Books: A Memoir Revisited, Or Jeremiah Goldswain Brought Back To Life

September 9, 2014


Jeremiah Goldswain


Most people have little knowledge about an ancestor four generations removed but Ralph Goldswain has come to know his great, great grandfather very well. His edition of Jeremiah’s memoirs – The Chronicle of Jeremiah Goldswain, 1820 Settler – has just been published.

“It’s thrilling, especially as Jeremiah had a real talent for drawing readers into his emotions and an artist’s knack of describing the world honestly, as he saw it. He had an easy, chatty, everyday way of writing, as though he were talking to you,” Goldswain says.

It must have been an eventful life on the frontier.

“Oh very,” Goldswain says. “His family lived through four frontier wars, for a start. But even during peacetime, the frontier was a perilous country. Everyone carried guns, like in the Wild West, and used them frequently to protect themselves and their families.”

And he kept a diary through all of that?

“That’s the strange thing. He never mentions a diary. It seems that one day in 1856 he sat down and started writing it all down, finishing it on Christmas Eve, 1858. What a memory for detail, although some of it was copied from the Grahamstown Journal – when an event that interested him had been reported and he wanted to get the facts right. And what an ability he had to recapture his youth.”

The Chronicle has been published before, hasn’t it?

“Yes, and that’s the point of this book. The manuscript was passed down to Jeremiah’s son Jeremiah Junior, whose daughter donated it to the Cape Archives. A scholar, Una Long, got hold of it and transcribed it. It was published in two volumes by the Van Riebeeck Society in 1946 and 1949. It’s a very important book, but there are two circumstances that make my new book necessary. The first is that the Una Long edition has been out of print for more than half a century and the second is that it’s virtually unreadable for modern general readers.”

That sounds like a contradiction of what you said earlier about its readability.

“It does,” says Goldswain.

“Jeremiah’s memoirs are famous for many things and one is the idiosyncrasy of his language. It’s strange that a man who loved writing and who had such a talent for it was virtually illiterate in many ways. He wrote language down as he heard it. And when you think that he thought in a deep rural Buckinghamshire accent and wrote it all down like that, the text becomes murky. Add to that the foreignness to him of punctuation and it becomes nearly impenetrable, available only to scholars and historians who find it worthwhile to plough through it because of its importance as a primary source. Events that were sometimes weeks or months apart are put together without a break, making it difficult for the reader to follow. Trying to read the text means stopping all the time and going back to try and make it out. No-one beyond those scholars and some of Jeremiah’s descendants would persist beyond the first two pages, I think.”

What did you do to the text?

“I didn’t take out a single word. But I conventionalised the spelling, for a start. And I broke it up into paragraphs and created chapters with headings. I punctuated it, which brought out the nuanced meanings, the characters and the humour. It had the effect of cleaning an Old Master, where the picture is there, but it’s dark and elusive. And now it’s clear, and all its colour hits you, fresh and new. Suddenly, in scenes between people one can discover the comic timing and the silences and pauses that carry so much of the meaning. The scene where Jeremiah’s son comes to tell him that another son has been murdered – and then he has to tell his wife – is Pinteresque in its pathos, painted in short sentences, understatements, pauses and silences. It’s brilliant writing. The instinct for expression of a high order was there but he didn’t know how to use the conventions to communicate what he felt.”

All of that makes this edition important, then?

“Other accounts of that time and place were written by people – men and occasionally women – who were self-conscious about their writing,” says Goldswain.

“They were educated people who used the distancing conventions Victorians felt obliged to use, which obscured rather than illuminated. Also, most of them had a narrow view of the world, focused on claustrophobic concerns – mainly their professional lives in town. Many of them had nothing to say, really. Jeremiah never lived in the safety of a town. Moreover, he had the honesty that we find only in exceptional writers. And his frame of reference was very broad. He moved around a great deal, and as a member of the peasant class, successful as he was, due to his intelligence, which allowed him to farm, trade and operate a transport business successfully, he never outgrew his position, nor tried to. He was a plain, simple man who never lost his sense of humour no matter how bad things became at times.

“As a wagoner, commissioned to carry military supplies for expeditions beyond the frontier, war after war, and through the annexations of land, further and further eastwards, he was able to report on those events, with close-ups of big figures like D’Urban, Harry Smith and others. And his style is almost ‘modern’ in that the script has none of the rhetorical devices that clutter other texts of the time, making them tedious. Jeremiah’s text has shining freshness. Another reason for its importance is that Una Long’s transcription, and the manuscript itself, are invaluable tools in the study of linguistics. And to my family the memoirs are important because we are proud of him, and he’s famous. But without his famous journal he would be unknown today.”

Why did you wait so long before undertaking this project?

“I didn’t think of it until last year,” Goldswain smiles.

What do you think you’ve achieved?

“I have resurrected Jeremiah Goldswain and liberated his text. I have no idea who he thought his readers were, although he had readers in mind and he sometimes addresses them directly, taking them into his confidence with appeals like: ‘Dear reader, if you have been a parent, then you will understand the feelings…’ etc. And now the whole world will be able to travel back in time to the 19th century, to the wild frontier of the Cape Colony. I think that that’s my achievement.”


 Ralph Goldswain with Jeremiah Goldswain’s manuscript.


Ralph Goldswain’s The Chronicle Of Jeremiah Goldswain: 1820 Settler is published by 30 Degrees South