Thursday, 23 April 2020

No 103 - Was Shaka a slaver?

The recent news that an alleged Brazilian drug-smuggling kingpin has been finally arrested in a posh Maputo hotel coincided with my receiving a new article on the nineteenth-century slave trade out of that same port. Like many ports, then, a den of iniquity and illicit trade, not much changing over the centuries.

The new article, in the prestigious Journal of African History, is by Linell Chewins and Peter Delius of Wits University. Chewins is working on a PhD; Professor Delius is well-known for his work on the history of the Pedi people. The article carries the ponderously informative title, “The Northeastern Factor in South African History: Re-evaluating the volume of the slave trade out of Delagoa Bay [Maputo] and its impact on its hinterland in the early nineteenth century.”

I read it with great interest, since it promised to cast some light on one of the many puzzlements of Shaka’s reign: his relations with the Portuguese and their slaving activities out of the Bay. As noted by Chewins and Delius (let’s call them C&D for short), South African historians of this area of inquiry have been almost uniformly English-speaking. They have therefore been unable (or “unwilling”, C&D allege) to utilise Portuguese archival sources (though a few items were available in translation). In any case, they tell us, the Lisbon maritime records were until very recently in chaos, and hard to sort through.  As it was, myself and colleagues indeed had to work with “fragmentary and circumstantial” evidence from which to draw some inevitably tentative conclusions. Now, C&D have scoured those Portuguese archives in order to throw further light on the impact of the slave trade on the peoples of what is now southern Mozambique and Kwazulu-Natal.

All terribly specialised. I need to backtrack a bit.

In 1988, Julian Cobbing of Rhodes University began challenging the accepted accounts of the Shakan period (roughly 1780-1828). Drawing on some tantalising hints by previous historians, he put together a series of papers, building a case that caused what C&D call an “intemperate” debate – actually the most exciting upheaval in South African historiography in years. Essentially, Cobbing argued that, contrary to the usual mythology, a perceived wave of violence spreading across the subcontinent in the early nineteenth century was not to be attributed solely to the manic imperial ambitions of one Shaka and the Zulus. Rather, he suggested, a crucial, if not the primary, source of regional violence was a growing slave trade at Delagoa Bay. Indeed, the ripples may have played a part in the surge towards ‘state formation’ by the Ndwandwe, the Mthethwa, the Zulu and others. In that 1990s ‘Africanist’ phase of historiography, there were howls of protest that this implied that African states couldn’t form themselves, but had to be dependent on some outside force. But Cobbing’s major contribution was that, instead of “South African” and “Zulu” and “Mozambican” history being pursued in different ‘nationalist’ boxes, he insisted on seeing the whole region as seamless and interlinked. This was later reinforced by Australian historian Norman Etherington, whose book The Great Treks (2001) did exactly that, in more detail, and it’s a perspective rightly endorsed by Chewins and Delius.

C&D do not give Cobbing remotely sufficient credit for launching this perspective. They mention only his earliest, most exploratory paper, rather than a series of later, more finely detailed and rigorous ones. Some of those, to be fair, were not formally published but circulated in sort of samizdat copies.  Cobbing was nevertheless somewhat hobbled by the lack of access to Portuguese sources (not to mention Dutch, French and American ones – they were all slaving). So was I (hobbled, that is, not slaving), when following up on Cobbing’s work in my own study of Shaka, Myth of Iron (2006). I demurred from Cobbing in various ways, and in writing the book tried to evaluate the available evidence independently and on its own terms. In the end, though, I came round to presenting a rather similar view.

Still, here was the main sticking-point: there was simply too little direct evidence of the scale of slaving in the crucial periods – that is, prior to 1815, round about when Shaka assumed the chieftainship of the still-small Zulu people; and then during Shaka’s reign itself. Slaving from Delagoa Bay was unquestionably afoot, and expanding, but was there enough slaving to stimulate the kinds of change visibly happening in the interior: violent movements and consolidations and varieties of militarisation? I looked excitedly to C&D’s new research to bring us closer to certainty, if not clinch the matter. (As Jeff Peires reminded me the other day, no conclusion is ever reached in history.)

I was doomed to be a little disappointed. Not because of the quality of the research, so much as because the Lisbon archives apparently can’t offer much more than what we already surmised. We already knew that slaving appeared, relative to that further north, subdued in the Bay area prior to about 1810. Was this due to a lack of slaving, or just a lack of documentation? Despite their access to the Lisbon records, C&D are obliged to find pre-1820s slaving “as-yet unquantifiable”. In the early 1820s,  Brazil (alongside other operators and destinations) took further advantage of  loopholes in the unfolding international slaving ban to start shipping out several thousand slaves a year, continuing well into the 1830s. But C&D’s tabulated figures for slaves offloaded from the Bay begin only in 1829 (the year after Shaka was assassinated by Dingane). Those figures are themselves bound to be underestimates, and before that date numbers of a deeply clandestine trade simply don’t appear to exist. Whatever C&D can postulate about the earlier era is, they admit, as fragmented and “circumstantial” as ever – little more than “a hint” (97).

The primary questions (or at least my questions) remain: did slaving crucially stimulate state consolidation among the Zulus and others? And did, in that process, Shaka himself eventually participate in the slave trade? The first question, C&D point out, couldn’t be treated “satisfactorily” within the scope of the article, which focuses on the late 1820s onwards. That’s fair enough. They do show that Dingane, Shaka’s successor, was quite deeply involved in various trades at the Bay, including at times slaves. Was Shaka, too? C&D offer a couple of tantalising clues, but no more than, as they say, a “probability”.

A crucial issue, which they discuss in some detail, is identifying exactly who was doing what in the vicinity of the Bay. The Portuguese themselves raided and fomented local wars to generate captives, but there were also groups marauding further inland, sometimes with extreme violence, feeding victims into the slaving network. (It’s an uncomfortable truth, that some Africans – from Sierra Leone to Somalia and Angola – were willing to sell other Africans into slavery, but so it is.)  The marauders in question were variously described by the Portuguese and English visitors to the Bay as Vatwas, Vatuas, Bathwa, Zwietes, Switis, Hollontontes, Mapsitas, and Zoolas. It was very confused. The same name was often applied to quite different entities. I discussed this in considerable detail in Myth of Iron (pp.240-52), presenting and evaluating such snippets as I could find. C&D omit some of mine, and add some to mine; but even a combination of them all doesn’t cast much more light. There were several groups. Zwide’s Ndwandwe (Zwietes) are underplayed by C&D, though as recent work by John Wright and Carolyn Hamilton is confirming, they were palpably the most aggressive of the inland peoples. Other groups, led by Shoshangane (the Gaza), Zwangendaba (Jere), and Nxaba (Msane) are well documented as continuing to vigorously trade slaves into the 1830s. These migrant polities were somewhat fluid in the first place, identifying them from the outside tricky.

C&D want to conflate ‘Vatwas’ with Zulus – as they were on just two documented occasions –  more firmly than I think the evidence can bear. They claim tangentially that the Zulu “army” was “in the Bay” (whatever that means) in 1823, and that they pursued a “scorched-earth” strategy of “destructive forays”. This seems to me to over-generalise the import of only a couple of references; and exactly where, and upon whom, these forays were deployed is not stated, apart from allegedly disembowelling one priest. There was some devastation: John Cane, an Englishman camped at Port Natal (Durban) who was twice sent to the Bay by Shaka, reported as much, but he did not attribute this to Shaka’s forces. (C&D don’t cite this rare eyewitness testimony.) Very interestingly, they do reference a Portuguese letter saying that Shaka established a monitoring or trading-post 100km inland of the Bay on the upper Maputa river. This is one of very few Portuguese items they can offer: they otherwise rely heavily on the testimonies of a British naval officer, W F W Owen – as did I. So, as Owen averred, the links were certainly there. Portuguese were encountered at Shaka’s own capital, way south on the Mhlatuze river, in 1824-5. There seems no reason to discount slaves as part of Shaka’s trade dealings. It would not be a big step from inducting war captives into the existing forms of local servitude, to releasing some of them into the international network. But this still speculative, and C&D can still provide no incontrovertible “smoking musket” or specify the scale.

As for the wider implications of the impact of slaving, C&D do not engage at all with the 30-odd pages throughout Myth of Iron in which I unpack the evidence in painstaking detail. In some ways my case was negative or deductive. The oral records we have indicate several groups moving wholesale away from the Bay in the period 1790-1810 (some eventually into the arms of Shaka): why? A little further south others were consolidating militarily and using hilltop retreats: why? I argue that some common earlier hypotheses – blaming drought and the ivory trade, primarily – don’t make complete sense of these dynamics. Escaping from, defending against, and/or participating in violent slave-raids would be a more logical explanation. C&D state that I blandly “concluded that slavery at the Bay remained a controversial subject”. In fact, my sentence reads: “How much Delagoa Bay participated in the upsurge remains controversial” (162). Which is what C&D are saying, too! Nor was this sentence my conclusion, but a cautionary rider to my conclusion, which concerned Ndwandwe involvement in particular and is clearly stated just a page later:

Zwide was almost certainly amongst those chieftains angling for a greater portion of the expanding Bay trade. There is little question that commerce of all descriptions was traversing the Thukela-Phongolo catchment ... The coincidence of an upsurge in trade of all kinds, most importantly slaving, and the increase of more violent attacks by more organised amabutho [armed units] in the immediate hinterland, is, at the very least, deeply suggestive. ... I think it’s safe to say that slaving was the most important factor in stimulating [those] kinds of attacks. (163-4)

C&D seem determined to include me in a “straw man” construction of the passé historian who needs to “pay more attention” to the “northeastern factor”, when in fact I – and several others – have long done exactly that.

 Similarly, regarding the earlier scale of slaving, they cite my question as to whether Delagoa Bay was “somehow exempt” from the terrible depredations happening further north. This was the assumption made by earlier historians, such as American Elizabeth Eldredge. It was therefore a question I posed at the beginning of a section. In proceeding to answer that rhetorical challenge at some length, I suggested strongly that, despite the lack of precise figures, the Bay could not be so exempt. A question is obviously not a conclusion –  and ironically our conclusions in this instance coincide.

In a final odd misreading, they state: “Historians have commonly viewed Shoshangane and Zwangendaba’s move north to as an [sic] attempt to escape from Shaka’s violent orbit”, rather than attracted to the Bay trade. They cite Myth of Iron, p.245. It’s ambiguous: do they mean that this is what I state? (As it happens, it’s true, but I don’t say so there.) Or do they mean that I also hold that “common view”? In fact, on p.235 I offer a more complex, push-pull interpretation: “[P]rompted by Shaka’s growing power, Zwide’s shift northwards, and an attractive explosion in the slave trade, they gradually moved closer to the Bay”. And on p.245 I actually reinforce C&D’s own emphasis: “If it was not Shaka chasing the Msane, Gaza and Jere into the Delagoa Bay area and northwards, why did they go there? ... [T]he answer [is] quite clear: slaves”.

One does not demand to be agreed with, only to be read accurately.

On the whole – though there are other details I would question –  our differences are matters of nuance  rather than substance. It’s good in its way to know that this further research pretty much confirms one’s own. The paper will certainly help revive an area of debate which, as Chewins and Delius rightly note, has gone rather quiescent.

And if this all sounds like minor quibbles and merely incremental advances in arcane knowledge about one remote corner of the globe, remember that slaving is greater in volume today than ever. There are more misbegotten people living in various conditions of servitude than at any previous time in history – according to the International Labour Organisation, anything between 26 and 40 million. And I will bet my bottom escudo that some are still being trafficked through Maputo.


Sunday, 12 April 2020

No 102 - A Lockdown Story

"Solitude: Karoo after rain" (c) Dan Wylie. Acrylic/oil on canvas.


“Are you moving in?” He gestured at the suitcase.
            She didn’t seem to know what to say or do, other than look imploring. She was soaked through, her quasi-Victorian, or pseudo-Mayflower white shirt plastered over nipples visibly rigid with cold, her long hair slicked into rat-tails.
            He wasn’t quite sure what to say, either, so surprised he was to see her there, and he was thinking uncharitably about whether she might after all be an unwitting coronavirus carrier, when she said miserably, “I just didn’t know where else to go.”
            He looked around into the scything rain. “You’re alone? Where is that delightful husband of yours?”
            “I left him. I – ran away.”
            He stared, disbelieving. Her body gave a long involuntary shiver and he suddenly made up his mind. “Come in. Go through to the bathroom.” He fetched a towel. “Do you have dry clothes in there?”
            “I hope so.”
            “This feels like the first blast of winter, doesn’t it,” he filled in unnecessarily.
            “I wouldn’t know. It’s cold, right enough. For the tropics.”
            “I forgot, you’re Irish, you’re used to being cold and wet.” He grinned ostentatiously but she did not smile back.
            While she dried off and changed he made up the bed in the little spare room, and put on the kettle. Unhappily, he had to assume she would need to stay for a while, breaching his habitual semi-hermetic state, filling his meagre, guarded, prickly space. Knowing he should not be unhappy, doing this, the obvious right thing.
            She emerged barefoot, wearing a simple if old-fashioned pleated dress and clutching a beige cardigan about her narrow body. He almost quipped that at least, fashion-wise, she’d made it into the nineteen-fifties, but thought better of mocking her at this unsettling moment. She was looking all at once nervous, grateful and wary, as well she might.
            “I’m astounded you ran to me, not to one of your churchy chums,” he said. “I thought you must have condemned me as your Number One Satanic Enemy.”
           "Satan is the Number One Satanic Enemy.” She didn’t seem to intend it as a joke.
            “Well,” he said, feeling obliquely accused of something, “I was pretty rough on you the other day.”

That he had been.
This couple had knocked at his door a few days previously. He had looked at them through the bars of his security gate and felt his heart sink. They had that over-scrubbed look, the unctuous too-friendly smile, tragically sensible shoes just right for tramping from one house to another, and clothes that hovered somewhere between the Amish and the law firm of Blatherforth and Sharx.
            Not to mention the young man’s opening line, sliding from a left-slanting mouth in a face clean-shaven but marred by old acne scars and a blond excuse for a pencil moustache: “Morning sir, have you been saved?”
            “Have you opened your heart to the Lord?” the slender, dark-haired woman slipped in. They had accents, Irish probably.
            “Jesus H Christ,” he breathed. “Haven’t you idiots heard about the coronavirus lockdown? Go home and stay there, for fuck’s sake.”
            The man bridled a little at his language, the woman tucked her chin defensively into her neck. But they had evidently been trained to weather all manner of abuse: they beamed simultaneously – he had rather yellow, crowded teeth, she rather lovely white prominent incisors – and the man said smoothly: “The Lord protects the pure of heart.”
            “Well, that sure as hell won’t include me,” he retorted. “Step back, will you. Two metres.” Which they obediently did; they had to move out of the shade of the porch into hot sunlight. The woman tugged a floppy hat out of a woven shoulder bag and put it on; it had, he thought, hibiscus flowers printed on it, and it made her look oddly more vulnerable, pixie-like.
            The young man said, eyes aglint it seemed, as if he sensed an opening, “We’d like to talk to you about the spiritual bounties of the Good Lord, especially in these difficult times – “
            “Oh, come on! You sound like an undertaker. Maybe you are. Is coronavirus the beginning of the Apocalypse then? Are you actually looking forward to the mayhem and slaughter, before you’re swept up in the final rapture?”
            There was nothing like a botched plumbing repair, for which he could blame no one but himself, to put him into a seriously bad mood. Even more cantankerous than usual, then, he could feel himself rising to the bait of the young man’s smugness.
            The woman cut in, “If you really knew your Bible you’d know we would never take pleasure in others’ suffering.” And added slyly: “And we bring Easter cheer.”
He looked at her a little more closely, then: pretty in a slightly angular way, as if a woodcarver had accidentally planed just a little too much off the cheeks. Her almost black eyes were direct, prepared for the long haul, fervent. Their challenge was almost a relief: it was a very long time since he’d had a decent theological argument.
“Oh, so you take no secret pleasure in Christ’s writhing on the cross, then? The necessary prelude to the resurrection? Your theology wouldn’t exist without suffering to feed off. Another fairy-tale as improbable as the Four Horsemen, by the way. You Jehovah’s people have some seriously screwy ideas, from any perspective.”
“Oh, we’re not Jehovah’s Witnesses,” the man said. “We’re the Church of the Golden Ascension.”
“Oh, great, another deluded cult, then.”
He could tell the young evangelist was feeling needled, from the excessive calm and diplomacy with which he intoned, “It is those who have not seen the light who are deluded, but they know not that it is so. Opening the heart to the voice of the Lord allows all those scales to fall away. It is a liberation from all that anger and cynicism.”
“Amen,” breathed the woman.
“An abdication of will and responsibility, you mean. So whose blindness and self-delusion is to prevail, yours or mine? Why choose one faith over another? Why would one church have all the truth? Rationality versus faith, yadda-yadda, the old circular argument, endlessly pursuing the unprovable.” He felt abruptly weary. “Listen, I have my own faith, and it isn’t yours. Go home and obey the fucking lockdown law, okay.”
“We are called by God to preach his Word, and not succumb to fear, however great. The Lord protects us.”
The woman murmured, “Amen” again, twisting her bag’s straps in her hands, then adding, “We were quarantined when we arrived in the country. We’re from Ireland. And we’ve been tested, we’re okay.” This earning a noticeably irritated glance from her companion.
“Yeah, but am I? Jesus, don’t you people read anything, or know no history? There have been dozens of pandemics, and no sign in any of them that God protected a single soul. In fact, the bloody God-botherers have repeatedly been half the problem. They insist on meeting, then end up infecting and killing more innocent people than anyone. You’d think you’d all have learnt something from the Black Death; back then even the Pope saw what was cutting and banned religious parades. And you’re trying to tell me that God’s paying any attention to who gets cut down and who doesn’t? Please.”
“God takes to himself those he loves, for his own purpose, ours not to question why.”
“Ah, there’s the same tired old cliché, the hidden Plan. So he’s killing off all those doctors and nurses in Italy and everywhere,  the kindest and bravest of anyone, because he loves them? Fuck that. What a cop-out. That is one nasty unpredictable bastard of a god. Not someone I’m going to worship, like some blind mole in a tunnel.”
He was, in a way, relishing cutting loose, while at the same time disliking himself for being so scathing, and rather wanting this winsome and ridiculous pair just to disappear now. The young man was looking into the distance and chewing his lip, having a hard time controlling his response. The woman plucked at his elbow, “Let’s just go, Paul.” For the first time he noticed their wedding rings. Paul shrugged her off brusquely.
“This – man, needs to hear the truth. The Truth! Satan, sir, has his claws in you. That Devil has poisoned your mind, and you don’t even know it. He is subtle as a serpent. You, sir – I grieve for your soul –“
In reply he burst out with an involuntary laugh. “Serpents now! Christ! Actually, I rather like snakes, they’re beautiful, innocent creatures. And I seriously don’t need you grieving over me before I’m dead, thanks very much.”
“Those who insult and blaspheme will burn in Hell forever…” Paul the evangelist looked infuriatingly satisfied, sure of himself.
“More fairy-tales,” he scoffed back. “If you credit that you’re even more of a dunce than you look.” Which was unfair, and he knew it, and regretted it instantly. The man’s face twisted, he was about to lose it; the woman said smoothly, “We’re going now. May we leave you some pamphlets?” Glossy colourful brochures had magically appeared in her hand.
“Cool, they’ll make good fire-lighters.” The pamphlets went hastily back in the bag, and her mouth turned pinched and small in the shadow of the hat. The man was incensed now, his wife had been spurned, he was pointing a shaking finger.
It was clearly time to bail. “Go home!” he told them, “Avoid viruses.” And he closed the inner door in their faces. But he still heard their voices, first hissed, then raised as they moved away, and then a little squeal from her. Maybe they were disagreeing about how they’d handled this recalcitrant old codger. He opened the door again, to see them walking up the sloping driveway. The man Paul gripped the woman by the upper arm, she was struggling to free herself, until he shoved her; she fell awkwardly, and yelped in pain, but Paul, the husband, lunged after her and slapped her heavily across the head, so that her hat flew and rolled away, and the evangelist grated, “You damned well do as you’re told, woman.”
“Oy!” he yelled, and they both turned to look at him; Paul seemed about to snarl something, but now it was his wife latching onto his elbow and tugging him away. But when the evangelist looked back again, with every appearance of wanting to tear him limb from limb, he couldn’t help himself: he made that two-finger gangsta sign at Paul, I'm watching you, and calling after him, “I see you for what you are, you hypocritical piece of shit.”

"I was unnecessarily - robust," he confessed as they sat at his dining-room table.
            “You were – actually enjoying yourself,” she accused. She was cupping her coffee mug as if it were someone’s living heart. He raised his palms in mute apology. “But you were also the only person who has ever called Paul out for what he is.”
            “You could surely have gone to some of your – what was it, Church of the Holy Abduction, those people?”
            “Ascension. Exactly not. We’d only just arrived, I don’t know them. They’re just a handful in this country, all in Joburg. Anyway, they would just send me back to him. It’s our place as women to submit, as the Bible instructs.”
            “And yet you left him. To walk all this way to me. That’s a huge risk.”
            She shrugged. “I have no phone to call anyone.  I can’t go home because of the travel ban.  I thought you would at least be honest. And it’s the last place he’ll look.”
            “The church is based in Ireland somewhere? You met Paul there? Sorry, I don’t know your name yet.”
            She almost smiled. “Maeve. O’Shea. From Sligo. And I suppose 'met' is the word, for an arranged marriage.”
            “Maeve? I thought they’d buried you on top of Knocknarea! I’m Doug Bracewell, by the way. And I won’t shake your hand, I might infect you with my evil.”
            The two of them looked at each other mutely, as if measuring the distance between them, or calculating whether a third guest, Mister Covid-19, might not be also invisibly present. And, it seemed, mutually deciding that there was nothing much they could do about it now.
            “You know the Sligo area, then,” she said conversationally. “Queen Maeve’s grave-mound on Knocknarea and all.”
            “I went there once on a bit of a Yeats pilgrimage,” he said. “Thoor Ballylee, etcetera.”
            She made a little nasal sound, of amusement, or disappointment. “I heard of that. We never went to such places, though. We are taught to abhor the outside world, it is full of evil and distractions from the Path.”
“Well, full of evil it is, no question. And viruses. Yet they send you off into it, as missionaries, to sort it all out? You two seem as naïve as newborns!”
“Perhaps. Perhaps also we can bring a freshness, make a change. But, yes, from the age of ten it was all prayer, devotion, the Lord’s work. It was very safe, very comforting. Betrothed at fourteen, married at sixteen to a man I hardly knew. Accepted him. Loved him. I did love him,” she insisted. “I do."
            “Except that he beats you up.”
            “Mm. And like all the women I’ve accepted it for years. It’s Eve’s inheritance, our due for being sinful. I sinned all the time, I’m afraid.” She giggled, almost naughtily, endearingly.
            “You murdered Irish peasants, you ate their gall bladders?” But that just made her frown bleakly, puzzled. He lurched on: “Most cultish churches have some kind of Chief Bullshitter?”
            Her brows pinched again. “We have a Founder. McRorty, dead now, but we have some of his writings. It’s mostly the Bible, though, the Lord’s Word is enough for us. No one really leads, we’re a small group, it’s sort of communal.”
            “A self-perpetuating crucible of prejudices, then. So when did the doubts set in?”
            “There are always doubts. Doubts are the Devil’s work; they are sent to test our faith. The Faith is stronger for them.”
            He leaned back in his chair and sipped his coffee. “I’m not even going to start trying to unpack all the inner contradictions of that. And yet here you are, in the house of a total non-believer, evil incarnate. Drinking his evil coffee.”
            She did smile then, those forward-leaning incisors. “It tastes good. And you are kind, really. I think you are on the Path without realising it. If you opened your heart to God’s gladness you might stop being so angry at things.”
     "Things, what things? I only get angry at bothersome evangelists who think they have the One Answer and try to inflict their neuroses on everybody else, and punt a book about this obscure, usually vengeful deity – a book which was, by the way, cobbled together over centuries by multiple dunderheads with all sorts of agendas and squabbles and mistranslations. God’s word, my ass. I mean, the naivety, the selective delusions, combine that with this smug arrogance – it’s breath-taking really.”
            Maeve put her coffee mug down sharply. “You sound like an evangelist for the anti-evangelists. So you have all the answers, I suppose. Being just as arrogant, as you call it.”
            “Hah, not just a pretty face, you’ve a handy streak of sophistry as well. Cute. No, I do not have The Answers. Well, it depends on the question, doesn’t it. I’m just like the Christians, I know what I believe. How do I know it? I just do. I love that word ‘just’, don’t you? The ultimate escape hatch. I 'just know' what God’s plan is. End of useful conversation.” He thumped his own mug down, suspecting that he had somehow frustrated his own coherence.
            She said primly, “I think you are angry at everything because you don’t have anything to base your morality on. You are a lost soul, flailing about in the darkness.”
            He laughed. “You people practically invented the darkness. The terrors of Hell, Let there be Light. It’s all a myth. A mighty effective one, to be sure, but a myth for all that, no more true than the fairy-tales of the Bushmen, or the Pawnees, or Buddha’s mother being bonked by an elephant.” He leaned forward. “So what is God’s plan for you, can you tell me that, O wanderer in the rain?”
            She looked down. The rain in fact was still beating at the window behind her, and she seemed to listen to it for a moment. Eventually she said gloomily, “I do not. Maybe I haven’t known for a while. Perhaps I need to pray harder on it. And even then sometimes we must accept that we will never know, it is too deep for us to fathom. That’s what faith is.”
            “Fantastic, it makes sense because it doesn’t make sense. We don’t know what’s going on; therefore there must be a god. Please. But look, I mean ultimately we think alike, in a way. You don’t really know what the fuck God wants, or why he kills the doctor but spares Donald bonehead Trump. No one can tell you. And I don’t know what the universe is going to throw at me next, either. A global virus, wham! A weird Irish evangelist, poof, on my doorstep! Who could have predicted? I see no sense in interposing a capricious god between me and a capricious universe. Life is complicated and unpredictable, end of story. Deal with it. Day by day, moment by moment.”
            This appeared to give her pause; he took the opportunity to say, “Let me fix us a bite to eat, you can park your stuff in the study so long. Hang your wet things in the porch.” She did that, while he made some sandwiches. She took a curious turn around his living-room, bending to look at framed photos – “Is that your mother?” – touching the surface of a painting as if to confirm its reality. She came up short in front of a white alabaster statue squatting in a corner.
          "What is that?”
            “Oh, my Buddha?”
            “You worship that?" More a statement of sudden understanding than a question.
            He laughed. “My graven image? My personal carving of Baal? Nah, I bought that from the friend who made it just to keep him from starving that month. I mean, I’m sympathetic, but in any case one doesn’t 'worship' Buddha, not in Zen anyway. You know the saying, ‘If you see the Buddha on the road, kill him!’?”
            “That sounds horrible! All other religions are the spawn of Satan. So we are taught,” she added almost apologetically.
            “It’s a kind of joke, really. Zen people can be very jokey. The point is, the Buddha’s teaching is like a finger pointing toward the truth; once you see the truth, you can forget about the finger. It’s not about rigidly adhering to one icon, or even an unbending set of rules, like old Moses’ commandments. More about responding clearly and appropriately as circumstances dictate. You have water in your hand and you see a fire, you don’t drink, you put out the fire. A wet woman arrives needing help, you take her in. If I could see you were dying of Covid-19, I might have responded differently, or at least with a different strategy to help. If you were obviously about to try to kill me, I might kill you, no problem.”
            “It seems terrifyingly – ad hoc.”
“I prefer ‘dynamic and exciting’.”
“But – where’s the foundation? It’s so - hand-to-mouth, like.”
            “Exactly! You see the truth. You are enlightened! You can now discard me.”
            She gave a tiny smile. “Now who’s being the evangelist?”
            “Ha! You found me out. No, I think of it as more a way of being. A practice, not a religion. It might even be compatible with Christianity in some ways. Look, I know I’ve been taking a hard line, winding you up a bit. A lot! Sorry. I’m not insensible to all the good many Christians do. Jesus, and Paul - Saint Paul, that is – had some beautiful and valid teachings. I went through a whole churchy phase until I decided it made no sense of the world I saw in front of me, but I still enjoy reading some Christian writers: Kung, Thomas Merton, Pascal. Mostly mavericks, to be sure.”
            “I don’t know these people,” she said bashfully. “We never read anything except the Bible, really. Not – really.”
            “Oh, except the things you snuck a look at under the bedcovers, right?” She blushed. “Ha, you sinful little minx, you! It’s okay. A little contradictory knowledge is a bit like suffering, isn’t it. It could make your faith stronger.”
            “Sophistry!” she burst out, pointing at him, but she had her chin tucked down and she was actually suppressing laughter. Then suddenly neither of them could keep it in any longer, and they folded up in irrepressible giggles.
            “Well,” he finally gasped, “I think we’re going to get on just fine. At least until the Irish Embassy extracts you, if they can. Meanwhile – “he glanced through the window, where a bar of weak sun was shimmering – “it looks like the rain has stopped. I have a large property which we can walk around and eat our sandwiches without violating the lockdown. Would you like that, Maeve O’Shea?”
            Maeve O’Shea nodded. “I would, Doug Brushwell.”
            “Bracewell.“ He added, “I even have a nice hat you can borrow. With hibiscus flowers.”


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Thursday, 9 April 2020

No 101 - The forgiveness of grass

One thing the coronavirus lockdown has not inhibited is my little alien-clearing project on the slope below my cottage. Where a year or so ago a self-seeded monoculture of Port Jackson wattle (aka long-leafed acacia, Acacia longifolia) suppressed almost all other growth, now you are waist-deep in fynbos species, little knobwoods, rhus and thorn-tree saplings coming up, all manner of tight ground-cover and tiny flowers. And, with particular prominence in this fecund autumn season, sudden tall grasses of various species. I had never paid a great deal of attention to grasses, much as I loved the way sun shone through fluffy or spear-like seedheads with a special coppery luminosity, the fragrance of Zimbabwe's dry tawny winter hillsides that I ran over as a child. Now grasses are growing apace in the wake of my eradication, exemplifying what Graham Harvey called, in his book of that title, the "forgiveness of grass". And where we humans pull back, or otherwise disappear, through pandemic or nuclear conflagration, what will first assert itself, in Jonathan Schell's phrase, is a "republic of insects and grass".

So I've made some effort to identify some of these amazing hardy creatures, apart from the ubiquitous kikuyu. I find this quite hard, many species being similar, or different at successive stages. If anyone 'out there' can see I've made an error, do let me know. Finding names for them, however coldly scientific they may seem, is my way of making friends with them, so that next time I can, as it were, shake hands and accord them due respect.

Natal red-top

Freshly-mown kikuyu makes an excellent venue
for dozens of tunnel-spiders to spread their webs,
shimmering with dew in the mornings

Yellow nutsedge, not technically a grass, apparently.

Small buffalo grass, Panicum colorata

Bristle grass, Setaria sphacelata

Bristle-leafed red top, Melinis nerviglumis

Dallis grass, Paspalum dilatatum

Wednesday, 1 April 2020

No 100 - Pestilence and words

I was set to devote my 100th blog-post to the most recent wave of Zimbabwean fiction, but now that the bookstores are closed… I guess I’ll just have to write cheerfully about pestilences, plagues and pandemics.

"After the pandemic?" (c) Dan Wylie

My first impulse in all worldly matters is to consult the resources of history and literature. (After all, isn’t literature itself a kind of pandemic, saturating our global lives and changing our consciousness in invisible ways, albeit not often fatal?) The literature of plagues and contagions is vast, dating back at least as far as Homer’s Iliad. A minute or two on the internet of course turned up several lists of Covid-containment reading, as if that’s all we’d want to do in our lockdowns. One interesting list includes a couple I’ve read – Margaret Atwood’s unavoidable Oryx and Crake and José Saramago’s brilliant Blindness – and a whole bunch I’d never even heard of.  Scratching around in my own bookshelves, I emerge with some random thoughts.

I happen to be reading David Wallace-Wells’ The Uninhabitable Earth (2019), a journalistic barrage of fast-breathing and alarming factoids and figures about our probably bleak global future. In his short, patchy chapter on plagues (written before Covid-19 struck), he focuses on those that might be released from ancient tundras by global warming. One needn’t look so far: epidemiologists have already recorded over 300 zoonotic viruses – that is, contracted by humans from animals whose territories and isolation they have increasingly invaded. SARS, avian flu, swine fevers, ebola and more have already rattled our collective complacency. There are still one or two people alive who experienced the last great flu pandemic of 1918, which killed anything between 50 and 100 million people (and one particularly tragic case of an ancient lady who survived 1918 but has succumbed to Covid-19).

The other historical touchstone of course is the bubonic Black Death of the 1340s, which carried off an even greater proportion of the population.  Wallace-Wells wrongly says it was largely confined to Europe. In fact – as I discover from revisiting my battered copy of historian Barbara Tuchman’s marvellous history of the Middle Ages, A Distant Mirror (1978) – it was blamed on China, where it was said to have begun. Then as now, that picture turned out to be simplistic: the world was already globally interconnected, albeit in slower fashion back then.  Still, China and India suffered massive loss of life before Europe did. Then as now, rumours, crackpot theories and misinformation swarmed and compromised efforts to combat the disease. In the absence of an understanding of the microbial and the viral, most in mediaeval Europe attributed it to humours, alignments of planets, or a punitive God. You’d think we would know better but even now, religious fervour has ignored all historical precedent, believers gathering in large numbers to pray and lament – in South Korea, New Delhi, Dallas and Bloemfontein - thereby only making it worse. To their credit, both Pope Clement VI then, and Francis today, ‘saw the light’ and curbed such congregations. Then as now, people looked to place the blame or project bemused anger: in mediaeval Europe the Jews were targeted, here the foreign and the poor are already being harassed. Then as now, inequalities are crucial to the disease’s distribution and impact. The impoverished always get it most badly, though in the end no class is spared; back then, princes and nobles – the Boris Johnsons of their day – also sickened and died. Then as now, many were by necessity abandoned to their fate, dying without their loved ones around, buried without due ceremony. Then as now, courageous and selfless charitable helpers themselves succumbed in disproportionate numbers, and the crisis brought out both the best and the worst in people.

Tuchman’s thesis is that the Middle Ages provides an illuminating ‘distant mirror’ to our own century; even she might not have anticipated so close a parallel to this crisis. She mentions the First World War as a comparable upheaval but not, oddly, the 1918 flu pandemic, which killed even more people than the war. And of course, there are significant differences: today’s numbers, technologies, communications networks and medical understanding will make our responses qualitatively different, and likely far more effective. The Black Death waned after a couple of years, apparently of its own accord; so will Covid-19, and we are unlikely to see the kind of toll the Black Death took – fully half of Paris’s population of 100,000, for example (it was a major world city then, but hardly bigger than Grahamstown today!).

That none are immune to such a scourge or its aftershocks is the burden of Edgar Allan Poe’s symbolic story, “The Masque of the Red Death”, published in 1842. It was possibly sparked by Boccaccio’s observation of Florentine’s notables during the Black Death. Poe’s lushly wrought parabolic tale opens with a description that parallels the terrible buboes and irruptions of the mediaeval bubonic plague:

No pestilence had ever been so fatal, or so hideous. Blood was its Avatar and its seal – the redness and the horror of blood. There were sharp pains, and sudden dizziness, and then profuse bleeding at the pores, with dissolution. The scarlet stains upon the body and especially upon the face of the victim, were the pest ban which shut him out from the aid and from the sympathy of his fellow-men.

(Covid-19 may be less dramatically visible, but is hardly less terrible, drowning you from the inside.) In Poe’s story, Prince Prospero (doubtless an allusion to the mage of Shakespeare’s The Tempest) sequesters himself in a castle with his coterie, building impenetrable walls and welding the gates closed with great bolts, while the Red Plague mows down the hoi-polloi outside. Within, a great party ensues, with masques and dances reeling through numerous brightly coloured rooms – the nobility fiddling while the world burns. But in the background a clock tolls forbiddingly – then a deathly hooded, rotting figure appears, mistaken at first as just another masquerade, someone’s macabre hoax, until someone dares to rip at the clothes, to find nothing beneath but the Red Death itself. Self-serving delusions of grandeur and immunity, Mr Trump, will eventually be exposed.

My internet browsing also turned up an essay about another prescient story, this one a novella by Jack London, he of White Fang fame. Clearly indebted to Poe’s psycho-fantasy, The Scarlet Plague (1915) is an astonishing forecast of subsequent pandemics. It imagines San Francisco in 2073, and depicts the aftermath of a pandemic that has erupted there in 2013 (a century in the future when London published the book, but eerily the very year in which the bird flu scare would in fact occur). The story is largely related by old ‘Granser’ Smith, an erstwhile English professor (go, Prof!) who survives a mass die-off, the burning of the city, a futile attempt to self-isolate in his university’s Chemistry building, and years of solitary wandering, eventually to rejoin one of the tribelets who remain. (In this it’s not unlike my own The Wisdom of Adders, though I envisaged a more complicated catastrophe unfolding over a further century.) London extends Poe’s motifs of the scarlet rash and “dissolution”: his pestilence kills swiftly and the corpses disintegrate, releasing yet more germs, killing indiscriminately, without justice, even the bacteriologists in their laboratories. Supplies of gas run out, airships disappear, chaos and heartlessness reign, communications collapse altogether. Wild nature takes over again.

New York City and Chicago were in chaos. And what happened with them was happening in all the large cities. A third of the New York police were dead. Their chief was also dead, likewise the mayor. All law and order had ceased. The bodies were lying in the streets un-buried. All railroads and vessels carrying food and such things into the great city had ceased running and mobs of the hungry poor were pillaging the stores and warehouses. Murder and robbery and drunkenness were everywhere. Already the people had fled from the city by millions—at first the rich, in their private motor-cars and dirigibles, and then the great mass of the population, on foot, carrying the plague with them...

In short, “Ten thousand years of culture and civilization passed in the twinkling of an eye, 'lapsed like foam.'

Simplistic and dramatised, perhaps, and we've taken the opposite tack - lockdown - but the depiction of pandemic fear feels psychologically true. As so many people are now belatedly trumpeting, we can hardly say we weren’t warned.  It’s a mystery – or a significant illumination of human myopia – that despite everything, the world still seems woefully ill-prepared for this calamity.

Even more uncertain, naturally, is how the future will look. Little or no fiction explores economics, the new demigods of the "market" that now dominate our lives. There are pessimistic and optimistic projections (well laid out by Peter C Baker).  Humanity will surely survive, as it has before, but in what mode? Will we be jolted into becoming somehow a better, more compassionate, more environmentally caring species than before? History is not too encouraging. Tuchman has an arresting paragraph:

Survivors of the plague, finding themselves neither destroyed nor improved, could discover no Divine purpose in the pain they had suffered. God’s purposes were usually mysterious, but this scourge had been too terrible to be accepted without questioning. If a disaster of such magnitude, the most lethal ever known, was a mere wanton act of God or perhaps not God’s work at all, then the absolutes of a fixed order were loosed from their moorings.

Covid-19, whatever its scale and duration turn out to be, looks set to be the convulsion to loose the moorings of our particular lifetimes. History does seem to indicate that we too will find ourselves “neither destroyed nor improved”. Old bad habits will die hard, forgetfulness of trauma sets in remarkably quickly, the good and the beautiful will still – as imagined by 1001 sci-fi novels and movies – struggle to prove the greater force.

"Sunset" (c) Dan Wylie


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