Books: The Chronicle Of Jeremiah Goldswain, 1820 Settler by Ralph Goldswain

October 25, 2014



The lives of the obscure are an essential corrective to South Africa’s traditional emphasis on the towering personalities of the past. Familiar events gain a subtly different slant when refracted through the experience of ordinary people.

Jeremiah Goldswain fits the bill exactly.

He arrived in the Eastern Cape as one of the 1820 Settlers, but unlike most who wrote their memoirs he was a working man of no education and still in his teens when he left his native Buckinghamshire. He had evidently had some schooling, but his written English was inaccurate and idiosyncratic. There was nothing pompous or portentous about him.

Goldswain gives us a blow-by-blow account which conveys the ups and downs of the archetypal colonial frontiersman. He was by turns trader, farmer, commissary and militiaman. Time and again his attempts to make something of himself were set back by a litany of disasters: floods, vexatious law suits, arson and murder.

Even so, Goldswain would probably not have put pen to paper if he had remained at the bottom of the pile. He began as an outsider, but he became a man of substance, even having a street named after him in Grahamstown. The chronicle is a tale of self-making, although the author does not make a moral meal out of his experiences. We are also told little about Goldswain’s family life, although his wife Eliza evidently shared many of his sterling qualities.

Fascinating though Goldswain’s account is, it is scarcely a tract for the new South Africa. In describing the indigenous population the tone is consistently negative and stereotypical. The Khoisan are quickly dismissed as “the most despicable creatures hat ever I saw”. Thirty years of conflict with the Xhosa are reflected in the ever-more shrill insistence that they are thieves and murderers. Goldswain belonged to a white community which was embattled, aggressive and retributive.

There is little sympathy for the more understanding position taken by the missionaries (even the Methodists, Goldswain’s own denomination). Indeed plenty here supports the view of some historians that the Easter Cape was the cradle of twentieth-century racial domination in South Africa.

Jeremiah Goldswain has long been known to specialists on settler history. In the 1940s Una Long prepared an edition for the Van Riebeeck Society. In the interests of authenticity she decided to reproduce the author’s spelling, punctuation and lack of paragraphing. While this may have served the interests of scholarship it rendered the work almost impenetrable to the lay reader.

Ralph Goldswain has performed a signal service in preparing a version of his ancestor’s work which can be read for pleasure. The success of this venture whets the appetite for Ralph’s own forthcoming book on the lives of the 1820 settlers.

I have only two quibbles. The quality of reproduction fails to do justice to the range and interest of the illustrations. Regrettably also, there is no index, which makes it difficult to keep tabs on the wide cast of characters which crop up during this tumultuous narrative.


John Tosh is Professor of History at Roehampton University in London.