François Le Vaillant - Journey into the Interior of Africa

29 May 2017
François Le Vaillant - Journey into the Interior of Africa

François Le Vaillant: Journey into the Interior of Africa 

Summary of a talk given by D.J. Culpin 

to the 

Plettenberg Bay Historical Society on 14 May 2017 

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The French traveller and ornithologist, François Le Vaillant, wrote one of the most important eighteenth-century accounts of a visit to the southern Africa. In 1790 he published his Journey into the Interior of Africa by way of the Cape of Good Hope, which is substantially taken up with the narrative of an expedition to the eastern frontier of the colony which he undertook between December 1781 and March 1783. His Journey was translated twice into English in the year of original publication: one of these translations is anonymous, and is generally both accurate and fluent, though the language has now dated; the other, done by Elizabeth Helme, omits anything that she considered slightly improper, such as the passage in which Le Vaillant tells his readers that the Xhosa ‘commonly warm their tools with their own urine’. Hence the need for a new translation, which is being undertaken by the Van Riebeeck Society in Cape Town: volume 1 appeared in 2007, and I hope shortly to complete work on volume 2. 

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Le Vaillant was not an explorer. He travelled along roads used by ox wagons that already existed in the 1780s. Above all, he was an ornithologist and repeatedly insists in his narrative that the purpose of his journey was to collect specimens of birds and animals, which he shot in great numbers and sent back periodically first to Cape Town and then to Paris. Volume 1 of his Journey is taken up with an account of his journey eastwards, through the area that is now Caledon towards the site of present-day George which he described as ‘the African horn of plenty’ and the last outpost of civilization. He remained at the campsite he named Pampoen Kraal throughout April 1782 noting, before resuming his journey eastward: ‘Now, at last, I was about to escape man’s dominion entirely and return a little to the conditions of his primitive origin.’ He made another lengthy stay in the area of Plettenberg Bay in June and July 1782. There he saw great potential for the development of forestry and agriculture but concluded that, due to the indolence of the Dutch East India Company, such projects ‘will, happily, not come to fruition’. Plettenberg Bay would remain as innocent as the Garden of Eden. Subsequently Le Vaillant attempted to continue his journey along the coast eastward but, finding no way through the Tsitsikamma, he back-tracked to George, crossed the Outeniquas into the Lang Kloof, which he followed as far as the region of Humansdorp, before turning north towards Agter Bruintjies Hoogte, and finally pitching his camp at Koks Kraal, near Cookhouse on the west shore of the Great Fish River, where he remained between October and December 1782. 

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Volume 2 of the Journey is very different from what had gone before and is substantially given over to a description of the indigenous peoples, the Khoi and the Xhosa, that he encountered during his sojourn at Koks Kraal. In this respect, Le Vaillant was faithful to a pattern set by almost all travel narratives which, like Kolbe’s account of The Present State of the Cape of Good Hope (1715), offered the reader an account of the religion, laws and customs of the non-European populations found within the borders of the colony. Le Vaillant follows a similar plan, telling his readers about the dwellings, the clothing, the child-rearing practices, the weapons, the food of the Khoi and the Xhosa, and much more besides. As he says, he spent his days talking to them ‘about anything of interest to me concerning their manners, their customs, their religion, their tastes, their resources …’. And he did so at great length: approximately 138 of the volume’s 290 pages are given over to these topics, whilst the long but very rapid journey back to Cape Town, which occupies the period from December 1782 to March 1783 is dispatched in just 73 pages. Quite a contrast with Volume 1! 

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However, although Le Vaillant’s narrative mirrors the practice of other travels in certain respects, in other ways it is subtly but importantly different. These differences speak directly to the intellectual climate of Europe in the second half of the eighteenth century and perhaps account in part for the phenomenal contemporary success of the Travels. 

In the first place, the eighteenth century was the Age of Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, and the age when dictionaries first played a prominent part on the stage of European thought. Chambers Cyclopædia first appeared in 1728, and the first edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica was published between 1768 and 1771. Similar works appeared in France, notably, Buffon’s Natural History (1749 onwards) and, arguably the most important of them all, the Encyclopédie, subtitled a Systematic Dictionary of the Sciences, Arts, and Crafts. Like other works of its type the Encyclopédie sought to classify and disseminate knowledge across many fields of human activity: but its originality resides in the fact that it included information about ‘crafts’, such as printing or the smelting of iron ore, which had previously not been considered sufficiently dignified to feature in a work targeted principally at an educated reading public. 

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Le Vaillant’s narrative feeds this hunger for the classification of knowledge across a broad spectrum of human activity. Most famously, as an accomplished ornithologist, he classifies birds, and many of those which he names in his Travels are later illustrated and described more fully in his Natural History of the Birds of Africa (1799-1808). Indeed, in respect of ornithological nomenclature, his influence is still felt today: the Bateleur eagle, for example, is so called because that is what Le Vaillant called it; while the scientific name of the Crested Barbet, Trachyphonus vaillantii, immortalizes the author of our narrative. But Le Vaillant’s eagerness to seek out and record information ranges much more widely: he provides his reader with a list of words related to natural history in the French, Dutch and Khoi languages; he describes the method employed by the Xhosa for smelting iron ore. He even attempts a comparison between the Khoi who lived within the Colony, the Gonaqua Khoi encountered on the eastern frontier, and the Xhosa, describing a range of physical characteristics such as height and build. 

But the intellectual climate of the eighteenth century was complex, and in some ways paradoxical, for alongside the cult of reason, it also celebrated the unrestrained expression of emotion and, as the century wore on, the lyrical description of nature. Here again, Le Vaillant provides his readers with the delights they were seeking. As he prepares to return to the Cape he bid farewell to his new-found friends on the eastern frontier, seasoning his farewells with, as he says, ‘my sorrows and my tears’. As he approaches his destination his thoughts turn backwards and he exclaims: ‘Everything was fleeing away, the rivers, the mountains, the majestic forests, the tribes of savages and their charming huts, everything was fleeing from me.’ Like Rousseau, whom he admired, Le Vaillant castigates the corruption of Civilization whilst propagating the myth of the Noble Savage and the cult of Nature. 

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Throughout his narrative Le Vaillant claims not only to be giving an accurate description of peoples and places but also to be truthful in all that he says; in this respect he repeatedly contrasts his own affirmations with those of two earlier travellers, Kolbe and Sparrman, whom he frequently accuses of retailing inaccurate hearsay or fabricating parts of their narrative. Yet, in all probability, Le Vaillant himself has not been altogether honest in the account of his journey. He has long stood accused of exaggerating his own prowess, his bravery or the difficulties he overcame; but in fact, the authenticity of one whole episode in his narrative is profoundly suspect. Le Vaillant tells us that, having arrived at Koks Kraal, he decided to launch an expedition across the Great Fish River, beyond the frontiers of the Colony, and that, in doing so, he had two purposes in mind: the first was to meet King Phalo and act as a mediator between him and the settlers at a time of cross-border hostilities; the other was to go in search of survivors from the Grosvenor, which had been wrecked some eight weeks previously, on 4 August 1782, approximately 450 kilometres east of his current location. But, in 1782 Phalo had been dead for eight years, and it is highly unlikely that news of the Grosvenor could have reached Koks Kraal in such a short space of time. More obviously, the chronology of the narrative, which had been carefully documented since Le Vaillant’s departure from Cape Town, becomes defective at this point, in an obvious attempt to create a period of four weeks during which the intrepid explorer could have carried out his mission. In all probability, he didn’t. 

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It is equally likely that Le Vaillant did not write the text of his narrative, at least in its final, published form. Le Vaillant certainly kept a journal during his travels, but several contemporary accounts assert that it was another writer, Casimir Varon, who worked these up into the narrative as we now know it. There is no conclusive external evidence of this, but a stylistic analysis of the text itself would support that conclusion. Le Vaillant grew up in Surinam and, as he tells us himself, ‘I took my first steps in the wilderness and was born almost savage.’ In contrast, the text of the Travels is very sophisticated, full of the wit and indirect allusions that were the essence of good style in the Parisian salons of which Le Vaillant had little knowledge. Just one example can serve to make this point: when Le Vaillant broke camp at Koks Kraal and set off on the return journey to the Cape, the text says, ‘It was, as they say, the painter moving out.’ This is, in fact, a sophisticated allusion to a painting called The Painter Moving Out by Etienne Jeaurat, which dates from about 1757. 

For all of the reasons outlined above, Le Vaillant’s Travels into the Interior of Africa by way of the Cape of Good Hope were very successful: at least seven French editions appeared during Le Vaillant’s lifetime, and the work was quickly translated into English, German, Dutch, Russian, Swedish, Danish and Italian. It is to be hoped that the new edition published by the Van Riebeeck Society, including Volume 2 for which I am responsible, will promote a wider knowledge and appreciation of Le Vaillant in our own day.

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D.J. Culpin

 

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