Book Review: Interior Observations, Or Engrossed By A Forgotten Heritage

December 27, 2014

By ROB HOFMEYR

 

The Side Of The Sun At Noon by Hazel Crampton

 

Hazel Crampton is known for her outstanding The Sunburnt Queen, an account of a little English girl shipwrecked on the Wild Coast. This new work has a greater scope both historically and geographically, but is tautly structured and makes excellent reading. Eva, who served Van Riebeeck  as a translator in his dealings with her own people, the Khoikhoi, is already known through other works of historical fiction and  annals of the time. She was the first to tell the new settlers of a tribe known as the Chobona, a mysterious long-haired people who lived deep in the hinterland in stone dwellings and were rich in gold. Van Riebeeck was fascinated – indeed, he became obsessed – with these people.

And so this book begins with an account of the Dutch settling in the Cape: hardly the sanitised accounts which informed the celebrations of 1952. This is raw stuff, well documented and graphically presented. Having read other accounts over decades, I found still more to learn and absorb.

The lure of gold and the belief that somewhere there were people who represented what was understood as “civilisation” sent one expedition after another into the “wild hinterland”. Hazel Crampton has travelled the routes they took, following native guides on well-tracked paths, many of which have over the centuries become the tar roads and mountain passes of modern motorways. Not all of them, however, which necessitated years of 4×4 travelling for the author and her two teenage boys.

This book opens up the interior as it was in the 17th ,18th  and  early 19th Centuries, the many and very diverse tribal areas, the trade which spanned the subcontinent, the Arab and Portuguese influences and the gradual incursion of Europeans into ancient homelands. The present South Africa with its Western infrastructure and  place names hides a wealth of history and tradition. What did I know of the Lemba, the black tribe who are genetically Jewish? Or of the Thlaping and their trade systems? Or of Arabic words that found their way across the subcontinent, such as imali, dagga and haka. Or of a tribe that practised inoculation?

This is not a depiction of a golden era before the colonists came. It is a lively, realistic and engrossing account of this country and a nearly forgotten heritage. Great reading, despite the often cloying and personal style.

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