Crossing the lines of class and colour

2008-11-19 00:00

This meticulously researched biography of Martha Solomons, who started life as the daughter of an ex-slave and ended up as a countess married to an English earl, should be of great interest to contemporary rainbow-nation readers. Martha was a coloured woman living in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in the western Cape, who towards mid-life, found herself married to a somewhat down-at-heel English aristocrat, Harry Grey, whose promotion to the peerage came late in his life. At that point, her (and his) financial situation took a mighty leap upwards; and in later years Martha used her new-found wealth to promote the welfare of her seven surviving children (five from earlier common-law partners) and to establish the Battsford Schools in the Cape — the first schools (and later, Teachers’ Training College) in the Cape to cater for the needs of coloured children and aspiring coloured teachers. Martha’s story is an amazing rags-to-riches one. It is a tribute to the simple gritty courage and dedication of this remarkable woman, and is also a painful but interesting look at racial issues both in South Africa and (to some extent) in the United Kingdom. It is also an illuminating examination of history and society in 19th-century Cape Town.

The author’s commitment to his material is admirable, and his thoroughness as a historian is exemplary. The book also shows how a perception of underlying common humanity can undercut seemingly insuperable social barriers and lead to genuine affection — a crucial message for our or any times. But to my surprise, I found the book tending towards tediousness. It is jammed with pernickety detail, over-explanation and repetitiousness. Just one example: “Had these letters not been preserved as indicated, we would have been deprived of the information therein contained.” Well, obviously. The book is also full of printing errors (not the author’s fault): missing words and jumbled word order. The Press’s proof-reader has missed much.

Despite its failings, this is a sincere, detailed examination of a moving and fascinating slice of South African life.

David Pike

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