I’m reading Hermann Giliomee’s The Afrikaners: Biography of a People. Giliomee is the historian of record on the topic. At the same time, I’m also reading David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America. (I reviewed one of his later volumes for The American Conservative.)
Perhaps my South African readers—at least those who are in the know—can respond to my initial observation:
Besides Fischer being a better writer, Giliomee seem to lack any fondness for his subject—the kind I detect in Fischer, who simply delights in the American settlers, human foibles and all.
I was so looking forward to reading Giliomee, but I find his door-stopper quite a downer. He’s a fine historian, make no mistake; Giliomee has an impressive command of the primary sources. But he’s too negative about early Afrikaners.
For example, unanswered in Giliomee’s account of the travails of the 4000 odd settler/farmers in the Cape is why these people were subjected to ongoing cattle theft and brutal attacks from the indigenous peoples. Giliomee says the natives felt encroached upon. This may count as a necessary, but insufficient, condition. We are talking about a vast country. The locals would have hardly noticed the few farms that dotted the landscape.
Similar questions are completely elucidated in Fischer’s accounts. He leaves his readers with no lingering, nagging questions. Again, I’d have liked to detect some passion in Giliomee—an Afrikaner himself—for his subject. But maybe his known liberalism prevents him from connecting to his roots.
Update: Dan Roodt, a BAB A-Lister, writes:
“You are perfectly right about Giliomee’s book. It is full of detail and sources, but it lacks a central argument or passion as you call it. I think he was too scared to write anything that could be considered nationalist or un-PC.
Giliomee’s greatest failure, I think, is in the last part where he simply repeats all the clichés of how the old government fell, leaving out the role of the Western powers and all the behind-the-scenes wrangling that was going on.
Yesterday the power went out three times, at 10, at 4 and again at 8 p.m. for two hours each time.”
I’m beginning to think I’ve been too charitable to Giliomee. Contrast his The Afrikaners with Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed. The last speaks in so many voices other than the historian’s. It’s replete with excerpts from personal diaries, accounts from tutors and travelers, and outsiders looking in on the settlers. Hackett also mentions his own roots and is manifestly proud of his ancestry.
In the magnificent Albion’s Seed you learn exactly from where in England the settlers came, how they built their homes, courted, married, made love, sired children, buried their dead, and punished outlaws; what they ate and how they prepared food; how educated they were. In one wonderfully vivid diary, a husband speaks of his wife’s high-spirited nature and temper; how they make-up after fighting (“I gave my wife a flourish”: don’t you love that? He sauces it up even more.)
Early Americans were as flawed as the Afrikaners and as brave and adventurous. However, none of this emerges from Giliomee’s account. Admittedly, I have not yet finished the thing. But so far, it’s dry, dour, and sour. No diaries are drawn from; you learn nothing about how farmers lived, loved, raised children.
Conversely, Giliomee is quick to highlight miscegenation, on the rare occasions it occurred, and cruelty to slaves (a wrong Americans were also guilty of, but Hackett Fischer doesn’t blacken them for the sins of their times; he simply narrates the facts). Giliomee is also diligent in bringing to light stories of rogue Afrikaners; about heroes and emerging leaders you learn less.