THE DEATH OF HIM, OF ME
When Jenny first changed history.
Cape Town, 1811.
208 years before my wakening
Jenny was thirteen when the atrocity of the world beyond her sleeping eye lids first started bothering her. It started out with small things, with colonial quirks and expressions, accents and etiquette that only annoyed her a bit. But as she aged those small things mutated and warped and grew into her brain like a sickness she desperately yearned to shed. That South Africa, in the early presence of imperial might, of grotesque colonialism as it ripped through the souls it would destroy, was being bled out before her as history said it would. She, the 20th century product of it, was there to witness the demons of her white past as they were sewing this place, cementing itself in this, the Africa of her heart.
As a teenager, she did not understand the colonial world by its system, by its ideology and processes, because young Jenny knew very little about that system and what it was actually doing in the context of history. So, her early knowledge of that world was only knowledge collected by her experience of it and how it played out in front of her. Much of it left her confused and angry, and the frustration she felt would manifest as angry outbursts long before she could properly understand why any of it was wrong. But, as a child of her father, as a child of Africa, she could not resist trying to make it better in any practical way that she could. That’s how children are. Certainly, that’s how Jenny was.
[From Jenny’s memoirs, written in 1961]
On the days that Henry wasn’t there to meet me on the beach as I appeared there, I would make my way to the town alone and spend it perusing the endless stream of crazy stalls that only a 19th century town could offer. That Cape Town transfixed me. It was like a dead body and I was intrigued by the feeling of what staring at it did to me. Morbidly. Sometimes beautifully. And in its rawness, it frustrated me more than anything how humanity could do some of the things it did. It made me very angry and confused.
Caged animals – giraffe, bucks, and even lions – were often for sale at the harbour in the event a rich European trader was tempted into taking a few back home for zoos or pets, or even for carpets on the spacious floors of colonial masters. Most of the salespeople at the docks didn’t care just as long as their own masters were paid. Selling those beasts was their job as Malay slaves and they’d be whipped for not selling a certain number on any given day. That was how it worked at the docks and it was something I did not understand about that world.
I was ignorant. And so I cared only for the animals. As I child I naively believed that the abused animals were the real victims in that world and I was determined to help them as much as I could. I did not understand that slaves were there as possessions to serve. I didn’t understand that then. My sympathies spared little change for them as they, like all humans of then, seemed uncaring to me. I was a young girl. I was stupid. So, on one of those mornings, the most regretful of all my life, I did something to try and change it.
I remember it like it was yesterday. A Malay slave was going about his usual business bartering his master’s animals with the sailors when I finally snapped. Confidently, regretfully, arrogantly, I walked up to his line of cages and simply undid all the latches to release his animals. How silly how was. How stupid.
One bush pig and three springbok fled, one of which drowned when it leaped between the dock and a nearby ship, but the black-maned lion I released soon thereafter was not so quick to scatter. He was met by screaming sailors who waved their oars to scare the cat, trying their frightened best to push it towards the water. But its attack was swift. The cat’s jaws locked onto one sailor’s neck and in moments he was dead. Soon thereafter they shot the cat – dead too. It all happened so fast.
I remember that the slave was really angry, rightfully so, so he grabbed me by the throat and beat me – and he did so until Henry’s voice rose above the commotion to stop him. I remember how the slave froze. Henry was the nephew of General Henry Grey and such proximity meant that before sunrise, the Malay slave was condemned to the island where he would regret that beating for the remainder of his days.
Realising then what I had done in my selfishness, I tried my frightened best to save the slave from a life on the island:
‘It was my fault,’ I pleaded with Henry, ‘Please don’t lock him up. The man did nothing wrong!’
‘Oh Jenny, that savage can’t touch you like that,’ I remember him saying, and then he said something about England and civilisation and how it was right to punish the slave for what he did. I can’t really remember what else was then said to tell you the truth. All I remember was feeling horrified. Embarrassed. Ashamed.
He put his arm around my shoulders to comfort me and I felt sick. I regretted everything. The sailor was dead because of me and the slave – the man who did nothing wrong – was condemned to the island because of me. Because of me! As it was, as I saw it, God’s will in that Africa was brutal and his relentless pursuit of civilisation spared no one. I was deeply ashamed. I was ashamed of what I had done and I was ashamed of the world that had favoured me. In time, I would become ashamed of my ancestors and the world that had created me.
That’s why Hani is right. That’s why it needs to change. History needs to be rewritten. As a traveler, it is my duty.