Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Father of African philology

Wilhelm Bleek, sometimes called the father of African philology, was born 190 years ago today. His most enduring legacies are the work he did with his sister-in-law on the |xam language and his published books such as Comparative Grammar of the South African Languages. But, early on in his career, having studied and worked with African languages in Bonn and Berlin, he visited Natal to help compile a Zulu grammar, and while there he kept a detailed diary - not published until the 1960s.

Bleek was born on 8 March 1827 in Berlin, to a professor of theology and his wife. He studied in Berlin and Bonn, and looked set to follow in his father’s footsteps, but, while at university, he developed an interest an African languages, and this became his prime area of study. He graduated in 1851 with a doctorate in linguistics. He was then entrusted by the eminent zoologist, Professor Wilhelm Peters. with interpreting and editing material, including as yet unknown languages, that Peters had collected during his travels in Africa.


Bleek was subsequently appointed official linguist to an expedition to Niger in 1854, but ill-health forced his return to England. There he met John William Colenso, the Anglican Bishop of Natal, and George Grey, soon to become governor of Cape Colony. The former invited him to Natal to complete a Zulu grammar, after which he went to Cape Town to work as Sir Grey’s official interpreter and to catalogue his private library. While working for Grey, Bleek continued with his philological research and contributed to various German publications. 

Bleek visited Europe in 1859, for health reasons, but soon returned to Cape Town. In 1862, he married an English woman, Jemima Lloyd with whom he had two children, though they both died in infancy. Jemima’s sister, Lucy, came to live in the household, and before long was working with Bleek helping to document the culture, language and history of the |xam and !kun people of Southern Africa - see the online Bleek and Lloyd Collection. Bleek published several important books, which helped establish his reputation as the father of African philology. These include Vocabulary of the Mozambique Language; Handbook of African, Australian and Polynesian Philology; and Comparative Grammar of the South African Languages.

Grey, on being appointed to the governorship of New Zealand (for the second time) and leaving Cape Colony, gifted his collection to the National Library of South Africa on condition that Bleek be its curator, a position he occupied from 1862 until his death in 1875. For more information on Bleek, see The Digital Bleek and Lloyd, Wikipedia, some pages from Every Step of the Way: The Journey to Freedom in South Africa, or the Dictionary of National Biography 1885-1900.

While in Natal and Zululand, Bleek devoted most of his time to linguistic and ethnological research, contributing articles to the leading German geographical journal of the time. He also kept a diary, well, two diaries (1855-1856 in English and German, and June-Oct 1856 in German). These are held by the University of Cape Town libraries. They were first translated from German by O. H. Spoor and published, as The Natal Diaries of Dr W. H. I. Bleek, for the Friends of the South African Library by A. A. Balkema in 1965. In Spohr’s preface he states: ‘With the translation of these diaries we hope to provide English-speaking historians, linguists and anthropologists with little known source material on Natal and Zululand in the middle of the last century.’ Here are several extracts from the diaries.

29 October 1855
’On October 29th, the cannon sounded thirteen times, announcing the arrival of Sir George Grey, the Governor of the Cape Colony. As usual, his arrival came as a surprise and thus all preparations for a welcome were forestalled. Seldom has so much been expected from a government official, rarely has a government official enjoyed so much confidence and been able to retain his popularity to such an extent as Sir George Grey, even when he had to refuse demands made on him. His position in Natal has been a strange one, since for the last few years Natal has been an independent colony, no longer under the Cape government, but directly linked with the Colonial Office (Dr Petermann adds in a note ‘According to the latest reports, the colony has since July 1856 its own governor in the person of John Scott.’). Sir George Grey is, therefore, not here as Governor, but only as High Commissioner, and as such he has no power to issue proclamations, but only to give advice. However, the Government has been instructed to follow his advice. This mainly concerns the encouragement of immigration of colonists from Europe by leasing property to every married man. Thus a premium has been put on marriage, and many a colonist may have been prompted by a few morgen of land to look around for a wife. Most of the young men do not lack the inclination, but the choice is limited. The labour potential of the colony is to be increased by the importation of Indians. The main problem is what to do with the natives. Sir George decided against the plan of obliging the natives to emigrate into the southern districts. He would prefer to found industrial schools which it would be compulsory for native children to attend. He is going to pay for this out of the £40,000 which he has received from the Ministry and Parliament for the education of the natives.’

5 November 1855
‘Monday 5th November. I managed to have a talk with the Governor, but my negotiations have not yet been finalised. As things stand now, it is likely that I shall go to Cape Town in six months’ time to help the Governor in editing a New Zealand dictionary (Sir George Grey used to be Governor of New Zealand). Afterwards, with his support, I hope to take up my researches into the interior of Africa again. Though this means a delay in my planned travels of discovery, it is important for my plans to win the ear and interest of the Governor. I hope to have climbed some snowy mountain peaks before you set eyes on me again.’

10 June 1856
‘On Tuesday 10th June I set off to climb the u Mpofu mountain north-east of the station. I tried to sketch the outline of the mountain, but as I am not skilled I was only moderately successful. I am enclosing the rough sketch, as it may give an idea of the formation of the mountain. [The sketch was sent to Dr Petermann; there is no copy in the Ms.]

The course which I had chosen was to ascend the u Mpofu on the southern side, as I considered that slope of the mountain as the most gentle. The range runs horizontally, dividing the i Noemane from the streams on the other side. Before I reached the summit, I came across a kraal which was just being built. It was a double kraal with narrow doorways facing one another. Nothing but the outer frame, and a hut in each of them, had been completed. Only two men and a few boys were present. One of the men was a strange sight, as the bone of his nose had the appearance of being cloven in twain. Right in the middle was an ugly ulcer. The Zulus say he looks like a hyena (a Mpisi). I wanted the other man to come with me up the mountain to tell me the names of the mountains and rivers in the neighbourhood, but he declined, being too busy building huts. From then on the path was no longer straight, but wound around the western side of the mountain, so that I reached the summit from the north. On top of the mountain there were quite a few kaffer gardens. The view was only fair; generally the view is only clear immediately after the rain. Riding down the eastern slope of the mountain, I arrived at a kraal, or rather three kraals grouped together, called u Ndabepambile, and their u Mnumzana (master of the kraal), u Mcaguza. The doors were so low and narrow that my horse could only squeeze through in a bent position. How cattle, especially those with big horns, can get through remains a mystery to me. I had the same dinner as the previous day. While I was there, the man whom I had wanted to take as a guide appeared suddenly in full splendour, he had dressed himself smartly and had followed me, but had missed me on the mountain. Though he was of no use to me now, I was touched by his eagerness. On my way back, I climbed the summit again and descended the steep southern slope towards the huts in construction, and then home the same way. I sketched the outline of the u Mandawe mountain from a spot above the spring of the i Noemane. This little river runs towards the north-east and then winds northwards round the slopes of the Mpafu.’

15 August 1856
‘Friday 15th August, I questioned u Walapansi. He is a servant of Masipula, a commoner, who, however, was very useful to me in procuring food, naturally for a stout commission. His home is not really Zululand, but the country of Sotohangane, who was the successor to Zuite. Before Tshaka ascended the throne, he left Selmtetwa for the north-east. Between Delagoa Bay and Inhambane (u Ingambane) is supposed to live part of a tribe related to the Zulus. They originate from the Umtetwa and speak the Tefula dialect which nearly half the Zulu nation speaks, a Moelalapansi [sic!J I also spoke about the customs and language of the natives in that part.’


16 August 1856
‘Saturday 16th August. The king gave a big beer-drinking party, from which many of the chiefs returned towards evening in more than merry mood, u Mnayamane demonstrated this usually by beating his wives and young men, while Masipula did not show it so obviously, but his servants had to approach him very obediently. One of the chiefs un Nkalakuwa was bold enough to tell him, ‘ndakiwe’ (you are drunk) whereupon Masipula said very indignantly, ‘ndakive [sie!] wena’ (you are drunk yourself).

In the evening Tshalaza arrived to ask for an i hofu, a red woollen neckerchief to give to one of the king’s daughters, who was to take part in the celebration of her womanhood at u Mnayamane’s place. u Mnayamane also sent a message, bidding me farewell. He was off on an elephant hunt the next day and naturally asked me for a farewell present. I let him know that as he was not the king I could not consider his message.’

8 September 1856
‘Monday 8th September. After breakfast, I started on my way to D’Urban. My servants had caught up with me on Saturday night and had left very early. I had to cross the u Mhlango. There was no mistake about the aptness of its name - ‘Reed River’. It was very difficult to get through the reeds and the marsh. I was soon in a dense, high forest with impenetrable undergrowth and for hours followed the hilly path. In these forests one still heard not so very long ago of natives being torn to pieces by hyenas. It is impossible to penetrate the thicket which is supposed to be inhabited by elephants which the most courageous hunters cannot capture. There is also a great deal of game and wild animals of different species. This is where the four lions must have come from which were seen recently in Cato Manor. I saw nothing on the road except an ordinary troop of monkeys and when I came nearer they climbed quickly into the tree-tops. I could easily have shot down one or two with my revolver, but I have a great aversion to wounding an animal which is so much like a human and whose death agony is supposed to be like that of a being gifted with reason. I would have loved to catch a small one to find out how far one can civilise it, a sort of missionary activity more prompted by my desire for knowledge than any humanitarian motives.

A number of wagons were on the way to and from the Bay. On the front seat of one of the wagons sat a native in an elegant white suit and a hat, swinging his whip. Inside sat someone clad in black with a white tie and a blank, melancholy look, unmistakably an American missionary. Next to him sat his wife, very much the same in attire and appearance. It was undoubtedly Mr Alden Grant [Aldin Grout] and his family on their way from his mission station on the Umvoti down to D’Urban, just to take a Sunday service in the Presbyterian congregation. The American missionaries take turns in doing this. Behind the wagon rode one of the missionary’s small sons and a Hottentot youngster.

The dense forest stretched as far as the Umgeni, which I crossed below the refinery of Springfield’s sugar plantation. The water just reached up to the horse’s girth. I then went along below the Berea, past sand-dunes which stretch from here down to the sea. I arrived in D’Urban about 2 o’clock. Along the way I saw none of my men, nor did I see them at the place where we were to meet. A parcel from Liverpool had arrived for me by the ‘Royal William’. It contained a few newspapers from Elberfeld, several English and American ones, two parts of ‘Petermann’s Mittheilungen’ and ‘Die Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morgenl√§ndischen Gesellschaft’ and also several books. Some came from my family and for some I was indebted to my friend. Daniel Wichelhaus.’

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