Prinsloo of Prinsloosdorp: A Tale of Transvaal Officialdom, by Douglas Blackburn

Blackburn cover

Douglas Blackburn was a versatile writer and a colourful character – you might say he was a schelm (a rogue, a rascal) but also slim (cunning, artful, tricky), to employ a couple of the Afrikaans words he uses in this hugely enjoyable tale set in nineteenth-century South Africa.  Blackburn himself can write about the dubious transactions of Piet Prinsloo with affection because he also was not averse to sailing close to the wind.  Having learned his trade as a journalist in Brighton in the 1880s, he was involved in various scandals, and found himself in trouble for libel.  It was during this period that he became briefly associated with the Society for Psychical Research, before he emigrated to South Africa (possibly after a visit to China).

In his new home, where he lived from 1892 until 1908, he again worked as a journalist and editor, while making his name with a series of novels that have become highpoints of South African literature.  The earliest of these was Prinsloo of Prinsloosdorp, published in 1899, and it was the first of what Stephen Gray in his monograph Douglas Blackburn (Twayne, 1984) calls Blackburn’s ‘Sarel Erasmus trilogy of satires’, the others being A Burgher Quixote (1903) and I Came and Saw (1908).  Together Gray considers these ‘his finest achievement’.  Bearing in mind how little time Blackburn had spent in the country when he produced Prinsloo, it is an assured debut.

Prinsloo of Prinsloosdorp is narrated by said Sarel Erasmus, Piet Prinsloo’s son-in-law and occasional associate, after the old man’s death.  It is an attempted defence of Piet’s schemes, his life being full of ploys to make money, and ruefully losing it.  The result is a humorous and unflattering portrait of the corruption underpinning Boer society.  They are typically unsophisticated and ignorant, susceptible to verneukery (cheating, knavery) both between themselves and by the perfidious British, those Outlanders proving themselves unscrupulous in business transactions.  One, Scotty, is essentially a bandit, and Blackburn uses him as a metaphor for the ruthlessness of outsiders’ desire for acquisition at the locals’ expense.

Piet’s schooling was rudimentary and his illiteracy is a drawback in conducting business, though not an insuperable one, as even when he is appointed a magistrate he is able to rely on others to do the reading for him, and in any case bribes are more significant than case law when adjudicating a dispute.  His main complaint about not being able to read is that he has to rely on others, who then know as much as he does.  Power is achieved not by merit but by hypocrisy, nepotism, bribery and if necessary blackmail.  Even with his educational disadvantages Piet manages to climb to significant positions of power, sometimes by guile, but often because it suits others’ purposes.  There is no sense of public service as every position is assessed in terms of its financial rewards.

Added to this unflattering account, Piet is a bully, particularly where his black workers are concerned.  Apart from being shown at the bottom of society, only there to be exploited by the whites, the black population is largely invisible.  Blackburn drily has Sarel bemoan the fact that Piet’s year of birth (1835) was also the year the British ‘wickedly’ freed the slaves, the result of which (after being cheated by the ‘rascally Englanders’ out of the compensation money) was that the family had to hire ‘kaffirs’ (a term used throughout the novella) ‘and even had sometimes to work themselves’.  Sarel sees this as a sorry state of affairs.

Yet it is not a completely negative portrait of Piet – Gray notes that Blackburn balances as much sympathy as censure.  Piet is sinned against as much as sinning, and having to survive in such a society forces anyone to be self-serving if they want to prosper.  The cynicism he exhibits runs throughout all levels of government.  When Piet goes to Pretoria to see Paul Kruger, the President of the South African Republic, Kruger does not criticise his methods but instead upbraids him for being stupid because he is always getting the State into the newspapers.

Justice cannot be expected from the government: a running theme is Piet’s anger that loans he had made were never repaid, though undercutting his indignation is the fact that he had made the loans in lieu of taking up arms on behalf of the Transvaal.  Here, as throughout the novel, Blackburn shows how selfish acts are spun to appear patriotic, Piet repeatedly declaring that he has ‘bled’ for the regime.  The only checks on greed are provided by other officials who themselves want to use any given situation for their own gain, not a state of affairs conducive to good governance.  The book’s frontispiece is a bunch of disembodied hands reaching up for South African Republic coins, suggesting that avarice will be a major theme.

While Piet is a significant figure within his community, Blackburn leaves broader political developments vague, partly because he would have assumed his original readership to be familiar with them, but also because Piet, while intent on personal gain, is never involved in the destiny of the country.  In his small way he does well because, despite his illiteracy and proneness to make bad judgements, eventually he founds a town (the Prinsloosdorp of the title), though even here he finds himself cheated out of its full potential when he is outmanoeuvred in purchasing the best plots.  Eventually it all gets too much for him, and with an increasingly vigilant press (the only brake on the general roguery it would seem) exposing his dubious practices, he decides to move to Rhodesia, where he dies of dropsy.

In the preface to the 1908 edition, the first to bear his name (and issued the year he returned to England), Blackburn distances himself from the satirical treatment of official institutions by arguing that the incidents portrayed in the book had in the course of the intervening decade already receded into history and would eventually pass to the realm of myth.  At the same time he stresses, because he insists there are no contemporary examples, that his depiction of Piet, ‘a Transvaal official of the old regime’, is not a caricature, and somewhat disingenuously that the book contains no invention because all characters and incidents are based on reality.

This, he argues, was demonstrated by the difference between English and local reviewers: the former saw it as political satire, the latter as ‘a matter-of-fact narration of familiar commonplaces’.  One suspects that Blackburn must have exaggerated his source material because the satire is often rather blunt, such as the drunken jailer who ‘was punished by being removed to Boshoff, where he was made Chief of Police’.  The book is full of similar improbable ironies, so while Blackburn claims that he has merely assembled anecdotes, it is hard to believe that he has not embellished them with his own sardonic view of the political culture in his new home.

The cover illustrated above is from the 1989 edition, a facsimile reprint of the 1908 edition, published by Hans Strydom, Melville, South Africa.  The first edition is incorrectly dated to 1898.  The back cover shouts: ‘Entire first edition bought up by Paul Kruger’s government to save themselves embarrassment!’  The source for this allegation is Blackburn’s 1908 preface but Gray, while noting that the tale has been repeated frequently, and is unverifiable either way, suggests that ‘judging by the quantities of the book still in circulation in South Africa today, any attempts to limit its sales were unsuccessful.’  Blackburn, as he showed in other areas of his life, prized a good yarn, even if not true.

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