes empathy with the figures as people, drawing us into their trials and sufferings.

Much of the empathy on the pages of Seven Lives is effected not only through the author’s sheer commitment to detail and accuracy, thereby painting a lively and convincing scene, but also through Schoeman’s skill as a fiction writer, that is, the way in which he holds the narratives together as stories. This is quite a remarkable feat considering the relatively sparse information available on some of these figures. The strength of "storytelling" is especially apparent in the first chapter (on Krotoa, translator for Van Riebeeck), where the irresolute forces in this woman’s life and heart that were pulling her in opposing directions are lucidly and powerfully rendered.

Unlike much of the semi-fictionalised material on Krotoa (Trudie Bloem’s Krotoa-Eva: The Woman from Robben Island of 2002, for example), Schoeman's steers clear of any sentimentality or excessive dramatisation. Instructively, Schoeman regards some of the dramatic inventions around historical figures, Krotoa especially, as impediments to an understanding of the complexity of the person as an individual within history, within their own context. For example, he notes (p 15) that

[in] the large-scale revolutions and re-evaluations that began to take place in South Africa in all fields towards the end of the twentieth century, the historical figure "Eva/Krotoa" was transformed from a caricature "Hottentot" into an icon and touchstone of political "correctness". Between these two extremes, however, she has rarely received much attention as an individual human being, and it is difficult to repair this omission and recover or reconstruct an identity from the stray contemporary references in Van Riebeeck’s journal and similar sources.

Reflecting along similar lines on notions of truth, fact and history writing, Schoeman, in Kinders van die Kompanje, quips (p 5):

Elkeen van die individue, sou mens wil sê, sou die onderwerp vir ’n roman kon bied, was dit nie dat die werklikheid op sigself interessant genoeg is en geen verromantiseering benodig nie.

While Schoeman suggests that the "real" complexity of history is itself rich enough to engross us without a writer's needing to rely on any romanticisation, readers familiar with his writing will know that there is a more subtle point being made here than what this urge to be "truthful" may appear to be. As I have noted, the selection of which stories to tell is itself instructive, but there is ultimately no easy line between fiction and truth – history is in its telling. Schoeman’s strategy is one deeply informed by evidentiary material, and in this way his contribution is especially meaningful to a contemporary revaluation of the reconstruction of the past. But it is the special way in which he presents the past, comprehensively but with empathy, as well the way in which he speaks to the context of his writing, that determines its power. In this regard, Seven Khoi Lives is a potent text, not to be seen as an objective "history" to replace previous accounts, but one of its time, and one that gives the past a new future.



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