The life of a colonial poet

Paintings of Thomas Pringle show a pale, elfin man with large eyes. What they don’t show is his soulfulness – and pluck.

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Thomas Pringle isn’t talked about any more, one of those wayside curiosities passed over by the great turnpike of history. In 1820, aged 31, he led a small group of Scottish settlers to South Africa on the Brilliant out of Gravesend. On arrival, they stopped at Simon’s Town, the British naval base in False Bay, before clipping down the coast to what became Port Elizabeth. After months at sea, the party disembarked “with boisterous hilarity”, only to learn that their tents were already occupied. Downcast, they steered back through the surf with “as much cheerfulness as could be expected”.

Pringle stayed behind on the beach, limping along (he’d been lame since childhood), casting a sour eye over the mainly English 1820 settlers. “Probably about a third were persons of real respectability of character, and possessed some worldly substance; but the remaining two-thirds were for the most part composed of individuals of a very unpromising description – persons who had hung loose upon society – low in morals or desperate in circumstance,” he later wrote.

The Pringle party finally came ashore. They provisioned themselves on government credit, commandeered ox-wagons and nosed into the interior. Their destination was the upper reaches of the Baviaans River, one of the most remote pockets of the Cape Colony. First, though, to the garrison of Grahamstown, then north over arid plains to Bedford. After Bedford the wagons rolled west before turning north yet again, snaking along the river course. They raided salt pans, marvelled at the herds of quagga and tried to stay chirpy when confronted with the rustle and occasional terrifying roar of the African night.

After 16 days on wagons, the Scots were not deterred by the first sighting of their assigned 40 hectares. It was all bush and gravel, almost desert, with few trees. The party of 24 set about damming the river; they planted orchards and surrounded their wheat fields with quince hedges. After a season or two, the party dispersed down the valley, each to his own farm. They called them Lynedoch, Glen Lynden and Eildon, bonny names for a blighted landscape. Pringle built himself a beehive hut in the shade of a witgat tree. This became an Emersonian moment, for under the shade of the witgat he conjured South African literature into being with his poetry.

He travelled on horseback throughout the colony, identifying with the settlers and their plight. The judgments formed on the beach softened. He, too, was now hanging rather loose upon society.

In the early 1970s, the Pringles of the Baviaans River valley clamoured to have Thomas’s remains returned from Bunhill Fields in Islington where he was buried, in the same cemetery as William Blake, Daniel Defoe and John Bunyan. “We’d heard there was going to be a highway built through Bunhill Fields,” says Alex Pringle, the current owner of Eildon. “We’d wanted to bring his remains back anyway, because for years we’d been feeling neglected. The Nats [the Nationalist Party] were in power and our history wasn’t important to them. We made some calls and a Safmarine vessel was involved. He was reburied in the crypt of the church here on the property.”

Pringle spent his last years in the Cape Colony becoming a professional thorn in the flesh of the then governor, Charles Somerset, whom he despised. Having moved from the valley to Cape Town, he founded a school and edited newspapers and magazines. Eventually, though, facing official wrath and mounting debt, he left town. He moved to Highgate in north London, became widely respected in the abolitionist movement and died of tuberculosis in 1834.

Paintings of Pringle show a pale, elfin man with large eyes. What they don’t show is his soulfulness – and pluck. A brave man who tried to tame bad men and bad lands with a pen.

This article appears in the 14 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Corbyn supremacy

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