Space, Place and the Feminised Landscape in Colonial African Literature

Discourses on space and place deal invariably with contested feelings of confidence and anxiety in the transitional moment of turning the former into the latter; much is to be gained, but not without danger. These feelings are no better expressed than in literature written during the time, of the metropole and of the colony, feelings that are represented by the treatment of landscapes in nostalgic efforts to maintain space as place. Such outsider and insider views on colonial South Africa are found in King Solomon’s Mines (hereafter referred to as KSM), by H. R Haggard and Mhudi, by Sol. T. Plaatje, respectively. The feminine voice is particularly important to such an analysis, and particularly the black feminine voice, as the former paradoxically includes it by overt exclusion, while the latter is a mouthy exponent for the occupation of the feminine space by women themselves. Thus, what will follow is a comparison between the narratives of KSM and Mhudi in an effort to show how each text fundamentally differs in their treatment of space by exploring their respective outsider and insider points of view on South Africa, their subsequent and contextual relationships with “mother” Africa as both men try to negotiate their own positions as father, son and husband to the space, and the resultant projection of such psychologies onto the South African landscape.
Written in 1885, King Solomon’s Mines is a swashbuckling Imperial adventure romance, the result of a 5 shilling dare from Haggard’s brother that he couldn’t write a novel half as good as Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson. Dedicated to “… all the big and little boys who read it” (2002:2), Haggard marks out his text as a singularly male endeavor, characteristic of the age of imperial and colonial expansion, in which the British compulsion to conquer and possess land was seen not only as a right, but as a God given duty. As McClintock (1990:103) notes, Haggard was the eight of ten sons and so was ousted from any right to inherit his father’s estate and title by Victorian laws of primogeniture. Haggard was shipped to South Africa by his own father who had doubted his success in any arena and thus transferred his paternal responsibility into the hands of Sir Henry Bulwer (McClintock 1990:106).

Reading into this, one is able to conjecture that the story of KSM tells a similar tale to that which is true of both Haggard and the imperial corpus that bred him. The British Imperial agenda was then a father and son unto itself, fostering brothers and sons in all of its colonies and so the inheritance of foreign lands was viewed as a familial right, making all Imperial explorers and agents fathers to new lands themselves as they carried the ideology of the British Imperial corpus with them.

Haggard’s narrative is infested with anxieties “… peculiar to the late nineteenth century…” (Stott 1989:75) Having written KSM in 6 weeks after his return to England after his relatively short time in South Africa. England was still recovering from the devastating social and economic upheaval of the 1870’s (McClintock 1990:97), and Haggard longed for the perceived simplicity and “natural” way of things that he experienced there that was now lost to him back in England. Haggard felt at home in South Africa and in many of his writings “… voiced a fulsome admiration for the Zulu nation…” (Rodgers 1997:113). This allowed him for the most part to escape being labeled as a “racist”, though still a man of his time could not escape the colonial mindset of white supremacy. This dividing line was lost in most other colonial agents, and resulted in the carving up of Africa, something Haggard lamented, for with it came the complete dislocation of its people.

KSM then is a nostalgic attempt to restore his brother and fatherhood to South Africa through the main character and narrator, Allan Quatermain. As a colonial adventure the novel has at its core the motif of quest; a journey undertaken by brave men (and specifically white men) to achieve an end goal. For Quatermain, it is the promise of treasure, for Sir Henry it is to locate his missing brother, for Good it is to accompany his friend, and for Umbopa it is to be returned to his homeland (after a period of displacement). Umbopa is the only black man out of the trio of natives that accompany the white men to have his own individual goal. This, along with Quatermain’s observation (one which, as a white men, decided his character) that Umbopa was a “… magnificent looking man… [whose] skin looked scarcely more than dark” (Haggard 2002:36], and the continual reference to his dignity and strange nature that set him apart from other natives allows, as Rodgers (1997) notes, Umbopa’s manhood to, in some ways, outweigh his seeming shortcomings; being black and therefore relegated to the status of servant. Khiva and Ventvogel, the other two natives accompanying the band of “men”, fall short of these requirements and die in order to preserve the manliness of the adventure. It may be argued, however, that the death of the two men are in fact fulfillments of their own quests, as seen belonging to them by Haggard and Quatermain (informed by the imperial notions of manhood); one may read that their quest was to help the “white” men achieve their own goal. Khiva is killed by an enraged elephant bull while protecting Good from the same fate, thus ensuring Good’s journey would continue, while Ventvogel dies in Sheba’s left breast, a victim to the white man’s journey that he was never meant to partake in, but fulfills his role as loyal and uncomplaining servant nonetheless. (Haggard 2002:45)

Thus, KSM involves the movement of people across the South African landscape on a conquering mission, echoing imperial movements of the time. If Haggard writes Quatermain and his band of white men as father, then he writes Africa (and specifically the land of South Africa) as wife, mother and daughter to be consumed, the spoils of their mission. Haggard’s depiction of the African landscape as highly feminized and sexualized represents the deep entrenchment in white men of the Victorian ideals of domesticity and femininity. Victorian women must be passive, silent, and the object (not subject, as this would involve personhood) of the male gaze. Victorian male confidence in their right to claim women is painted all over Haggard’s experience of Africa, and can be seen in the structure of the map in the very first pages of KSM, before the action even starts. One critic’s description of the map reveals it to be the barest outline of the female form, lying on her back with her legs spread apart and missing a head. (McClintock 1990:114) This immediately generates an image of a woman passively waiting to be penetrated, open legs a clear invitation. A closer (and more disturbing) read proves Quatermain’s (and thus Haggard’s) view of the female bodyscape to in fact be that of a … “recumbent woman, veiled mysteriously in sleep” (Haggard 2002:62). Such an image can only point to the rape of South Africa, her landscape, people and lifestyles for imperial gain.
Women that do not fit such Victorian ideals are immediately dismissed. Gagool is described as a “fiend” (Haggard 2002:6) and “a hundred at least” (idib) and is immediately disregarded as a woman as she is “… not marriageable.” Foulata, on the other hand, is acknowledged as a woman, but only as an afterthought; “… there is no woman in it –except Foulata.” (idib) She is, though of marriageable age and viewed as an object of sexual desire, still African, and therefore acknowledged as female, but not as a woman worthy of male consumption. Such ideas of racial worth are included as a scientific fact, as a natural belief, as even Foulata herself affirms that she is “…glad to die because I know that he cannot cumber his life with such as I am, for the sun may not mate with the darkness, nor the white with the black.” (Haggard 2002:207)

Quatermain’s assertion that “… there is not a petticoat in the whole history” (Haggard 2002:6) is thus a comment on the absence of “true” femininity. One may read this in two ways, which in conjunction reveal the contested feelings of confidence and anxiety present in Haggard’s narrative.
The first is the confidence in the white right to land appropriation, evidenced in KSM by the painting of the landscape as perhaps the only petticoat in the whole story. The band of explorers are in a number of occasions positioned atop hills, “koppies” and mountain ridges. The swellings in the earth not only provide a vantage point from which they might survey the land stretching out endlessly beneath them, but also prove their claim over the land and the female form, as each time they reach a position of height they are rewarded. After suffering intense thirst, they mount a “… sand koppie, [where] an undoubted pool of water…” (Haggard 2002:65) awaited them. The milk of the mother’s breast nourishes the weary travellers. Later, they find food in the form of an antelope that is only “… found at a great altitude…” (Haggard 2002:77) Just before reaching the nipple of Sheba’s Breast, the climax of their ascendance, the men become kings as the “… flying rays of light from the setting sun, which here and there stained the snow blood-red … crowned the great dome above us with a diadem of glory.” (Haggard 2002:69)
They become lords of the land and are, after descending slightly from the mountaintop, presented with King Solomon’s road, winding its way through the landscape. Good inspects the stone artwork that lines the road and claims it to be of “… Egyptian or Phoenician handiwork…” (Haggard 2002:80), thus the work of their white ancestors, and as such, having paved their path for them centuries before, legitimizing their journey and their claim to the land. The road runs the length of the female form, a virgin-space to penetrated, leading inevitably to the climax of their journey in King Solomon’s mines, located at the base of three hills called “The Three Witches”.
The second way one might read the absence of the “petticoat” is by realizing this assertion as concealed anxiety. Though confident, the land is not easily conquerable, giving female Africa a voice; one of resistance. The landscape then, is not a nurturing mother. Instead, she tries at every turn to dissuade the men from their journey. Quatermain and his posse suffer dehydration, threats of starvation, animal attacks and a bloody battle between the returned king of the Kukuanas, Umbopa/Ignosi, and their self-proclaimed and illegitimate ruler, Twala. At one point, in the heat of the desert, the men decide to “… dig a hole, get in it, and cover [themselves] with the Karoo bushes.” (Haggard 2002:57) One critic postulates this as a strategy to “… escape death only by digging a womb-hole in the earth in which they bury themselves” (McClintock 1990:117), though I believe such an interpretation to be far too generous of the landscape. Instead, it may be read as the “mother” Africa’s attempt at ridding herself of the men, forcing them into such arid conditions that they must then dig their own graves. Such an attempt can be seen time and time again throughout the narrative. The deaths of da Silvestra and Ventvogel in Sheba’s left Breast, supposedly a source of life in the mother, but here punitive and withholding. Her breasts “… are extinct volcanoes…” (Haggard 2002:64), for even if they were not extinct, their production would still ravage the land.
There are clear dualities at play here; confidence against anxiety, gardens of good and of evil, male against female. KSM is a narrative that outlines the struggle of male virility in asserting itself against constructed notions of femininity and domination, and as such, the African woman cannot live. Gagool attempts to lead the white men to their deaths in the mines and tries to escape, but is delayed by Foulata, who is herself stabbed to death by the wise woman. (Haggard 2002:207) The white men are nearly killed and then saved by the African woman, the two representing the split of good and evil. What cannot be ignored is the fact that both women need to die in order for the white men to live, for if Foulata had not sacrificed herself, Gagool would be alive and Quatermain, Sir Henry and Captain Good would be dead. Evil cannot triumph over good. Similarly, Foulata must die in order to preserve Good’s integrity, as their affair would degenerate his good standing.

The language used to describe the imperial/colonial right of dominion over the South African landscape contains the undeniable attempt to maintain “space” as “place”. Africa is set as foreign and exotic backdrop, allowing Haggard to pursue his masculine phantasms of adventure and intrigue, and yet it is also undoubtedly a foreign space to him. Quatermain attempts “… to describe the extraordinary grandeur and beauty of that sight, language seems to fail [him]” (Haggard 2002:62), and it is here that that one can see the failure of this outsider to fully engage with the space. And so what follows is an attempt by Haggard, through the technology of language, to maintain this space as place, to turn it into something recognizable, something familiar. Language is used as a device to name, classify and catalogue the landscape and its people. (Sienaert and Stiebel 1996:92) And English is specifically proprietary in its application, as McClintock notes, “The mountain peaks are ‘Alp like’, Solomon’s road looks first like ‘a sort of Roman road’, then like St Gotthard’s in Switzerland. The landscape is not properly speaking African, because it is already the subject of conquest” (1990:119)

Rivers become brooks, “which the banks were clothed with dense masses of a gigantic species of maidenhair fern interspersed with feathery tufts of wild asparagus… [and they] sung merrily at [their] side, the soft air murmured through the leaves of the silver trees, doves cooed around, and bright-winged birds flashed like living gems from bough to bough. It was a Paradise.” (Haggard 2002:80)
Such is Haggard’s attempt to maintain foreign space as familiar place, reaching out recognizable elements of the landscape not only for himself, but for the English audience for whom it was important to visualize the England being set up outside of the metropole. Naming, classifying and cataloguing (seen specifically in da Silvestra’s map) become an important colonial process by which space is turned into place, appropriating it by language. (Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin 1998:182)

And so, if KSM is an imperial narrative that records the movement of people across a feminized, sexualized landscape to be conquered by proprietary language and male virility, Mhudi tells the opposite tale. I place the investigation into Haggard’s KSM first in this comparative analysis between the two novels, because his text helps to locate our reading of insider vs. outsider viewpoints by setting the stage of a colonial South Africa and thus allowing us to contextualize our understanding of the restriction of land and freedom to its native inhabitants. Mhudi speaks from within the colony and tells the tale of a dislocated people and culture, giving them the three-dimensionality that Haggard’s text denies them.
Born on 9 October 1876 on a farm near Boshoff, Plaatje attended missionary school and thereafter took up various positions of political importance; post messenger and Court Interpreter in Kimberley, Magistrates Clerk in Mafikeng, and thereafter holding the position of editor at a number of newspapers. By 1917 Plaatje had proved himself an important political writer, publishing Native Life in South Africa (critically acclaimed as one of the most articulate early political books) and pamphlets on the socio-political climate surrounding inter-racial relationships in South Africa. He was also one of the founders of the SANNC (South African Native National Congress), and part of the group sent to London to make appeals to the British government against the Natives Land Act of 1913. Plaatje was also a fan of Shakespeare, much of his fictitious work taking on the Shakespearean language and dramatics (Plaatje 1978:1-2)

Mhudi was estimated to have been written between 1917 and 1920, but only published in the 1930’s. Finally picked up by Lovedale Press, a mission-publishing house, the published version was greatly edited and “sanitized” to appeal to a wider English speaking and reading Christian audience. (Plaatje 1978:7) Plaatje’s difficulty in publishing Mhudi is testament to the colonial atmosphere of the time, as being the first novel to be written in English by an African, its scathing attack on the policies of the colonial British regime was undeniable. Plaatje sets out his intentions from the very beginning of Mhudi, claiming two objectives: “…to interpret to the reading public one phase of ‘The Back of the Native Mind’” and to collect money from its sales to print Sechuana folktales “… which, with the spread of European ideas, are fast being forgotten.” (Couzens 1987:41)

These objectives make clear one important thing for Plaatje: that the African has not been given his opportunity to tell an authentic African story, as all histories of Africa have been produced from a Eurocentric view point. Thus, in Mhudi, Plaatje attempts to reroute the direction of history-telling, and in doing so endeavors to preserve some elements of traditional African life before they are completely written out of a history that has been denied its own voice.

Though written in 1917, the action of the novel is set in the 1830’s, and is used as a model through which to critique the British rule in the early 1900’s. (Plaatje 1978:18) The Natives Land Act of 1913, which effected the dislocation and displacement of the African people under British colonial rule, is paralleled with the plight of the Bechuana people, who are forced into subservience by the ruthless Matabele nation under the megalomaniac rule of Mzilikazi. The Bechuana people are used as a body of African people to represent the oppressed masses in the 1910’s, while the Matabele are signifiers of the unjust and racially discriminatory English rule to come. Mzilikazi takes land and servants by force, promising leniency under the condition that taxes are paid to him. Chief Tuana in Kunana violates the terms of this involuntary social contract and Mzilikazi retaliates with a violent and disproportionate attack. This sets the tone for the rest of the novel; one of swirling uncertainty that holds change only as a distant prospect.

These cycles concern themselves with the movement between good and bad, the deterioration of a nostalgic and Eden-like existence into a decaying garden filled with degenerate virtues. (Coetzee 1988:4) If Mhudi opens with the destruction of paradise, it follows naturally that the book is about reinstating it.

The novel opens up in an idyllic setting, portraying Bechuana life in Kunana as pure and simple, a paradisal garden. The Matabele sacking of the Bechuana capital sends this Eden into disarray, polluting the land with bloodthirsty Matabele soldiers’ intent on maintaining this imbalance. Mhudi and Ra-Thaga’s difficult exiles after the destruction of their village, their life in the decaying garden, are cycled back to Eden’s restoration when they are brought by fate into one another’s arms. They set up a home in the wilderness together, and name it “Re-Nosi” (Plaatje 1978:60) Here Ra-Thaga and Mhudi take up their roles of Adam and Eve and live off the land in harmony. Their entanglement with a prowling lion tests their virtue and worthiness, and, besting it, they prove themselves morally sound. Once their integrity is affirmed, Plaatje has the couple leave their paradise in order to keep the wheels of change moving towards the restoration of the Greater Eden, (Christie, Hutchings and MacLennan 1980:78) Mhudi and Ra-Thaga, anxious about being discovered by the Matabele, move to Qoranna, which proves itself not to be a safe-haven, but another garden in decay. The couple moves to Thaba Nchu where, even under the relatively happy chieftainship of Moroka, the greater Garden of Eden is still threatened by the marauding Matabele. Paradise is threatened by the great imbalance brought upon it by those in power who choose to violate the social contract of nature and her people.
The dislocation of the people at the hands of the Matabele is the future echo of what is to be expected under British rule after the institution of the Natives Land Act, and the oppressed people are yearning for safety. It is for this reason Plaatje chooses to so deeply characterize the landscape with mother-hood.
Unlike KSM, landscape in Mhudi is not sexualized, is not viewed as the subject of conquest, but is mother. “… There is a conveyed sense of a harmonious instinctive relationship with nature” (Christie, Hutchings and MacLennan 1980:77) The land is lush and over-flowing with sustenance when she is respected, and she offers aid to her children when needed, “The top of Thaba Nchu hill, visible for scores of miles in each direction, dwarfed every hillock and koppie round about as though standing sentinel over the surrounding landscape” (Plaatje 1978:104), as though the landscape was in fact part of the army, keeping watch for the Matabele.

However, when disrespected, she is cruel and unforgiving. The Matabele, out of tune with nature and relentlessly imposing the will of Mzilikazi onto the people and the land, saw Mother Africa retract her generous bounty as “Hunger, fatigue and the broiling sun had in the meanwhile devitalized the Matabele hordes…” (Plaatje 1978:98)

The transition from garden in bloom to garden in decay leaves the voice of nature screaming for its restoration; her children are at war with each other and therefore with nature as well. “The forests shook…oxen bellowed in surprise and wild hounds yelped, wolves and jackals ran as though possessed by a legion of devils….”, mother Africa “… protested loudly against this unholy disturbance of the peace…” (Plaatje 1978:47)

Mhudi herself represents this “mother” Africa figure, and is the heroin of the story. Mhudi’s strength of constitution is revealed when she falls ill while Ra-Thaga is away with the armies of Thaba Nchu, and yet her feminine insights and mystic powers tell her that he needs her help. (Plaatje 1978:152) She rises to the occasion, becoming healed the moment she decides to save her husband, and thus, as testament to the regenerative power and strength that Plaatje imbued his female characters with as they represent the driving force of salvation, Mhudi cures herself by her own bravery.

Mhudi, meaning “harvester” is at one with the landscape and is able to speak her language. She knows the“…familiar buzzing language [of the bees]” and of the “…turtle doves whose language I thought I could almost understand…” (Plaatje 1978:48)
Plaatje, then, specifically maps out a space for women, and though he allows both Mhudi and Ra-Thaga vantage points from which to survey the land, it is Mhudi’s vision that is boundless, and Ra-Thaga’s that is limited. Mhudi ascends a small koppie and observes, as “… a wide stretch of country was exposed to view and the sight of the outer world fascinated [her] immensely…” (Plaatje 1978:43) Even when the landscape is not known to her Mhudi remains fluent in nature’s tongue, in both her familiarity and her foreign boundlessness. Ra-Thaga, on the other hand, is not. When he ascends his own koppie, he can only see as far as “… half a dozen lions prowling in the neighborhood…” (Plaatje 1978:62)

The juxtaposition of these two positions, one unlimited and powerful, the other restricted and tainted with fear, that we see the true strength of the feminine presence.
The three female characters, Mhudi, Umnandi and Hannetjie, represent Plaatje’s loud assertion of his belief that women should occupy their own space. Their relationships with their respective partners, Ra-Thaga, Mzilikazi and De Villiers are embodiments of the nature of cycles in the novel, of restoring the garden to its pristine state. For each man goes a period without his wife, and it is her absence which was each man’s undoing. Ra-Thaga went without Mhudi to hunt with the Qoranna villain, Ton-Qon, and was tricked and left for dead. If it weren’t for Mhudi’s mystic powers, which allowed her to feel an ominous presentiment for Ra-Thaga’s safety, he would not have lived. (Plaatje 1978:78) For Mzilikazi, the period of Umnandi’s absence coincided with the downfall of his great Matabele kingdom, and it was only upon her arrival in his encampment far north, that their garden was restored. (Plaatje 1978:179) De Villiers in fact went the majority of the novel without Hannetjie. Ra-Thaga points out to him that “… man was not made to live alone. Had it not been for Mhudi, I don’t think you would have known me at all. She made me what I am. I feel certain that your manhood will never be recognized as long as you remain wifeless.” (Plaatje 1978:158) In this sense her presence and her relationship with De Villiers is what makes him worthy.

The three couples represent Plaatje’s nostalgia and efforts to preserve certain aspects of cultural life, though each couple equally represents new dynamics of change and progression that is required in order to move forward.

Mhudi and Ra-Thaga are married according to custom, the finding of a wife enforcing his manhood, and yet she is no ordinary village wife. Their union represents the preservation of culture, but the dynamics of their relationship represent the change needed in order to survive.
The union of Hannetjie and De Villiers becomes the collective liberal mindset that Plaatje would have wished upon all white groups – Afrikaans and English. Separately and together the two are Plaatje’s plea for whites to acknowledge blacks as people: Hannetjie speaks out against the unnecessary lashings of a Hotten Tot on their journey away from Thaba Nchu, and De Villiers, not only befriends Ra-Thaga, but is willing to learn his native tongue, thus accepting his culture.
It is perhaps the union of Umnandi and Mzilikazi which is most important to a state of progress, because as a narrative device it is their dismantling that pushes the garden into disarray, leading to Mzilikazi’s downfall and resulting in his flee to the north. Only when this happens can true change occur in the land.

The Boers, who have been camping out at Thaba Nchu in order to escape the Matabele, collaborate with Chief Moroka’s rag-tag army, and together they defeat Mzilikazi. Their collaboration did not come without difficulties, as the majority of the Boers spurned the warm welcome of the native people due to their perceived inferiority and sub-human status. Nevertheless, they manage to bring down the mighty Matabele forces, and a certain hope for unity airs Plaatje’s belief that the “… solution to the building of a nation was to attain balance” (Couzens 1987:61) The novel ends on a hopeful note, with Mhudi and Ra-Thaga riding off into the sunset with pack-oxen and a Boer wagon, given to them by De Villiers. The pair move towards a changed and yet restored Eden, a romantic prospect, and yet the defeated Mzilikazi’s warning hangs in the air, “The Bechuana are fools to think that these unnatural Kiwas (white men) will return their so-called friendship with honest friendship.” (Plaatje 1978:175)
And so, if Mhudi serves as a model for the climate of the 1910’s under British rule, this too is a warning to the African people that white people will again turn on them.
Plaatje’s use of language to capture these irretrievable moments of change and preserve in them the cultural values and mores fast being erased by colonial expansion is unique in both its unavoidable “padded” Victorian style and its systematic inclusion of cultural proverbs and poems. (Plaatje 1978:11) Plaatje’s mission school education would have influenced the, at time, stuffy English, as well as it’s many biblical connotations. The audience was an English one, literacy rates amongst native Africans would have been devastatingly low and would account for the exclusion of any traditional elements in the native tongue. Nevertheless, it may be argued, as Couzens (1987) does, that the use of English is pragmatic in embracing the inevitable.

Further more, the use of proverbs and poems (like the one at the end of Chapter 6) is Plaatje’s attempt to arrest the move to total Europeanism, preserving certain aspects of traditional culture that are regarded as valuable. It is for this reason that Mhudi ends up becoming one big folk-story, with the intention of teaching a moral lesson; that a certain balance must be restored in order for peace to rein.

Plaatje includes in his language elements of English, Dutch and African cultural languages, their visibility in the narrative representing the presence and movement of different groups of people across the land in 1913, making the language as multi-faceted as its population; the majority status of the English, the sporadic Dutch, and the strangled African voice.

Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines sets the scene for a colonized Africa, whose lands and people are available for imperial consumption. The feminized and sexualized landscape is a contested one, it is both the passive and resistant target of the penetrative confidence of the male gaze and a test of virility (which is dependent on the stifling of black female power), and thus consequently an indicator of the anxieties infecting the imperial body politic in its compulsive need to prove this. Plaatje’s Mhudi, a political model for the atmosphere of African dislocation during British colonial rule, colors in Haggard’s imagined English landscape by outlining the effects of this domination. Equally contested by anxiety and hope, Plaatje interprets these onto his own landscape, locating tradition and progress as two pillars of nationhood. The feminized, not sexualized African landscape becomes mother and is embodied in the character of Mhudi, her talkative landscape nurturing the dislocated people. In this, the power of women asserts itself as a necessary force, an important half of a relationship between people and nature, a saving grace to all, instead of Haggard’s perception of her as the condemning element of a story she has no place in.

Despite their fundamental differences, perhaps what King Solomon’s Mines and Mhudi have in common is an awareness of the fragility progress.

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