From Macau to Lisbon: Travel Writing and Diasporic Spaces
September 13, 2008
Margaret Hanzimanolis, Ph.D.
De Anza College
White Lies and Black Peril: Castaway Women, Lady Travelers, and Southern African
Travel is well known as an instrument of empire—the practices and discourses of travel pave the way for, consolidate, or reflect imperial ambitions. These general patterns are easily traced in contact-era discourses having to do with southern Africa. I am most focused, however, on those arising from Portuguese ships wrecked along the southern Africa coast during the sixteenth century, and those associated with British imperial objectives in the nineteenth century. Common to the successive eras of European-African contact is a warping of the terms of the contact, and these have to do with the status and discursive position of European women in the early exploration or colonial texts having to do with southern Africa. A related anxiety resurfaces in later literature—in which southern African novels appear to wish to situate “woman” in yet another configuration, wherein the womb, the body of the female traveler or settler, is manipulated in the service of a new imperialism, but under the sign of reconciliation. What these four discourses—Portugugese shipwreck accounts, British women’s traveler accounts, and fiction from the nineteenth and late twentieth century— have in common is the way in which they
“rope” the womb into their projects.
Several months ago a journalist was interviewing an Iraqi man staying in a refugee camp in Jordan on National Public Radio. This victim of twenty-first century imperial aggression told of his displacement and the violence, hunger and loss that plagued him. He concluded the interview with a somewhat surprising promise: He suggested that he would eventually return to his village and marry a second wife. The purpose was to produce more men to fight Al Queda.
It is the womb, in this instance, that is employed, or rather that the displaced man wishes to employ, as a political tool. We have certainly seen or heard this rhetoric before. But the womb, as sign, serves entirely different masters, in other times and places. If we are to judge from the late post-apartheid novel in South Africa, the womb is also understood to be a potential site of liberation, a bodily interior capable of binding the competing forces at play, via the figure of the mixed-race child. In another configuration, more associated with the colonial and apartheid eras, European women's womb constituted a feared space, understood to function like a wick that might transport racial or cultural contamination.
This, of course is not news: prohibitions against sexual relations between black men and white women (and the frequency of the same when the genders were reversed) in the American south, the rape of women in the Balkan conflict as a form of warfare, the “breeding” of blackness or indigeneity out of children in Australia in order to “purify” their genes and countless other sexual and social practices and beliefs related to the rise of scientific racism (and the varieties of ethnic cleansing) are well known.
My objective in this paper, then, is to trace how the understanding or representations of women's physical safety and intact honor, as they travel in an world radically expanded for them in personal and professional terms, have been manipulated in successive eras in order to prop up various versions of European contact and dominion in what is now South Africa. Fears about violence and intimacy produced generalized (global) anxieties about the safety of women in colonial spaces, and these fears were particularly evident in the well-circulated female shipwreck and captivity narratives of the early contact and colonial era around the world, including North American captivity narratives. The forms that colonial occupation, independence, and postcolonial structures of civil society took reflect, in some ways, differences in expectations about European women’s safety and security. Sixteenth-century Portuguese shipwreck accounts, British women travelers writing from the nineteenth century, “black peril” novels from the late nineteenth century and twentieth century novels display the sometimes rapid cycling of these expectations.
Let me start with the Portuguese noblewoman, Leonor de Sá, shipwrecked in 1552 just south of Durban. [Figure 1]. She is the most famous, and the first on record, of some twenty or so Portuguese women shipwrecked along the coast of southern Africa during the era of Portuguese maritime dominance. Here is the unhappy scene of Leonor’s death, which takes place after a six-month trek toward Lourenco Marquez [a place of presumed rescue]. It is from the pamphlet or relação printed two years after the wreck itself (1554) and authored anonymously. The scene occurs toward the end of the account of shipwreck survivalism, and just as the starving seamen were betrayed into surrendering their arms and suffered the consequent robbing of all of their possessions:
It is said (Aqui dizem) that Dona Leonor would not allow herself to be stripped, but defended herself with blows and struggles, as she preferred that the Kaffirs should kill her rather than to find herself naked before the people…. One of the sorrows which she felt the most was to see two little children, her sons, crying before her and asking for food, without being able to succour them. Dona Leonor, seeing herself stripped, cast herself upon the ground and covered herself with her hair, which was very long, while she made a pit in the sand in which she buried herself to the waist, and never rose from that spot.… The men who were still in her company, when they saw Manuel de Sousa and his wife thus stripped, withdrew a little, ashamed to see their captain and Dona Leonor in such a state. Then she said to André Vas, the pilot: “You see to what we are reduced and that we can go no farther, but must perish here for our sins. . . [I]f you should reach India or Portugal at any time, say how (dizey como) you left Manuel de Sousa and me with my children” (RSEA v1 146) [my emphasis].
Leonor's command (dizey como) was evidently successful, as this scene is well known in Portugal and has been retold by artists, poets, and dramatists for four centuries. But there are several things about the written account I’d like to focus on. In the first place, Leonor is reported as fighting with blows and struggles to defend herself. Secondly, she scoops out a grave in the sand for herself and "never moves from the spot," thereby effectively abandoning her still-living children. Finally, the men who were with her are reported to have withdrawn, ashamed. In addition to these narrative elements, keep in mind that elsewhere in the account she is described as "walking through the bush as a man" (RSEA v1 142), carrying her children at times, and participating vociferously in debates about survival strategies, including whether the survivors should give up their arms in order to receive food and lodging from a local "king" (RSEA v1 147).
In short, she is cast in a heroic light, as a resourceful and physically hardy member of the band, at times challenging her husband's leadership. These qualities are in defiance of social norms of gender behavior in other records of the era-—that is, Leonor is described as repudiating the maternal by abandoning her children (modesty trumped maternity), as refusing the dictates of class (she performed physically hard work, virtually unknown to noblewomen), and as having at times led the band of survivors, an instance of her violating her social position. On the other hand, her husband, Manuel is termed weak and vacillating by the two English language historians who have written extensively about the shipwrecks, James Duffy and Charles Boxer—although because the account emphasizes his head pain, hallucinations and unclear thinking he may have been head-injured or ill with cerebral malaria rather than incompetent. In any event, he was evidently ineffective as a leader and more or less incapacitated.
Now, I want to contrast the textual account with three images of Manuel de Sousa Sepúlveda and Leonor de Sá meeting their end in southern Africa. The images underscore the way the figure of the shipwrecked woman was manipulated, perhaps as part of an attempt to inflame protective anxieties and thus increase public support, in general, for the enormously costly Carriera da India.
The most telling variation in the visual record is that the relative positions of the two are reversed. Leonor is enfeebled and Manuel is either relatively unimpaired or reinvigorated as heroic savior. From a late eighteenth-century history of shipwreck (Figure 2:), this image shows Leonor reclining into a depression in the sand, leaning back against her servant, and wholly exposed to the two Portuguese men who hover around her. Her husband is leaning against a palm tree, with his face buried in his hands in a gesture of profound grief. On the brow of a hill in the background, dark figures cart off the spoils of their ambush. Just to the left of Leonor is a figure of a lion biting into a collapsed or expired person, contributing to the sense of imminent peril. In this engraving we can see that the unclothed noblewoman is the center of the illustration, hyper-vulnerable to the menace surrounding her, and Manuel is sunk in self-pity or inconsolable grief. Unlike his representation in the historical record as a ruined man, injured in the leg, foraging about for scraps of food, and stripped naked by the indigenous Africans, in this illustration he is still standing, seemingly well fed, and fully, though rudely, clothed. With his face in his hands, he is pictured as unable to bear the sight of his unclothed wife. And while (in the written account) the crew of the St. John withdraw, ashamed when they see what has happened, in this illustration they hover around her. Thus the husband has not only traded places with his wife in terms of relative strength, he has traded places with the crew. He is withdrawn, ashamed, and unable to face her exposed body. The crew and servants (as well as those outside of the frame), however, are salaciously engaged in "viewing" her as a theatrically-posed offering to early Iberian trade ambition.
[The historian Faria e Sousa, in his 1647 history of Portugal indicated that it was the sole province of a husband to see a woman's unclothed body (RSEA v1 18). This belief is in fact reversed in this engraving from 1795; it is the husband himself, the exemplar of imperial masculinity, who cannot bear the sight of the unclothed noblewoman--and the engraving suggests his inability to " face" Leonor’s nakedness in this situation might be understood as a larger cultural inability to face a stark reality in the early exploration era: namely, that the overall success of the project of European trade dominance and later colonization was counterbalanced by a loss of control over the reproductive bodies of European women, possibly naked and splayed out in front of servants, seamen, and indigenous people. Indeed, for the global trade and colonizing projects to proceed, Europe had to quite determinedly " turn away from" this spectacle. Yet, as the illustration suggests, even if " empire" in the most general sense, was bent on " not facing" this (let us call it) constructed female hyper-vulnerability, evidently there were cultural reasons why the European "public" or consumers of these images, were entertained with such sacrificial images--that trade on the anxieties of gender (both masculine /protective and feminine/vulnerable). A man cannot be a man, in such situations, the images suggest, and a woman cannot be a woman.]
The second image (Figure 3) is from an early nineteenth-century history, the memoráveis da história de Portugal (1826). In this version, Leonor is exposed in the foreground, and rendered insensible, while Manuel is grieving over her, unclothed this time, but still physically vital and seemingly well-nourished (as is she). As in the Deperthes image, Manuel has been returned to a position of relative strength and even heroic virility and Leonor has been recast in the form of a limp figure of passive hyper-vulnerability.
Manuel’s strength is even greater in a later image, from an 1896 edition that condensed Bernardo de Brito's Historia tragico Martima (Figure 4). He is not only still standing, but he is now carrying his weak and insensible wife. This half-sized grave is a vertical grave, not a scooped out depression in the sand, and a slave is evidently trying it out for size or has dug it herself. The lamentations are generalized, the children are nowhere in sight. Manuel's graceful posture, with his weight on one leg, further invites us to see him as relatively unimpaired by five months of starvation and exposure. Only his overgrown hair and beard (and perhaps his wild eyes) suggest that he himself has been stranded on southern African shores for an extended period of time. This image produces the most marked enfeeblement of Leonor, whose limp and unresisting body is presented as a sexualized offering to Iberian trade ambitions. It is tempting to understand this re-diagramming of the gender positions as an attempt to explain the failure of Portugal to maintain trade and maritime supremacy. That is, by invoking what is in many ways a "false" (female) vulnerability which was heroically framed by an equally " false" version of early modern masculinity, the engraving seems to offer this excuse: you can see that the loss of "our" women (despite our utmost care), in such pitiful disasters as the shipwreck of the St. John, is an intolerable loss: Let the viewer now understand the cause of the end our golden age. That is, iconographically at least, the loss of the female Portuguese body was presented as something of an excuse for the decline of the maritime dominance enjoyed for Portugal for over a hundred years, [instead of the more historically verifiable explanations of overloaded galleons, poorly outfitted naos, poor voyage timing, or poorly trained crew or officers-the reasons given by Duffy, Boxer and other English language historians of Portugal in Africa.]
I turn now to the British women travelers. While there were a sprinkling of short accounts of travel or contact with southern Africa in the early nineteenth century (Figure 5 ), the real explosion coincided with the high stakes contest between the British and the Dutch for control of South Africa, roughly the last half of the nineteenth century and the first years of the twentieth century. I won't quote extensively from these works, but consider the titles: Alone Among the Zulus (1865) by Charlotte Barter, A Year's Housekeeping in South Africa (1877) by Mary Ann Barker Broome, Recollections of a Happy Life (1892) by Marianne North, Adventures in Mashonaland, by Two Hospital Nurses (1893). I have catalogued over 80 of these works, the large majority at the end of the nineteenth century, the decade preceding the Anglo-Boer war. With the exception of the most widely known European woman writing of southern Africa, Harriet Ward, the authors downplay entirely any physical dangers, and instead rely on rhetorical tricks meant to render southern African spaces unthreatening for European women: a miniaturization of the landscape and people, theatrical tropes which impose a “viewing distance,” and a curious form of what I have called the pre-memorialization of the living southern African culture. That is, many of the British women writing of southern African depict indigenous southern Africans as relics of a past age.
This determination to represent the absolute freedom, physical safety, and of course, intact honor, of European women in farthest Africa represents one of the most important affidavits that prospective settlers considering emigration would wish to hear. These travel texts helped to establish that women residents or settlers could reasonably expect to encounter a zone of safety or sphere of inviolability in the Cape Colony and Natal during the early colonial period. This expectation for complete safety for traveling or immigrating women would have been helpful to the intensification of British settlement and Britain’s claims to political hegemony and rightful dominion in South Africa.
Was the nineteenth-century southern African civilization safer than in the shipwreck era? The Ncome/Blood River battle, in which almost 500 European men, women, and children were killed, took place 20 years before Charlotte Barter's trip to Natal, recorded in Alone Among the Zulus. And localized skirmishes, while rarely fatal for women, continued throughout the long nineteenth century along the western frontier of the Cape Colony. These attacks kept a number of border settlements in a state of fear.
So we have now two stacked discourses in which the conditions or experiences of women were falsified: the hardy Portuguese women, who were nevertheless portrayed as hyper-vulnerable, and the British travelers and early settlers, who portray themselves as enjoying utter freedom and safety in their travels, but who were indeed in some danger and considerable discomfort. These women suggested in their travel texts that South Africa was an idyllic playground for sightseeing, botanizing, evangelical efforts, and amateur ethnographic endeavors, when in fact the dangers were significant. And the shipwrecked Portuguese women, often starving and ill, were in fact in more danger from their own compatriots than from the indigenous people through whose land they stumbled. Of the dozen or so Portuguese women known to have been shipwrecked in southern Africa, at least three were cruely abandoned along the way. There is not a single recorded instance of bodily harm to any of the Portuguese women on the part of the Africans.
The third discourse, black peril novels, oddly enough sprang up more or less simultaneously with the travel literature. This literature can be identified as early as Charles Eden's An Inherited Task (1865) ( Figure 5) and continues in the theme of “blood, taint, and flaw”, to use J.M Coetzee’s terms, in Sarah Millen's novels in the first half of the nineteenth century. Eden’s novel was published just nine years before Charlotte Barter’s Alone Among the Zulus, that is, 1874. Like Barter’s account of a trading expedition, Eden’s fiction takes place in Natal. But, while Charlotte Barter spends several weeks out in the bush in a relatively idyllic trek to rescue her ill brother, (She has with her a kitten and is accompanied by a single Zulu driver, with whom she prays companionably every evening), the Eden novel explores the limits of cultural terror. In this mid-nineteenth century novel, the Zulu King Chaka gives a captured white missionary woman, Amy Hamilton, the choice of marrying him and producing a race of warrior elites or—by her refusal to marry him—cause the death of her escort, an Oxford schoomate of her husband who had come out to Africa to assist with a mission project, by “the protracted agony of impalement” (119).
What is striking is that these parallel discourses could coexist so happily: the white woman unsupervised and unmolested (in nonfiction travelogues) alongside novels of the same period, in which the European woman faces the most drastic sexual peril. Eden’s novel above, by suggesting two perilous penetrations—of Amy by King Chaka, and of her companion by a stake set in the ground, has located the site of threat in the interior of the body, the womb in the case of Amy.
Eden’s novel was published by the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge, and the preface indicates that the missionaries were “entirely fictional” but that all that had to do with Chaka was “historical.” Of course, this is not true. There is no historical evidence to suggest that Chaka had a white missionary or any other white woman captured in order to offer her such a forced choice. And a missionary named Ann Hamilton was active in southern Africa in the same era. It is also curious that many evangelical societies of the time were deeply attached to abolitionist discourses, in which case the depiction of (artificially-enhanced) sexual peril would run counter to the political objective of eliminiating the oppression and enslavement of Africans. Indeed the same society published Charlotte Barter’s homey version of life in southern Africa just ten years earlier, a text seemingly intent upon securing the expectation of safety for unaccompanied females in southern Africa.
Finally, I want to mention two novels written in the late twentieth-century in South Africa that appear to remain entrapped in this notion of the womb, or the woman’s reproductive being, as a locus of cultural transition, by South African writers André Brink and J.M. Coetzee.
The use of the womb as a site of social reconciliation is a modern version of much more ancient systems of powerful families creating allegiances via “exchange” marriages, a long-standing mechanism for social stability. Indeed, in both the kinship practices of European nobility and in so-called tribal societies “woman is the coin that establishes connection between different groups, sometimes spent, sometimes hoarded, sometimes stolen,” in words of the South African critic, Dorothy Driver.
This form of a currency is evident in Brink’s Cape of Storms, the First Life of Adamastor (1987), in which the narrator, Chief T’kama, is smitten by and then abducts a sixteenth-century Portuguese woman temporarily ashore in southern Africa, though he fails for most of the novella to consummate the desired “relationship” because his penis grows grotesquely huge and unruly when he attempts intercourse. At the end of the novella, when union is finally achieved, Brink soars into hyperbolic masculinity, and the “feminine” earth is cracked open by the force of T’kama’s long held ejaculation: “one huge voice exulting to the sky: pure voice, all voice, nothing but voice, a scream that broke the mountains and split the earth” (120). Predictably, the triumph of this exultant mating is undercut by the close of the novella, in that T’kama is killed for the impertinence of his desire. Before he dies, however, he consummates his long-standing desire and a child is conceived—the biracial child functioning as the symbol of hope, according an interview with Brink (Graeber 23). While Brink positions the bi-racial child as the future hope, it is important to note that it is only after removing the indigenous African man from the picture.
In an entirely different register, the womb becomes the site of both transgression (in the conventional sense of prohibited sexual relations) and reconciliation (in an unconventional sense closer to Brink’s diagramming) in J.M.Coetzee’s novel Disgrace (1999). In this work the dismissal of a white academic because of his pursuit of sexual relations with a student is mirrored in some ways by the rape of his daughter weeks later at the hands of a gang of black men: one a disgrace of commission, one a disgrace of victimization. Lucy, the daughter of the disgraced academic, in deciding not to press charges against her rapist, to keep the child, and to continue living in her small holding in a mixed race area—eventually signing over her land to her black business partner— refuses to take on the full terms of the social stigma of rape and overturns the racial hierarchies of the apartheid era. But this courageousness masks a disquieting implication: Coetzee’s diagram replaces white patriarchal control of the land with black patriarchal control, an exchange that will get us nowhere, and a diagramming that persists in making claims about the womb as a space in which blood itself can be compelled to forget.
While I am not able to give this novel the extensive treatment that it has gotten elsewhere, I wish simply to declare that Coetzee has positioned the womb, even if only in the mind of a delusional rape victim, as the “site” of civil reconciliation— a form of cultural atonement that will only succeed, as a symbolic configuration, if the womb is understood to be the sacrificial site.
In the three strands of literature about European women in southern Africa can be seen a bold manipulation of the sense of freedom or peril attributed to the female body.
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Barter, Charlotte. Alone Among the Zulus, by a Plain Woman. The Narrative of a Journey through the Zulu Country. Pietermaritzberg: University of Natal Press,  1996.
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Blackmore, Josiah. Manifest Perdition: Shipwreck Narrative and the Disruption of Empire. Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2002.
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—.Four Centuries of Portuguese Expansion 1415-1825: A Succinct Survey. Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press, 1961 (Publication of lectures given at the University of Witswatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa, 1960).
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—.trans. Leonard Bacon. New York: The Hispanic Society of America, 1950.
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—. White Writing. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988.
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Graeber, Laurel. “Let Everyone Speak at Once,” New York Times Book Review 25 July (1993): 23.
Hamilton, Ann. Extracts From the Journal of a Female Missionary, on Her Journies in South Africa, to and From Lattakoo. London: W. Kent, 1818.
Hanzimanolis, Margaret. “Eight Hens Per Man Per Day: Shipwreck Survivors and Pastoral Abundance in the Southern African Contact Zone” Navigating African History,
(eds) Jeremy Rich and Carina Ray. University Press of Nova Scotia, 2008 (forthcoming).
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— “Chapter XIV - South Africa,“ Recollections of a Happy Life, Vol II.
Theal, G.M. Records of South-Eastern Africa (RSEA). London: Government of the Cape Colony: Vol I-VIII. (1898-1903). Facsimile reprint, 1964.
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