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Thomas Pringle

Thomas Pringle: South African pioneer, poet and abolitionist

Copyright Date: 2012
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    Thomas Pringle
    Book Description:

    This biography of Thomas Pringle (1789-1834), poet, fighter for human rights in the Cape Colony, and abolitonist, reveals for the first time the role this key Enlightenment figure played in Africa and Britain. Honoured in South Africa as 'the father of South African English poetry', for his part in achieving a free press, for his fight for the settlers' rights in the colony, in Scotland as the founding editor of 'Blackwood's Magazine', and in England as instrumental in bringing in abolition, Thomas Pringle has not yet had the attention he deserves. Born on the Scottish Borders, Pringle entered literary life in late Englightenment Edinburgh, but in 1820 led a party of settlers to the Cape Colony. After running a school, launching a literary journal and co-editing the Cape's first independent newspaper, he formed a group to fight for democratic rights for both the settlers and the dispossessed indigenous people. His biography reveals the important part he played in the literary and political world across two continents, and in championing the Khoisan and the increasingly dispossessed Nguni people. On returning to England he became Secretary of the Anti-Slavery Society, and on 15 June 1834 announced the implementation of abolition. After actively opposing the apartheid government in South Africa Randolph Vigne worked in exile as a London publisher and latterly, in Britain and South Africa, as author and editor of European and African historical studies.

    eISBN: 978-1-78204-032-3
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-ix)
  3. List of Illustrations and Maps
    (pp. x-x)
  4. Preface
    (pp. xi-xiii)
  5. Author’s Note
    (pp. xiv-xv)
  6. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xvi-xvi)
  7. Abbreviations
    (pp. xvii-xviii)
  8. Part I Scotland: Border Farm to Literary Edinburgh (1789–1820)

    • 1 The Elfin Band
      (pp. 3-14)

      It was – still is – a magic land. A green, rolling landscape, westwards from the east coast off Holy Island, with the English border dipping southward along the Cheviot hills, past Flodden Field where King James IV and 9000 of his Scottish subjects were slaughtered by Henry VIII’s shock troops, to Kelso with its twelfth-century abbey and on into ‘Walter Scott country’ – Melrose, Abbotsford and Selkirk, where for 33 years Scott, ‘the Great Unknown’ for most of them, sat as Sheriff in his courtroom, and to Ettrick Forest.

      In Lanarkshire and west towards Glasgow and Clydesdale surroundings change....

    • 2 Edinburgh: The Shallows
      (pp. 15-28)

      We know of Thomas Pringle’s student days mostly from what his friend and fellow lodger Robert Story tells us and from the letters Story found at Morebattle. We can guess the impact of the metropolis on these country boys, sons of a Roxburghshire tenant farmer and of a neighbouring parish schoolmaster. Their metropolis had been Kelso, which Walter Scott, brought up in his barrister father’s Edinburgh household and briefly near Kelso, saw as

      The most beautiful if not the most romantic village in Scotland, presenting objects not only grand in themselves but memorable for their associations.¹

      Beautiful, even made grand...

    • 3 Edinburgh: At the Flood
      (pp. 29-46)

      Among Thomas Pringle’s wide Edinburgh circle in his years at Register House, James Hogg, already famous in Scotland and beyond as the Ettrick Shepherd, was probably the most active in his interest, albeit with side effects that must have given Pringle much pain. To have published the ‘Letter to Mr R. S****’and attributed it to the most celebrated living English poet of the time was the first such injury. Another was to claim the credit for the major step Pringle took the year after The Poetic Mirror had appeared. Pringle’s love of literature and the antiquarian knowledge he had acquired...

    • 4 A Long, a Last Adieu!
      (pp. 47-64)

      At 30 Pringle was back where he had been at 20, after an experience of literary life that had been unhappy and financially unrewarding. He wrote to a friend:

      My present occupation is inadequate to the support of my family in the most moderate way I can devise; I see little or no prospect of materially improving my circumstances in this country and I have already incumbrances on my shoulders which threaten every day to become heavier, and at last to overwhelm me in hopeless debt. Now this is a state of life the most intolerable that can well be...

  9. Part II The Cape Frontier: Pioneer, Settler Leader (1820–1821)

    • 5 Settler Leader: Arrival
      (pp. 67-78)

      Pringle had little to say of the 72-day voyage to the Cape, other than that it was ‘pleasant and prosperous’.¹ So he wrote in African Sketches and also in a letter to Sir Walter Scott five months after his arrival.² His party of 24 shared accommodation – he called it ‘a good deal crowded’ – in the 330-ton Brilliant with 95 settlers from Gush’s, Sephton’s and Erith’s parties, London artisans, Methodist tradesmen, and a group of Surrey farmers. Gush and Sephton were carpenters and Erith a baker. There was also the eight-strong Caldecott family, independent settlers.

      In the way of...

    • 6 At Glen Lynden
      (pp. 79-92)

      They spent the night where Field Cornet Opperman left them and next morning, ‘leaving a sufficient guard to protect our little camp, we proceeded on foot, well armed, to inspect our new domain’.¹ They found it ‘sprinkled over ... with beautiful clumps and groves of mimosa trees, interspersed with open grassy pastures, while the river, a gurgling mountain-brook, meandered placidly through the fertile meadows’. Almost a scene from ‘The Autumnal Excursion’ but for the troops of quaggas, the hartebeest, duiker, rietbok and wild hog, all named and described in his African Sketches (1834), based on the lost journal he kept...

    • 7 Beyond Glen Lynden
      (pp. 93-108)

      Pringle’s travels during these 16 months at Glen Lynden achieved much for him – a wide knowledge of the country and its people, with a slow growth of his commitment to raising up the oppressed indigenous groups, and absorption of its varied beauty: forested mountains beside the bleak harshness and sterility of parched plains and their teeming animal life, which found its way into his poetry when ‘recollected in tranquillity’. No poet before him had translated his romantic, Arcadian view of nature to the wilds of southern Africa.

      In his Narrative of a Residence in South Africa there is writing...

  10. Part III Cape Town and Genadendal: The Stand Against Power (1822–1825)

    • 8 Westward
      (pp. 111-120)

      The, ‘on the whole, prosperous’ state of the Glen Lynden settlement, which, compared so starkly with the calamitous fate of the English settlers in Albany, brought many favours with it. Thomas Philipps, promoting settlement in 1836,¹ recalled the first four years as having brought

      bitter disappointment, principally from the entire loss of the wheat crop by the rust, a malady scarcely remembered before ... at the same time the Caffers made frequent incursions and robbed the settlers of numerous cattle ... the inattention and want of feeling of the military and civil authorities.

      Philipps saw fit not to mention the...

    • 9 ‘An Arrant Dissenter’
      (pp. 121-131)

      The mischief that was Pringle’s undoing might already have been foreseen, though Fairbairn was to survive it. For Pringle wrote to Scott, before sending off his effective letter to Fairbairn, that, despite Colonel Bird’s having tried hard to obtain for him

      the appointment of Superintendent of the Govt. Press ... and to this he had almost succeeded but for an unlucky circumstance which it appears had prejudiced Lord Charles against me. Some person has informed him (or perhaps he has imagined from seeing my name, much to my regret, mentioned in newspapers and magazines) that I am a violent Whig...

    • 10 Vale of Grace
      (pp. 132-137)

      Pringle and his companions made their way on horseback through Stellenbosch and Fransch Hoek and over the Hottentots Holland mountains. On the third day of their journey, 10 October 1824, they reached the pioneer Moravian mission station Genadendal, or as Pringle headed his letters, in the German spelling, Gnadenthal, the ‘vale of grace’.

      ‘In distant Europe oft I’ve longed to see this quiet Vale of Grace’, Pringle wrote in his sonnet a month later. He had met Bishop Latrobe through his friend and mentor the Revd Alexander Waugh in London and doubtless knew the heartwarming story of the revival in...

    • 11 On the Frontier: The Final Year
      (pp. 138-144)

      The Pringles were away from Cape Town and back on Eildon for a full year, from February 1825 to February 1826, just two months short of their departure from South Africa forever. Thomas had withdrawn to try and repair his totally shattered fortunes enough to pay his most pressing debts and finance their return to Britain.

      He had written an eloquent appeal to Lord Bathurst on 15 January 1825. After listing the blows dealt to him by Somerset that had destroyed him, he asked that:

      Your Lordship shall be graciously pleased to view my humble but zealous services as the...

  11. Part IV The Frontier, Karroo: Rural Retreat and the ‘Great Cause’ (1825–1826)

    • 12 Return to Glen Lynden
      (pp. 147-153)

      Pringle wrote of his return to Glen Lynden (he called it that, though the name had not been gazetted and was later to refer only to the parish):

      We had the satisfaction of finding our relatives in much more prosperous circumstances, as husbandmen, than any party of settlers that we had seen in Albany¹

      He and Margaret found that their beehive hut was now the kitchen of the ‘commodious farm-cottage of stone and brick with a stone chimney’, the first built in the Baviaans River sub-district. He revelled in furnishing his hut near William’s house, ‘putting my desk and table...

    • 13 Karroo Turning Point
      (pp. 154-162)

      On 29 June 1825 Pringle wrote to Fairbairn that he expected ‘to meet Dr Philip in Somerset in three or four weeks and proceed with him to Graaff-Reinet where, I will probably spend a week or two’.¹ Here was an exception to the full and frank exchange of information and ideas in their correspondence. No purpose was mentioned. Rather than to exclude Fairbairn from the intimacy of the talks ahead the object was surely to keep them away from Government through intercepted letters. Stockenstrom, landdrost of Graaff-Reinet, whom they were to meet, was seriously at risk as a government servant....

    • 14 Last Months at Eildon
      (pp. 163-168)

      Thomas and Margaret returned to Eildon from their Karroo journeys in mid-September and 26 letters written by Thomas in the two months that followed have survived, 17 of them to Fairbairn, three to the Commissioners of Inquiry, two each to Sir Richard Plasket and the Commercial Advertiser, and single letters to Brougham and Thomas Campbell. The stream of letters then dries up and we do not hear from him again until a letter is sent to the Commissioners from Grahamstown on 12 January 1826 indicatng that he had left Baviaans River at the end of December.¹ His silence for the...

    • 15 Return of the Settler
      (pp. 169-176)

      Visitors to Baviaans River were few. Before the Graaff-Reinet meeting, the missionary he most admired, the Revd John Brownlee, who had come to the frontier from Lanarkshire in 1817, visited Eildon from his mission station on the Gwali, a tributary of the Tyhume river, forty miles to the south-east. He made ‘many valuable suggestions in regard to measures for promoting the civilization of the Caffer tribes’,¹ as did Wright both at Eildon and at Graaff-Reinet shortly afterwards. Even in his idealized portrait of Brownlee, ‘The Good Missionary’, dated ‘Cafferland 1825’ in Ephemerides, the battle lines are drawn. Brownlee had served...

  12. Part V London Literary Life and The Anti-Slavery Campaign: (1826–1833)

    • 16 London Journalist and Editor
      (pp. 179-190)

      On arrival in London, Thomas had £5 in his pocket, debts to meet in London as well as the mountain of them at the Cape, and four mouths to feed, with the Owen manuscript his only prospective source of income. The publishing trade was in a ‘shocking state’,¹ he told Fairbairn in his first letter, just six days after landing, having heard all the bad news at dinner at Longman’s in Paternoster Row just before writing.

      There had been ‘great failures in London and Edinburgh. Hurst and Robinson here for half a million. Constable also for not much less. Constable’s...

    • 17 The Literary Life and Cape Achievements
      (pp. 191-200)

      Pringle reached the age of forty on 5 January 1829, a year that was to be in many ways a turning point in his life. His financial plight was still a sore trouble to him. He wrote to Hogg in March 1829 that he had been ‘absolutely overwhelmed with work, all the forenoon with my office and my evenings occupied’ with editorships of both the Oriental Herald and Friendship’s Offering, Owen’s MSS and ‘scribbling for two other periodicals ... This is too much on my hands – but I am scribbling to make all the Siller I can to clear...

    • 18 Emancipation and After
      (pp. 201-214)

      Five Thomas Pringles are known to history: the founding editor of Blackwood’s, the Scots settler leader to the eastern Cape frontier, the ‘father of South African poetry’, the champion of freedom of the Press in the Cape Colony, of the settlers in need and of the oppressed indigenous people, and, most historically memorable, the secretary of the Anti-Slavery Society at the triumphant climax of its campaigning. Yet it is this last seven-year role that is the least recorded, the most obscure.

      In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries offices in organizations in what is today called ‘civil society’ were held...

  13. Part VI Scotland and Highgate: A Poet Returns to his Roots and Last Works (1830–1834)

    • 19 ‘A Little Doctoring’
      (pp. 217-225)

      In character with so much of Pringle’s somewhat star-crossed life, his fate was revealed the very day after he had signed the Society’s announcement of the Abolition Act. He wrote from Holly Terrace, Highgate, on the morning of 28 June 1834 to Dr James Kennedy, whose patient he had been for several years.

      I must have a little doctoring. Last night, in taking some slight supper, a crumb of bread seems, as we say, to go down the wrong throat. This induced a violent coughing, and I assume lacerated some small blood-vessel in the lungs, for a litte blood –...

    • 20 African Sketches: Responses
      (pp. 226-232)

      Overshadowing all Pringle’s prose writings in these and earlier years is his Narrative of a Residence in South Africa, first published as Part 2 of African Sketches in May 1834, seven months before his death. His publisher Edward Moxon reissued the Narrative, posthumously, the following year as a separate volume, with Josiah Conder’s ‘biographical sketch’. Pringle wrote to Fairbairn on 22 May 1834:

      The little book of which I now send you a copy was published two days ago. You will find that I have spoken out. ... I am sure you will suffer for it by the excited rage...

    • 21 On Scottish Ground
      (pp. 233-240)

      Before the accelerated pace generated by the Agency group made a long absence from his Anti-Slavery office in Aldermanbury too difficult, Pringle wrote to Sir Walter Scott, on 14 June 1830:

      I have almost resolved to make an excursion to Scotland this autumn, for the sake of my health, which has of late somewhat failed me; but it is not very likely that I shall be in Roxburghshire. I have not set my foot on Scottish ground since I embarked for the Cape eleven years ago.¹

      He and Margaret duly went north that autumn but left no record of their...

    • 22 Journey’s End
      (pp. 241-249)

      Thomas Pringle’s call to Dr Kennedy for ‘a little doctoring’ was made the morning after his signing the announcement, from the Aldermanbury office, of the emancipation of slaves in the British Empire. That ‘crumb of bread’ going down ‘the wrong throat’ on 27 June 1834¹ was the beginning of the end.

      In January 1833 he was able to tell Dr Philip, at the Cape,² that he was ‘generally emerging from my pecuniary distress’ and had ‘got nearly over the embarrassment by Underwood’s failure’ – a further financial setback not mentioned elsewhere. He had hoped, ‘if I live a few years...

  14. Bibliography
    (pp. 250-256)
  15. Index
    (pp. 257-270)
  16. Back Matter
    (pp. 271-271)