White lies and the voids of­ history

Both Namibia and South Africa look back on a violent colonial past, but the history books only tell of individual "heroes". Can historical fiction give the victims a voice?

When I set out to write my historical novel "The Scattering", I was thinking a lot about the human story behind the two colonial wars detailed in the book - the Second Anglo-Boer War and the German-Herero War - and about how the consequences of those wars rippled outward, causing permanent damage, and how those ripples move through us in the present.

How have African women lived through the colonial wars?

The problem is that so much of the human story involving Africa and women is not in the accepted historical record. The more I dug, the more I found silence; silence in which I was certain stories lived, in which history had been overlooked.

There is no sign on Shark Island in Namibia telling people the horrific history of this place.

Aerial view of former slave colony, Shark Island, in Namibia via iStock, © Sproetniek.

The birth of the novel "The Scattering"

I started "The Scattering" from a position of ignorance. I'd arrived back from camping on Shark Island in Namibia and by chance met a woman from Windhoek at the Cape Town Book Fair. It was from her that I learned what had happened on that patch of land which reaches out into the cold, wild Atlantic from the edge of the Namib Desert. There is no sign telling people the horrific history of Shark Island. I went home and began to educate myself about the Herero genocide, feeling ashamed that I had not known about it. Slowly as I read, a story came to me, a story that would not leave me alone until I wrote it down. That was the birth of "The Scattering".

During my research I uncovered what I felt to be the precursor of these concentration camps in Namibia: the British concentration camps in South Africa during the Second Anglo-Boer War. For me these atrocities are linked in a near straight line extending onwards towards the concentration camps of WWII and the Nazis. Deadly "improvements", learned by trial and error, were added over time as fresh bodies piled on top of corpses from the past.

A deadly "improvement" to concentration camps

I wanted to show that link in the story I told, through the friendship of Tjipuka, the Herero woman who survives the German death camps in Namibia, and Riette, the Afrikaner woman who survives the British death camps in South Africa. 

The voids of history

Much of our historical record is pulled from written documents so by default any person or culture who did not write or was not thought important enough to write about is nearly absent in history. Their story plays no role in the facts.

Truth is absent if most voices are silenced.

This problem looms large when it comes to the history of Africa, and even more so when we consider African women. Often, it seems as though the historical record only began when the male colonisers stepped on the continent. One can find the date and even the wording of Lieutenant General von Trotha's speech calling for the murder of all Herero people within the borders of German Southwest Africa, but is there a record of how a Herero woman reacted to that pronouncement? To being told her land was no longer hers and she would be killed if she walked upon it, if she continued living in her home? Even the story of a white Afrikaner woman like my character Riette is only told as her life relates to the business of the men.


The absence of women's voices

The voids of history

These glaring holes in the historical record are where historical fiction can step in and pull out the silent voices which need to be heard if we are to know any real truth about our pasts. Not scenes and characters pulled from the air, but stories taken from what is there; from what we know about humans, and from our imaginations which grow out of what is written down.

One can find Lieutenant General von Trotha’s speech calling for the murder of all Herero people. But is there a record of how a Herero woman reacted to that pronouncement?

Second Boer War, memorial, Aliwal North, Eastern Cape, South Africa via picture alliance © Neil Overy, imageBROKER.

Real people meet fictional characters

Several characters in "The Scattering" were real people: Chief Maharero, Lothar von Trotha, Kgosi Sekgoma Letsholathebe. I knew their actions and the result of their actions; it's written down. I learned what I could about these men, but I wanted them to come to life.

Historical fiction rewriting history

The well-known historical fiction writer, Hilary Mantel, author of the Booker prize-winning novels "Wolf Hall" and "Bring Up the Bodies", gave a talk as part of the Reith Lectures on BBC radio in July 2017 speaking about those silent spaces in history. She said history is "what's left in the sieve when the centuries have run through it – a few stones, scraps of writing, scraps of cloth."

These glaring holes in the historical record are where historical fiction can step in and pull out the silent voices which need to be heard.

Herero woman in traditional clothing via iStock, © Rudolf Ernst.

Art allows for the missing

The bits left in the sieve are the record; everything that's missing provides the space in which a historical fiction writer builds their story and their characters, using the bits as their guide. As Mantel says in the same lecture, "If we want to meet the dead, we turn to art." As is so often the case, art allows for the missing, for emotions, for humanity. We have a flaw in the historical record when it comes to Africa and I think careful historical fiction writers can help to correct it. Using the historical facts as a skeleton, the fiction writer can pull out the stories which are hiding in the silence between those bones. Maybe when that’s done, we will know the complete story.