Pringle launch talk – 3 November 2011 – by Randolph Vigne 

[Response to Chairman’s introduction and thank you to Chairman, Vice-Chairman and Secretary for much appreciated support throughout.]

Now may I say something about the Van Riebeeck Society itself. When I became a member seventy years ago that was its name. It is now the Van Riebeeck Society for the Publication of Southern African Historical Documents. As such it does a vitally important job in making available each year a collection of documents from our history which bring us into direct contact with the thoughts and actions of the history makers without the intervention and inevitable reworking of historians, essential though that may be to pass on the events of the past.

Historians call these primary sources and, using them, the books they write become in due course secondary sources. Then the next generation of historians and of history students and readers base much of the work on their predecessors’ interpretation of those sources, and sight is too often lost of what the primary sources can reveal.

I can think of no better window on our South African past than the letters written by Thomas Pringle in the last fifteen crowded years of his short life. Collecting and editing these letters enabled me to find out what this gallant yet somewhat star-crossed character was really about, and the truth about the various situations in which he found himself.

Let’s look at three aspects of Pringle’s life and work which, as I read his letters, turned out to be totally unlike what I thought, or had been taught, they were at the outset.

These are the 1820 Settler scheme, the struggle for the freedom of the Press, and the great campaign in England that brought about the abolition of slavery in the British Empire.

The 1820 Settlers: were you taught, as I was at school, that the British Government sent 5000 settlers to the Cape to serve as a buffer against the encroaching African tribes who were moving into the land the Dutch had occupied and the British later colonized by treaty with the African chiefs? Part of the object, we were taught, was to reduce the heavy financial burden of maintaining troops on the frontier, at the expense of the settlers and their families.

In Pringle’s correspondence, in the parliamentary debates, Colonial Office papers, and in the motivating books and papers by such as Sir John Barrow and William Burchell, there was, in the period during which the 1820 Settler plan was put together and implemented, no trace whatever of a plan, secret or otherwise, to use the settlers as a shield against the westward movement of the amaXhosa.

There had been such plans earlier, proposed first by Colonel John Graham, who had commanded the troops on the frontier, and later on by the Governor of the newly acquired Cape Colony, Lord Charles Somerset, but neither had found favour. When Britain faced, or the Tory government thought it did, serious internal insurrection, a seemingly quick fix was to move as many as possible of the ‘rude mechanicals’ who might start a revolution out of the country. So, attractive terms were offered and some 90,000 applied to go to the Zuurveld of the Cape Colony. Only 5000 were sent in the end, too few to solve the imagined problem and almost all of them quite unlike the radicals that were meant to be exported.

Despite all this, generations were taught the ‘buffer’ theory and one hopes that the letters of Thomas Pringle, as leader of the only Scottish settler party, will help to get rid of this widespread delusion.

Next we’ll consider briefly the freedom of the Press. Pringle is probably remembered best by South Africans as the man who won this for the colony. He did indeed start the struggle for Press freedom but it was Fairbairn who completed it, with help from Greig and the Revd Abraham Faure along the way, for which Pringle was to give full credit.

What Pringle did do, as the letters show us, was to give his whole heart and soul to what he called ‘the great cause’: the emancipation of the Khoikhoi and the slaves, the saving of the Bushmen from genocide, and the protection of the amaXhosa on the frontier from what he called the ‘commando system’ as well as from continuing dispossession by British troops, Afrikaner frontiersmen and British settlers.

He, Philip and Stockenstrom and a small group of their supporters championed South Africa’s underdogs quite heroically. It is to be hoped that Pringle’s letters may help gain him the recognition he deserves, a recognition long accorded to Philip and Stockenstrom..

And slavery in the world at large? Was abolition the result of a long overdue determination to bring to an end an ancient institution that was indefensible on moral grounds? Or did it result from a calculation of the labour needs of a fast growing capitalist system which found slavery wasteful and limiting? The campaigning of the Anti-Slavery Society of which Pringle was the Secretary in the years that led to its triumph, as also the nationwide women’s groups, the speeches and writing of the Whig politicians who finally won the day, contained not one word that supported the theory that slavery was brought to an end for the benefit of the economic interests of the slave owners and their industries. The most passionate defenders of slavery were the slave owners, above all the sugar planters of the Caribbean islands, whose spokesmen cruelly libelled Pringle.

The abolition of slavery in the British Empire happened not through the mysterious workings of an economic process nor by the scheming of promoters of capitalism. Slavery was abolished because so many thousands of men and women took up this burning moral cause, which they shared with a liberal ministry, itself strengthened by the enlargement of the electorate by the great Reform Act of 1832.

The nature of the 1820 settlers migration, of the freedom of the Press, of Pringle’s fight for ‘the great cause’, and of the final success of the abolitionists are all to be found in Pringle’s letters. And running through them all is the life and work of a poet, doubtful of his quality, guilt-stricken that his ‘rhymes’, as he calls his poetry, distract him from ‘the great cause’ yet unable to suppress his urge to versify and find an audience for his verse. He was, indeed, the first poet to bring the South African scene to the outside world.

There is a lighter side – Pringle’s irrepressible optimism and high spirits. Though victimized, even ruined by Governor Somerset and his officials, chronically short of money and increasingly in debt, and then seriously injured after a fall from his horse on his journey to the eastern Cape, he wrote a flow of letters and much poetry during his four-month convalescence at the Genadendal mission. To his friends in Cape Town he wrote only one plea – to send him Scott’s latest novel, Redgauntlet, which had just reached Cape Town. When Fairbairn, his sister in law and his doctor organized a visit to him, he threatened to make some comic verses about it:

If I had but one half an hour I should have you and your expedition of one Doctor – with a medical chart, a chest of tools, another of bandages, pewter pisspots etc., etc. – one old maid, one young Doctor, all hitched into rhyme and, by Jupiter, I shall yet. Bless your hearts I would rather have had Redgauntlet than the whole waggon load of you – and that’s the one thing you don’t send me.

Instead he sent a rousing song making fun of their enemies in Cape Town to be sung on his return when ‘we’ll have a cheering Whisky Toddy and sing it all together in full chorus’.

Let us remember that Thomas Pringle – you’ll find him in the letters – as well as the committed humanitarian and devoted settler leader, whose company one might not much enjoy. The Van Riebeeck Society has done well to publish these letters, which reveal the real Thomas Pringle.