Facts: sequence and series, v. biographical claims

Facts: sequence and series, v. biographical claims

It has been not unknown for claims to be made that letters are a flawed form of writing, because of their lack of referential characteristics and their multitude of representational ones. In short, they do not provide the facts, but mere partial representations. There are times when it is possible to respond briefly to such comments – phooey!

Such a time is provided by the extract below from Gordon Le Sueur’s biography of Cecil Rhodes, commented on elsewhere in the Traces on the ‘n word’ and some letters by Njube. In this extract, Le Sueur makes a number of categorical claims about the genesis and publication of Olive Schreiner’s allegorical novella, Trooper Peter Halket of Mashonaland. In effect, he claims, it resulted firstly from spite against Cecil Rhodes, and secondly and more immediately from annoyance as a direct result of a comment Rhodes made when he and Schreiner were on a ship travelling en route to England, which Le Sueur by implication witnessed. His biography was published in 1913, and was written with – although perhaps without the benefit of – hindsight.

Olive Schreiner’s letters, with their immense seriality and sequentiality, tell a different story, one that unfolds letter by letter and date by date. This is not post hoc, unlike Le Sueur’s claims, for the letters concerned have no foreknowledge, and they relate the ‘one damn thing after another’ of her everyday activities and do so precisely one after the other. The genesis of her book, an allegorical novella, was well over a year before the voyage, when Schreiner was given much information about massacres in Mashonaland and Matabeleland; she wrote and edited it over an extended period of time; she and her husband Cronwright travelled with the complete manuscript on the ship to England, and during which time one of Rhodes’ henchmen (Le Sueur?) attempted to break into their cabin and steal it and was seen off by Cronwright. The manuscript was delivered to its publisher within two days of arrival, and it was published a short week later to both scandal and acclaim, for this was the week when Cecil Rhodes appeared before a House of Commons Select Committee investigating the Jameson Raid.

Want to read these letters and their one damn thing after another? Go oliveschreiner.org and search Trooper Peter Halket; and of course, search Rhodes!

Le Sueur, G (1913) Cecil Rhodes: The Man and his Work. London: John Murray, 113-115

‘Living in Lo Bengula’s kraal in 1893 were a Cape boy, John Jacobs, who was the king’s private secretary, and a fugitive from Tongoland named Umvulaan, who could read and write English and Dutch, and who came up to Bulawayo with Babyan and Umshete (Lo Bengula’s envoys to Queen Victoria) when they returned from England. John Jacobs disappeared in 1893, but Umvulaan, who, to the amusement of the high-class Matabele, called himself Karl Kumalo, was sentenced to death in 1896, and, being taken out for execution, three men were told off to shoot him. One bullet passed through his thumb, another through his side, and the third took him in the forehead, but, as a high-velocity bullet will do, it travelled round the skull beneath the scalp and continued its flight; and when a party went out to bury him next day it was found that he had crawled away. This is the native referred to by Olive Schreiner in her book “Peter Halkett of Mashonaland.” Umvulaan reappeared after the Rebellion of 1896, but at the beginning of the Boer War I saw him at Fort Usher in the Matoppos, where he was under arrest for sedition and trying to stir up the natives. What has since become of him I don’t know, but he often made tender enquiries after the members of the firing party who operated on him. As to “Peter Halkett,” Rhodes always put the production of that down to spite. Its history, as he used to tell it, was that, whilst on a voyage to England, Olive Cronwright Schreiner (or Mrs. Cronwright, her maiden name of Schreiner having been adopted by her husband, Cronwright) was on board, and was talking to a friend in Rhodes’s hearing, when the friend remarked, “Why don’t you write another book, Miss Schreiner? It is quite a time since your ‘Story of an African Farm’ appeared.” “Oh, I don’t know,” replied Olive Schreiner; “I don’t think I could write another.” Rhodes immediately said, “You’re quite right, Miss Schreiner. You couldn’t write another book. You’ve put all your, thoughts and ideas into your book, and now you haven’t got it in you to write another one.” Miss Schreiner was much annoyed, and not long afterwards appeared “Trooper Peter Halkett of Mashonaland.’

Last updated: 18 February 2016


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