Ultramarooned : gender, empire and narratives of travel in Southern Africa

Doctoral Thesis


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University of Cape Town

This study examines how possessive interests have been encoded in southern African contact literature via the signing of gender, sexual violability and territoriality. Portuguese shipwreck survival accounts from the long sixteenth century, the first sustained narratives of contact between southern African peoples and Europeans, are examined in the first half of this study. British women’s travel writings from the nineteenth century are the topic of the second part of the study, as these later texts yield the first important female perspectives on contact. Both subgenres are crucial to formulating a feminist reading of the southern African contact zone. While the Portuguese shipwreck material suggests that exposed or abandoned white women provoked great cultural anxieties, British travel texts written by women move in a different direction. Many of these texts were pitched to assuage readers' fears about the fate of the self-itinerizing women in southern Africa. l first establish that neither the shipwreck material nor the British women's impressions of contact has been well integrated into the founding narratives of South Africa. I then focus on key episodes related to gender and hyper-vulnerability in the early accounts of overland shipwreck survivor treks, especially Leonor de Sa’s death in southern Africa in 1552, after the wreck of the St. John. The second part of the study surveys the earliest women's writings about southern Africa. Chapter Four concentrates on Anne Barnard’s letters and journals (written 1797-1801) and several other women travel writers. I find that these women downplay, or occlude entirely, the physical dangers in southern African spaces and emphasize, instead successfully transplanted tropes of domesticity and theatricality and the premature memorialization of the existing culture. The final chapter examines the artworks and writings of Marianne North, a traveling artist whose work combines some of the tensions evident in the earlier theatricalizing tropes, but with a displaced focus on botanical descriptions and flower painting. The chapter about South Africa in her autobiography and the exhibition of her paintings of South African flowers on display at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew provide insight into how some early cultural anxieties surrounding gender, empire, and sexuality can be found in botanical discourse and representations. My conclusions are twofold. In the first place, the expansion of the notion of contact narratives I propose in this study brings into the foreground the anxieties associated with the presence of European women in under-regulated contact and colonial spaces. Women's relationship to the land or landscape, evident in the discourses of the Portuguese mercantile empire as well as the British territorial empire, suggest that marooned or self-itinerizing women are in a position to signal, with their bodies, a graphos on the imperial map of the colonial or pre-colonial land.

Includes bibliographical references (p. 173-201).