Respecting the specificity of the past while activating the present

Screen Shot from film Let Us Die Like Brothers.

In February 1917 the SS Mendi, a South African warship, sank off the English channel after a Royal Mail ship, the SS Darro, plowed into it in foggy weather. The ship was carrying 648 soldiers — primarily black soldiers, members of the South African Native Labour Corps. The men all drown.

The SS Darro sustained minor damages. Many of these lives would have been saved if Captain Harry Stump of the SS Darro had sent boats to their rescue, instead of reportedly standing and watching the men drown and die of hypothermia. An investigation found Captain Stump wholly responsible for the tragedy, as he was moving too fast; and did not sound the customary whistle in the fog. For his fatal negligence, the captain was punished: his license was suspended for a year.

Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (2016) meditates on another ship, carrying other Africans whose deaths preceded the Mendi fatalities: the slave ship, Zorgue. En route to Jamaica in 1781 with twice its legal capacity, Sharpe writes, the Zorgue overshot its destination due to navigational errors. Worried about dwindling supplies, but reassured by the insurance taken out against accidental loss of “the cargo,” the captain and crew decided to throw about 142 of the captive Africans overboard, to ensure the survival of the rest, and secure the insurance pay-out. It is instructive here that, as Sharpe reminds us, this case “was committed to historical memory first as the insurance claim in the case of Gregson vs Gilbert, and only later as murders,” because it was the court’s considered opinion that this was “the throwing overboard of goods [and] the case was a simple one of maritime insurance.”  In the face of an impossibly long history of anti-blackness that not only joins the SS Mendi and the Zorgue, but casts its shadow further to contemporary South Africa, the commemoration of the Mendi tragedy is self-explanatory. 

This year marked the first centennial of the Mendi tragedy; and among the projects commemorating this historic disaster is South African author and journalist, Fred Khumalo’s historical novel, Dancing the Death Drill.

Discussing the tensions between literature and history, South African literary critic Michael Green considers the two disciplines to be “antagonists in a civil war all the more bitter for their – often repressed — affiliation.” Yet, if as Green suggests, historical fiction in South African literary history closely correlates with the emergence of various nationalisms, then Dancing the Death Drill stretches the horizons of this relationship in fascinating ways that mirror the ever-receding horizons that daily rose to meet the men aboard the SS Mendi in 1917. By weaving a riveting tapestry of the Anglo-Boer War as experienced by Africans, the British and the Afrikaners on the one hand; and World War I as seen through the eyes of the South African troops and the French; the novel excavates narrative’s capacity to imagine a range of identity tensions and possibilities. This tapestry evocatively resonates with contemporary modes of relating in South Africa, capturing what Green might call “the historicity of the present” (130), at a time when the mythical rainbow nation project is simultaneously leaking and brightening its constituent strips in ambiguous ways. In many respects, the appeal of Khumalo’s novel partly lies in its presentness; in the ways it confronts Frederic Jameson’s challenge of respecting the specificity of the past while activating the resonances of its passions, experiences and struggles with those of the present.  

Fred Khumalo shares some of the thinking behind his novel with me. 

Why did you choose to engage with the Mendi tragedy in the format of a novel; and why now?

Initially, I thought I should write the book as a work of non-fiction. Sadly, all the veterans from the South African Native Labour Contingent (the black troops who survived) had already died when I had the wherewithal to interview them and write about their experiences, so, I resorted to fiction. It is pertinent to tell this story now because February 2017 marked the centenary of the sinking of the SS Mendi. It is also important that we start telling stories that have long been reduced to footnotes in our history books.

The title Dancing the Death Drill is intriguing. What is the thinking behind it? 

According to oral tradition, as the SS Mendi was going down, having been rammed on the side by the SS Darro, and while some of the men were throwing themselves overboard, while others were writhing in futility trapped in the very dark holds of the ship, which were already water-logged, some members stood on the upper-deck, under the command of Reverend Isaac Wauchope Dyobha, a chaplain on the ship. Oral tradition tells us that Dyobha, in a dramatic display of bravery in the face of calamity, suddenly cried out for the men to stand in formation. They obeyed. Then he proceeded to say,

Be quiet and calm, my countrymen, for what is taking place now is exactly what you came to do. You are going to die, but that is what you came to do. Brothers, we are drilling the drill of death. I, a Xhosa, say you are all my brothers, Zulus, Swazis, Pondos, Basutos, we die like brothers. We are the sons of Africa. Raise your cries, brothers, for though they made us leave our weapons at our home, our voices are left with our bodies!

The men took off their boots and started gyrating, dancing a macabre drill of death, defying death, challenging death, daring death.

Why have you turned to historical fiction at this point in your career? 

When I set out to write Dancing the Death Drill, I was not driven by this compulsion to write a historical novel. It is just that the story of the Mendi was crying out to be told. However, after writing the novel, I was struck by the sheer range of tantalizing pockets of hidden history in South Africa. Some of these histories have been kept alive through oral traditions, while others have only received passing mention in our history books. I am currently drawn to these pockets of histories.

To what extent are you using fiction and the past to respond to contemporary South Africa? Or are you motivated by something else entirely?

I was trying to address, among other concerns, the issue of land. Many of the men who enlisted to go and serve in Europe did so because they were financially desperate, thanks to the Native Land Act of 1913, which had robbed them of their land and livelihood. In telling the story of the Mendi, I am trying to create a historical context to the current debate on land reform and reported acts of violence over land in some parts of the country. I wanted to remind the reader how the struggle over land started; how the migrant labour system led to the breakdown of Black families, from one generation to the next. Today we are living with the legacy of those broken families. It is what Zimbabwean novelist Shimmer Chinodya would call “a harvest of thorns.” That is my motivation. But let’s be honest, there is also the commercial imperative; not many local writers have shown an inclination for historical fiction. I thought I should carve myself a niche in this less cluttered genre. Admittedly, historical fiction involves a lot of research, which is a turn-off for many of my writer friends. However, being a repository of “useless information,” I thought, for once, let me put this useless historical information I have been imbibing over the years to good use. I also think there is a growing interest — at least from a readers’ perspective — in historical fiction. You just have to look at the current “hot” writers and see that it is their historical fiction that has set the public imagination on fire: Colson Whitehead (The Underground Railroad); Marlon James (A Brief History of Seven Killings); Hillary Mantel (Wolf Hall); Sebastian Barry (Days without End); and of course, the historical novelist’s novelist, Toni Morrison (Beloved).

The novel interweaves Black histories of the Mendi tragedy with British and Afrikaner histories of the Anglo-Boer War, and subsequently World War I. What did you intend with this tapestry of histories?

Dancing the Death Drill is fiction and should be read as such. As much as I tried my best to be loyal to historical facts, I have exercised poetic license to re-imagine some aspects of the story through the lives of my characters. While many of them are totally fictional, they still interact with real-life, historical figures such as Reverend Isaac Wauchope Dyobha and King George V of England. History is, as someone said, a certainty reached at a point where the unreliability of our memory converges with the inadequacy of documentation. The characters are a manifestation of this discomfort, this restlessness. This story is about conflict, and as a writer I stretch the motif of conflict until it is so unbearably taut and stretched out it can snap any time. And in snapping no one knows who it will hurt, who the victim will be. In an editorial comment on the role of historical fiction in modern society, The Guardian noted: “The best historical novels do not pretend to provide a faithful record. When you read one, [Hillary] Mantel said, you are not buying a replica, or even a faithful photographic reproduction – you are buying a painting with the brush strokes left in.”

There is a recurrent motif of courage and cowardice and men deserting wars, children or their colleagues Is this central to your thinking about that historical moment?

Most of our “formal” published histories tell the narrative of war through the mouths and eyes of the generals and commanders; the ordinary person is given short shrifts. Their humanity is never acknowledged, or celebrated. The idea behind bringing in notions of cowardice and doubt was to imbue history with real human emotions and frailties. Not all of us are courageous. Not all of us are paragons of morality.

You seem to have a close relationship to jazz in your writing. Your previous writing references jazz as well; and here, we meet Miles Davis already in the first three pages; and one of the musical soundtracks is Duke Ellington’s “Mood Indigo.” What is jazz to you and your writing?

When I write, there’s invariably some music playing in the background. I might not be actively listening, but it will be there; it becomes a creative bubble in which I lose myself as I embark on my own creative process. It buoys me, so to speak, keeps me afloat. It is just the way it is. Fiction, like jazz, is an artistic form that is forever searching, always on a quest. Unlike classical music which has to be scored in order to be played, jazz is more flexible, more challenging. The best recordings of jazz are live improvisations rather than studio pieces – rehearsed and rehearsed to death. Fiction writing – at least how I practice it – is also an act of improvisation. It is breathlessly unpredictable; which is why it is fraught with risks. Danger, disappointment (or surprise) are always around the corner. When you are writing a piece of fiction, as when you are performing a jazz piece, you are carrying a candle, and you’re entering a cave. You don’t know what to expect in there. Sometimes you don’t even know what you’re looking for. A monster? A child in distress? A princess running away from a forced marriage? You never know. And, carrying the candle itself is not free of pain. The wax will slide down and burn your hand. Guaranteed. You might also drop the candle by mistake. It might accidentally fall on a piece of kindling, and the whole cave might catch fire, and you’re a goner! That’s jazz. That’s fiction. Risky business.

What was the greatest challenge about writing this novel?  

The greatest challenge was that even though this is based on and inspired by some chunks of our history, there was virtually no archival material on the sinking of the SS Mendi – especially about the men who were on board. Who were they? Where had they come from? What had motivated them? It was scary for me not to have an archive as a crutch. But once I got into the groove I realized how liberating it was – to my imagination. I was not hindered or fettered by too much documentation viewed, undoubtedly, from the perspective of those who were in charge. 

What’s the next project?

I have just finished the first draft of another historical novel. It is based on and inspired by a little-known slice of history of black involvement in the Anglo-Boer War. Just weeks before the war broke it, it suddenly occurred to the authorities that there were tens of thousands of black people stuck in Johannesburg – with no means of leaving the city. The trains had stopped running. The Brits were on the march from Natal and the rest of the country towards the Transvaal. The Boers had also embarked on a march, to meet the enemy on the Natal border. In the midst of this we had these tens of thousands of black people (mainly men, desperate to leave the city). Then a group of them, 7 000 Zulus, started marching from Johannesburg to Natal. The march took them 10 days of sleeping in the open, exposed to the elements; on occasion being commandeered by Boer troops and forced at gunpoint to perform whatever physical tasks needed manpower (pushing cannons up steep hills, driving ox wagons, etc.). I am telling this story through the eyes of a woman who was part of this march (though there were some women and children in the march, my character is a complete fabrication). The working title for the book is A Love Supreme. Like John Coltrane’s seminal musical suite, the book takes the form of four movements (parts).

Grace Musila

Grace Musila is a senior lecturer in English at the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa.

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