Mad, bad and dangerous to know

2013-06-13 00:00

THE troubled life of Charles Etienne Boniface bears testament to his motto: Neno me impune lacerit (no one insults me with impunity). An argumentative, exasperating character, Boniface is described by the Dictionary of South African Biography (DSAB) as a “versatile Dutch-Afrikaans Frenchman”, in an entry that also makes clear he was probably in need of psychiatric help or, at the very least, anger-management therapy.

Problematic temperament aside, Boniface was a key figure in the early days of South African theatre and journalism. He started the first newspaper in Natal and also played a role in the development of Afrikaans. What’s more, he has a new book out — written in French in 1829, and subsequently lost to sight, before being rediscovered and translated as Narrative of the Shipwreck of the Eole, by D.J. Culpin, reader in French at the University of St Andrew in Scotland. (See box)

Boniface was born on February 2, 1787, in Paris, where his father was a warder at the Temple Prison. In 1798, the Boniface family fled France after his father was implicated in the escape of an English prisoner. Thereafter, the young Boniface served in the British Royal Navy before moving to the Seychelles in 1801, and then Mozambique. He then disappeared from sight, before surfacing in Cape Town on February 10, 1807. There he joined a French theatre company —at some point he must have discovered his talent with a pen — which staged his play L’Enrage (The Angry Man), a title that could serve as an epitaph for a life regularly punctuated by vitriolic quarrels.

What the DSAB describes as “the most sensational of his quarrels” was with a friend and collaborator, Suasso de Lima, a publisher and journalist, whom Boniface pursued “with deadly hatred … merely because of one critical remark.”

When Boniface wrote a satirical monologue — The Two Snails, or Limacon Senior and Limacon Junior — Lima responded with a play of his own and the two “competed to see who could sink to the lower level of abuse”. In 1830, Boniface managed to unseat Lima from his editorship of the Versaamelaar, replacing it with the De Zuid-Afrikaan, with himself as editor. A post he subsequently lost, thanks to his insulting articles. But it was here Boniface first wrote editorials in the nascent language, Afrikaans.

Boniface’s married life was equally fraught. He married Maria Geertruida (“Mietje”) Heyneman in 1817 and they had several children. He also took their housekeeper, former slave Constantia Dorothea Mordant, as a mistress, by whom he also had children. He compelled his wife to be present at the baptism of the first of these children, Charles Maria Boniface le Mordant, as if the baby was her own. The birth of more children after the death of his wife in 1835 caused further scandal.

By 1844, Boniface had run out of employment options in Cape Town and left for Natal with Cornelius Moll, intent on launching a newspaper, with Moll as printer and Boniface as editor. On April 5, 1844, they launched the bilingual Die Natalier en Pietermaritburgsche Trouwe Aantekanaar, a four-page weekly aimed at “uniting the Instructive, the Useful, the Interesting and the Entertaining”.

Boniface also advertised that he was prepared to act as “a general agent, sworn translator from, and teacher of, the following languages: Dutch, French, Spanish, Portuguese, English and “in my spare time” to give lessons on the Spanish guitar and the art of fencing. He also acted as a lawyer, representing Piet Retief’s widow in her petition for a pension.

It wasn’t long before Boniface was in hot water again, thanks to his editorial on Sir George Napier, departing governor of the Cape: “We hope that you will speedily leave the African shores and express the wish that we may nevermore have the honour to see you. And heaven forbid that your successor takes after you.”

The commandant of Natal, Major J.C. Smith, drew Napier’s attention to “the mischief caused by a paper newly established here among these ignorant people. It is edited by a Frenchman, unprincipled, of the name of Boniface. I enclose one number to show the seditious spirit in which it is written.”

Boniface also made enemies of the local authorities and his attacks resulted in the Natalier being closed and his imprisonment. He was released on appeal, but his controversial articles saw circulation fall and he was dropped as editor. A war with Moll ensued and Boniface put up posters all over town vilifying his rival. In response, Moll and his brother Martinus, a butcher, threw Boniface into a water furrow and smeared him with horse dung, thus initiating a long series of court actions between the two parties. In the midst of all this, Boniface’s former mistress and his son, Charles, arrived in Pietermaritzburg. In several court cases, Charles deposed against his father: “I know defendant; he is a very bad man,” he said during one appearance.

In despair, Boniface left for Durban during 1845, where he inscribed a poem bewailing his misfortunes on a tree in Russell Street. Things only got worse: he contracted rheumatic fever and was left crippled. In 1846, Boniface returned to Pietermaritzburg, where the founding of The Natal Witness held out the prospect of employment, and he also obtained an appointment as a translator and interpreter to the court.

He was soon locked in another quarrel, after writing two letters to the Witness attacking Arthur Walker, his successor as Natalier editor, revealing his past as a private soldier of the 45th Regiment, stationed at Fort Napier. Walker responded, accusing Boniface of being “a political prostitute to the highest bidder, filling up his idle hours by ejecting his froth, venom and spite against his benefactors … but why shall we waste language on him who has run the whole gauntlet of a life’s disgrace?”

In the consequent defamation case, Boniface was awarded £10, not a great sum, but enough to close down the Natalier. It proved a short-lived revenge. Financed by the 45th Regiment, the newspaper reappeared under a new title, the Natal Patriot. When Boniface refused to translate government advertisements that would appear in the Patriot — on the basis he would never “translate, revise or write a single line which may be expected to appear in the columns of so libelous, disreputable, and contemptible a newspaper as the Natal Patriot.” — he was forced to resign from his one paying job. Moll crowed: “We now have the tragic spectacle of this sexagenarian teaching the youth of Maritzburg fencing or the art of fighting in elegant style and killing a la Francaise three times a week at his residence.”

Boniface turned once again to the theatre to generate an income, settling old and current scores in a series of satires, Bluettes Franco-Nataliennes, written in French for his pupils and other French speakers, as, he said: “the French language is getting more and more popular every week in our small community”.

When he was declared bankrupt in 1849, Boniface turned to the law, but Walker protested his admission as an advocate and Boniface duly began legal proceedings. There followed a sorry catalogue of court cases that left Boniface penniless. In 1852, he wrote a 2 500-word letter to the Lieutenant-Governor, begging to be admitted to a hospital, to live out his remaining years. When his appeal failed, Boniface returned to Durban and tried, unsuccessfully, to earn a living teaching languages. Battling ill health, he attempted suicide, failing on the first attempt, but not the second, on December 2, 1853, when he succumbed to an overdose of laudanum.

“The intensity of his indignation, as displayed in the splenetic bursts of rage at what he deemed injustice, were as arrows of flame from his well-filled quiver of vengeance,” wrote David Dale Buchanan, founding editor of The Natal Witness, in an obituary. “But the strength of the fiery storm too often seemed to scorch its author, and endangered the success of his efforts for the public good.”

• This article draws information from the Dictionary of South African Biography, D.J. Culpin’s introduction to Narrative of the Shipwreck of the Eole and the typed manuscript Charles Etienne Boniface, A Frenchman who made history in Natal (1932) by W.J. Elton Gray, held by the Campbell Collections, UKZN.

Written originally in French and described as “a forgotten book about a forgotten shipwreck”, the Narrative of the Shipwreck of the Eole, by Charles Etienne Boniface, was first published in the Cape in 1829. It subsequently sank without trace. Now it has been rescued from oblivion and translated into English by D.J. Culpin, reader in French at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, who came across the manuscript in the National Library of South Africa in Cape Town, during the course of his research into travel narratives.

“It is perhaps the longest single work to have come from [Boniface’s] pen,” says Culpin, “and was the first French book to be published in South Africa. It is also a work of considerable significance for South African history and culture.”

On Sunday, April 12, 1829, the Eole, en route from Calcutta to Bordeaux, and carrying 20 crew and passengers, was wrecked at Sandy Point (near East London) on the Wild Coast. Eight survivors, some injured, then walked 150 kilometres over six and a half days to the eastern frontier of the Cape Colony. On their arrival in Cape Town, Boniface offered to write their story, and the resulting book is a rich source of social, political and cultural history. The survivors provided information on the Xhosa, their customs and culture, as well as unique descriptions of the settlements at Grahamstown, Port Elizabeth and Plettenberg Bay. The final section of the book deals with Cape Town at a pivotal moment in its history, when the English legal system and currency was replacing that of the Dutch.

“[Boniface] has left us a text that bears witness to his strengths and weaknesses as a man and a writer,” says Culpin, “a text that also illustrates his personal sensitivity, his readiness to take offence, and the harshness with which he retaliates against his enemies.”

“But above all, his unique achievement, in recording the story of a particular shipwreck and in describing the political and social context of his time, is one that deserves to be recognised and recorded.”

• Narrative of the Shipwreck of the Eole by C.E. Boniface, is published by the National Library of South Africa, Centre for the Book.

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