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 StateUniversity 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

Scholar, Activist, or Religious Figure? John Wesley Gilbert’s Reception and Legacy

This paper was delivered as part of a student-led symposium on the life and legacy of John Wesley Gilbert held on 2 March 2018, as part of the Joukowsky Institute’s conference entitled State of the Field 2018: Archaeology and Social Justice. A video recording is available here; my presentation begins at 30:30. The slides I used are available here, and I’ve added the appropriate images below when possible. Any questions or comments are very much appreciated (as are requests for sources)!

In this paper, I analyze primary sources to reveal contemporary attitudes to Gilbert and his work as a cleric, a writer, and a scholar. First, I discuss Gilbert’s relationship with Methodism, including his mission to the Congo. I then turn to Gilbert’s political activity and contemporary reception, before ending with Gilbert’s modern legacy. I argue that these three facets of Gilbert’s life – his religion, politics, and scholarship – reflect three different approaches to John Wesley Gilbert, the man and the symbol. Paying close attention to the shifting emphases in the legacy of John Wesley Gilbert pushes us to be more reflexive in our own approaches to him and reflect on how our politics are entangled with the representation of the past. Continue reading Scholar, Activist, or Religious Figure? John Wesley Gilbert’s Reception and Legacy

John Wesley Gilbert: some clarifications

John Wesley Gilbert at an unknown date. Photo credit: Michigan State University.

Update: I gave the presentation I mentioned below in March 2018; the paper I delivered is available here.

I am currently preparing a presentation on John Wesley Gilbert, based off of a paper I wrote for a class in Fall 2017. Gilbert is not very well-known, so here’s some brief notes about him by John W. I. Lee, who wrote a piece on Gilbert’s work with the American School of Classical Studies at Athens:

Gilbert graduated from Paine College in Augusta, Georgia, then received his BA from Brown University in 1888. As a Brown MA student in 1890–1891 he became the first African American to study in Greece at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA). During his year in Greece, Gilbert participated in the American School’s excavations at the ancient site of Eretria on the island of Euboea.

Timeline

Chronology

Here, I would like to clarify the chronology of a few events in Gilbert’s life, specifically relating to his education and relationship with Paine College. Continue reading John Wesley Gilbert: some clarifications