A sprawling historical charts the 1650 arrival of the Dutch in what is now South Africa and limns the troubles that followed.
Real-life figures stand at the heart of South African National Archives researcher Sleigh’s first outing, reputed to have been two decades and more in the making. Early on, one of those figures, Jan van Riebeeck, arrives at Cape Town as colonial governor for the Dutch East India Company and loses little time in transforming the native landscape while dreaming of better things to come: “Where this Fort is standing now, will be a big town one day.” His native opposite, also real, is the Goringhaicona leader Autshumao, known as Chief Harry to the English (and Herrie to the Dutch). Even once Herrie accepts the notion that there will always be Hollanders on his territory, and that “the whole world would be made different,” he is a most reluctant ally: He’d rather be speaking English, the only thing he has to barter. But the Dutch do business otherwise, and they soon war on the native peoples. Newcomers and indigenes die, and Herrie becomes the first prisoner on Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela would later spend so many years. In turn, van Riebeeck adopts a Goringhaicona girl, the resonantly named Eva, mother of the colony’s first mixed-blood, a girl whom many love but few know. Sleigh’s ambitious tale, which weaves the lives of seven major characters and many minor ones into a packed and occasionally even crowded narrative, is far better written than the standard textbook, but it sometimes has a textbookish feel all the same; a reader without some knowledge of the South African past and an ability to keep track of Sleigh’s detailed subplots about the fates of doomed warriors and pensive women may soon feel lost.
Even so, Sleigh crafts a monumental tale about momentous events on the edge of the known world, an effort resulting in a major contribution to modern South African literature.