Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 5, 2021

Islands, by Dan Sleigh, translated by André Brink 

In the last chapter of Islands, Dan Sleigh’s epic historical novel about the Cape settlement in South Africa, the nexus between the Dutch economy and its colonial enterprises is made clear:

Every Dutchman who supported the great adventure in the East knew what role the Cape played in the economy of his waterlogged country.  They could all recite it like a nursery rhyme: The key to the Dutch economy was the Company, the key to the Company’s success was control of the Eastern trade, the key to the Eastern trade was successful shipping, the key to shipping was the Cape replenishment station. (p.695)

But, far away from the Cape in their waterlogged country, those Dutchmen did not know what amateur historian Secretary de Grevenbroek has learned in his long years of service: the key to the Cape replenishment stations was its outposts. And on these outposts were living people, mostly convicts and slaves, who fulfilled the various functions of the refreshment service for the Dutch East India Company.

One provided thatch, another shell lime; one guarded a frontier, another provided transport, or gathered salt, chopped firewood or planted vegetables; another caught fish, yet another transmitted signals.  There were a great number of them.  […] They really carried the Company, because without outposts the Cape could not function, without the Cape Batavia could not function, without Batavia the Company was powerless, and so on all the way to the top, where the prince and his advisory council in Holland were carried on a shaky shield. (p.706)

Dan Sleigh, an Afrikaans researcher in the National Archives of South Africa, tells the story of these 17th century island outposts.  Covering the Cape’s early history in the years 1652 to 1690 and presented in seven long and densely written chapters, seven different voices (all male) are linked together by the tragic story of the first mixed-race child, Eva, whose Koina name was Krotoa,  and by her daughter Pieternella.   The novel is cited in 1001 Books as a vastly ambitious novel of origins and empire, which explores the clash between colonisers and indigenous populations. 

[Pieternella’s] life is inextricably linked with the developing Dutch presence at the Cape and the mechanics of the Dutch East India Company, the VOC.  Her hybrid experience in the emerging colony, neither entirely African nor Dutch, offers a series of perspectives, and her ultimate fate becomes a powerful metaphor for the fate of the colony itself.

The many characters, all superbly realised, are dwarfed by forces beyond their comprehension or control, taking place across the early modern world.

(1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, Edited by Peter Boxall, ABC Books, 2006 Edition, ISBN 0780733321214, p 933)

The early chapters depict First Contact not unlike what happened in Australia.  On arrival, the strangers seemed benign, and the Koina people were generous and helpful.  There were exchanges of goods, though these could not be characterised as barter or trade since the goods were not of equal value.  Before long there was unwelcome encroachment, and resistance was dealt with through a combination of violence, imprisonment, forced labour, and toxic gifts of alcohol and tobacco.

Fiscal Deneyn enters the story about half way through.  Young, ambitious, and breathtakingly cruel, he soon learns that his education in Holland doesn’t seem to be very useful.  Because (as in Australia) the legal status of the Indigenous people was a matter of pragmatism, not human rights.

The Statutes of India were some help, but one thing only was certain, and that was that everybody first checked how strong the natives were before deciding whether they were one’s subjects or not.

Eva, confined to Robben Island piques his interest, and Australian readers will recognise the breathtaking arrogance of child removal practices in the Cape that are reminiscent of what happened to the Stolen Generations.

She’d been born a Hottentot, was baptised and married a Christian, and was banished to the island without any formal judicial process.  She was simply exiled for life without any ruling by a court, or the benefit of a lawyer to act on her behalf.  The law was on her side, thought Deneyn, and should she appeal to Batavia she would win her case, but this Cape Council would never forward her papers.  What about her children, since there were three children, who were Dutch citizens after all, and probably born in wedlock.  Why should her children share in her banishment? He would see to it that they were removed from there. (p.393)

By coincidence, I learned from Words without Borders on Twitter this week that amongst other things, settlement of the Cape all but obliterated the Kaaps language, so much so that only four people who speak it are alive today.

It’s hard to evaluate the translation by the late, great André Brink whose novels in English I have read and greatly admired.  Some of the prose seems a little lumpy, but that, I suspect, is the author’s style, emulating the prose of a different era.  There is a tendency to pile on the details, and there are run-on sentences that could use a full stop:

It was a wet, wet, wet winter, that first one of his imprisonment.  The great kilns were rained out, the builders on the scaffolding pushed wheelbarrows filled with mud, it was getting dangerous on the wet planks. The grumbling became worse, louder, open.  The people were cold and ill, and looking for shelter against the heavy rain.  And the corporals with the canes were scared to touch them.  Four slaves deserted.  Two of them were the Company’s property.  Late one day they sheltered against the rain in an extinguished lime kiln, failing to come out again when the others returned to their work.  When night had fallen properly, they slipped out and fled up the coast.  The other two slaves belonged to Broertje Louw.  It was impossible to understand why they should have deserted, as they never worked harder or for longer hours than Louw himself, they slept more than nature required, and ate at his table with him and his children.  Deneyn was unable to find any extenuating circumstances for those four, and he asked for them to be hanged.  Their bodies were dragged through the town by donkeys as a warning to slaves, and then hoisted up again at the dunes as an example to the Company’s seafaring men. (p.447)

Yes, there is barbarity in this novel, but this punishment is mild compared to others that are depicted.  It’s probably authentic for the era, but the chapter about this Fiscal Deneyn is particularly gruesome.

Author: Dan Sleigh
Title: Islands
Translated from the Afrikaans by André Brink
Publisher: Secker & Warburg, 2004, first published 2002
ISBN: 90780436206207, hbk., 768 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased from the Readings Bargain Table in 2005, $16.95


Responses

  1. That’s a relevant point you’ve raised, that judging translation from this era requires acknowledging the different styles of the ages too. I’ve read very little about South Africa, but am intrigued certainly.

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    • I’ve read more books from SA than from any other country in Africa, but I think that’s because I came to know their work early on from dissident authors like Doris Lessing, André Brink, and Alan Paton. Plus, there’s some fantastic contemporary writers, black and white, who I hear about from the Johannesburg Review of Books.

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