The Swallow: A Tale of the Great Trek
My introduction to the The Great Trek started with my involvement in a project in South Africa.
Of course I heard many stories on the most recent history and saw the separation of the races, but immediate issues commanded all the time I had and I understood little of how South Africa had come to this most unhappy dead-end of history.
So, one Christmas, we decided to take a great trek of South Africa to revisit old haunts. Before the trip, I got hold of this book, The Swallow: A Tale of the Great Trek.
Thus began my fascination at following these fleeing Dutch settlers, what we know today as the Boers, away from British domination.
Even when travel fatigue had me lip biting, I kept reading as Haggard's characters put more and more life into Michener's more historical approach in The Covenant.
Parachuted onto this dazzling struggle are the English caught up with gold, diamonds and empire, who unintentionally drove the Boers north to escape the godless intrusion of miners and city builders.
Inevitably, in this great trek they met the extraordinarily fierce and tactically amazing Zulus and other tribes moving south for greener pasture. Think of the great American West, played out in the mountains and fertile valleys of the Cape by much more interesting competitors.
In the midst of such history, Haggard tells a wonderful tale narrated by Vrou Botmar, a matriarch of one of the great Boer families of trekkers . The novel will tie you in knots with larger than life characters, unimaginable real estate and plot twists that are as complex as the mountain locked Bainskloof pass.
Sir Henry Rider Haggard, KBE, The Author of the Swallow
Sir Henry Haggard (1856-1925) wrote this adventure novel from his own personal experience in Africa when, after failing his army entrance examination, his father sent him there on an unpaid assignment as secretary to the secretary of the Lt. Gov. of Natal, Sir Henry Bulwer.
Of course, The Swallow is well written, woven into a tale of the scintillating suspense from no other than the author of King Solomon's Mines, Henry Rider Haggard way back in 1898, just before the Boer War.
In a letter to a friend, Haggard outlined his intent for this book. He wanted to express his regard for the peculiarities of both races, the Dutchman and the Bantu, and the drama that unfolded as these two jockeyed to build their own homelands in South Africa. Two tribes in competition. One of them white. Amazing.
Haggard wrote to this friend:
You, as I know, entertain both for Dutchman and Bantu that regard tempered by a sense of respectful superiority which we are apt to feel for those who on sundry occasions have but just failed in bringing our earthly career to an end. The latter of these admirations I share to the full; and in the case of the first of them, as I hope that the dour but not unkindly character of Vrouw Botmar will prove to you, time softens a man's judgment. Nor have I ever questioned, as the worthy Vrouw tells us, that in the beginning of the trouble the Boers met with much of which to complain at the hands of English Governments. Their maltreatment was not intentional indeed, but rather a result of systematic neglect-to use a mild word-of colonies and their inhabitants, which has culminated within our own experience, only, thanks to a merciful change in public opinion, to pass away for ever. Sympathy with the Voortrekkers of 1836 is easy; whether it remains so in the case of their descendants, the present masters of the Transvaal, is a matter that admits of many opinions. At the least, allowance should always be made for the susceptibilities of a race that finds its individuality and national life sinking slowly, but without hope of resurrection, beneath an invading flood of Anglo-Saxons.
The Voice of The Swallow: The Truth and Falsehood Grapple
The Swallow was published in 1899 in New York by Longmans, Green and Co. Recently, Google digitized this from the collections of the University of Michigan and I found my copy in Kindle.
Haggard in this book speaks with the voice of 19th century imperialism and colonies. The "superior races" owe to the world civilization, culture and Christianity. This is a voice not well understood today, perhaps wisely, but nevertheless a voice that is the reality of that time.
Struggling with that voice because of current ethics, morality or custom is simply silly. What was, was. What is, is. What will be, we can only guess. But we can help inform.
"Let truth and falsehood grapple; whoever knew Truth put to the worst, in a free and open encounter?" Said John Milton in 1644.
The Tale of the Swallow
Told by the strong Boer matriarch, Vrouw Botmar, who describes her husband Jan as the strongest man of the great trek of 1836 when like the Israelites of old, the Boers, to escape the rule of the English, went up north into the wilderness there to bravely defend themselves from the ravages of nature, the wild animals and the Zulus who are migrating south for better pasture.
Vrou Botmar remembers well how this now paralyzed husband took two Zulus who penetrated their laager and crushed them together until they were dead and thereby won the day for their group of Voortrekkers at the battle of Vetchkop against the famous Zulu leader Moselikatse.
But at the center of the tale is the meeting of Ralph Kenzie, an English castaway found by the Botmar's only daughter, Suzanne, in a kloof (mountain pass) some distance from their stead. Directed by her dream, Suzanne (ultimately, the Swallow) went out one morning to find this English boy, the lone survivor of the wrecked ship, sailing from India home to England.
This English boy Kenzie, then became very much a son to the Boer family and later became husband to Suzanne who found him. The two loved each other so much that in spite of the dangers they encountered which filled much of the tale, they were each bound in spirit and finally, after endless separation, found each other once more.
This happy ending to the lives of these two was made possible by the fidelity of the witch doctor, Sihamba whom Suzanne saved from death in the hands of that truly horrid man, Swart Piet, who would be the classic adversary and Penguin-like definition of evil through the novel.
The tale goes on to tell us how Suzanne separated from the family for years and constantly besieged by Swart Piet, but protected by the ever loyal Sihamba was saved and even ended up as a Chieftain of the Umpondwanes, Sihamba's people. Unlikely? Not if you've read Rider Haggard before!
What Puzzles me About The Swallow: Swart Piet
The Black Hat (evil) is Swart Piet, a Boer with Kaffir (Black) blood, displaying the disdain at that time for the mix blood as they consider "Kaffir" blood as tainted and evil.
Yet, the tale also showed the goodness and fidelity shown by the Kaffirs as well as by the Boers towards each other in time of external pressures. But in life, as the tale tells us, every group of people has its good and evil slices and there are no absolutes, only the standards of the time.
The context in which The Swallow takes place defines much of the relationships and judging these from our current understanding is simply not helpful.
Why this Tale of the Swallow is Important
This tale narrates how one Boer family experienced that period of South African history and after reading this, one has a better sense of the complex issues that went with apartheid and how it happened in South Africa.
It will give you an understanding of why the Boers did what they did and also why the Bantus have also their base for taking back their so called land. At present, though it is still difficult, these two races and, of course, the English and the others who came to people South Africa continue to work out their series of accommodation to build one country and become one people.
Mandela's rainbow nation is very much a work in process. For we romantics, this tale tells of the strong love two people have for each other not only that of the younger Suzanne and Ralph but most of all that of Vrouw Botmar and Jan as they went through the unbelievable but true hardships of settling in almost empty land which they believed was covenanted to them by God.
Fidelity to God's promise, to each other, to one who has given you back your life and to a friend is so much part of this story that one cannot help but be impressed by both the goodness of the characters, the simpler morality of a bygone age, and the evolution of relations between the rainbow nations of South Africa.
So, get yourself a copy and enjoy a tale you will always remember. Do leave your thoughts below.
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Facts about South Africa:
Area: 470,693 sq miles
Population: 54 Million
Capital City: Pretoria
President: Jacob Zuma
GDP: $349.82 billion USD
Founded: May 31, 1910
International Calling Code: 27
Currency: South African Rand