Review of The Broken String: The Story of a Lost Language

The past twenty years have seen a real surge of interest in the San. Since the end of Apartheid in South Africa, more and more attention has been paid to the story of the indigenous people of the Cape, the first people Dutch settlers encountered in 1652. Although relations did not immediately sour, the next century and a half saw the progressive dispossession of the Khoikhoi and San and the disintegration of their society. The San in particular — generally identified with foragers, as opposed to the Khoikhoi pastoralists — were driven to more and more marginal land as the Dutch East India Company’s demand for cattle grew ever greater. The latter half of the eighteenth century was particularly violent, marked by state-sanctioned robbery, massacre, and forced labor. In 2011, Mohamed Adhikari convincingly argued that these events constituted a genocide of the San people. Adhikari’s book was released a year after The Broken String (2010), although it retrod the ground that historians such as Susan Newton-King and Nigel Penn (notably in The Forgotten Frontier, 2005) had already demarcated in painstaking detail.

This, then, is the context in which The Broken String intervenes. In particular, this film documents the story of the Bleek-Lloyd collection, probably our most important source for understanding San society. Between 1857 and 1875, Wilhelm Bleek (a German linguist) worked with his sister-in-law Lucy Lloyd to conduct, record, and translate interviews with a few dozen San people — most of whom were prisoners in Cape Town. Bleek’s interest was first aroused as a linguist exploring the development of language by documenting two San tongues, ǀXam and !Kun, before they disappeared. The texts he and Lloyd created not only provide our only sources for these languages but further tell rich stories of dispossession and survival. One of these stories, translated as the “Song of the Broken String,” furnishes the film with both its title and its connecting thread. As the director Saskia van Schaik narrates, through their work Bleek and Lloyd gradually shifted from scientific interest in the San to an attitude marked by empathy and collaborative spirit. Their informants were invited into the Bleek-Lloyd family home in Mowbray, which seems to have been a warm and welcoming environment. Sadly, Bleek died at the age of 48. Lucy Lloyd continued transcribing and editing the collection they had assembled, eventually publishing a selection of stories as Specimens of Bushman Folklore in 1911. The full extent of their work, though, only became known after the Bleek-Lloyd collection was assembled and cataloged in the archives of the University of Cape Town. Continue reading Review of The Broken String: The Story of a Lost Language

Satellite Images and Early Maps of the Cape of Good Hope and Southern Africa

Above, I’ve presented just a few maps and satellite images of Southern Africa. Apart from the ones I’ve selected, many images and much valuable information about Southern Africa can be found at the following online sources:

Emerson, Olmsted, and Muir

Albert Bierstadt, Yosemite Valley, 1868, 91 x 137 cm, Oakland Museum of California

There is a line connecting Ralph Waldo Emerson’s more abstract reasoning in Nature, Frederick Law Olmsted’s requests to Congress in his Yosemite and the Mariposa Grove: A Preliminary Report, 1865, and John Muir’s popular writing as exemplified in “The Fountains and Streams of the Yosemite”. This link is more than just conjectural, too. Muir was a great admirer of Emerson. When the philosopher visited Yosemite in 1871, at the age of 68, the young Muir’s “heart throbbed as if an angel direct from heaven had alighted on the Sierran rocks” (The Life and Letters of John Muir, ch. 8; quoted in Galbraith, “Muir, Emerson and the ‘Pure Night Air’”). Olmsted also met Emerson in person and admired his Nature greatly. So much for the tangible links; the intellectual influence of Emerson is also, I think, readily apparent in the two later texts. Continue reading Emerson, Olmsted, and Muir

The Sounds of the Cape

Three sources: PRONK, Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis trilogy, and Derek Walcott’s The Schooner Flight.

I stand on the wharf.
A lascar cries from agil
To his serang: “bas!”

Onboard, a sahib’s
Call is glossed by a Malay
Who runs to fetch wine

For patroon’s kajuit.
The bay babbles, but so does town.
I face her alleys

To hear joyous drums
Some free black has brought from her
House to the harbor.

Above the rhythm —
Then — violins commandeer
A tune from the waves.

Or is it from the
Geese honking, circling over
Table Mountain?

Boa Gente at the Cape: An Alternative History

This story is a response to a simple question: what would have happened if the first European settlers at the tip of Southern Africa had encountered not Khoikhoi pastoralists but rather Bantu-speaking agriculturalists? The two main sources for imagining this alternative history are Noël Mostert, Frontiers: The Epic of South Africa’s Creation and the Tragedy of the Xhosa People (New York: Knopf, 1992) and Catherine Cymone Fourshey, Rhonda M. Gonzales, Christine Saidi, Bantu Africa: 3500 BCE to Present (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), both of which I read for a class with Nancy Jacobs called Southern African Frontiers. I have tried to be as historically accurate as possible, but at heart this remains a thought experiment.

“Table Bay” by Thomas Bowler, in the Iziko Museums of Cape Town.
I’ve come to lie.
I’ve not come to tell the truth.
Because if you discover that there’s truth
in the lying, you’ll love my poetry.
But if you discover a lie
in poetry that claims to be true, you’ll hate me.
Now let me sing:

—Euphrase Kezilahabi, “Stray Truth,”
in Stray Truths (East Lansing, MI: Michigan State
University Press, 2015), ed. and trans. Annmarie Drury

Through the blue mists, far away on the horizon, a distinct promontory appeared: the honey-glazed profile of Table Mountain. The sailor who sighted the cloud-high peak sank to his knees in joy and immediately cried out: “Land ahoy!” As the Dromedaris neared the southern tip of Africa, every member of the crew had begun to strain his neck to catch sight of land. For one, the first to see Table Mountain was always given an extra swig of wine, a new hat, or some other gift. Since leaving Texel in December 1651, the passengers under the command of Jan van Riebeeck had lived in filth, disease, and insubordination. In the four months since their departure, not one person on ship had not wished themselves at one point or another to be one of the lowest animals ashore. From the original complement of passengers — two dozen sailors and 100 settlers chosen (or volunteered) by the Dutch East India Company (VOC) — only half had survived.

Emotions ran high on the boat carrying the landing party to shore. The prospect of immediate relief was on everyone’s mind. It seemed as if they could already taste the sweet water running down from Table Mountain and curl their toes in the firm, rich soil beneath their feet. But there was also trepidation. The previous night, they had seen bright fires dotting the cape, and some sailors had even sworn that they had heard faraway echoes of song and snatches of conversation. Now, as they neared the beach, they saw that a small group of natives — armed with spears — was awaiting them. How would they treat the strangers arriving on their shores?

Continue reading Boa Gente at the Cape: An Alternative History

My Independent Concentration

I recently found out that my proposal for an independent concentration in Critical Thought and Global Social Inquiry has been approved! Just what does this mean, and why am I so happy about it?

First of all, a few words on what an independent concentration is (at Brown). Apart from the standard concentrations (majors) we offer, every student has the opportunity to design their own course of study. This concentration proposal must be reviewed and approved by a subcommittee of the College Curriculum Council, the same body that approves regular concentrations. The process of proposing an IC is supervised by the Curricular Resource Center, which has multiple peer student staffers who meet regularly with students who want to create an IC. The actual proposal is long and rigorous. Furthermore, the committee almost as a rule rejects first-time applications; there is a heavy emphasis on the process of proposing an IC as a conversation between the committee and the student with the aim being to create a well-articulated, coherent, and rigorous course of study that aligns with Brown’s wider educational goals. I personally found this process extremely rewarding: it helped me process my interests and a few thoughts that had been rolling around in my head (many because of courses I had taken). I am now much more articulate about these interests and I have a much better idea of how they align with my broader life goals. Although the process of creating an IC is arduous, for me it was well worth it.

To explain what my Independent Concentration is about, here’s an excerpt from my proposal (which you can find in full here):

What is Critical Thought and Global Social Inquiry? It is the study of global social phenomena such as postcolonialism, nationalism, and global justice through the philosophical lens of critical theory. I think dialectically about both the institutions derived from the Enlightenment and the practices, communities, and identities developed and deployed in resistance to these institutions. I am thus equally invested in studying the universal and metropolitan on the one hand and the particular and peripheral on the other. As a field of study, I imagine my Independent Concentration as a conversation with a number of figures invested in this dialectic – chief among them Edward Said, Hannah Arendt, and Cornel West. In many ways, this field of study is constituted by its intellectual genealogy: while investigating questions about how societies cohere, how politics functions, and how the past shapes our present (and drawing on sources from many times and places), what distinguishes Critical Thought and Global Social Inquiry is its distinctive perspective. This reflexive, provisional approach is gathered from the theoretical consciousness developed through the philosophical tradition of critique. Given my commitment to provisionality and reflexivity, I do not intend through this concentration to provide conclusive answers to the questions I described above. The fundamental aim of Critical Thought and Global Social Inquiry is instead to develop concrete questions, modes of interpretation, and resources for action that resonate across different commitments and backgrounds. Through my concentration, I develop a map – a way to navigate the incredible diversity of thought and experience our world has to offer.

Review: Topographies of Memories by Anita Bakshi


Topographies of Memories: A New Poetics of Commemoration. By Anita Bakshi. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017. Pp. xvii + 340. ISBN 9783319634616.

Anita Bakshi’s first book is compelling reading that makes important interventions in several areas. Drawing on memory studies and her training as an architect, Bakshi adopts insightful methodological approaches including collaborative mapmaking, ethnography, and archival research to explore issues around the Buffer Zone separating Greek and Turkish communities in Nicosia, Cyprus. Topographies of Memories is important not only because it provides fresh, thoughtful analysis of intercommunal conflict in Cyprus and beyond, but also because its insights undergird intriguing contributions to the study of heritage and the practice of commemoration. Rather than presenting another narrative of Cypriot history, Bakshi suggests strategies for architects and designers to approach memory through embodied, emotional, and multivalent experience. Throughout her work, Bakshi’s perspective is stimulating and her presentation articulate. Topographies of Memories is relevant to anyone interested in heritage, conflict, materiality, and commemoration. Continue reading Review: Topographies of Memories by Anita Bakshi

Baybayin and nationalism

I begin by giving a short introduction to baybayin, followed by a brief history; both these sections mostly summarize previously published material. I then consider variation in baybayin before ending with contemporary concerns of identity and ideology, considering especially how baybayin is implicated in Filipino nationalism. Please feel free to browse to any of these sections — I hope my writing is useful to you!


A portion of the Tagalog catechism from the Doctrina Christiana. Source: Paul Morrow.

Baybayin is a writing system native to the Philippines, attested from before Spanish colonization through to at least the eighteenth century.1 The word baybay means “to spell” in Tagalog, which was the language most frequently written with the baybayin script. Apart from Tagalog, baybayin (with some necessary changes) was used to write Ilocano (Iloko), Kapampangan, Pangasinan, Bisaya, and Bikol. The identification of baybayin with languages other than Tagalog is a contested subject, as I describe below. Continue reading Baybayin and nationalism

Toponyms at Koutroulou Magoula

Neo Monastiri

Our trusted friend Wikipedia tells us that prior to 1927 the name of the modern village of Neo Monastiri was Τσιόμπα (Tsioba). This name appears to be the Turkish, based on the word çoban (Felipe Rojas, email correspondence, 2018) meaning shepherd, which is a fairly common component of Turkish place names. This name is also linked to a popular Turkish producer of Greek yogurt, Chobani.

In 1927 there was a deliberate name change to Neo Monastiri. Where things get a little foggy is the progression of names prior to this change. The use and existence of Tsioba is documented below, but another name is noted in this source: Biclerer (Μπικλερέρ), also Turkish. There is also mention of the village being called Malamidohori in honor of the Fthiotida representative Efstathios Malamidas, who founded the village, though this name didn’t stick (1925). One reference was found to the toponym Hajoba as the name of the village prior to the arrival of the Bulgarian immigrants. As we know, the village was rebuilt after a 1955 earthquake, and now the former location is referred to as the “old village” (Paliohori). The toponym Neo Monastiri was directly transferred between places.

Figure 1. A map from The Wars of the Nineties, courtesy of the Anne SK Brown Military Collection at the John Hay Library.

The oldest known reference to a village toponym is from an 1897 map (figure 1) in the book The Wars of the Nineties, published in 1899 in London. This map shows the town of Tsioba in the correct location for Neo Monastiri based on comparison with the surrounding towns. From this, it’s obvious that there was a small village, as it was described in sources contemporary to the map, at the location prior to the establishment of the current community living there. One source writes that that itinerant shepherds or vlachs lived in the village for fifty years prior to their own arrival . There is a note that these names applied to older ‘settlements’, not villages, although no distinction is made between what that means, exactly. There’s no record of a Greek toponym in use prior to 1927, which is interesting given the array of possible Turkish names used prior to this time. Continue reading Toponyms at Koutroulou Magoula

Turkish Language Reform

I want this post to be shorter than usual, since I’m mostly just interested in presenting two images I find fascinating. They are both related to the Turkish Language Reform. In 1929, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk decreed that Turkish would from then on be written in the Latin alphabet (as opposed to the Ottoman Arabic script used previously).1

This first image is of an Ottoman calendar published in Thessaloniki in 1911. It demonstrates a remarkable diversity of scripts and languages. These include Arabic and Turkish (in the Arabic script) using the Islamic calendar; Bulgarian (in Cyrillic); Greek (with the Julian calendar); French (with the Gregorian); Armenian; and Ladino (in the Hebrew script), with the Jewish calendar. Some discussion is available here. Isn’t this just incredible!

This second photo is of Atatürk supposedly teaching the Latin alphabet. The photo is clearly propagandistic, but still a fascinating historical document.