BOOK REVIEW by Malcolm Jack

Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies Vol. No. (2022)     doi: IO.IIII/1754-0208.12830

Travels into the Interior of Africa via the Cape of Good Hope, Volume 2. By François Le Vaillant. Translated with an Introduction and Notes by D. J. Culpin. Cape Town: HiPSA. 2021. Third Series, no. 3. 203 p. 600R/ £30 (hb.). ISBN 978-0-9947207-7-1.

By far the most influential French writer of the eighteenth century who had first-hand knowledge of the Cape was François Le Vaillant (1753-1824). Born in the Dutch colony of Surinam in South America in 1753, he played a great deal on his colonial upbringing, claiming it gave him the status of a ‘savage’. In these entries, he describes himself as an ‘American creole’ (p.8) and however much that is a convenient pose, there is no doubt that Le Vaillant’s early childhood experience accustomed him to being the solitary European or white person among a dependent group of indigenous   people – in the patriarchal role of commanding but also protecting those under his care. Whatever  the moral implications of his position of privilege, there can be no doubt that the young François was an adapter who embraced rather than rejected different cultures. He was prepared to judge them on their own terms without, however, losing his sense of the innate superiority of European civilisation.

After his arrival in Cape Town, Le Vaillant soon became well known on the social scene, although he expressed a preference for solitary excursions up Table Mountain or Signal Hill, then as now great physical landmarks of the city. His view was that travelling in a group always led to arguments about the aims of any expedition (vol. 1, p.57). Soon he was making hunting trips into the hinterland around the town, at that time still the home of wild animals. No doubt his  prowess as a marksman was good (and his military service had provided an opportunity to perfect his knowledge of arms, already incipient in Surinam), but these excursions provided opportunity for raising the exotic profile of his Cape sojourn, described in this and in the previous volume, as well as for bragging about his own bravery in the face of threats from wild animals, in one case in a colourfully described encounter with a panther in his earlier writing.

The first volume of his travel writing was translated by Ian Glenn and published by the Van Riebeeck Society, now HiPSA, in 2007. In his introduction, the editor dealt extensively with matters of biography and bibliography, leaving Culpin free, in this translation of the second volume, to concentrate on Le Vaillant’s views of human nature and society as well as considering the style in which he wrote. While Vol. I of the Travels ended with Le Vaillant reaching the easternmost point of his journey, the current volume concentrates on the period he spent encamped on the banks of the Great Fish River. As before, Le Vaillant wants to raise his reader’s curiosity about an  exotic part of the world seldom visited by Europeans. While he shares that aim with other writers, Le Vaillant also has an underlying ideological motive, namely, to present the Hottentots as representative of the Rousseauist ‘Noble Savage’ and not, as widely believed, a degenerate people. The only example he finds of their sinking into laziness and apathy is when they are confined to European settlements. He dismisses, out of hand, accounts of Kolb and Sparrman about certain barbarous practices (such as eating lice) which, Le Vaillant says, those two predecessors had not witnessed themselves but had been told by white settlers. He also speaks out strongly against the slave trade, which he regarded as despicable.

Le Vaillant’s Travels contain detailed descriptions of every aspect of Khoisan life from an attempt to analyse the complicated click sounds of the languages to the social structure of their societies. His entrée into local communities is much eased by the presence of Klaas, his faithful companion who acts as guide and interpreter. Le Vaillant himself is greatly skilled at dealing with everyone whom he meets on his travels, recognising that his own, fine appearance is important in creating  a good impression. He tells us that ‘all the inhabitants, whether they were whites, or Hottentots or negroes, came running to see my caravan pass by’ (p.167). Sometimes, they are treated to his best tea, at other times to the fresh bread which Klaas’s wife knows how to bake. His largesse and cordiality, Le Vaillant claims, dispel any distrust that the locals have of foreigners.

As we expect from his previous descriptions, Le Vaillant is also a keen observer of fauna and flora. Monkeys with black faces and birds with vivid colouring vie for attention with the many new species of plants which he records and collects. He also includes sketches, for example of giraffes, so these can also be taken back to Europe with his specimens. Various pictures of the giraffes are reproduced in an appendix to this volume, not entirely with crystal clarity. Careful when he senses trouble, he exchanges views about hunting with the locals who tell him that their assegais or spears are of no use in shooting at birds.

Le Vaillant’s journal is a charming narrative but always contains detailed descriptions about every aspect of his travels. While the text is meticulously researched – Culpin is extremely well-read in the contemporary travel literature – his secondary bibliography could do with some updating. However, overall, this is a very fine edition which will be constantly referred to by scholars of anthropology and early linguistics and others interested in one of the greatest eighteenth-century exponents of travel literature who visited the Fairest Cape.

Malcolm Jack