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

Join the conversation! encourages commentary submitted via MyNews24. Contributions of 200 words or more will be considered for publication.

We reserve editorial discretion to decide what will be published.
Read our comments policy for guidelines on contributions. publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

Comment on this story
Comments have been closed for this article.

Inside News24

Traffic Alerts
There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.


Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.

Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire network.


Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.

Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.