Art and storytelling 200 years later by a distant descendant.
Born into the British Empire during the Second World War in a colonial country that no longer exists, I’ve been flung around in a turbulent vortex of political and personal change. My art and my writing are the ways I hang on to the world spinning around me. I have no answers, just more questions – I fly around a disintegrating centre – illustrating what I don’t know or understand by writing and making art. I’ve just published my seventh book – When We Were Wicked – two short memoirs and ten short and shorter stories about saints and sinners in a wicked world. It follows my memoir When I Was Bad which tells of how I tried to be good in a colonial world and was bad in an apartheid regime.
Making use of war veterans OR how my family came to be South African
Encouraged by the British Government as a way to escape the poverty and unemployment after the Napoleonic wars, my maternal forebears, the Nelsons, came to the Cape Colony, later British Kaffraria, in South Africa in the 1820s. Settlers were promised fertile farms in an uninhabited land, but the region suffered drought and amaXhosa pastoralists already lived on it. The British governor needed English immigrants as a counter to the 1652 Dutch settler population and as a barrier against Zulu expansion southwards. Many years later, the 1820 settlers reckoned themselves to be a South African English elite and my great-grandmother Nelson was proud of her connection to Admiral Nelson’s first cousin. Nelson had begun his career as a 12-year-old cabin boy but, with help from a relation, he rose to be the Admiral of the Fleet and to commit war crimes, as well as save the British fleet. Are the colonists’ stories the same as Nelson’s – rags to riches or just stories of survival? Some colonial settlers become wealthy. A few, like C J Rhodes and Alfred Beit, became rich and powerful after making fortunes in diamonds or gold and many settlers did benefit from their risky post-war migrations. Some made money and some acquired status and power, at least for a time. They did so by crushing the African pastoralists and warrior tribes and exploiting them as an underpaid disenfranchised labour force. That could not last. In an art installation in Bedford in 2006 entitled The ‘true’ History of my Past I made drawings exploring the history I saw through the eyes of a child.
Sleeping with the enemy in my family
My maternal grandmother’s German family, the Meinekes, came to South Africa after the 1840s. They may have been mercenaries who fought with the British in the Crimean War and then fought with them against the amaXhosa, a few finally going on to help the British suppress the Indian Mutiny. My ancestors, however, were probably dispossessed German peasants of whom little is known except that they were poor. My grandmother left school early and went barefoot as a child. I have a friend whose Afrikaans grandmother died in a British concentration camp. She thought the Meinekes’ natural affiliation as German peasants would have been with the Boers – the Afrikaner community. My paternal great-uncles fought with the Imperial Yeomanry in the Second Anglo-Boer War against the Boers. One was an alcoholic. One changed his name and is buried in an unmarked grave. Both vanished from family history. Does this mean my family was at war with itself even then? A substantial part of my DNA is Germanic – my father must have been on the opposite side to his wife’s relatives in the Second World War. As ‘Hamera and Hartley‘ my friend Krystyna and I put on an exhibition in 2008 at New Hall, Cambridge called ‘Finding Fathers‘ in which we explored the complexity of our relationships with fathers, one who survived a slave labour camp while the other fought in the Second World War.
Loading the mother lode
My maternal grandfather, Ben Burton, was a poverty-stricken alcoholic tailor, so perhaps marrying him was not the smartest move for my Germanic grandmother. He inherited his tailoring business from his grandfather, a military tailor in the British Army during the Xhosa Wars until that trade declined. I visited my mother’s childhood home in the 1980s and I was shocked. Their wretched home was half the size of the two-up, two-down slum dwellings I saw in the Falls Road in Belfast in 1969. My mother’s male cousins became doctors, academics and judges, but she couldn’t afford to take up her scholarship at university and travelled to find work as a clerk at the age of 16 in Rhodesia during the Depression. There my mother stayed and there I was born. My family history wasn’t known to me as a child and my grandmother never spoke of hers, but like all white children, I was taught to honour the Great British Empire at school.
My paternal grandfather, (Senor) Alfred(o) Ernest(o) Hartley, came from a Bradford carpenter’s family. His father, William, made money from shiploads of guano until all three of his ships sank. Alfred married into a well-bred London family and worked as a wool trader in the Argentine. In 1922, after the First World War, he bought land in Rhodesia intending to farm dairy and tobacco, a day’s ox-wagon walk from the main town. The farm business failed when the Great Depression hit in 1929 and he returned to work in Buenos Aires. My father was left at 19 going from one temporary seasonal overseer job to another on isolated rail sidings and farms. The Depression ended, my parents married and the Second World War began. My father Stephen, went off to fight in Abyssinia and Kenya and my mother struggled to survive with a baby and a toddler on his often-late soldier’s pay in a remote Nyanga bush village. Made paranoid and obsessive by deafness and the Depression, all my father cared about on his return from war was reclaiming his father’s land. “Enough land for maize and chickens,” he said. “Enough land to survive on.” The tiny acreage that remains is where my sister farms today.
Sending sons to war to buy land
My stepfather’s parents came to Rhodesia to farm at the same time as my grandfather. His widowed mother could not make the farm pay, so at 15 years old he was sold into an RAF apprenticeship and then swept off to the war in the Far East. He returned to find his family farm sold, but while British ex-airmen and soldiers were once again offered cheap land in colonial Rhodesia, he did not qualify and had to start from scratch as a farm assistant until he saved enough to buy his own farm. War played such a significant part in my family history and in colonialism that I decided to explore it in my next two books. The Shaping of Water and The Tin Heart Gold Mine
Good, bad and ugly colonists – and the colonised
What were colonists searching for? Adventures, knowledge, riches, anonymity? Family homes? Places of safety for their children? Somewhere to redefine themselves in new ways by reclaiming old ways – by building medieval castles or thatched Tudor cottages decorated with horse brasses, family trees and dubious coats of arms in Africa? Somewhere to be rooted in the past and the future? After 1807 ways to end slavery? Ways to educate and to Christianise and to provide better health for the “indigenous”? Ways to make a better world? Ways to justify their existence? Power and domination. Riches. solutions to their never-ending wars and increasing population. Freedom and equality – I guess this is what immigrants hope for too.
What am I searching for?
Ways to understand the history and the problems that I’ve inherited. To see what I need to address and redress. I’ve used my art and my writing as ways to explore who I am. what I am and what I want to be today and tomorrow in the brief time left to me.
I’m writing my next book – its working title is – How Not 2B(^) In Africa
I am African and there is no escaping my colonial past and the racism that is inherent in it and it is here that I will ground my next novel – it may be about the evils of coercive control and abuse and how we fight to escape them – and whether or not some of us may succeed …