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  • A Living Man from Africa: Jan Tzatzoe, Xhosa Chief and Missionary, and the Making of Nineteenth Century South Africa
  • Vertrees C. Malherbe (bio)
Roger S. Levine. A Living Man from Africa: Jan Tzatzoe, Xhosa Chief and Missionary, and the Making of Nineteenth Century South Africa. New Directions in Narrative History. New Haven: Yale UP, 2011. 291 pp. ISBN 978-0300125216, $30.00.

With Roger Levine’s telling of Jan Tzatzoe’s life story, Yale University’s New Directions in Narrative History series makes a promising start. History buffs and the general reader will be rewarded by a tale of great intrinsic interest, told with empathy and story-telling flair. Historians will do well to pay attention to the author’s method and intent, as set out in his Introduction, before tackling a text which takes the road less travelled by the academy.

Jan Tzatzoe, born c. 1792, was the son of a minor Xhosa chief whose lands lay near the eastern border of the Cape Colony, a possession of the Dutch East India Company which soon thereafter passed to Britain. When he was twelve or so years old his father entrusted him to missionaries at Bethelsdorp, the first permanent Cape station of the London Mission Society. The station was peopled by Khoisan (one-time hunters and herders) who were unwilling to return as laborers on colonial farms after a war (1799–1803) in which many allied themselves with the Xhosa finally ended. There Tzatzoe learned to speak Dutch, lingua franca of the Khoisan, colonists, and local officials, and began to acquire artisanal skills. As importantly—most importantly, to [End Page 842] his mentors—he was instructed in Christianity. After a time he returned to his family. The story begins with missionary James Read’s journey (1810) to bring Tzatzoe back to Bethelsdorp, and there to build on his accomplishments.

By 1816, Tzatzoe’s training could be deemed a success. He had been baptized, was active as a Christian proselytizer, and had mastered certain “civilised arts.” Preeminently, he could read and write. But with what fluency? Levine wrestles with this issue. Tzatzoe’s numerous letters, preserved in the record, are at once proof and not proof of his authorship. The first example, which comes to us in English translation, was clearly penned at the behest of Read, his mission “father.” But did Read write it? With more years, and more letters, Tzatzoe’s ability as a writer would not simply be doubted by his critics but cruelly disparaged. Colleagues said to have acted in his name responded to the charge but still failed to clarify the matter in his favor.

Tzatzoe’s written interventions were but one aspect, and not the most important, of the role into which he was projected as intermediary between indigenes and colonists. Levine directs the interested reader to a wealth of sources that explore the contributions and experiences of “cultural brokers”—persons who serve not only as language interpreters but as explainers of competing worldviews. The prestige inherent in the role has too often been followed by distrust (from both sides) and the intermediary’s social isolation. Here one notes that South African anthropologist Monica Wilson was among the first to draw attention to that potential for personal tragedy. Tzatzoe is a case in point, for his life (he died in 1868) spanned a period when hopeful humanitarianism gave way to ever harsher expressions of racism and a racially stratified social order.

But this is jumping ahead. To begin, readers can share the hopefulness which fired the early phases of mission endeavor and the expectations for Tzatzoe’s usefulness. Levine’s treatment is modeled on the techniques developed by John Demos—with Aaron Sachs, co-editor of this new series—in The Unredeemed Captive: A Family Story from Early America. I own, and thoroughly enjoyed, this book, which appeared in 1994. Briefly, the idea is to tell a story which, to judge by these early examples, pertains to subaltern or marginalized societies but strives to avoid a facile sense of getting inside them. In his introduction Levine explains his take on this approach, which includes a role for imagination as expressed by Greg Dening...