Liminaliteit en oorgangsfigure in Eilande van Dan Sleigh: ´n roman oor die vroeë Nederlandse koloniale geskiedenis in Suid-Afrika - Liminality and liminal figures in Islands by Dan Sleigh: a novel about early Dutch colonial history in South Africa





The aim of this paper is to describe the liminal aspects of intercultural contact in the early years of European settlement in South Africa as depicted in the novel Islands by Dan Sleigh. A postmodernist approach to history, historiography and literary representation enables the author to present a creative adaptation of historical information developing themes such as the isolation of human beings and the inaccessibility of the past. In the article the concept of liminality is introduced in order to discuss the marginality of characters and events in the novel and to analyse the ironic position of the female characters as liminal figures. The point is made that there is a structural resemblance between early colonial life and the concept of liminality which describes a process of transformation in three phases. In the colonial situation the liminal transformation is not completed and the community remains in a state of transition and transformation. In conclusion it is suggested that liminality and the existence of boundaries and borders have been features of life in South Africa since the days of the Dutch settlement.

1. Introduction

2. Islands by Dan Sleigh

3. Islands and history

4. The concept liminality

5. Krotoa and Pieternella

6. Colonialism and liminality

7. Postcolonialism and liminality

8. Conclusion




1. Introduction

Post-colonial discourse has generated a vast amount of cultural and academic material, and therefore I would like to make a few remarks to provide a more specific context for the argument in this article. Generally speaking post-colonialism concerns itself with the wide range of reactions to the West-European colonial expansionism which began during the Renaissance and continued into the late nineteenth century and, in some instances, the early twentieth century. According to Bill Ashcroft, colonialism "advanced so relentlessly that it has come to determine the cultural and political character of the world" (Ashcroft, 2001: 1). Contemporary political, cultural and ideological conflicts in various countries can be directly or indirectly linked to the colonial past of those countries and can be regarded as a heritage of colonialism. Post-colonialism therefore has to address an enormous diversity of philosophical, theoretical and practical issues, because people in the countries affected by colonialism on the African or South American continent, in Australia, India, the West Indies, Indonesia, and so forth, all reacted in different ways to the influx of strangers who brought economic, political, religious and cultural change to their lives.

If post-colonial theory is to provide an adequate theoretical base and a relevant discursive practice for an ever-developing series of diverse phenomena in various localities, it should function as a cross-cultural, constantly developing and changing, critical discourse so that "the ideas produced by celebrated theorists operating from the metropolitan academy" (Ashcroft, 2001: 1) are not recycled again and again. That would merely lead to another theoretical and political hegemony (Ashcroft, Griffith & tiffin, 1989:2, Van der Merwe & Viljoen, 1998: 167). To address the practical problems resulting from aspects of the continuing processes of transformation, serious attempts should be made to understand the nature and the consequences of a particular colonial history.

Instead of describing and analysing a specific set of circumstances in terms of an existing theory developed for other places and circumstances and using a ready-made theory as a matrix to chart the South African situation, I would rather adopt Bill Ashcroft's (2001: 3) idea to investigate the specific ways in which a specific community has reacted to its particular history, particularly because the "attempt to understand how post-colonial cultures resisted the power of colonial domination in ways so subtle that they transformed both colonizer and colonized lies at the heart of post-colonial studies" (Ashcroft, 2001: 3).

Despite the fact that the points mentioned here have been made by prominent theorists, one finds (especially at conferences on post-colonial theory and literature) that much of the post-colonial debate is still concerned with the relation between the centre and the periphery of (previous) empires, between the centres of power in the metropoles and the attempts to be heard of the colonial voices. Therefore the arguments in this article accept the following three assumptions and try to move beyond that.

  • The circumstances and the history of each former colony are unique
  • In post-colonial writing the focus should rather be directed at the contemporary multicultural relations in the societies which developed from the colonial past than at the remains of strained relations with the colonizing countries
  • Cultural groups living within the same geographical space are bound to influence one another in ongoing processes of cultural transformation
  • Knowledge of the past is essential to understand the present and to facilitate acceptance of the present and the future

While reading Dan Sleigh’s novel Islands(originally published in Afrikaans as Eilande)1 l became acutely aware once more of the unique characteristics of the South African post-colonial situation. This article is an attempt to contribute to the post-colonial debate by exploring the concept of liminality to describe the transformation processes during the first phase of the Dutch settlement in the Cape of Good Hope. The imaginative reconstruction of historical facts in Sleigh's novel not only provides insight into the characteristics of early Southern African colonialism, but also emphasises individual isolation and the crossing of borders as a way of life. In this article the novel will be discussed to indicate a few salient aspects of the South African colonial history and post-colonial present. It is clear that in the imaginative reconstruction of the lives of people, Sleigh opts fornovelistic open-endedness in the rendition of historical facts and though he constructs a lively picture of the historical, ideological and political circumstances following the arrival of the Dutch in Table Bay, it becomes clear that some of the cultural and political patterns and conflicts of the latter half of the seventeenth century persist to determine contemporary patterns of behaviour in the country.


2. Islands by Dan Sleigh

The novel Islands presents a broad picture of the early years (1652 -1690) of the Dutch settlement in what subsequently became known as the Cape of Good Hope on the southernmost tip of the African continent. In 1652, after more than two centuries2 in which ships had been using Table Bay as a halfway stop and rendezvous on the long sea journey to the East Indies, Jan van Riebeek was sent by the powerful Dutch Council of Seventeen, masters of the VOC, to establish a more permanent halfway station. He arrived with five ships and ninety men to build a fort and a hospital, cultivate the Table Mountain Valley and negotiate peacefully with the indigenous Koina3 people to obtain cattle for fresh meat. According to history books, Van Riebeek was not supposed to either colonize or exploit, but to provide fresh vegetables and meat for passing ships, though what actually developed was exactly the opposite (Giliomee, 2003: 1).

The novel begins as follows:

Seven of us, or at least seven, carried in our hearts the same woman, from before her birth until after her death (1).

This prologue refers to Pieternella, the daughter of the Koina woman Krotoa, also called Eva by the Dutch. Krotoa learnt to speak Dutch from shipwrecked sailors, and her uncle, Chief Harry, was taught English by British sailors before the arrival of Van Riebeek. The novel tells how Krotoa acts as interpreter and go-between when Van Riebeek and his men need to communicate with the Koina chiefs, and therefore she and Chief Harry are indispensable to the success of the Dutch endeavour. Krotoa/Eva is eventually taken into the home of the Van Riebeek family to look after their children. She is dressed in Dutch clothes and is regarded by Van Riebeek as a member of his household (56-65). She eventually marries the medical officer, Peter Havgard (also known as Pieter van Meerhof), and Pieternella is the first child born from that union (154).

The novel consists of the stories of seven men who knew Pieternella, the seven men who "carried her in their hearts" (2): Pieternella's uncle Autshumao (chief Harry); her father, Peter Havgard (also known as Pieter van Meerhof in history books); the fisherman, Bart Borms who becomes her stepfather; the soldier, Hans Michiel Callenbach, who becomes the postman on Robben Island after Van Meerhof's death; the fiscal officer, advocate Deneyn, who falls half in love with Pieternella; the cooper, Daniel Zaaijman, who marries her; and J.C. van Grevenbroek, the official scribe of the Dutch administration in the Cape, who is also the narrator of the seven stories.

In different ways Pieternella has an influence on the lives of all these men, and they remember her "until after her end" (2) when, according to the narrator in the novel, she becomes his responsibility "since people only really die when they are no longer remembered" (2). Pieternella is the link that binds the seven stories together, but she herself remains an elusive figure. This elusiveness becomes one of the central themes of the novel because Pieternella, even more than her mother who is mentioned often in history books as the interpreter in negotiations with the Koina, has become a marginalised and almost forgotten figure in the history of the Cape. The historical neglect is iconically captured and represented in the narrative technique of the novel, as neither Pieternella nor her mother Krotoa is ever used as a narrator or a focaliser in the story.

Though the first story is that of Autshumao, Krotoa’s uncle (also known as chief Harry), and although he is the focaliser in this narrative, the arrival of the Dutch is proleptically used as the historical indicator to date the narrative:

One red dawn, ten or twelve years before the Dutchman started building this place, Autshumao became leader of the Goringhaicona (3).

In this way the novel clearly, though retrospectively, marks the arrival of Van Riebeek and his men as the event which will irrevocably change the course of history in Southern Africa. The Dutch has come to stay, and this event is the beginning of colonialism in South Africa.

The novel goes on to depict the destabilising effects of the arrival of the Dutch on the local inhabitants of the area. The Koina are alienated in a physical and psychological sense from the place which they have regarded as their own for generations by the introduction of Dutch norms and practices pertaining to the use of land and Dutch judicial practices. Despite constant negotiations, conflict inevitably ensues. As was customary in other colonial countries as well, the Koina are given alcohol for which they develop a great liking but which affects them adversely and contributes to the disintegration of their tribal culture.

The Dutch themselves do not remain unaffected by the demands of the new circumstances and the strange place in which they find themselves. They have to deal with a different climate, different farming methods and the "strange" habits of the indigenous people. In the settlement, everyone eventually has to function within new and unfamiliar structures. The interaction between the different cultural groups leaves no one untouched and, in order to survive, people have to change, they have to mould their ideas and thoughts into new patterns. When people are forced to adapt to living in proximity to a completely different culture, they have to remake themselves, reinvent themselves, as it were. Some survive and become stronger, and others founder, but in actual fact everybody has to undergo a "remaking", the Koina expression to indicate moments of change or transformation or initiation in the lives of tribe members, which is also used as the title of the first chapter of the novel (3). What is soon apparent, is that the changes are irreversible.


3. Islands and history

The novel is deeply concerned with history and is based upon thorough research by the author who, although an archivist by profession, focusses on the human and philosophical aspects of the lives of the characters as individuals. It is clear from the outset that the author is aware of the unreliable nature of reconstructions of the past, and therefore the narrator states openly that historical documents and legends cannot re-create or re-present the truth about the past.

I find myself in front of the image of a woman, and ask, Who are you? I go on a journey and find another image of the same person, painted by someone else, and ask again, And you? (1-2).

In the acknowledgements at the end of the novel the author says that he takes responsibility for changing historical facts but that he has done it on behalf of his readers. He describes his view of history in the following words:

There is no history other than the analysis and interpretation of documents, a search for survivors in endless space (759).

Dan Sleigh tells the stories of little known, ordinary people, he is concerned with the little narratives (petits récits) which can be seen as a supplement to, comment on and critique of the grand narrative of colonial success (Lyotard, 1984: 27,31,60). He uses narrative supplementation instead of "official" historical facts and documents to develop postmodern ideas in a well researched historical novel (Hutcheon, 1988: 105-106).4

From a political and social point of view, the novel implicitly questions the assumptions on which South African history rested and by implication unmasks these assumptions as the result of textual representations of those in power, implicitly also commenting on present practices of rewriting history by illustrating the ambiguity and unreliability of all documents.5 Although documents are the only "traces" of the past that can be captured, they are undeniably ambiguous, unreliable and hiatal.

Sleigh's narrative technique can be linked to Foucault's view of history in which a monolithic version of the past is rejected in favour of an awareness of the textuality of documents providing historical knowledge, of the interplay of various systems of knowledge, of several networks of power which determine the representations in as well as the interpretations of historical information (Foucault, 1972: 3-17). The use of documents to produce another document moreover inevitably multiplies the possibilities of disruption and dispersion.

Discourse … is … a fragment of history, a unity and discontinuity in history itself, posing the problem of its own limits, its divisions, its transformations, the specific modes of its temporality rather than its sudden irruption in the midst of the complicities of time


'discursive practice' … is a body of anonymous, historical rules, always determined in the time and space that have defined a given period, and for a given social, economic, geographical, or linguistic area, the conditions of operation of the enunciative function. (Foucault, 1972: 117.)

Sleigh states openly that he has changed the "facts" in historical documents on behalf of his readers (759)6 whom he presents with a postmodern reading and interpretation of historical documents, cast in the mould of a postmodernist novel. Sleigh adapts known facts and creatively fills out the meagre fragments of unstable information to reconstruct or construct a variety of narratives, telling the stories of people from all walks of life and different cultural and social groups. The result is a post-colonial novel about colonial events.

The novel suggests that history is viewed through the veils of time. The sources of history are mainly linguistic and visual texts, and as such there is no direct recourse to the past; historical of any other version of "truth" can never be known or recaptured. This idea is reinforced by the central metaphor in the novel, namely the sea. The prologue to the novel is called "Voices from the sea", and the narrator continually returns to the metaphor of water and the sea. About love he says:

I know that the word exists, and the heart will doubtlessly have a name for it, but its interpretation remains an uncharted bay every man must fathom for himself. Most of us sail in, hoping for good bottom where we can rest and refresh ourselves, then discovering that there are strange and unexpected currents, that the tides change from moon to moon… (1)

Those who remember Pieternella are commended for keeping "the small raft afloat" (2), and people are described as flecks of foam on the sea. For the narrator all that ultimately remains is "the sea, the green womb-water in which we drift …" (2).

The sea also plays an important role in the development of the story line. Van Riebeek and his men came from the sea, and the Koina hoped the Dutch would go away "into the sea" again (3, 55). Autshumao was a beachcomber ("strandloper"), and he and his people lived on what they could get from the sea. Bart Borms survives a shipwreck (217-222) and is saved from "marrying the widow with the endless womb, as Jack Tar says when a sailor drowns" (215). Many characters in the novel are people who move between important and less important centres in the Dutch colonial world, Amsterdam, Batavia and the Cape, but also St. Helena and Mauritius; and it is the seemingly endless ocean that links as well as separates these places.

The islands are important in the novel and are depicted as small stable pieces of land in the sea: Robben Island as the place where Harry is imprisoned, where Van Meerhof as well as Hans Michiel Callenbach are postkeepersand where Krotoa eventually dies. Van Meerhof is killed on Madagascar. Many ships come from St. Helena and Mauritius, where Pieternella and Daniel Zaaijman live for a number of years. Islands are lonely and isolated places and insignificant amid the wide expanses of water which surround them.

After all the stories have been told, the narrator concludes that history is like the sea, which seems to be eternal as well as infinite and in which individual people, like islands, are tiny specks of life. The emphasis on water suggests the fluidity and instability of human experience as well as the temporal and spatial insignificance of human lives.

Afterwards, afterwards it will be as if it has never been. In all of this only the sea remains the same, empty and endless … the great ocean moves on and never changes. A man becomes a ship, ships become people. A man becomes an island, islands turn into people. A man becomes an ark, a sanctuary in endless space (758).

It would therefore seem as if the novel is woven around the idea of isolation and estrangement. People go off to strange places and do not or can not return, because their lives are redirected in unexpected ways. They have to enter new spaces and function within strange cultural and judicial frameworks. History is not a pleasant tale because the price in human suffering is high. People have to live together, but human interaction, especially intercultural interaction, is always problematic. In the novel there is an acute awareness of the boundaries between people and between the different cultural and linguistic "worlds". People continually have to cross boundaries – geographical as well as psychological and cultural boundaries – so as to find a way into the future; but in the end nothing but a sense of hopelessness and helplessness remains. The novel suggests that people do not understand one another, that they reach out but do not really "reach" one another. Neither do they truly comprehend the reality in which they live – culturally, politically as well as geographically. More often than not they feel as if they do not really belong in the places they inhabit, which means that their relationship with the spaces of their existence is complex and remains unresolved. This is what Van Grevenbroek experiences when he wants to write down the history of the period in which he lives, a period which is described as follows:

It has been both interesting and eventful, that first half-century which is just over. Typical of revolution born from greed, the period under his investigation has been married to death and baptised in blood (691).

One could conclude that the novel presents a postcolonial view of a specific colonial set of circumstances in South Africa between 1652 and 1700, which implies a postmodern approach to the historical content as well as a postmodernist textual practice. Thematically the deconstructive approach to historical information undermines accepted ideas about the past and exposes colonialism as a political and economic force that subjects people to power structures intended to enrich the masters in a far-off country. Consequently life in a colonial settlement is always controlled and even dominated by the existence of borders and boundaries in a geographical as well as a cultural, social and psychological sense. People have to try to cross these boundaries but they do not always succeed, and in the end they have to accept the inevitable loneliness of human existence.

It would therefore seem that the concept of liminality could be useful in an interpretation of the novel. Though the focus is directed to the liminal position of the female characters, the suggestion is made that the colonial enterprise set a series of liminal processes in motion.


4 The concept liminality

The concept of liminality was introduced by the anthropologist Arnold van Gennep in his book Rites de passage (1908). According to Van Gennep, traditional rites of passage or initiation rites consist of three phases: separation, transition and incorporation (Turber, 1982: 24). In traditional ritual initiations, youngsters are separated from the community, and the normal social structures are suspended. The initiates undergo certain symbolic actions and experiences intended to toughen and mature them. During the transition period they find themselves in a state and an area of ambiguity, in the “margin”, as it were, until they return to the community with an enhanced status.

Victor Turner refined and extended the concept of liminality to include a wider range of social, cultural and individual psychological phenomena. They all imply a separation from the familiar social structure, an intermediate or liminal stage in which social distinctions are dissolved and in which chaos as well as fertility and creativity are important, followed by a phase of reincorporation or reintegration into the social structures. But Turner also speaks about liminal figures, people who live in such a way that their nature or lifestyle can be called liminal:

… the attributes of liminality or of liminal personae ('threshold people') are necessarily ambiguous, since this condition and these people elude or slip through the network of classifications that normally locates states and positions in cultural space. (Turner, 1969: 95.)

Liminality thus indicates that somebody or a situation falls between systems. Diverse phenomena, such as initiates, autochthons, small nations, court jesters, priests and shamans are liminal because

1. they fall in the interstices of social structure,

2. they are on the margins of society, or

3. occupy the lowest rungs in society. (Turner, 1969: 125.)

For Turner liminality “represents the midpoint of transition in a status-sequence between two positions”; he later develops the concept “liminoid” to refer to liminal processes and events in modern highly developed industrialised societies, including different forms of play, entertainment, sport, creative activities of writing, painting and reading, certain political processes, carnivals, and places of relaxation and entertainment such as clubs, bars and pubs (Tuerner, 1974: 237).

Liminality suggests that there is a place or space associated with the limen or the threshold; it is a more supple and free-flowing concept than the “margin” which implies a binary opposition between centre and margin. An even more general definition of liminality is proposed by Aguirre who suggests that the definition of liminality should invite or require

the postulation of an open plural system the constituent of which include a known area A and, at least, a poorly understood area B, plus a recognition of a threshold separating but also relating A and B, the threshold itself having a variable breadth. (Aguirre, Quance & Sutton, 2000: 8.)

One can conclude, then, that in a weak sense “liminality is the property of any middle, intermediate, in-between event or state or object”, and in a strong sense “it characterizes areas of active mediation i.e. areas which actively function as conveyors of features (values, structures, techniques and so on) between cultural systems” (Aguirre, Quance & Sutton, 2000: 30).

A description and analysis of human relationships and political structures in the small community of the Cape, as represented in the novel Islands in terms of liminality, presuppose an adaptation of the term. Using an established term in a metaphorical sense to make it useful in another field or to describe another type of object than it was intended for (in this case using an anthropological term in a literary interpretation as part of a post-colonial discourse), requires a broadening of the definition which could eventually cause it to become bland and empty. It is also a fact that the abundance of phenomena which bear a structural resemblance to the concept of liminality open up the opportunity to use the term too freely.

Philip Sutton (2002: 3-4) addresses this problem with reference to his research on liminal literatures and critical reading as a liminal activity. It can happen that theorists take "such a broad view of liminality that its usefulness as a concept is weakened by the demonstrable omnipresence of thresholds construed on the basis of it". One could wonder whether "the ubiquitous recurrence of liminal models in both textual and actual worlds betokened an archetypal status for such models", but in a seminar on liminality this idea was "greeted with only the most provisional of acceptance, if not with outright scepticism". However, when one rejects the universality of the concept, it does not necessarily mean that it merely becomes another tool for analysis and explication. Sutton explains his view as follows:

Rather than steering an impossibly treacherous middle course between the myth-grounded archetype and the critical construct whose existence is justified by the results it generates, [one can] shift the focus off the place of the limen in the world, and turn it instead onto the lawlessness which characterizes liminal spaces as sites where the world's established categories are apt to be held in abeyance. (Sutton, 2002:3.)

In this article the concept of liminality is used on account of the structural resemblances to the temporal and spatial aspects of life in a colonial region, especially the suspension or undermining of normal social rules and structures for all the communities concerned. By approaching the novel Islands through the concept of liminality, I have become aware of the incompleteness of the processes of change and transformation set in motion by colonialism. Moreover, the psychological and cultural aspects of the situation represented in the novel can be regarded as anthropological phenomena. Liminality is closely related to the narrator's view of man and history, namely that it is part of the human condition to be unable to ever fully exit the limen or the threshold.


5. Krotoa and Pieternella

The name of Krotoa (Eva), the interpreter, is fairly well-known in older South African history books. She is known only as Eva "de Hottentottin" and it is mentioned that she and her uncle Harry acted as go-betweens in negotiations with the Koina. In the novel the discrepancy between an individual's role in history and his or her personal life soon becomes apparent.

Krotoa and Pieternella play an important role in the novel even though they are not main characters in the sense that large parts of the text are devoted to them. This fact in itself is quite significant. They are examples of those who disappear in historiographical representations of the past. Very little of their personal life is known and yet they are important to the people around them. Historically it is true that these women did not leave behind any documents, letters or even notes about themselves, because they came from an oral tradition and, although Pieternella had been taught to read and write, Eva was probably illiterate. Because he has no access to any authentic document which can give some indication of what they really thought and felt, the narrator never tells their stories from their own point of view.

It is a significant strategy of the narrator to limit himself to the stories of people to whose documents he has access. He clearly does not wish to appropriate the stories of Krotoa and Pieternella. They lived more than 350 years ago and left nothing behind which could enable him to adequately understand the cultural framework within which they would interpret their experiences. Hence they are only described from the outside7, and their own perspective on events does not come into play.

The narrator wishes to keep the memory of Pieternella and her mother alive, but he has to do so by telling the stories of people about whom he does have more information. Consequently it is as if these two female characters exist in the open spaces of the lives of the men of which the narrator speaks, and they, as characters, are to be found in the open spaces of the novel, in the spaces behind and around the text itself. Pieternella is the axis around which the 750-page novel revolves, and yet the story is about her and around her but never of her. The same goes for Krotoa, so that the position of these two women, in both the novel and the fictionalised historical reality, can be described as liminal.

The absence of the perspective and/or stories of the Koina woman and her daughter is no oversight and cannot be regarded as the result of a male patriarchal attitude. Rather, they are respected in the sense that their stories and views are not appropriated by the novelist. The novel reminds us of the fact that they had been forgotten by history for many years, and their roles in the novel symbolise this historical oversight. In the novel they are therefore depicted in an indirect manner but it is ironic that, whereas Sleigh professes to keep them alive, he does so by reminding the reader of historical mistakes and oversights. To this end he changes historical facts and in that sense reduces Krotoa and Pieternella to textual devices so as to make a point about history and ideological positions and moves.

As interpreter and go-between for Van Riebeek in his negotiations with the Koina chiefs, Krotoa is befriended by Van Riebeek and his family. She eventually goes to live with them, but in the process becomes estranged from her own people. In spite of her marriage to the medical officer, Pieter van Meerhof, she is never completely accepted by the Dutch colonists.

In liminal terms one can say that when Krotoa is acting as interpreter she is separated from her own culture and enters the limen or threshold between the two cultures and languages. The normal pattern would be for her to return to her own people afterwards and to reintegrate herself into the community she comes from, but that does not happen; instead her next act is to enter the space of the Dutch culture socially. In actual fact she does not really become incorporated in either of the two cultural spheres ever again. Krotoa cannot exit the margin, she lives on the threshold or in the interface between two worlds and becomes a permanent resident of a liminal place.

Van Meerhof is later sent as official caretaker and postman to Robben Island, which was used as a prison even then. When he is sent on a mission to Madagascar and is killed there, Krotoa is forgotten by the authorities. Van Riebeek has long since left the Cape and the new governor does not know about her. This is when her life really disintegrates (380-382). She becomes addicted to alcohol and prostitutes herself to the prisoners. Her children are eventually taken away and she slowly and painfully dies of syphilis. Not only does she live her life in a marginal space, culturally and socially, but she dies on an island, an isolated and marginal place.

Krotoa’s children have nowhere to go – they cannot go back to the Koina people to whom they are related because they have been living among the Dutch all their lives. Pieternella and her brother are eventually taken in by friendly Dutch people, Gert and Sophia van der Byl, and they actually become quite fond of Pieternella until their son becomes interested in her (413-416). Pieternella leaves the Cape for Mauritius to go and live with Bart Borms and his wife and later on marries Daniel Zaaijman, the cooper who becomes a fairly successful farmer on Mauritius (553-569).

It is ironic that, although Mauritius is such an isolated island that it can be regarded as the perfect example of the margin of the margin, the inhabitants succeed in becoming a small and relatively effective community. One could say that a new centre develops as people find ingenious ways and means to survive and become productive farmers. But after twelve years the Council of Seventeen orders the Mauritius project to be ended. Some people go to Batavia in Indonesia but five families, including that of Daniel Zaaijman, return to the Cape (688).

On their arrival in the Cape, Daniel and Pieternella have no home and no land. Officials in the Cape have regarded Mauritius as competition in producing food for the ships and have actually sabotaged the products from the island. Consequently there is nobody in the Cape who wants to take responsibility for the people returning from Mauritius. Having been a successful farmer on Mauritius, Daniel Zaaijman has to struggle to provide for his family in the Cape (742-749).

Throughout her life Pieternella is isolated in various ways. Although she is the daughter of Van Meerhof who enjoyed a privileged status in the Cape, she is not accepted by the Dutch component of the community because of her mother, who is not only a Koina but also drinks heavily and does not behave in an acceptable manner (184-186). Returning from Mauritius she again occupies a marginal place and status in the community.

Ironically, Krotoa who, as interpreter and wife of a colonist, is willing to attempt to bridge the gap between communities, becomes the victim of her marginal position; and for Pieternella, who is a child of both the Dutch and the Koina community, it is even worse. She is simply forgotten. She and her husband and some of her children die in the smallpox epidemic after Daniel has contracted the illness while guiding a ship with sick sailors into the harbour of Cape Town (757-758).

Whereas women are usually seen as occupying marginal or liminal positions in traditional societies and in patriarchal European communities as well (Aguirre, Quance & Sutton, 2000: 65), these two women also occupy a liminal space in the intercultural encounters in the young colony of the Cape. According to Turner

there always exists a domain of deprivation, loss and humbling through which the individual engaged in a rite of passage must go, but the ‘passengers’ … will mostly not remain in that domain. (Aguirre, Quance & Sutton, 2000: 67.)

Krotoa and Pieternella, however, remain in the liminal space. They are willing to cross the boundary between cultural groups and act as links between communities and cultures, but become victims of their interfacial position. They become locked in the margin and are unable to leave the liminal space again. In the case of Krotoa this results in the total disintegration of her personality.

It would seem, however, that this also happens on a larger scale in the small colony itself where many people who have moved there temporarily eventually stay on, and what is supposed to be an interim period becomes permanent. It would then seem as if the movement into the interface is final without the last transition of reincorporation as in other liminal processes.


6. Colonialism and liminality

In considering the concept of liminality I have come to realise that, in a certain sense, colonial communities as such can be described as occupying liminal spaces, that the colonial situation can be seen as inducing a state of liminality and that, among other things, colonialism set an endless sequence of liminal processes in motion.

The colonial movement can be reconstructed as follows: Men are sent out from the mother country to a new place with a mandate and a commission. They have to execute their duties in a place where the rules, laws and values of the mother country do not apply and are unsuitable. They are, however, still accountable to their masters who are far away and have a very vague knowledge of the circumstances in the colony. In its early years any colony would therefore be a liminal place where the laws, values and social rules of the mother country are suspended and have to be changed or reinvented along new lines.

The Dutchmen who came to the Cape were sent by their masters, the Council of Seventeen, who ruled the VOC and, in actual fact, the Netherlands as well because of their immense wealth. The novel describes how nothing can be done unless it has been ordered or approved by the Council of Seventeen. In Afrikaans the Council of Seventeen is called “die Here Sewentien”, and in the novel the phrase is shortened to “die Here”, which is the same word used to refer to God, for instance, the Lords Seventeen and the Lord. The power and authority of the Council are absolute even though requests, orders or judgements take almost a year to be processed.

Initially the people coming to the Cape -- sailors, craftsmen and clerks (from various European countries) -- do not intend or expect to stay for long. Especially for the leader, Van Riebeek, this is not a destination but just one more commission furthering his career in the service of the VOC. He is therefore in the Cape as if in an interstice, an interlude in his career from which he will return to Batavia for promotion – it is said that Van Riebeek’s ideal was to become governor of Batavia. Many sailors return to the sea, some go on to Mauritius. It is as if the type of people who populate the colony in the first few years are all committed travellers or adventurers or people who have no other prospects. It is also significant that the judicial system used is that of maritime law, as if the colony itself is regarded and treated as a ship, a temporary and mobile home.

In 1657 a few people lodge a petition to have land allotted to them so as to start permanent farms; as from that moment, of course, there is a stronger sense that the place is a destination, a new small centre. This does not mean, however, that the rules, values and laws of the mother country can be applied in their current form. People are living in circumstances completely different from what they are used to and have to adapt every single idea or concept before it can be useful. In the story of Fiscal Deneyn, the glaring discrepancies between Dutch practices, which are supposed to promote law and order, and the down-to-earth realities of the Cape are obvious.

Even more important is the fact that the lifestyle of the indigenous people in the region is fundamentally affected. In Islands the Koina chiefs repeatedly tell Van Riebeek that he does not belong in the Cape, that he has to go back into the sea because he has changed everything (112-113;135-136). Their cattle have been grazing in certain areas from time immemorial, and now Van Riebeek expects them to move. As time goes on they realise that the situation can never again revert back to the old order. Their world has been permanently changed by the invasion of the strangers, whom they call the "widepants". At a meeting in which the Dutch claim the right to use certain areas of land, the Koina protest that people who do not have cattle can have no status and cannot give orders. They actually loathe the Dutch whom they do not understand at all, but the Dutchmen stick to their position and in the end the Koina have to give in. The Koina chief ends the negotiation by saying: “Today it is the death of the Koina” (138).

The Koina feel that their space has been invaded wrongfully and that their lives have been changed forever, that they have been "remade" in a negative sense. They have moved into a period of time which is different in all respects, even the place in which they have been living is not the same any more and they suspect that it will be impossible to reinstate the previous state of affairs. The Dutch, on the other hand, find themselves in a country which was not supposed to become a colony or a country of permanent residence. They cannot live as they are used to or organise the place in ways similar to the countries where they come from. Initially they think that their stay in the region will be temporary, but for many it becomes a permanent place of residence. A new community develops which is multicultural in the true sense of the word.


7. Postcolonialism and liminality

Interactions and encounters between different cultural groups inevitably and irrevocably force people to confront a specific type of liminal space, a border area or interface where they meet, trade and negotiate or fight and make war. They cannot avoid one another because they share the same geographical space. One could therefore argue that liminality is an inherent and, at times, a dominant feature of any colonial, postcolonial and multicultural community.

The tragedy and the pathos of human attempts to survive in a destabilised region are what the novel Islands is all about. The form of liminality which develops in the colonial situation seems to consist of a suspension of and separation from the normal and accepted social and cultural system for both groups as well as the movement into a transitional or transformational mode which has a spatial as well as a temporal aspect. What does not realise fully is the final phase, the reincorporation or reaggregation. It is as if in the instance of the young colony, the liminality of the situation in which people from different cultures have to live together continues. People in both groups feel alienated but, at the same time, they are dependent on each other and influence each other's culture. Soon the Europeans have adapted and changed to such an extent that they cannot or do not wish to return to their countries of origin. The indigenous people become dependent on the colonists for work and survival but their resentment does not diminish.

What the colonial region in fact lacks in the early years of colonization is a centre, an area of stability. The Europeans do not return to the mother countries so that for them there simply is no "original" centre any more; and for the indigenous people the changes to their environment and their lifestyle cannot not be undone because the strangers remain in the region. It therefore seems as if the liminal features of the situation have become fixed, as if transition has become the natural way of existence because the development of a new centre acceptable to all in the colonial region takes a very long time.

In a certain sense this is still the status quo in South Africa, where people from different cultures find themselves in a multitude of liminal areas or border regions where they have to meet and negotiate. Depending on one’s point of view, every group is both a centre and a margin, they are each other's margins (Thomas, 2000: 81-93) and they continually have to cross borders and boundaries in their attempts to live together. The limen becomes the norm.

One could speculate about how the need of stabilization and the ideal of developing a new centre were the incentives for various political solutions over three and half centuries. Intercultural relations are still very complicated, and new margins and thresholds of considerable breadth develop continually because, as mentioned earlier, a multicultural country is inevitably prone to liminal situations. It is not possible to establish a new centre without consulting people from different cultures, but what does happen is that the different cultural groups influence one another. In every negotiation, attitudes and ideas are changed or adapted, and the participants take new concepts back to their respective groups. The fact that people share and like the same geographical space further reinforces the need to establish at least a communal margin or threshold or limen where matters of mutual concern can be negotiated.8

It is, however, important to keep in mind that the breadth of the border can in fact provide a considerable amount of space and become not only a habitable but also a dynamic space. Isabel Soto (2000: 8) explains that the margin or "threshold is in itself a 'territory' or provides entry into one"; as I see it, that is indeed what happens in the (post-)colonial contact zone.

This can be linked to the notion that in the liminal space, as a margin or a threshold and eventually as a space or territory, there is relatively more freedom from fixed rules and systems, which implies a certain amount of chaos. Consequently the liminal space is generally regarded as exceptionally fertile and creative. In fact, artistic activities, such as reading, writing, painting and composing, are often described in liminal terms (Turner, 1982: 33). The relative freedom of the liminal space makes it possible to take up a distanced position from which the normal state of affairs in the "centre" can be seen in a new perspective. Turner (1969:167) states that

if liminality is regarded as a time and place of withdrawal from normal modes of social action, it can be seen potentially as a period of scrutinization of the central values and axioms of the culture in which it occurs.

Therefore the margin or the limen is also the space where, on account of the isolation from the hegemony of the day, advanced, exciting and original things can happen.


8. Conclusion

The novel Islands suggests that history repeats itself:

This is how history repeats itself: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. One circle merges into the next, nobody notices it (758).

The text can therefore be read as a creative representation of the beginnings of the colonial period in South African history which gives an indication of how the present is determined by the past, how the present is in fact the future of the past. Apart from its literary value as such, Sleigh's creative rendering of the societal structures which dominated the first years of the Dutch settlement in the Cape brings about an awareness of important aspects of South African postcolonialism which are still discernible in contemporary South African politics. What the author does, is to assume a postmodernist stand to confront the paradoxes of fictive/historical representation, the particular/the general, and the present/the past. And this confrontation is itself contradictory, for it refuses to recuperate or dissolve either side of the dichotomy, yet it is more than willing to exploit both (Hutcheon, 1988:106).

My attempt to describe South African postcoloniality in terms of liminality is therefore yet another discursive interaction with history as well as with the novel and should be regarded as a supplement to the existing discourses about South Africa and post-colonialism.



1. Dan Sleigh, Eilande, Cape Town: Tafelberg, 2002. The novel was translated and published as Islands in 2004: Dan Sleigh, Islands, London: Secker and Warburg, 2004. Subsequent references are to this edition and will be cited in parenthesis in the text

2. The following dates are important in the exploration of the South African seas: Prince Henry the Navigator started his African expeditions in 1415; Bartholomeus Dias discovered the sea route around the southernmost tip of Africa in 1488; Vasco da Gama sailed around the Cape in 1497 and named Natal before going on to the Malabar coast of India.

3. It is important to distinguish between the Koina tribes, who lived in the areas around the Cape in the mid seventeenth century and the black people like the Xhosas and the Zulus with whom the colonists came into contact later on (from 1770 and 1835 respectively) in the south eastern and eastern coastal regions of Southern Africa.

4. I refer to Linda Hutcheon's distinction between the terms "postmodernism" and "postmodernity". Thematically the novel makes a postmodern statement by means of postmodernist textual strategies: "Much of the confusion surrounding the usage of the term postmodernism is due to the conflation of the cultural notion of postmodernism (and its inherent relationship to modernism) and postmodernity as the designation of a social and philosophical period or 'condition' " (Hutcheon, 1989: 23). This is necessary because the postmodernist representation in the novel is a reinterpretation of historical facts from a postmodern and postcolonial position in the present postmodern age. See Hutcheon, 1989: 23.

5. South African history is currently being rewritten reversing the roles of colonizers and colonized and highlighting the history of the indigenous people. A novel like Islands can be regarded as part of the correction of past imbalances but it is clearly conscious of the inevitable biases and ambiguities of historiography and all written records.

6. A descendant of Daniel Zaaijman who made a genealogical study of the Zaaijman family tree and history, Reg Zaaiman, reacted to a review of the novel written by prof. Elize Botha, a highly respected Afrikaans critic, by saying that the Sleigh has gone too far and has compromised the historical credibility of the novel. According to Zaaiman, the children of Krotoa and Van Meerhof were not forgotten on Robben Island, but were looked after very well by the Church Council who found respectable people to look after them in 1669.Neither did Daniel and Pieternella Zaaijman die together in the smallpox epidemic. There is actually no information that links Daniel to the ship carrying the sailors with smallpox into the harbour. These concerns were raised in letters from Reg Zaaiman to Elize Botha dated 26/8/2002 and 11/11/2002 of which photocopies were made available to the author of this article. Sleigh's response was that to him the novelistic meaning weighed more heavily than historical correctness and that the novel wants to highlight the ironies of history which are unexpected and inexplicable. Ironically the adapted information in the novel has since been used as fact in another publication about the Zaaiman family. See Botha, 2002 .

7. South African writers are very sensitive about the issue of appropriation. In J.M. Coetzee's Disgrace there is no attempt to represent the black man Petrus's view of what happens. On account of a "postcolonial awareness" an author does not and cannot presume to know and understand other cultures and should therefore refrain from depicting the attitudes and thoughts of such people or from speculating about their inner life.

8. This is of course an idealized version of reality. Whether it is sustainable and whether new powers will begin to dominate the processes of mutual influence, only time will tell.



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Prof. Heilna du Plooy
Skool vir Tale, Afrikaans en Nederlands
Noordwes-Universiteit (Potchefstroomkampus)
Potchefstroom 2520

e-pos: Heilna.duPlooy@nwu.ac.za

Gepubliseer op Afrikaans in Europa, September 2007 (eerste publikasie)

© Catharina Loader 2001