Today in South Africa, we are on holiday. It is a public holiday, Heritage Day. Originally called Shaka Day and only celebrated in Kwazulu Natal, 24 September commemorated the life of mighty King of the Zulus, King Shaka. Shaka was a brutal, fiercely intelligent, militant Zulu chief who conquered disparate small tribes and united the Zulu nation. He was terrifying and powerful, a great King.
King Shaka Zulu
Below is a praise song (isibongo). A praise song, South African-style, is a thing to behold. It’s not a gospel choir on a gaudily lit stage with a back-up band. A praise singer is a poet, a warrior poet who heralds the arrival of warrior kings. A praise song is his poem performed.
He is Shaka the unshakeable,
Thunderer-while-sitting, son of Menzi
He is the bird that preys on other birds,
The battle-axe that excels over other battle-axes in sharpness,
He is the long-strided pursuer, son of Ndaba,
Who pursued the sun and the moon.
He is the great hubbub like the rocks of Nkandla
Where elephants take shelter
When the heavens frown…
Traditional Zulu praise song, English translation by Es’kia Mphahlele
Watch this clip to get an idea of how it should sound. It’s really stirring. Watch it.
Now, he is advertising soccer and a bank but imagine he wasn’t. Imagine he was heralding a mighty king. A praise song is a wonderful thing made a bit silly and trivial by using it in advertising. It is not nearly as silly and trivialising as our new Heritage Day tradition, however. Most South Africans will not even be able to tell you why we have a public holiday today. They won’t know the official name of the day. They won’t know these things because we have unofficially renamed Heritage Day ‘Braai Day’ A braai is a barbecue. Having a braai in the spring sunshine is supposed to remind us of our roots. Meat unites all South Africans, apparently. Our love of charred meat on a fire brings us all together today in exactly the same way that fear, superior military tactics, and mass murder brought the Zulus together all those years ago.
Don’t get me wrong, we’ll char our meat later this afternoon too; we’ll have a beer, and thank God we live in Africa. I do acknowledge that I am being just a little bit crotchety about “Braai Day” but I thought I would tell a story of our heritage that I didn’t know before this week. It is a story of dignity lost and regained, a story about the great Victorian novelist Charles Dickens, a story about the Frontier Wars and making a life in a wild country. So, I will tell you this little story about our heritage on Heritage Day so that I can stop being so sanctimoniously whiny on a beautiful day. It will be quick because our braai starts in an hour!
I have a thing about Victorian London. I probably like the Victorians for the same reason that I like the Tudors; there is an awful lot of information out there about both of them. You can read about the Victorians and read some more. There is a never-ending supply of descriptions of life as it was nearly 200 years ago. You can learn about what they wore, what they ate, how they lived. It’s easy to take an imaginary trip to Victorian London. Much of my early fascination with the Victorians came from the novels of Charles Dickens. The pickpockets, the workhouses, the dingy fogs lit eerily yellow by gas lamps and tallow candles, prostitutes, grime, poverty, debauch. (You see! A handful of sentences in and I’m 200 years-old already. Look at me using the word ‘debauch’ with nary a care.)
I am reading Claire Tomalin’s biography of Dickens and in it she tells a story that connects Charles Dickens to South Africa. I am beyond excited that South Africa makes a cameo appearance in the book, in a way that only people who come from small countries with few casual mentions in the history books will understand. And it is a story that involves prostitutes. As with Victorian London, I have a thing for prostitutes and anybody forced to make a life in the places just beyond acceptable. I am trying to trace the history of a woman from the Cape of Good Hope who in 1831 was working as a prostitute in Paris. Can you imagine her story? From her home country to the Slave Lodge at the Cape of Good Hope to Paris. But I’m getting carried away with myself here…Charles Dickens…was also fascinated by prostitutes. He didn’t follow stories of Cape slaves though, he actually did something useful with his interest and concern. He, together with Miss Angela Burdett-Coutts, set up a house for prostitutes looking to turn their lives around. Urania Cottage Home for Fallen Women was opened in 1847.
Urania Cottage Home for Fallen Women
The home could accommodate over 20 women sharing rooms. Upon entering the house, they were given new clothes, a bath (Saturdays would subsequently be their weekly bath day), a bed, and a chore roster. They were trained to be good wives and good women. Dickens was liberal enough to go for a carrot and not a stick approach. He insisted they should be treated with dignity, that they not be constantly reminded of their past sin but instead be rewarded for good behaviour. The house worked on a points system. If the girls were caught swearing or drinking or in any way reverting to their fallen nature, they lost points and were eventually removed from the house. Some left of their own will not being able to adjust to sober, Victorian womanhood. Those who made it through the program at the Home, were shipped off to the colonies. The rehabilitated fallen women were sent to Canada, Australia and The Cape of Good Hope.
I’m not sure quite how many ended up here in South Africa and Tomalin’s book only mentions one name, Louisa Cooper, but I am so excited by the idea that on Heritage Day here in South Africa, a whole lot of somebodies can claim descent from ‘fallen women’ who were once read to by Charles Dickens.
The South Africa they arrived in was a very different one from today’s. It was a wild and woolly place, the diamonds and gold that would turn it into the richest country in Africa for a time were as yet undiscovered. Some Boers, grown unhappy with their British overlords, had moved inland in what would become known as The Great Trek.; tensions between the Afrikaners and the British remained, however. There were constant wars against the native tribes. There was space and clean air but there was great hardship. I suspect the women from Dickens’ Home would have been sent to the eastern frontier of the colony. The Frontier Wars, drought, and the difficulties of setting up a life in virgin coastal forest had devastated the original 1820 British settler population. There were many more men in the area than there were women to marry them.
Algoa Bay 1833
A former fallen woman could very easily find herself a husband and a house, start a family and begin anew. South Africa became her place to start again. I’ll keep searching for more names but for today, I am going to raise a glass to Louisa Cooper. And I think that is a very cool story for Heritage Day. For me, at least, it’s better than a boerie roll but I really must run. The fire is almost ready.
P.S. I’m trying very hard not to be a paragraph moron but I can’t seem to make WordPress work today. Imagine that all the paragraph breaks are in the right place because I cannot make it so in the real world.