‘Wild, desert and lawless countries’
William Burchell’s Travels in the Interior of Southern Africa
in Worlding the south

This chapter examines William Burchell’s Travels in the Interior of Southern Africa. It begins by examining Burchell’s status as a naturalist and argues that, though his observations were to be used by others for instrumental purposes, his understanding of the natural world was primarily guided by an ‘Orphic’ rather than a utilitarian approach. The bulk of the chapter then considers Burchell’s volatile relations with Indigenous people, in particular the San. Central to my consideration of these interactions is the fact that Burchell travelled mainly as a lone European, without any significant ability to impose his will on the people he encountered. He was thus acutely dependent on the degree of reciprocation he received from Indigenous people. To navigate this uncertain human territory, Burchell employs the literary registers of the ‘man of feeling’. The result is a revealing if uneven attempt at sympathetic interaction that opens up the possibility of transactional rather than hierarchical modes of relationship in the colonial context.

William Burchell was an English naturalist who arrived at the Cape Colony in November 1810. After a brief period exploring Cape Town and its environs, he spent four years journeying 7,000 kilometres through remote and often unexplored regions beyond the boundaries of the colony. His original intention had been to traverse the central plains of the country to the furthest known Indigenous settlement at Litakun (present-day Dithakong/Vryburg), before heading towards the Portuguese settlements on the eastern coast. His ambition was to go ‘farther into the interior than had been before attempted’.1 As it happened, Burchell did succeed in doing this, but his plan to reach the Portuguese settlements was thwarted by the refusal of his party of Khoi servants, apprehensive about the dangers they faced, to accompany him any further.2 Burchell then headed back to Cape Town via a circuitous route along the east coast, but he never recorded this section of his journey. He arrived in Cape Town in April 1815 and sailed for England a few months later, taking with him his journals, over 50,000 plant and animal specimens, and an extensive collection of sketches and paintings. It was seven years before the first account of his travels appeared in 1822, followed by a second volume in 1824. Official recognition of Burchell’s endeavours was muted. Although he received an honorary degree from Oxford in 1834, he was, according to one of his contemporaries, ‘signally neglected by his government’ and never awarded a pension – and this despite Burchell’s refusal of an offer by the Prussian government of generous remuneration and residence in Berlin if he donated his collections to their museums.3 From 1825 to 1830 Burchell travelled in Brazil, again at his own expense, where he was attached to a diplomatic mission. The journals recording this visit have never been found, but his collections and the visual archive of this journey have survived. In the final decades of his life, disappointed by the lack of recognition his work had achieved, he became increasingly reclusive and took his own life in March 1863.

In the Cape Colony, Burchell travelled as a private individual ‘not vested with the authority of government’.4 In the context of the time, this was a significant deviation: people venturing beyond the boundaries of the colony usually did so with the backing either of the government or of some association connected with colonial exploration. This kind of authorisation had benefits for the explorer, in particular the provision of armed men to protect the expedition, a precaution considered indispensable to the safe passage of European travellers. In stark contrast to this practice, Burchell’s expedition was self-financed and minimally guarded; it was also undertaken in conditions of secrecy. ‘The extent of my plan was known to but few of my friends,’ he wrote in early 1811, ‘several reasons induced me to keep it secret; of which, one, was the difficulty, and, perhaps, impossibility, which would be found in persuading Hottentots to enter into my service.’5 But what were the other ‘several reasons’ he had for concealing his intentions from the colonial public? At least one of these was that, as Burchell puts it: ‘My undertaking was generally looked on in Cape Town as an imprudent attempt, after the failure of an expedition, in which, previous to its setting out, every precaution had been taken, and provision made, to ensure its success; and whose numbers and strength so much exceeded mine.’6 Burchell is referring here to an official expedition led by Dr Cowan and Captain Donovan, accompanied by two other colonists and sponsored by Lord Caledon, the Colonial Secretary. Two years previously this expedition, which also aimed to reach the Portuguese settlements on the east coast, disappeared without trace despite being protected by ‘private soldiers in the garrison … and about fifteen Hottentots’.7

The fate of Cowan’s expedition did not deter Burchell, even though his own expedition was significantly more vulnerable to the various dangers faced by travellers. Not only did his immediate party never consist of more than ten people, but it was frequently rotated; when they arrived back in Cape Town he was the only person who had set out with the original group. Furthermore, aside from the missionaries with whom Burchell was obliged to travel in the initial stages of his journey, he chose to have no Europeans in his party, thus placing himself in constant proximity to Indigenous peoples. I highlight the hazards of Burchell’s journey to underscore the fact that it was undertaken within a climate of risk, a risk that was as much phenomenal as it was physical. For extended periods Burchell placed himself within an environment in which his sense of self was unsettled and he was assailed, as he puts it, by ‘daily fatigues and anxieties of the mind’.8 Although his travels provided useful data for subsequent ventures into the interior with more instrumental intentions, and he was later to compile a report for the Colonial Office on the prospects for the state-sponsored 1820 settlement scheme, Burchell, as we shall see, does not provide an easy fit for the default postcolonial judgement of the European naturalist explorer as the advance agent or epistemological vanguard of the imperial process.

Burchell is best known today as a naturalist and for his landscape paintings and sketches, but little attention has been paid to his observations of, and his interactions with, Indigenous southern African people. In the ‘Preface’ to the first volume of Travels in the Interior of Southern Africa (1822–24), he asserts his intent to extend his ‘researches’ beyond the natural world or ‘the works of the creation’ to include ‘the investigation of man in an uncivilized state of society’.9 He adds that this ‘will be found to offer … a picture not altogether undeserving of attention if the writer should be able by words to communicate to others those feelings which he himself experienced, and those impressions which his abode among the natives of Africa has made upon his own mind’.10 Burchell promises the reader not the standard descriptions of ethnographic customs and manners (although he does in fact offer quite a lot of this), but something different: the evocation of ‘feelings’, the textures of ‘experience[s]’ and ‘impressions’ provoked by his interaction with Indigenous people – precisely that field of affect whose formal domain was the discursive rather than the scientific or the taxonomic. It is on these interactions that this article will concentrate, and in particular those with the San (‘Bushmen’), who were represented to him by the colonists as ‘a set of beings without reason or intellect’ and hence a challenge to the unitary notion of the human.11 Before doing this, however, I will briefly consider Burchell the naturalist or natural philosopher, since it is in this capacity that he is best known and because his understanding of the natural world bears on his understanding of the human world.

Burchell as natural philosopher

Burchell’s parents owned a large nursery on the banks of the Thames, which was ‘renowned for containing exotic and hardy plants from all over the world’.12 Growing up in this intercontinental botanical hub, Burchell developed the preoccupations which were to dominate his adult life. He was privately schooled, fluent in several languages, and had a particular facility for drawing, which was further developed by special tutoring. He did not go to university, however. After a period touring on the continent, he worked for his father and extended his knowledge as an apprentice gardener at Kew Gardens, then the centre of botanical traffic from around the world. In his early twenties his precocious talents were recognised when he was made a member of the prestigious Linnean Society. At this point the trajectory of his hitherto settled life changed. He refused employment in his father’s nursery and for reasons that are not clear sailed to the island of St Helena, where he had entered into a commercial contract with a merchant. At that time the volcanic island served mainly as a port on colonial maritime routes, but it was also renowned for its unique geological and natural features. After Burchell’s business dealings foundered, he was employed as a schoolteacher before being appointed by the governor as the custodian and superintendent of a new botanical garden. This arrangement eventually came to an end, but during his tenure Burchell began keeping a journal of his experiences, as well as compiling sketches and drawings of the island. After a five-year residence on the island, Burchell sailed to the Cape. One can only conjecture that through contact with people sailing to and from the Cape, Burchell conceived the idea of journeying beyond the boundaries of the colony into the interior of the country. He had no experience whatsoever of expeditionary travel.

Critical understanding of natural science in this early colonial context often takes its academic bearings from Mary Louise Pratt’s influential Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation (1992). A central argument of the book is that systems of scientific naming and classification – with the binomial Linnean system the major culprit – act to integrate the natural world into a European ‘planetary consciousness’ shedding it of context and particularity.13 Drawing on Michel Foucault’s analysis of eighteenth-century thought in The Order of Things (1966/1970), Pratt argues that the ‘systemizing of nature’ that the Linnaean taxonomy introduced into natural history ‘extracted specimens not only from their organic or ecological relations with each other, but also from their places in other peoples’ economies, histories, social and symbolic systems’.14 In Pratt’s understanding, the natural scientist performs the groundwork for the ‘global resemanticising’ ushered in by imperial expansion, and bears the stigma of complicity in this process.15 However, the broad claims of Pratt’s argument become less persuasive when closely examined in particular contexts. When Pratt discusses eighteenth and early-nineteenth-century southern African travellers and naturalists, for example, she never mentions Burchell, concentrating mainly on John Barrow, who travelled into the interior in his official capacity as the Private Secretary to Lord Macartney, governor of the colony from 1795 to 1798. As it happens, Barrow was Burchell’s nemesis and Burchell frequently attacked or mocked Barrow in the pages of his Travels. In certain respects, Burchell’s Travels may even be considered a rejoinder to Barrow, and certainly it is an account of a very different kind. I mention Pratt’s book not in order to engage with it in detail, but to clear the way both for a less recriminatory understanding of natural science in this period and for Burchell’s practice of it.

In a reappraisal of the Romantic period, Richard Holmes has argued that we should revise, even reverse, the notion that Romanticism as a ‘cultural force’ was deeply invested in the subjective, and hence hostile to the objectivist empiricism of the sciences.16 In a richly illustrated argument, Holmes places Romantic science on the same continuum as Romantic poetry, contending that both were united by a magnified sense of the ‘wonder’ of the world. For Holmes, notions of quest, of venturing, and especially of ‘the exploratory voyage, often lonely and perilsome’ were central to Romantic science, as it sought to expand the borders of human knowledge.17 It is not surprising, since wonder is a primary or first-order emotion without an objective calculus, that such a science has an aesthetic as well as an informational dimension, whether this is an expressive aesthetic, a discerning of an aesthetic of formal design in nature itself, or some combination of the two. Also pertinent here, and operating within a wider timeframe, is Pierre Hadot’s study of the long durational history of the idea of nature, The Veil of Isis (2006). Hadot identifies two central currents animating western thought about nature, or more precisely about unveiling the secrets of nature: the ‘Promethean’ and the ‘Orphic’. The former, as the name suggests, is mechanistic and instrumental, and seeks to ‘tear nature’s secrets away from her … for utilitarian ends’, while the latter seeks a reciprocity with nature, a respect for its mysteries, as Orpheus with his lyre enchanted the natural world.18 For Hadot, this contemplative-poetic science, for which Plato’s Timaeus is the prototype, enlists not only the empirical methods of science, but ‘the work of art, the discourse or poem, as a means of knowing nature’.19 Such Orphic science and its sense of aesthetic perception, he claims, reached its peak in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, particularly in Germany and particularly in the figure of Goethe, ‘the model of an approach to nature that was both scientific and aesthetic’.20 This approach to nature was not confined to Goethe and the poets; one of its exemplary figures was the explorer naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, who knew Goethe well, and who praised him for his attempt to ‘renew the bond which at the dawn of mankind united together philosophy, physics and poetry’.21 It was Humboldt, more than any other naturalist of this period, who worked to integrate the aesthetic into the repertoire of natural science, particularly in his Views of Nature: or Contemplation of the Sublime Phenomena of Creation (1808), where he argued that ‘the physical world is reflected with truth and animation on the inner susceptible world of the mind’.22

It is difficult to estimate the degree of influence Humboldt had on Burchell. The environmental historian Richard Grove finds ‘a consciously aesthetic approach to landscape’ in Burchell’s writing about St Helena which is ‘contemporary with … Humboldt on precisely the same theme’, but Burchell never cites Humboldt, or other prominent German naturalists such as George Foster.23 However, the degree of international exchange fostered by the traffic in botanical specimens and exchanges both between individuals and scientific societies, as well as the rapid diffusion of printed material, make it very likely that Burchell was aware of those currents of thought of which Humboldt was the most prominent representative. Although an obvious aestheticism informs Burchell’s rendering of the natural world, he also draws on late Enlightenment and early Romantic lineages that are distinctively British. His framing aesthetic concepts, however qualified, are the picturesque, the beautiful, and the sublime, and his notions of human progress and historical teleology are implicitly marked by the four-stages theory of the Scottish Enlightenment. Whatever admixture of influences we might ascribe to Burchell, his writing about nature is infused with an Orphic wonder for what he witnesses in the landscapes of ‘a country still in a state of nature and where art has done so little’.24

Burchell divides his work into ‘scientific and … literary parts’, without specifying how this division actually operates.25 For the contemporary reader this distinction is certainly not a stable one, as the two categories constantly overlap. Some sense of these differing approaches may be gained by comparing three different descriptions of the Karoo. The first offers a panoramic perspective, where Burchell is standing on an elevated ridge:

The Great Karoo, stretched out before me, presented, at this distance, no visible object to break the evenness of the plain, or relieve the eye. The rivers and their Thorn-trees were lost in the vast extent, and were not to be distinguished as a feature in the landscape … In these solitary wilds, no moving being was to be seen, no sound to be heard.26

This is Burchell drawing on literary modes of landscape representation current at the time, and there is nothing in this passage to distinguish it from any number of similar descriptions of the Karoo in the nineteenth century, the colonial locus classicus of a denuded landscape into which only an abyssal emptiness can be read. But there are occasions, as J. M. Coetzee has observed, where Burchell gestures towards an aesthetic of landscape that is distinctly African in character rather than a recycled version of European categories, particularly the picturesque.27 While this awareness does not result in a new expressive form, and Burchell reverts to his default settings for landscape description, there is nonetheless a recognition that the southern African interior possesses a ‘species of beauty’ with which ‘European painters … may not yet be sufficiently acquainted’.28 In the second description, viewing the sparse landscapes of the interior where hardly anything intervenes between earth and sky and the latter stretches into an infinity of ‘boundless aerial space [which] seemed lifted further from the globe’, Burchell cryptically remarks: ‘The painter who viewed these scenes, might, if he knew it not before, feel a conviction that the truest definition of Taste, Beauty, the Picturesque, may be found in that of the word Nature.’29 He seems to be suggesting here that there is an inner congruence between art and nature, that art achieves its highest form when it imitates, or embodies, the design of nature, and that aesthetic perception, in the Humboldtian manner, is a mode of understanding nature.

In a third passage the understanding of nature as a unified phenomenon rather than nature as landscape becomes evident when Burchell the natural scientist views the Karoo. Two days after the observations cited above, we have the following: ‘I took a botanical ramble, and added forty-eight plants to my collection, many of which I have never met with either before or since.’30 Burchell then provides, in a lengthy footnote, a breakdown of these plants with their binomial Latin names and some further detail about genera and species. Here the scenic aspects of landscape give way to a sense of its rich inner configuration:

The harmony which pervades every part of the universe, is not less wonderful and beautiful in the distribution of animals and vegetables over the face of the globe than in the planetary system, and in the sublime arrangement of myriads of worlds through the inconceivable infinity of space … In the wide system of created objects, nothing is superfluous: the smallest weed or insect is indispensably necessary to the general good, as the largest object we behold … Nothing more bespeaks a littleness of mind, and a narrowness of ideas, than the admiring of a production of Nature, merely for its magnitude, or the despising of one, merely for its minuteness: nothing more erroneous than to regard as useless, all that does not visibly tend to the benefit of man.31

In Hadot’s terms, this is a fully Orphic view of material phenomena, in which the design of nature is as inconceivable in its complexity and extent as it is purposive in its dispositions, and in which the ‘physics of utilization’, or the idea that nature should be the object of utilitarian value, is rejected.32 Again and again, Burchell will reiterate this point as he passes through the arid interior of the country, where the discerning eye of the naturalist reads a landscape populous with phenomena that are, to European eyes, entirely novel. Yet Burchell cautions against the error of regarding these regions solely in terms of their scale or their prospective utility, a coded warning, perhaps, against a merely acquisitive colonialism. In another passage Burchell declares that his decision to journey into the interior of the country was driven by the desire ‘[t]o view the admirable perfection of Nature in a new light, and not less beautiful in the wilds of Africa, was the irresistible motive which led me on’. This undertaking is not a merely a matter of ‘amassing collections of curious objects’ or ‘the narrow field of nomenclature’, but an exploration ‘worthy of the philosopher, and of the best talents of a reasonable being’.33

Sympathy beyond the jurisdictions of law

If the natural world opens so abundantly before Burchell in his southern African travels, and everywhere reveals purposive design and the ‘breath of divinity’, what then of the human world?34 What of its design and its purpose? It is here that Burchell enters into more intractable territory. We recall that he travels, for the most part, without any European familiars and beyond the boundaries of colonial polity. While his small party is armed and the Khoi with whom he travels are in his pay and under his command, there is no security in his position. On a number of occasions his authority is threatened by recalcitrant members of this party, and external dangers, in one form or another, are always imminent. We cannot know the degree to which Burchell retrospectively shaped his journals to edit out or palliate whatever real anxiety he may have felt, but even so there are scattered references throughout the Travels which indicate a persistent discomposure: ‘In these wild, desert, and lawless countries,’ he writes, ‘the mind, always ready to feel mistrustful and suspicious of treachery, easily takes alarm at every occurrence which may wear a dubious look.’35 When Burchell first went beyond the borders of the colony, he left behind ‘the jurisdiction and protection of regular laws’ and surrendered himself to ‘the hostility, or the hospitality, of savage tribes’.36 This act of social and symbolic divestment, of voluntarily crossing over into lawless and hostile dominions, is, however, anticipated ‘with pleasure’. Burchell is convinced that he will find ‘virtue’ among these tribes, despite his own fears of danger and the colonial consensus, so often expressed to him, that they represent a threat to life. Although the reference to ‘savage tribes’ is generalised, it is clear that Burchell has a particular interest in the ‘Bushmen’, or San hunter-gatherers, and he asserts the desire to enter their world not as an armed antagonist but as a sympathetic observer.

Burchell’s first brief encounter with the San is marked by relief, as if a burden of anthropological apprehension had been lifted from his shoulders. They were not, as he had been led to believe, ‘only a set of beings without reason or intellect’ but ‘men of lively manners and shrewd understanding’.37 His second, more extended encounter beyond the boundaries of the colony, occurs when his party is visited by a group of eleven San, including three women. Although at first Burchell discerns ‘great mistrust … and symptoms of much fear’, these anxieties are gradually dispelled and, facilitated by gifts of tobacco and beads, a lively exchange between the two groups takes place.38 Burchell concludes his account of this meeting by regretting his inability to represent the emotions it aroused in him:

Desirous of transfusing into the minds of others those powerful feelings of interest which I myself on beholding and conversing with this little family of Bushmen experienced … I never, more than at this moment, longed to possess that command of language, and that talent of descriptive representation which might enable me to impart all those peculiar sensations with which my first interview with this singular nation, inspired me.39

Here Burchell presents himself to the reader as a person under the spell of ‘powerful feelings’ and ‘peculiar sensations’, which are too overwhelming to describe and thus ‘transfuse[d] into the minds of others’. It is as if this encounter with the San has produced a range of emotions that defy any transcription into language. What do we make of this?

We might begin by considering that medium regarded as the most suitable vehicle for ‘transfusing’ strong emotions to readers: the sentimental novel, and the cluster of cognate categories that it mobilised, such as sensibility, sympathy, and the person of ‘feeling’. It is clear that Burchell is conscious of these literary modes. In another passage describing his time spent among the Bachapin (Tswana) people, for example, he writes:

yet nothing but breathing the air of Africa, and actually walking through it and beholding its living inhabitants in all the peculiarity of their movements and manners, can communicate those gratifying and literally indescribable, sensations, which every European traveller of feeling, will experience on finding himself in the midst of such a scene.40

Once again Burchell emphasises both the emotive nature of his experience and his inability to describe it adequately. If, as a natural scientist, Burchell is committed to the observation and recording of natural phenomena, as a ‘traveller of feeling’ he is the embodiment of a strange churn of sensations occasioned by being in the ‘midst of’ African people, and which is incapable of expression, let alone classification. While Burchell does indeed engage in intensive ethnographic description – of the body, of bodily ornamentation, of dwelling places, of clothing, of hunting, of music, of language, and the list goes on – alongside this there is an anti-ethnography, an emergent archive of ‘feeling’, of what is shared in sympathetic communication. This precinct of experience is not available for transcription. Referring to time spent watching San nocturnal dancing, he notes:

I find it impossible to give by means of mere description a correct idea, either of the pleasing impressions received while viewing this scene, or of the kind of effect which the evening’s amusement produced upon my mind and feelings. It must be seen; it must be participated in: without which, it would not be easy to imagine its force, or justly to conceive its nature. There was, in this amusement, nothing which can make me ashamed to confess that I derived as much enjoyment from it, as the natives themselves: there was nothing in it which approached to vulgarity; and in this point of view, it would be an injustice to these poor creatures not to place them in a more respectable rank, than that to which the Europeans have generally admitted them … I sat as if the hut had been my home, and felt in the midst of this horde as though I had been one of them; for some few moments, ceasing to think of sciences or of Europe, and forgetting that I was a lonely stranger in a land of wild untutored men.41

Even if Burchell’s vocabulary here occasionally displays a reliance on disparaging normative judgements of the San, it is clear that he feels himself akin to them, that he conceives them as part of a human community, and that this feeling of powerful reciprocity belongs to the affective realm of the literary rather than the demonstrable realm of the scientific. Furthermore, Burchell’s insistence on the participatory nature of his experiences (‘it must be seen, it must be participated in’), and their irreducibility to ‘data’, acknowledges the autonomy of other forms of social life and how there are occasions when these can only be approached through associative sharing rather than objective or extractive observation.

It is this imprecision, this reliance on subjective mood or feeling, which might, paradoxically, account for the lack of consistency in Burchell’s representation of the San, which, contrary to what one might expect, runs across an unstable spectrum from admiration and fellow-feeling to disapprobation and even disgust (emotions which present no barrier to representation). On one occasion, for example, Burchell and his party come across a group of particularly impoverished San, whose only possessions are what they have to hand and who live in the shelter of a mountain cavern: ‘Their life, and that of the wild beasts, their fellow inhabitants of the land, were the same. Of both, the only care seemed to be that of feeding themselves and bringing up their young … Truly, these were the most destitute of beings, and the lowest in the scale of man.’42 Burchell confesses himself ‘distressed to melancholy’ by these people, in whom he is able to discern only the barest lineaments of the human. ‘While my eyes were fixed in painful observation on their vacant countenances,’ he writes, ‘I asked myself, What is man? And had almost said; Surely all the inhabitants of the globe never sprang from the same origin!’43 If Burchell does not quite commit himself to this notion, he does not hold back in continuing to derogate this group as ‘the outcast of the Bushman race’ and the ‘lowest of the human species’.44 Later he finds corroborating evidence of this view in various aspects of their behavior, such as the ‘dog-like voracity’ with which they eat some meat that is offered to them.45 When he learns how they continue to tolerate a man who murdered his brother in order to obtain unimpeded access to his wife, Burchell (even as he admits he cannot be certain of the truth of this tale) denounces the ‘horde’ for its ‘bestial ignorance’ and an inability to distinguish between right and wrong.46 This alleged sliding off the human scale, and the harshness of Burchell’s denunciation, becomes even more perplexing when he observes an ‘incredible’ improvement in their appearance after a few days – a result of being regularly fed. The fact that this group of people might have behaved in the way that they did out of acute hunger (he also notes their listlessness, incuriosity, and apathy) does not elicit a retrospective amendment from the normally even-handed Burchell.

What, we might ask, has happened to the sympathetic amity of his other encounters with the San, and its production of benign but inexpressible feeling? Throughout the Travels there is a marked indeterminacy in Burchell’s relationship with a range of Indigenous people, and this fluctuation of feeling is in many cases directly linked to the changing nature of his relationship with them, especially when these relationships turn sour. But with the San none of these conditions apply in any substantial way. Paradoxically, it is the San who prove the least vexatious of the Indigenous inhabitants, not least because they are in no position to bargain with Burchell and happily accept what he has to offer them – mainly in the form of tobacco and a share of the game his party shoots. So this passage is an unusual one, and more especially so since Burchell normally invests so much attentive curiosity in this ‘race’. Yet in the general tenor of his relationship with the San he is open to their humanity and unique capabilities, despite the fact that he believes their bare lives to be, among all the people he encounters, ‘in the lowest degree of human polity and social existence’.47

As we have seen, Burchell often has recourse to the vocabulary of the sentimental to convey the texture of his encounters with the San and other Indigenous peoples. Here he describes taking leave of a group of San with whom friendly relations were established:

As I rode away from their dwellings … a general salutation was given by the whole assembly; and in a tone so mild and expressive of so much gratitude, that a man must have no heart at all, who could witness a scene like this, unmoved. I confess that to my ear the sound was grateful in the highest degree; and while I turned my head to view them for the last time, the pleasure which beamed in their happy countenances, communicated itself to my own feelings, in a manner the most affecting and indelible.48

The affective domain of ‘the heart’ and ‘feelings’ dominate this exchange. In the absence of a shared language, emotions are semaphored through visual and auditory signs which spontaneously reveal their presence and establish a bond of common humanity between the two parties. By employing the familiar registers of the sentimental, Burchell is repeating a gesture widespread in the colonial literature of the period. As Lynn Festa remarks, sentimentality attained ‘dazzling popularity’ during that historical moment when European colonialism was beginning to gain momentum and should be understood ‘less as a chapter in the history of the freestanding modern individual than as a response to colonial expansion’.49 In a powerful analysis of the interconnections between ideology and the aesthetic, Festa argues that one of sentimentalism’s central functions was not to critique colonial expansion but to enable it, or at least to render it acceptable to the reading public, by endowing colonised subjects with ‘the semblance of similitude while maintaining categorical distinctions’.50 Burchell himself was conscious of such distinctions, which he understood as those between the ‘heart’ and the ‘mind’. ‘The mental powers of Bushmen,’ he maintains,

are never to be extolled; for whatever concessions may be made in favour of their heart, nothing can be said in praise of their mind … The feelings of the heart and all its various passions … are the common property of all mankind, but in the higher faculties of the mind … the savage claims but little share. It is in the improvement of these faculties and powers, that civilised nations may place their high superiority.51

Yet there are occasions, as we shall see, when Burchell wavers in this judgement, or when his own behavior threatens to undermine the very distinctions which he seems elsewhere to uphold.

An aberrant expedition

Burchell’s most protracted engagement with the San occurs in the opening section of the second volume where, after having made his way as far north as the missionary station at Klaarwater (Griquatown), his journey stalls because he cannot find local people to join his depleted party. His solution, after first considering a return to Cape Town, is to double back to Graaf Reinet, the nearest colonial town, and attempt to recruit there. This journey is fraught with danger, however, since it requires navigating unknown territory: he must traverse an area known by the colonists as ‘Bushmanland’, notorious for its hostile inhabitants and never before crossed by a white man. So dangerous is this undertaking perceived to be that the missionaries at Klaarwater, who do everything they can to deter Burchell, request that he sign a declaration indicating that he voluntarily undertook the journey, lest they be accused of colluding in his death. Because of the nature of the terrain he must pass through, Burchell and his party have to travel light, without a wagon; his men ride oxen and Burchell a horse. ‘Put[ting] aside the influence of habit and custom, and of those necessities which belong only to civilized society,’ he writes, ‘I discovered that we might dispense with nearly everything.’52 This is a journey within a journey, in which everything is stripped down to essentials; even cooking utensils are left behind.

Although he exercises due caution, Burchell’s fears are dispelled when he and his party of Khoi establish cordial relations with the local San. This enables Burchell to spend time in situ, observing their habits and interacting with them socially. When danger does come, it comes when his party enters the colony and encounters white people. It later emerges that a rumour had spread throughout the district that a large group of Khoi ‘under the command of a white-man, were marching to attack the colony’, and that the townspeople had armed themselves and set up watch in expectation of this.53 Even though these rumours, which Burchell dismisses as ‘ignorance and fear combined’, are soon dispelled, the notion that wandering through Bushmanland with minimal protection was suicidal is not so easily banished.54 His attempt to recruit Khoi to accompany him on his return journey is met with numerous difficulties, not least of which is the belief among the townspeople that these recruits will never return alive; for this reason the members of Burchell’s party are referred to as ‘the Englishman’s dood volk (dead men)’.55 Burchell’s expedition is regarded as aberrant, a flouting of racial norms that can only end in disaster. The intimation is clear: Burchell has ‘gone native’. And indeed Burchell himself implicitly acknowledges as much. When he crosses over into the colony and comes into contact with white people for the first time, he experiences an odd moment of revulsion:

two men of the family, and several women and children, came and stood round me. Their complexion struck me as unpleasantly fair and colorless, their features as disagreeably sharp, and the expression of their countenances as wild and senseless … The women were insipidly fair, and rendered therefore the more remarkable by the contrast of strong black eyebrows. To this, both in them and the men, was added a very illshaped and protruding nose.56

The white face has become the alien face. Burchell, accustomed to the facial tonalities of Indigenous people, sees the white face as the mark of disjunction and ugly angularity; whiteness is an ‘insipid’ evacuation of color. The moment might be brief – Burchell immediately seeks to qualify if not to cancel it – but it speaks to the extent to which his immersion in ‘uncivilized’ societies has changed him, even altering, at times, his modality of perception.

If this were an isolated event, it might not merit much attention; but there is a pattern at work in the Travels. Consider the following, where he describes his feelings of reinvigoration when rain relieves a long drought:

I know not how to account for the great change it produced, not only in my bodily feelings, but even in those of my mind … I fancied that I possessed the strength to walk the whole length of Africa. Impatient of inactivity, I longed to roam over boundless plains or climb the lofty mountain; all my troubles and difficulties retired to the furthest distance, where I viewed them as diminished almost to nothing. Rapt in this musing, delightful mood methought a beneficent deity … advanced toward me, and whispered softly in my ear, that sweet word LIBERTY: which repeating, till it thrilled in every nerve, the celestial being seemed to say: Follow me. And where indeed could I have obeyed the enticing summons, so easily and uncontrolled, as in the wild regions before me? By subsequent experience I have learnt that the delightful sensation of unshackled experience could never be recalled, after I had re-entered the colonial boundary. Here the ideas of restraint began to usurp its place; and at Cape Town it became completely annihilated. But if society smothered and extinguished it, I became, on the other hand, like one of society, adopting its mode of thinking, and enjoying its refinements, and its reasonable pleasures, as a compensation for those which I had lost.57

In this strange passage Burchell records his imagined mutation into an unrestricted expansion of being as he roams the ‘wild regions’ beyond the boundaries of convention and polity. He considers this ‘delightful sensation of unshackled liberty’ to be one in which he is set free of the coordinates of the self required by ‘society’ – or, to put it another way, he becomes what he himself designates as a ‘savage’. For at work in these imaginings is a more concrete reference; in the Travels it is the San who occupy the position of liberty in a polarity with civilisation.

In an earlier passage describing a San guide, Burchell writes admiringly of his ‘beautiful symmetrical form’, with a ‘gait the most easy and free that I had ever beheld’. He then adds: ‘All the limbs, unshackled by clothing, moved with a grace never perhaps seen in Europe’ (italics mine).58 This characterisation of the guide as embodying both aesthetic form and uninhibited ease of movement would seem to be the inspiration behind the imagined self ranging freely through the wilderness. In the same passage Burchell also goes on to make a distinction between ‘liberty and ‘society’: ‘I envied the Bushmen the uncontrouled [sic] freedom of their lives … Unfortunate that civilization, and this form of liberty cannot, hand in hand, journey through the nations of the world.’59 In declaring himself, or part of himself, an elective San, Burchell seems aware that he is making a startling claim, in which sympathy is superseded by identification. In the very next paragraph he hastens to assure the reader that he means what he says: ‘The picture here given of the remarkable effects of the atmosphere on my feelings,’ he writes, ‘is neither overdrawn nor over-coloured; and though not easily accounted for, is not, therefore, the less exact and faithful.’60 But is it not unlikely that a mere effect of the weather should continue to be felt for an extended period before fading as he re-enters the colony and then undergoing ‘complete annihilation’ when he arrives in Cape Town some three years later? Surely Burchell is being disingenuous here, even rather slyly so?

Burchell was aware that his Travels contained ‘contradictory … sentiments’ and he ascribed this to the fact that he ‘faithfully displayed’ the vicissitudes of his journey, in which ‘change of circumstance’ led to a change of heart or a modification of opinion. He therefore advises the reader that certain sentiments are circumstantial, and belong ‘to that date only’; ‘more correct ideas’, he maintains, can only be formed by the reader considering these expressions of sentiment in their varied contexts, and ‘form[ing] his judgements upon natural and unpicked evidence’.61 Yet even if we take into account the episodic nature of Burchell’s travels, and acknowledge the candour (‘unpicked’) with which his changing sentiments are recorded, this does not result in a balanced aggregation. To the contrary: in Burchell’s text the force field of sentiment is subject to considerable volatility. In this setting the ‘man of feeling’ turns out to be a stressed figure, overwhelmed by his emotions and absolutely unable to modulate them into anything approaching a stable core of responses. It is hard to imagine how it could have been otherwise. Burchell was acutely vulnerable for most of his travels and was obliged to negotiate his passage through the interior rather than enforce it from a position of strength. He often perceived himself to be manipulated by the people he encountered, who were well aware of the relative weakness of his authority and used this to their own advantage. This exasperated Burchell, who complained of ‘that deceit, and disregard for truth … pervading more or less every African tribe’, though it is likely that Indigenous people would have understood their own behaviour as a kind of strategic reparation.62 Nor was he entirely at home with his own party, who at times would ignore his injunctions or refuse his requests. It is little wonder that a degree of misanthropy creeps into his writing. Observing his dogs sleeping around the fire one night, Burchell comments: ‘When wandering over pathless deserts, oppressed with vexation and distress … I have turned to these, as my only friends, and felt how much inferior to them was man when actuated only by selfish views.’63 Burchell functions as a limit case for the exercise of metropolitan sentiment, with its unstated dependence on hierarchies of race and class. When the European traveller is reliant on the goodwill of those he encounters and does not have the capacity to command obeisance, then the conditions of possibility for sympathetic exchange either disappear or diminish significantly. Burchell’s fraught relations with Indigenous people remind us, however, that it was possible to enter zones of contact that were more open and transactional despite their incoherence and their transitory quality.


1 William J. Burchell, Travels in the Interior of Southern Africa, 2 vols (1822–24; London: The Batchworth Press, 1953), vol. 1, p. 40.
2 The terms ‘Hottentot’ and ‘Bushman’ are no longer considered acceptable nomenclature. Except where I am quoting directly from Burchell, I use the term ‘San’ in the place of ‘Bushman’ and ‘Khoi’ in place of ‘Hottentot’. My understanding is that these are currently considered appropriate designations.
3 Quoted in Edward B. Poulton, William John Burchell (London: Spottiswood & Co. Ltd, 1907), p. 45.
4 Burchell, Travels, vol. 1, p. 358.
5 Burchell, Travels, vol. 1, p. 40.
6 Burchell, Travels, vol. 1, p. 111.
7 Burchell, Travels, vol. 1, p. 40.
8 Burchell, Travels, vol. 1, p. 11.
9 Burchell, Travels, vol. 1, p. 5.
10 Burchell, Travels, vol. 1, p. 5.
11 Burchell, Travels, vol. 1, p. 164.
12 Susan Locher Buchanan, Burchell’s Travels: The Life, Art and Journeys of William John Burchell (Cape Town: Penguin Books, 2015), p. 9.
13 Mary Louise Pratt, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation (London: Routledge, 1992), p. 15.
14 Pratt, Imperial Eyes, pp. 29, 31.
15 Pratt, Imperial Eyes, p. 31.
16 Richard Holmes, The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science (London: Harper Press, 2009), p. xvi.
17 Holmes, Age of Wonder, p. xvi.
18 Pierre Hadot, The Veil of Isis: An Essay on the History of the Idea of Nature (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press, 2006), p. 95.
19 Hadot, Veil of Isis, p. 156.
20 Hadot, Veil of Isis, p. ix.
21 Quoted in Laura Dassow Walls, The Passage to Cosmos: Alexander Humboldt and the Shaping of America (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2009), p. 32.
22 Alexander von Humboldt, Views of Nature: or Contemplation of the Sublime Phenomena of Creation (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1810), p. 154.
23 Richard H. Grove, Green Imperialism: Colonial Expansion in Tropical Island Edens and the Origins of Environmentalism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), p. 350.
24 Burchell, Travels, vol. 1, p. 5.
25 Burchell, Travels, vol. 1, p. 3.
26 Burchell, Travels, vol. 1, p. 156.
27 J. M. Coetzee, White Writing: On the Culture of Letters in South Africa (Sandton: Radix, 1988), pp. 38–41.
28 Burchell, Travels, vol. 2, p. 194.
29 Burchell, Travels, vol. 1, p. 203.
30 Burchell, Travels, vol. 1, p. 161.
31 Burchell, Travels, vol. 1, p. 162.
32 Hadot, Veil of Isis, p. 95.
33 Burchell, Travels, vol. 1, pp. 348, 349.
34 Burchell, Travels, vol. 2, p. 233.
35 Burchell, Travels, vol. 1, p. 315.
36 Burchell, Travels, vol. 1, p. 101.
37 Burchell, Travels, vol. 1, p. 164.
38 Burchell, Travels, vol. 1, p. 205.
39 Burchell, Travels, vol. 1, p. 206.
40 Burchell, Travels, vol. 2, p. 314.
41 Burchell, Travels, vol. 2, pp. 47–8.
42 Burchell, Travels, vol. 1, p. 316.
43 Burchell, Travels, vol. 1, p. 316.
44 Burchell, Travels, vol. 1, p. 316.
45 Burchell, Travels, vol. 1, p. 316.
46 Burchell, Travels, vol. 1, p. 319.
47 Burchell, Travels, vol. 2, p. 248.
48 Burchell, Travels, vol. 2, p. 29.
49 Lynn Festa, Sentimental Figures of Empire in Eighteenth-Century Britain and France (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006), pp. 2, 3.
50 Festa, Sentimental Figures, p. 56.
51 Burchell, Travels, vol. 2, p. 40.
52 Burchell, Travels, vol. 2, p. 11.
53 Burchell, Travels, vol. 2, p. 97.
54 Burchell, Travels, vol. 2, p. 102.
55 Burchell, Travels, vol. 2, p. 113.
56 Burchell, Travels, vol. 2, p. 75.
57 Burchell, Travels, vol. 1, p. 356.
58 Burchell, Travels, vol. 1, p. 293.
59 Burchell, Travels, vol. 1, p. 293.
60 Burchell, Travels, vol. 1, p. 293.
61 Burchell, Travels, vol. 2, p. 217.
62 Burchell, Travels, vol. 2, p. 217.
63 Burchell, Travels, vol. 1, p. 174.

Worlding the south

Nineteenth-century literary culture and the southern settler colonies


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