Thomas Pringle the writer, poet, and abolitionist was born in 1789 in a small village four miles from Kelso, a town in the Scottish Borders area of Scotland. Though crippled from infancy, his boyhood on the family farm, in a loving family, was a happy one. He attended the Kelso Grammar School and studied at the University of Edinburgh where be developed at talent for writing but left university before he completed his degree. Without a degree or a profession, he spent eight years as a clerk copying ancient documents.
Thomas Pringle, attributed to James Struthers Stewart
Facing hard times after the depression that followed the Napoleonic Wars, and unable to earn a proper living, he decided to recruit a party of 25, mainly family members, to emigrate to the Cape Colony with free passages and grants of land under the Government’s settlement scheme in 1820. As leader of the only Scottish settler party, he and his party settled on the remote Baviaans River some 30 miles from the village of Cradock. Two years later he moved to Cape Town where he and his university friend John Fairbairn, established a successful ‘classical and commercial academy’ as well as the first independent newspaper, the South African Journal.
Pringle family farm, ‘Eildon’ in the Baviaans River valley (Thomas Baines)
As a result of their free criticisms of the Colonial Government of Lord Charles Somerset forced them to close their academy and suppressed their newspaper. Without a livelihood, and with debts, Pringle returned and settled in London where he was later appointed as Secretary of the Anti-Slavery Society. His concern for the liberal cause at the Cape never wavered: Somerset resigned his governorship and Pringle challenged Afrikaner and British settler oppression of the indigenous people and the Xhosa beyond the frontier.
In South Africa he was a controversial figure, praised for his part in the struggle for press freedom, but reviled for his championing of the rights of the indigenous people. He was under attack by both rural Afrikaners and the British settlers, though he had fought valiantly for them against a neglectful and unsympathetic colonial rule.
Pringle’s “beehive hut” (egraving by James S Stewart)
Pringle 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. The abolition of slavery in the British Empire came into force in August 1834 but at that stage his health had already deteriorated, probably due to tuberculosis. Desperate measures were taken for his return to the sun and dryness of the Cape Colony, but his and his wife’s berths had to be cancelled at the last minute and four weeks later he was dead – at 45.
This volume contains 223 vivid, passionate, and engaging letters shedding revealing light, vastly broadening and deepening the existing picture of what Pringle said and did, and why.
Click here to read the Additional Letters not contained in this volume