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

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 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

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

Some background on Baybayin, a pre-Hispanic Filipino Script

Update: a more recent, more detailed, and better-informed version of this project is available here.

A page from the Doctrina Christiana, with Baybayin (Tagalog) on top and Latin (Spanish) below.

In this post I focus on Baybayin, a writing system native to the Philippines. Baybayin is a Brahmic script used to write Tagalog through to the period of Spanish colonization.1 There are few academic studies of Baybayin.2 What we know about this script mostly comes from Spanish missionaries who learned, documented, and translated Baybayin texts in the 16th century. The earliest known book published in Tagalog is the Doctrina Cristiana from 1593, which includes both Latin and Baybayin transcriptions as well as a translation into Spanish. At this time, literacy in the Philippines was fairly widespread, though it seems literature remained primarily oral. The Boxer Codex of 1590 reported that native inhabitants “have neither books nor histories nor do they write anything of length but only letters and reminders to one another.”3 This claim may have been used to cover up mass destruction by Spanish priests of Baybayin writings. In 1921, Otley Beyer, an American scholar of the Philippines, wrote: Continue reading Some background on Baybayin, a pre-Hispanic Filipino Script

Western writing and the Church of the East in China

I wanted to write about a fascinating object called the Nestorian Stele, a block of stone inscribed with Chinese and Syriac in 781 CE. The stele is entitled Memorial of the Propagation in China of the Luminous Religion from Daqin (大秦景教流行中國碑; pinyin: Dàqín Jǐngjiào liúxíng Zhōngguó bēi; the stele is commonly known simply as jingjiaobei). It describes the establishment of a Nestorian Christian church in China in the late antiquity, known as Beth Sinaye in Syriac and jingjiao in Chinese. The monument was erected in 781 by the Tang Dynasty Emperor Taizong to commemorate 150 years of Christianity in China, which had arrived with Syriac missionaries in 635 (for a concise yet thorough description see Lawton 2008). In 845 CE, the monument was buried during a period of religious suppression and was only rediscovered in 1625. From then on, there has been a steady but small stream of Western interest in the object; in 2008, a book by Michael Keevak was published entitled The Story of a Stele: China’s Nestorian Monument and its Reception in the West, 1625–1916. Continue reading Western writing and the Church of the East in China