Thomas Pringle, attributed to James Struthers Stewart

Thomas Pringle (1789–1834) is remembered as ‘the father of English poetry’ in this country, as leader of the only Scottish settler party in 1820 and as a champion of the freedom of the press. He had an earlier career as founding editor of Blackwood’s Magazine in Edinburgh and a later one as man of letters in London and secretary of the Anti-Slavery Society. The abolition of slavery in the British Empire came into force in August 1834 but, crippled since infancy and suffering from tuberculosis, he died in December 1834, aged only 45. In Cape Town he ran the South African Public Library, edited, with his friend John Fairbairn, the Cape’s first independent newspaper and the bi-monthly South African Journal, and established a successful ‘classical and commercial academy’ until all were brought down by the hostility of the Governor, Lord Charles Somerset.

Eildon by Thomas Baines

He fought back but, financially ruined, returned to his final career in Britain. His papers, sent to Cape Town by his widow Margaret, were lost but surviving letters in other collections here bring to life the character, outlook and South African career of a notable figure in our history.

Henry Ellis

Bavian’s River, 18 July 1820

Sir

I arrived here about three weeks ago with my party, and was located on the 1st instant by Captain Harding Deputy Landdrost of Cradock. I have now thoroughly examined our situation and its capabilities, and tho’ it is in many respects very different from what I and my friends had anticipated, yet we are on the whole sufficiently satisfied with our position – or at all events with the kind intentions of the Colonial Authorities in sending us hither. We labour however under some peculiar disadvantages, which probably His Excellency the Governor and yourself were not fully aware of when I had the honour of seeing you at Port Elizabeth, and which I therefore beg leave now to explain to you.

We are placed at the very head of the Bavian’s River about 50 miles from Roode Wall. On three sides of us are wild and barren mountains, inaccessible by wagons, and uninhabitable unless by wild beasts and savages: on the fourth the road down the river forms our sole channel of communication with the habitable parts of the Colony. This road is however so exceedingly bad that we took no less than five days to travel up with our baggage from Field Cornet Opperman’s – a distance of about 28 English miles, and the first wagon sent with provisions for us from Somerset was overturned in the river and a great part of the load lost or damaged. The Dep. Landdrost promised to issue orders for the repairing of the road as far as the inhabitants extend upwards (about one half of the way), but no repairs by the inhabitants can be effectual on a route like this which must unavoidably be led along narrow defiles and rocky chasms and which crosses the channel of the Bavian’s River no less than twenty seven times – so that every flood washes down the drifts and renders new ones necessary. This being our only road to market it is evidently out of the question to think of raising grain for sale as was originally our design. We must necessarily restrict our agricultural operations to what will repay us – and perhaps only cultivate corn for our own subsistence. Some articles perhaps such as tobacco and hemp may be carried to market on pack oxen. But our chief dependence must I suspect be our cattle and sheep, although for grazing farms our allotment I fear will prove rather limited.

Edited and introduced by Randolph Vigne

Randolph Vigne was born in Kimberley in 1928 and grew up in Port Elizabeth where he joined the Van Riebeeck Society in 1941. After his education at St Andrew’s College, Grahamstown and Wadham College, Oxford he served as English editor at Maskew Miller’s in Cape Town until 1964 when he moved to England and continued his career in educational publishing. He has undertaken much research and writing in southern African and European historical fields, publishing, among other books, Guillaume Chenu de Chalezac, the ‘French boy’ at the Cape of Good Hope (VRS 2nd Series, No 22, 1993) and Liberals against Apartheid, the History of the Liberal Party of South Africa (Macmillan, 1997). A fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London, he was awarded the Order of Luthuli by the President of South Africa in 2010.

Click here for his Launch Speech

Click here to read the Additional Letters

Click here for the Soundtrack of an interview with Randolph Vigne

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