(Un)settling the Eastern Cape: Thomas Pringle and the Translocal – Blog Post by Lara Atkin

by Lara Atkin

Since the beginning of this century, Victorianists have been struggling to come up with a nomenclature that captures the variety of ways in which Britain was imbricated, culturally and economically, with the world beyond its borders. Cosmopolitanism was fashionable for a time, speaking as it does to those writers, like Vernon Lee, who self-defined as ‘citizens of nowhere’, and were able to move easily between Britain and continental Europe, writing about their experiences in novels, short stories and the many volumes of travel writing we have from the period. In what follows, I am going to make the case for approaching nineteenth-century colonial cultures through the lens of the translocal. Whereas the transnational considers cross-border affiliations at the scale of the nation, the translocal captures a sense of spatial overlap between specific regional cultures that create a clash or dissonance through their imbrication. Specifically, I’ll look at the role language and dialect play in the literary project of settler-colonial poetics. In Scottish settler-poet Thomas Pringle’s blending of Scots, English and Dutch, Pringle not only reveals his translocal affiliation to his native Roxburghshire, but also surfaces an Indigenous presence that his imagined act of settler-colonial nation building attempts to occlude.

In recent years, the ‘global turn’ has enabled Victorianists to look to postcolonial studies and imperial history for frameworks to describe the movements and cultural productions of emigrant and immigrant communities – those for whom international travel wasn’t a choice, but a necessity. These include convicts sent to Botany Bay, indentured labourers shipped across the world to build infrastructure projects for the expanding British Empire, BIPOC folk travelling to escape first slavery and then the Jim Crow laws in the United States, and, of course the tens of millions of people from England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, who travelled voluntarily to the settler colonies in search of a better life.

Studying the cultural production and institutions of the British settler colonies has meant turning away from the familiar nineteenth-century canon and focusing instead on more ephemeral literary forms. Turning our attention towards the newspaper and periodical productions of the settler colonies has enabled us to view settlement not from the ‘imperial eye’ of the metropolitan centre, but from the more localised and contingent perspective of early settlers themselves. Trailblazing works such as Fariha Shaikh’s Nineteenth-Century Settler Emigration in British Literature and Art (EUP:2018) and Jason R. Rudy’s Imagined Homelands: British Poetry in the Colonies ( John Hopkins’ University Press: 2017), have highlighted the precarity of  life for British emigrants abroad, unmoored from their home communities and forging new ‘imagined communities’ in spaces that had yet to be fully colonized. The European Research Council-funded ‘SouthHem’ project, meanwhile, has highlighted the interrelationship between the formation of cultural institutions such as libraries, newspapers and mechanics’ institutions, and the establishment of affective communities in the British-controlled southern hemisphere.[1]

Rudy and Shaikh’s work on shipboard periodicals has revealed the affective communities built on the journey between metropole and colony. Rudy’s analysis of the shipboard periodical poetry highlights the creativity and humour that emigrants brought to their ‘floating worlds’, often parodying famous poems to creatively process their nostalgic longing for home.[2] My own work in this area has focused on the original and reprinted newspaper poetry published in the British-controlled Cape Colony in the 1820s and 1830s. This was a particularly important time for the nascent South African colony, as the transition from Dutch to British control opened up new opportunities to establish a free press. Interestingly, as John Mackenzie has highlighted, Scottish settlers led the way in shaping the contours of the literary institutions established by British settlers at the Cape during this period. The combination of free church Evangelicalism and Whigish liberalism proved generative when it came to shaping a settler literary culture. Both the Colony’s first two settler-produced newspapers were run by lowland Scots, while the poet and abolitionist Thomas Pringle (a man best-known today as the editor of The History of Mary Prince) contributed prolifically to the poetry columns of these newspapers during his sojourn at the Cape from 1820-1826.

For the rest of this post, I want to consider Pringle’s South African poetry through the lens of the translocal. The ‘translocal’ is a term used in postcolonial studies to speak about people for whom transnational migration has created a dual allegiance to two or more local attachments. For Thomas Pringle, writing from South Africa in the 1820s, these two localities were his native Roxburghshire and the Eastern Cape, where he settled as leader of the ‘Scottish party’ of emigrants to the area around Bavaans Kloof in 1820. The entanglement of these two home spaces is best seen if we examine in detail his poem ‘The Emigrant’s Cabin’, first written in the Eastern Cape in 1822, but only published once Pringle had returned to Britain and become involved in the metropolitan abolitionist movement. The poem itself first appeared in 1834, as part of Pringle’s African Sketches. The publication date for African Sketches is significant; 1834 was not only the year the abolition of slavery in the colonies was formally enacted, but also of Pringle’s untimely death from consumption.

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Thomas Pringle

‘The Emigrant’s Cabin’ is a ‘verse epistle’ to Pringle’s friend and interlocutor John Fairbairn, and draws heavily on the rhetoric and poetic form of the Augustan poets of the 18th century. However, Pringle’s use of Scots and Cape-Dutch loan words clearly locates the poem simultaneously in two localities: the Scottish borders and the Eastern Cape. Interestingly, the Eastern Cape was, until the 1850s, also a borderland – it marked the eastern most boundary of the Cape Colony, with settlers encroaching upon the unceded territories of local amaXhosa, as well as Indigenous Khoekhoe and San communities. So Pringle actually moved from one multilingual borderland space to another, and this is what makes the multilingualism of the poem such a rich seam to mine. It is a poem that imagines a settler-colonial state into being and attempts to assimilate the linguistic and cultural diversity of the Eastern Cape’s settler and Indigenous inhabitants into Pringle’s own ‘imagined community’ of settler sociability.

At the start of the poem, Pringle imagines himself as a Burnsian cotter, a self-sufficient rural yeoman, returning to rest in a clean and frugal dwelling. Although localised to the setting of South Africa’s Eastern Cape, with Burns’s ‘lonely cot’ transformed into Pringle’s ‘beehive-cottage’, a dwelling that mimics the ‘beehive’ shaped huts constructed by local Indigenous groups, the poem articulates a similar image of domestic piety to that projected by Burns.

‘I have my farm and garden, tools and pen;

My schemes for civilising savage men;

Our Sunday service, till the sabbath-bell

Shall wake its welcome chime in Lynden dell;’

(‘The Emigrant’s Cabin’, 148-151)

Colonial poets’ evocation of the Burnsian cotter operates, as Sarah Sharp has argued, as a form of cultural shorthand that unified Scottish settlers in the colonies into an imagined community. As Jason Rudy puts it, drawing on John Plotz’s work, Burnsian poetic tropes become a form of ‘portable property’, a poetic resource that was used by Scottish settler-poets to forge diasporic colonial identities.[3]

Scots dialect is used very sparingly in the poem, reflecting Pringle’s broader preference for the neo-Augustin poetic modes that he thought would give him a wide readership within the culture of taste of metropolitan England. It is notable that when Scots does surface it is to express another Burnsian trope: the nostalgic evocation of absent friends in a scene of settler sociability located in the pastoral setting of the Pringles’ Eildon farm.

Fill now a parting glass of generous wine –

The doch-an-dorris cup –for ‘Auld Lang Syne’;

            For my good Margaret summons us to tea,

In her green drawing-room – beneath the tree;–

And lo! Miss Brown has a whole cairn of stones

To pose us with – plants, shells, and fossil bones.

(‘The Emigrant’s Cabin, 237-42).

The frozen tableau of the Scottish settlers drinking their ‘cup of kindness’ for the sake of ‘auld lang syne’ almost asks to be read ironically, so strong is the association between Burns’s song and a diasporic yearning for a romanticised image of home. Yet Jason Rudy has highlighted the important cultural work that these derivative evocations of Scottish poetic culture do in the settler colonial context. He states: ‘Once outside Scotland,  emigrants were more likely to indulge in a bit of romance, valuing kitsch alongside dialect as vehicles for transforming foreign spaces into home, and simultaneously for understanding the fundamental ties among Scots settlers.’[4] So Scots dialect and song become generic rather than specific in the colonial context, transmitting a diasporic Scottish identity that would form the foundations of a nascent settler-colonial identity.

In Pringle’s poetry, this regional identity is enlarged into a settler-colonial identity through Pringle’s use of the conventions of eighteenth-century topographic poetry.  Both settler and Indigenous national identities are predicated on land-based notions of sovereignty. In ‘The Emigrant’s Cabin’,  Pringle’s cartographic imagination maps the contours of a new settler polity by tracing the location of settler farms in the Bavaans River Valley of the Eastern Cape.


Our Lothian Friends with their good Mother dwell,

Beside yon Kranz whose pictured records tell

Of bushman’s huntings in the days of old,

Ere here Bezuidenhout had fixed his fold.

–Then up the widening vale extend your view,

Beyond the clump that skirts the Lion’s Cleugh,

Past our old camp, the willow-trees among,

Where first these mountains heard our sabbath song;

And mark the Settlers’ homes, as they appear

With cultured fields and orchard-gardens near,

And cattle-kraals, associate or single,

From fair Craig-Rennie up to Clifton-Pringle.

(‘The Emigrant’s Cabin, ln 172-183)


The sublime landscape of mountains and cloughs is rendered knowable through the act of European settlement. The naming and claiming of the land by Scottish, English and Dutch families is represented in a visual and temporal register. The time between the settlers’ arrival in 1820 and the present of the poem is marked by the enclosure of the landscape in ‘cattle-kraals’, ‘cultured fields’ and ‘orchard gardens’ and the transition of the settlers from temporary ‘camps’ to settled dwellings. Thus, Pringle adapts the conventions of eighteenth-century topographical poetry in order to make a case for the Eastern Cape colony, demonstrating to his imagined metropolitan audience the progress they have made towards civilised existence in the wilds of rural South Africa.


Rhetorically, the naming and claiming of land creates the illusion of permanence and stability for a settler community that was leading an economically precarious existence on unceded territory that the British government had unilaterally annexed from Indigenous San, Khoekhoe and Xhosa communities. Ideologically, it enacts the settler-colonial logics of “dispossession” and “transfer” that were a defining feature of settler colonialism as a distinct set of practices. Lorenzo Veracini and Rafael Verbuyst explain:

Contrary to colonialism, which seeks to subjugate and exploit the native, settler colonialism aims for the “elimination of the native” in two interrelated domains: dispossession (i.e., strategies pursued to alienate and destroy the native, such as physical destruction of indigenous communities, or the forcible occupation of indigenous lands) and transfer (ie strategies pursued to replace the native with the settler, such as assimilationist policies or the disavowal of Indigenous presence.[5]

That the Eastern Cape colony is founded upon the dispossession and genocidal murder of Indigenous people is registered through the absent presence of the San ‘bushman’. Interestingly, the material presence of San people as the original inhabitants of the land now occupied by Pringle and other European settlers is not wholly disavowed: Pringle acknowledges that the ‘pictured records’ constitute evidence of prior occupancy. This reference is an allusion to the rock art that was the San’s traditional method of recording their history and religious practices.  However, what is disavowed is any sense of culpability for the dispossession and systematic extermination of the San, a disavowal that is unsurprising given Pringle’s own involvement in raising settler militias to ‘hunt’ the San off his own Eildon farm, that has been discussed previously by Damien Shaw.[6] The material traces of the San registered in a poem that seeks to represent the Eastern Cape as a space in which displaced Scottish tenant farmers like the Pringles might find a new home, disrupts the straightforward transfer of indigeneity from the San onto the Scottish settlers, posing an ontological threat to the nascent settler polity.

However, that this disavowal was not entirely successful is evident in the ways in which a disavowed Indigenous presence keeps resurfacing in the poem, a resurfacing that is always accompanied by linguistic code switching from English into Cape Dutch. In the above example, the persistent presence of the San is signalled by Pringle’s italicised use of the Cape-Dutch word Kranz. Derived from the Dutch Krans meaning a wreath, the OED first records the word entering the English language via George Forster’s 1785 translation of Anders Spaarman’s Voyage to the Cape of Good Hope, in which it is used to describe a particular topographical feature of the South African landscape. Forster’s translation of Spaarman reads: ‘He looked out for a klipkrans (so they generally call a rocky place level and plain at top, and having a perpendicular precipice on one side of it).’[7] Pringle’s ‘The Emigrant’s Cabin’ is recorded by the OED as the second occurrence of Kranz in English language writing, and the first in an original piece of anglophone writing. The ‘Kranz’ in ‘The Emigrant’s Cabin’ both marks and obscures the material traces of San presence on settler-occupied land. In drawing attention to the epistemic violence done to Indigenous histories by settler-colonial writers such as Pringle, we can recognise the enduring power of colonial-era texts to shape the historical consciousness of postcolonial states such as South Africa, where Pringle is still known as the ‘father’ of white British South African poetry. Attending to the multilingualism of the text also draws our attention to power that language and dialect have in enabling the resurfacing of these occluded Indigenous histories. Where Pringle’s conscious blending of Scottish and English linguistic and poetic markers pointed towards a white settler utopianism, Cape-Dutch works to undercut this Romantic settler-nationalism in its moment of articulation by gesturing towards the racialised violence and occluded Indigenous histories that such utopian settler national projects were founded upon.







[1] See case studies here: https://www.ucd.ie/southhem/. Accessed 11 Jul. 2022.

[2] Jason R. Rudy, ‘Floating Worlds: Émigré Poetry and British Culture’, ELH, 81 (2014): 325–50. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/24475597>, [accessed 11 July 2022].

[3] See John Plotz, Portable Property: Victorian Culture on the Move (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009).

[4] Jason R. Rudy, ‘Scottish Sounds in Colonial South Africa: Thomas Pringle, Dialect, and the Overhearing of Ballad’, Nineteenth-Century Literature 71:2 (2016): 197-214 (212).

[5] Lorenzo Veracini and Rafael Verbuyst, ‘South Africa’s Settler-Colonial Present: Khoisan Revivalism and the Question of Indigeneity’, Social Dynamics 46 2020): 256-276 (261).

[6] See Damian Shaw, ‘Thomas Pringle’s Bushmen: Images of Flesh and Blood’, English in Africa, 25 (1998): 37-61.

[7] G. Forster tr. A. Sparrman Voy. Cape Good Hope II. xi. 48


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