Rereading Prester John

Rereading Prester John

There is a small novel of 1910 called Prester John. It is by John Buchan, private secretary to the British High Commissioner to South Africa. It has drawn interest amongst scholars of settler writings on Southern Africa.

The little novel, Prester John, could be an artistic creation around one or some of the Southern African earliest wars of resistance against white occupation like the 1906 Bambatha ‘rebellion,’ the Mkgatho 1850-90 wars of Zoutpansberg, the Ndebele-Shona ‘uprisings’ of 1890-8, the Magoeba ‘rebellion’ of Magoebaskloof in 1895, the Malapoch ‘rebellion’ of Transvaal of 1894 and many others.

Firstly, this is a very interesting book if you are keen on how myths and legends are central to the early African resistance to colonialism.
Secondly, this is a subtle novel that shows how literature often tried to report on but also undercutting African resistance to settler occupation.
The third view is that this novel inadvertently shows that resistance to European settlers in Southern Africa did not begin with SWAPO, FRELIMO, ANC, MPLA and others. Resistance in the region had always established itself as a culture long before these organisations were set up.

Central to this adventure novel by John Buchan is the Prester John legend. It is sometimes considered to be a legend of the 1140’s. Around the 12th century, letters purportedly written by Prester John found their way to the court of Pope Alexander the Third, describing how Prester John had created a Christian Kingdom in the East.

The story in the novel is told by a David Crawford. His father, a Scottish minister has just died and 19-year-old David goes out to South Africa to be keeper of a general store on the veld.
For the two settlers in the novel, David Crawford and Captain Arcoll, the real concern and apprehension is that a black man called Laputa, has risen in Natal, among the Zulus, “claiming” to be a successor to the medieval Prester John in all his nobility and grandeur and would like to drive away the settlers in an “Africa for Africans” fashion of the original.

Laputa’s mainstay is the name “Prester John” and the powerful life-inspiring necklace that Prester John allegedly left behind. It is said that this fetish neckless has gone round the African tribes, causing disputes.
David and Arcoll, immediately set out to undercut the Prester John myth. Arcoll’s long account of Prester John deliberately turns the legend into a pagan myth, the way the settler discourse would have it, of course.

Arcoll throws in more darkness and mystery, to cast further doubt on this myth that has become a powerful rallying point for the Africans at the moment in the novel: “No scholar has ever been able to fathom. Anyhow, the centre of authority began to shift southwards and the warrior tribes moved in that direction …”

The fetish is now in the hands of the Zulus and they are now rebelling: “They brought more than a creed with them (the Zulus). Somehow or other, some fetish had descended from Prester John by way of the Mazimba and Angoni and Makaranga. It was always in the hands of the tribe which for the moment held the leadership. Chaka, a sort of the Black Napoleon early in the last century made the Zulus the paramount power in South Africa. He had the fetish, whatever, it was. Mosilikatse tried to steal it and that was why he had to fly.”

The various African empires that came into being are not seen in terms of the growth of or transition of nation states, with all the attendant problems. Through this novel, African history is contemptuously dismissed as endless slaughter in search of a fetish.
In the first chapter of the novel, the Scottish society has actually been shocked to see the native, John Laputa, preach in a Christian church and “oddly”, about race equality before God!

Tam Dyke, David’s childhood friend, makes a comment that is arguably representative of the white elders’ view about a nigger-preacher: “It’s all nonsense, Davie. The Bible says that the children of Ham were to be our servants. If I were the minister I wouldn’t let a nigger into the pulpit. I wouldn’t let him further than the Sabbath school”.

It is such similar denigration above that led to rebellion driven by African church leaders. Pastor Chilembwe of Nyasaland led one such church-orientated rebellion in 1915 and it is often called “Ethiopianism” and it could be more at work in John Laputa in the novel. It was a response sparked by the black church leaders’ realisation that Africans have a spiritual equality with whites which they are denied.

Ethiopianism which originated from Negro American churches was brought to Africa by preachers like Chilembwe, who had come into contact with it at school in Virginia in America. In Prester John, Ethiopianism is hinted at and acknowledge but Buchan undermines it by the use of a subtle turn of events and twists of fate.

For instance, Laputa’s army’s advance is disturbed at Dupree’s Drift by mere targetless shots from Arcoll’s men.
Secondly, Laputa’s men who are carrying out their plot brilliantly cannot fight back a half-hearted ambush because they are, strangely, under an oath not to shed blood “from the hour of midnight toll sunrise on the second day.”

As if that is not already senseless enough, Buchan allows David to lure away Laputa from his army single-handedly, thereby leaving his soldiers with no commander. This subsequently leads to Laputa’s death and defeat.
By making Laputa fall, Buchan could be trying to shatter the Bambatha legend since there are great similarities between Laputa and Bambatha, the historic ‘rebellion’ leader of South Africa. Bambatha is considered by S. Marks as a great national hero who attempted to unite behind him the chiefs and people of many tribes. He was prepared to die fighting.

According to estimation, his force consisted of twelve to fourteen companies, joined by other chiefs, Ndube, Mpumela and Makubalo.
It is noticeable that David reveres Laputa for preaching to the white folks, without qualms, for speaking grammatically correct English and for mobilising his African forces in the method of the ‘modern’ western generals. Laputa is a genius but settler ideology renders him less human because he is a black man.

Captain Arcoll’s hate-love settler ideological contradiction is demonstrated by his description of Laputa as “the biggest thing that the Kaffirs have ever produced. I tell you, in my opinion, he is a great genius. If he had been white, he might have been a second Napoleon. He has the heart of a poet and a king and it is God’s curse that he has been born among the children of Ham. I hope to shoot him like a dog but I am glad to bear testimony to his greatness.”

It is ironic that sometimes the western educated blacks terrify Europeans. A white man writing in the “Central African Times” in 1906, after the Bambatha rebellion, complained that some learned blacks were refusing manual tasks specifically because “education makes the native aspire to something better and hence must be discouraged, because cheap labour is the main consideration at the present time.
No-one should be kind to natives. They do not understand it, they do not wish it, and it is not good for them.”

It is no wonder that when the rising is suppressed in Prester John, the native college that is set up at Blaauwilderbeestfontein, is strictly a technical college, not an academic or missionary institute which breeds “dangerous” ideas. Accordingly, this confirms the white man’s myth that blacks are destined to be hewers of wood and drawers of water.

In 1903 Buchan was to write in ‘In the African Colony: Studies in the Reconstruction’ that “we have two races physically different… and there is no possibility of a United States.” Maybe unknown to him, the contradiction is that, at least he has depicted the blacks in his novel as having the “cheek” to rebel and rise.

Memory Chirere

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