My British forebearer, William Pitt, first set foot on South African soil in 1826, with his wife and seven year old son, Thomas. William was born in Gloucester in 1777. I don’t know what impelled him to get on to a boat and subject himself to three weeks of scurvy and sea sickness, but he became a cobbler in Grahamstown, now renamed Makana, while his son grew up to be a diamond prospector in Kimberley.
When I became a hot-headed young radical (my father’s words) in the 1980’s, I discovered that the British, historically, were not that decent after all; that colonialists stole land and enslaved people; that the exploitative relationships of colonialism persisted into modern times, perpetuating global inequality and keeping Africa in poverty. I went from believing them to all be fundamentally good, to damning them all as fundamentally bad. William himself might not have run a bayonet through any local tribesmen, but he supplied the shoes of those who did. And, unlike their amaZulu and amaXhosa counterparts, British soldiers would certainly not have been able to conquer anyone as efficiently had they been barefoot.
Age has graced me with a more nuanced view. I have come to realise that perhaps the most frightening aspect of history is that monstrous systems are upheld not only by monsters but by kindly people, who are either frightened, ignorant or deluded about the system they are helping to sustain. That kind, generous, funny likeable people may equally and almost simultaneously be callous, greedy and self-serving.
This understanding has been greatly expanded with the research undertaken for my current work in progress. The novel is set in KwaZulu-Natal in the second half of the 19th century, and moves from a mission station, to the sugar cane fields, to the hunting fields of the Black Imfolozi. I have read a number of personal diaries, journals and letters. I have made several friends among these long-dead humans. But, as much as I have been moved by their courage, fortitude, and wry English self-deprecation, I have been appalled by their unquestioning assumption of their right to live on and appropriate the land; by their unquestioning belief in their superiority over anyone who speaks a different language, wears different clothes and has a different colour skin.
Researching and writing this book has been a fascinating and often unnerving journey for me. I wrote it to understand better the roots of our current ills – social inequality; white supremacy; massive environmental destruction and wide spread extinction. It has certainly provided a profound insight into all of these things. In the coming months, I will share more of what I have learnt. In the meantime, I shall endure the angry ghosts of my forefathers, as they follow me about, pointing out that all the privileges I enjoy flow precisely from my great great great great grandfather protecting the feet of the British Infantry; my great great great grandfather digging diamonds from the soil of a land that was not his; and all the wealth extraction and exploitation practiced by their descendants. An uncomfortable truth I must live with, but the least I can to is unpack, shake out, and minutely examine the grain of that privilege and its origins.
Kennedy's ancestors are certainly less morally compromised than mine. But he doesn't care how ill-gotten my privilege might be, as long as it supplies him with supper and a warm bed every night.