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?

an essay by Lauri Kubuitsile


July 2022

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.

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.

The written history of wars involves battles and maneuvers, and from those battles arise the heroes beloved of historical record. This is primarily the work of men; women are mostly silent in the history of war.


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


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. 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

It’s easy to think that the historical record is immutable. Things happened; they were recorded; there is no debate. A fact is a fact. In the post-modern world though, we have come to accept that many factors shape the facts which make up the historical record. A historian will decide to look in a certain direction and make choices; choices based on his or her particular biases, known and unknown.

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”


But can historical record be considered true and factual when entire cultures or sub-sets of people are not reflected in it even though they were there? They were active agents in their lives; they impacted the world in which they lived. Are facts still facts under these conditions?

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.

So much of the history of Africa is a story told from a single point of view, and we can all agree that truth is absent if most voices are silenced. When I was writing “The Scattering”, it was difficult to find written historical evidence about the women who were part of these wars.

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

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.

Was there a woman like Tjipuka somewhere in that silent void? Yes, I believe there was: a woman who knew her people had been wronged and spoke for the initial battles against the Germans, who wanted to be part of it, who encouraged her husband to fight. And then what? Did they celebrate those initial victories against the German colonisers? Of course they did. Is it written down as a fact? No; but a space exists which can logically be filled.


“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?”


At the turn of the century, would a woman like Riette flee a modern city in South Africa and go into the wildness of the Okavango Delta, alone, to finally get some agency over her life? Was there a woman like that? I never found her in the historical record although I am certain she existed. She too is in those silent spaces between the facts.

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.

I had to think how a man such as Maharero - a lover of nice things, of alcohol, a man with a weak character - might act when forced to lead his people to war. I wondered how much von Trotha’s belief that the positions of stars in the sky should be his guide in life affected him and his actions and determined his legacy. Even here historical fiction allows us to find a richer, fuller view of our past.


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“


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.

“The Scattering” was originally published by Penguin Books (South Africa). It will be available in German translation from Interkontinental Verlag from August 2022.


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