Harvill Secker, August 2012, £14.99
Reviewed by Jill Hinchliff
The story of the surname-less mixed-race slave Philida, is not a comfortable, easy read. It is set in Cape Town and its surrounds, during the years leading up to and finally culminating in the abolition of slavery in 1834.
Many of the slaves had originally been brought to the Cape from Indonesia by the Dutch East India Company when the Dutch had controlled both regions. The Cape Colony later fell under British rule and it is during this period that the story unfolds. The British initially made few changes to the status quo, even to the extent of retaining the Dutch language and law. Eventually however, slavery was to be abolished by Britain, which move unsurprisingly caused severe dissension throughout the Colony. The wealthy landowners of Dutch and French Huguenot ancestry were soon to lose their labour force, although true freedom would still be a long time coming; the slaves would remain indentured to their owners for a further four years after their official emancipation.
The novel starts with Philida approaching the Slave Protector to lodge an official complaint against Francois, one of the sons of her malicious owner, Cornelis Brink. Francois has ‘made’ four children with Philida during the course of their eight-year sexual relationship. In return, Francois had promised Philida and her two surviving children their freedom, but has broken his word to her. It is a courageous yet somewhat foolhardy decision to accuse a white man of such a serious offence and Philida is justifiably scared, yet determined to see justice done. It proves to be a vain attempt at recourse in a world where slaves, by their very nature, have no rights.
She is forced to return to the Brinks’ wine farm, where she is protected to a certain extent by Ouma Nella, a freed former slave. Philida and her children live with Ouma Nella in the latter’s separate quarters. Nella also happens to be Cornelis Brink’s biological mother. The story shows quite graphically how clandestine inter-racial, extra-marital procreation was not only rampant, but a covertly accepted practice by the wealthy and privileged whites, despite their strict and unyielding Calvinist beliefs
Francois appears to care for Philida sincerely, but is constantly intimidated by his vicious father. Cornelis commands him to pursue the daughter of a wealthy white man from Cape Town, with the intention of marrying her and thereby ultimately saving the Brink family from financial ruin. Francois is a weak character and I could not help disliking him, despite my thorough search for any redeeming qualities throughout the duration of the story.
Philida is a knitter – she makes woollen garments for her owners – and the tale, when narrated by her, is replete with similes and descriptions relating to her craft. We discover that she loves her cat almost as deeply as she does her children and Ouma Nella. She had saved Kleinkat’s life after Francois’s mother, Janna, had ordered her son to drown a litter of kittens. Francois had agreed to allow Philida to keep one which becomes her constant companion. I will concede that this shared fondness for the cat, albeit expedient on Francois’s part, is probably his best virtue.
Jill Hinchliff spemt her life in South Africa and now lives in SuffolkLast modified on