Black Life Richly Embroidered: Physical and Spiritual Colonisation in 19th-Century South Africa


Marguerite Poland is a multi-award winning South African author, with a fine range of books for children, novels (including the bestselling historical novel, Shades (2012)) and non-fiction works under her belt. Her seminal children’s book, The Mantis and the Moon, won the Percy Fitzpatrick Award and the Sankei Honorable Award for translation into Japanese. She is the recipient of two lifetime achievement awards as well as the Ingwazi Award for contribution to the cultural history of KwaZulu-Natal, and the Order of Okhamanga (Silver) for “her excellent contribution to the field of indigenous languages, literature and anthropology”.

Her latest novel, A Sin of Omission, is set in South Africa’s Eastern Cape in the late 19th century and tells the story of the Reverend ‘Stephen’ Malusi Mzamane, a young Black student educated by missionaries. The novel is based somewhat on the life of the Reverend Stephen Mtutuko Mnyakama, Deacon of the Anglican Church at Holy Trinity Mission, Nondyola, Fort Beaufort. Poland’s ancestors were Anglican missionaries in the Eastern Cape 1862-1916 and she was moved by her great-uncle’s account of his own missionary grandfather’s young Black students. As she recalls, “it haunted me despite the sketchy details. Forty years later, in 2003, I was commissioned to write an institutional history in the course of which I had to touch on the education of Black people by the Anglican missionaries in the 19th century. I came across an entry in a hand-written manuscript which made me realise I was reading about the student my great-uncle had told me of so many years before.” That student was Mnyakama.

Poland admits to being neither a biographer nor an historian, and despite extensive archival research, she concluded that there were simply too many gaps in the records to write a biography. However, she decided to reimagine his story, wanting to “remain as scrupulous as I could to the events, tone and themes that emerged from the material”. Poland is uniquely qualified to write about the subject, as her previous masters and doctoral research focused on indigenous South African culture, languages and folklore. As she tells me, “everything I have written – including children’s books – has had its genesis in my fascination for these subjects and my great love for the region in which I grew up – the Eastern Cape.”

Mzamane’s story envelopes us in the age-old struggles of conflicted loyalties within the family, community and social groups, against the backdrop of a struggle for the very heart and soul of a country riven and deeply damaged by physical and spiritual colonisation. The novel explores the internal hierarchies of the Church of England, and its interactions with the cultures and peoples it sought to dominate through its missionary work. Poland paints a fascinating picture of the complex layers of personal motivation, ambitions and desire for liberation, whether national or personal, seen through the eyes of Mzamane. It is a wonderfully rich exploration of the time, the missionary “project” and the internal struggles of a mission-educated African Christian.

At times the liberal use of Xhosa can distract from the prose, but Poland’s intention was to mark when the speakers were not communicating in English, and to convey the tone of what might have been said. Given the backdrop, the issue of racism rears its head, but this is where the novel feels a little flat for me, as a Black woman. Of course it would be anachronistic to expect an analysis of racism as we understand in 20th- or 21st-century terms, but having the experience to draw on would have added to the richness of the main character. “In writing the novel I was deeply aware of and sensitive to the responsibility in tackling a story outside my time, gender, ethnicity and experience,” the author notes. “I was particularly aware of this given the very real sensitivities of such issues in South Africa with its tragic history and ongoing divisions. But, like any novelist, I had to make choices about the ‘appropriation’ of someone else’s life. I did not want him to be forgotten – and the obscurity of the resources made that very likely if I hadn’t tackled the project.”

The beautiful descriptions of the country and the deep historical knowledge displayed set the scene and context in a way that draws the reader in. The novel commemorates a Black life, which would otherwise have been lost, and also inspired a set of four tapestries, which form another lasting tribute to Mzamane/Mnyakama. Contemporary South African artist weavers at the Keiskamma Trust, reclaimed him as their own, creating a thread between him and the present day, amplifying his story though traditional crafts. Poland takes up the story, “over more than twenty years they have created tapestries and wall hangings that are internationally renowned. Three of the tapestries illustrate events in the novel. The fourth depicts members of the present congregation at Holy Trinity Church in the village of Mazoka, Fort Beaufort district, where the story is set. When the artists visited the church, they agreed that the story had to include the community that lives there now and bring the story full-circle. I own this vibrant piece and love it.”

“I first saw the four tapestries at my book launch, hung together in the stone chapel at St Andrew’s College in Makhanda (formerly Grahamstown). They glowed like the stained-glass windows around them. I was deeply moved and it was wonderful to share the moment with the artists themselves who had been inspired to interpret the story through their own experience and imagery.”

As always, history reminds us that defining and regarding people as “the other” can have fatal consequences and causes lasting damage to society. A lesson we still have not learned.

Set in 1859, Marguerite Poland’s novel, A Sin of Omission, is published in South Africa by Penguin Random House. It was shortlisted for the 2020 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction.

ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR: Dr Wanda Wyporska’s Witchcraft in Early Modern Poland 1500-1800 was shortlisted for the Katherine Briggs Award. She is currently working on a trilogy of novels based on her collection of trials.

Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 94 (November 2020)

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