Rare discovery marks literary milestone
A rare book marking a literary milestone in South Africa has been discovered by an expert researching a 19th century collection.
The lost work, which is written in French and tells the story of a forgotten shipwreck, is one of just seven copies known to exist today.
A researcher at the University of St Andrews found the text while studying the books owned by a governor of Cape Colony in the 1800s, before it became Cape Town.
The book tells the tale of the Eole, a French merchant vessel which sank off the coast of Africa in April 1829, and of its eight survivors who walked barefoot for three weeks to safety. It recalls their encounters with the indigenous population at a time when an uneasy peace existed between them and the European settlers. The 124-page text, written by Charles-Etienne Boniface and published in November 1829, is based on an account provided by the survivors. It is believed to be the first book in French and the first travel narrative to have been published in South Africa.
David Culpin, the reader in the university’s department of French who unearthed the work, said the text is important because of the description it provides of contemporary events in the area.
He spent months finding out if it is a true account of a forgotten event in history, something he has now been able to verify.
He said: “Travel literature was very popular in the early 19th century but only about seven per cent of travel narratives published at that time describe Africa, and even fewer give any description of interaction between Europeans and the indigenous people.”
The book, whose lengthy title can be paraphrased as Account Of The Wreck Of The French Ship The Eole In April 1829, is thought to be worth at least £5,000.
The university said the Eole, a trading ship, left Bordeaux in France for Calcutta but was wrecked after leaving Reunion Island on its return passage on a wild section of the African coast.
Eight of the 20 passengers and crew survived and spent three days with the indigenous Xhosa people before their arduous trek across rough terrain to reach the nearest European settlement.
Against a backdrop of great unrest along the frontier between the Xhosa and the European settlers, they emerged to the nearest European settlement to be met by a Major Dundas, who may have been a Scottish soldier.
Dr Culpin said: “The text offers an eyewitness account of contemporary Cape Town, and describes places like Grahamstown and Port Elizabeth just a few years after these settlements had been established.
“The author is also a very interesting character. As a young child he fled with his family from Paris during the French Revolution, and subsequently became an important figure in the literary life of the Cape.
“In 1832 he wrote a play satirising the local temperance movement, which is one of the earliest texts to use the Afrikaans language.”
Dr Culpin believes no more than 200 copies would have been printed and many would not have survived because they were sold unbound. The book is also unlikely to have attracted much attention because Boniface was writing in French in an English- and Dutch-speaking colony.
Dr Culpin discovered the work while studying the French books collected by Sir George Grey, who was governor of Cape Colony between 1854 and 1861. He is now in the process of translating the book into English and hopes it will be published in both English and French.