Remembering Albasini

Master Thesis


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University of Cape Town

This dissertation uses the historical figure of Joao Albasini to explore some historiographical issues related to how people commemorate their past. Joao Albasini was a Portuguese trader who operated through the port of Delagoa Bay for a large part of the 19th Century. He was based in Portuguese East Africa in the1830's and early 1840's, and moved into what would become the Transvaal in the late 1840's, becoming a powerful political force in the region. This thesis looks at the strikingly different ways in which Albasini has been remembered by different individuals and groups. Part 1 deals with his South African family's memories of him, focusing in particular on the portrayal of Albasini in a celebration held in 1988 to commemorate the centenary of his death. This is compared with fragments of earlier family memories, in particular, with the testimony of his second daughter recorded in newspaper articles, letters and notes. This comparison is used to argue that the memories of Albasini are being shaped both by a changing social context, and by the influence of different literary genres. Part 2 looks at a doctoral thesis on Albasini written by J.B. de Vaal in the 1940's. This is placed in the context of a tradition of professional Afrikaner academic writing, which combined the conventions and claims of Rankean scientific history with the concerns of an Afrikaner Volksgeskiedenis, and which became powerful in a number of South African Universities in the early decades of this century. The text of de Vaal's thesis is examined in detail with a view to focusing on the extent to which it was shaped by this tradition. Part 3 looks at a group of oral histories collected from the former Gazankulu Homeland between 1979 and 1991, and focuses on the way in which a memory of Albasini has been used in the construction of the idea of a Tsonga/Shangaan ethnic group. One oral tradition is examined in detail, and used to argue for an approach to oral history that attempts to focus on the structure and commentary of oral history, instead of simply using it as a source of empirical fact.

Bibliography: p. 178-192.