Francois Le Vaillant

In 1780 the young Francois Vaillant (as he then was) set out from Holland for the Cape to collect specimens of birds and animals. His account of his travels, which was published widely during the revolutionary period in France and became an influential piece of writing about South Africa, popular throughout Europe, reflected many Enlightenment attitudes. Le Vaillant’s account used the freedom of the wilderness to attack civilised conventions; it was the first highly critical account of Dutch colonialism and the brutality of settler expansion; and it was the first detailed ethnographical account based on fieldwork. His first journey took him through the Karoo, as far as modern-day Somerset East and Cookhouse, leaving the reader with a tantalising conclusion. This new translation is prefaced by an introductory section that places Le Vaillant in his historical and intellectual context and discusses the literary and historical importance of the Travels.

Le Vaillant’s camp at Kok’s Kraal

Extract from “Journey to the East of the Cape, through the Land of Natal and that of Caffraria

I noticed a young girl of sixteen. Lost in the crowd, she demonstrated less eagerness to have a share of the jewels that I was distributing to her companions than curiosity about my appearance. She was looking at me with such obvious interest that I went nearer to her to give her all the time to look at me at her leisure. I found her figure charming. She had the healthiest and most beautiful teeth in the world, she was elegant and slender, and the sensual curves of her body could have made her a model for the brush of Albani. She was the youngest of the Graces in the guise of a Hottentot.

The impressions made by beauty are universal.   It is a sovereign whose empire is everywhere. I could feel by the lavishness of my gifts that I was swaying a little under its power.   My young savage soon got used to me.   I had just given her a belt, bracelets, a necklace of little white beads that seemed to delight her. I took a red handkerchief from my neck and she wrapped it around her head. With this adornment she was, as one might say in elevated language, adorable. I took pleasure in dressing her up myself.   When her toilette was finished, she asked me for some jewels for her sister who had stayed behind with the horde.   She pointed out her mother and told me she no longer had a father. I burdened her with questions as I found her responses so charming.   Nothing could equal the pleasure I had in looking at her, unless it was my pleasure in hearing her. I asked her to stay with me and made her all sorts of promises, but when, in particular, I talked to her of taking her to my country where all the women are queens and rule over large hordes of slaves, far from letting herself be tempted, she rejected my proposition out of hand, openly making several impatient and angry movements. A monarch could not have overcome her resistance and the sorrow that the very idea of leaving her family and her horde caused her. Eventually I begged her to bring me her sister at least, who would in her turn have reasons to be satisfied. She promised me this. At that moment she looked intently at a chair near me. She showed me a knife that I had left there by accident. I hastened to offer it to her and she immediately gave it to her mother.

She was busy the whole time with her new trinkets. She touched her arms, her feet, her necklace, her belt, put her hand on her head twenty times to touch and feel her handkerchief that she liked so much.   I opened my toilet-chest and took from it a mirror that I placed before her. She looked at herself in it very attentively and even with self-satisfaction. She showed clearly by her gestures and her different poses how pleased she was – I do not say with her looks, but rather with her accessories which made a stronger and stronger impression on her.