Explorer who put South Africa and its birds on the King’s Map

Review: Vivien Horler

The First Safari: Searching for Francois Levaillant, by Ian Glenn (Jacana)

Francois Levaillant – who he, you ask. Well, one misguided South African journalist wrote that he was a typical stupid 18th century Frenchman who believed all sorts of mad things about Africa, including that there were birds who fucked goats.

Retired UCT academic Ian Glenn wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry. The journalist had come across an old English translation of one of Levaillant’s books in which the “s” was printed to look like an “f”.

Glenn writes: “Goatsucker, you idiot, I thought. Caprimulgus. Don’t you know that nightjars used to be thought of as goat suckers because they hung around animal pens to catch the insects there?”

This journalist had made the cardinal error of assuming that foreign people, or people in the past, were stupider than we are. The mistake prompted Glenn to write to the editor accusing his reporter of not knowing “his arfe from his elbow”.

Glenn is the author of a number of books and scholarly articles on Levaillant, and it was possibly his indignation about Levaillant’s treatment in the contemporary press that prompted this book.

Imagine if you had never seen a picture of a giraffe, and had to rely for your mental image on someone’s description. Levaillant solved that problem for a generation of French people by sending the first specimen to France.

Levaillant was French, but born in Surinam (then Dutch Guiana), which meant he spoke fluent Dutch. He later acquired German and Khoikhoi, which was a huge advantage when he first came to southern Africa in 1780, as he was able to converse with farflung settlers and indigenous people without needing a translator.

He was just 10 years old when his family returned to France from Surinam, but in that time he had fallen in love with forests, birds and insects, and spent much of his later life collecting and describing them. Google him and you will be told he was an author, explorer, naturalist, zoological collector and ornithologist. He collected thousands of specimens of birds in southern Africa, some of which are still to be found in museums in France.

He was, in Glenn’s opinion, the first of the respected explorers of our part of the world. Before Levaillant there were stories of animals, after him there was ornithology and ethology. It was he who named the bateleur (tumbler) eagle after the way these birds spiral down to earth after their prey, the bokmakierie and the southern boubou.

He was in the Cape for about four years, during which he made three major journeys, the first four-month safari (the word was not yet in use in English) in 1781 around Cape Town and Saldhana Bay, the second to the southern and eastern Cape which lasted over a year, and the third to the Orange River and into Namaqualand from about June 1983 to May 1784.

He collected thousands of specimens, mostly birds but also the giraffe and the now extinct bloubok, made many sketches and filled scores of notebooks (now apparently lost). He then returned to France and produced a number of volumes that Glenn describes as “first-person accounts of travel we (now) associate with National Geographic stories”.

His travels inspired what is known as the King’s Map, commissioned by a French nobleman, and which Glenn likes to think was pored over by King Louis XVI in the months before he was executed during the French revolution.

In the middle of the map is what Glenn describes as “what can only be called a selfie” of Levaillant in his camp in Namaqualand, among his tents and his retinue’s matjieshuisies, dogs and sheep, his loyal handlanger Klaas, and the tame baboon Kees.

Some years ago Glenn curated an exhibition at the Iziko museum in Cape Town which featured this map, which measures 3m by 2m and depicts many of southern Africa’s flora and fauna in the places they were found.

He was the first ornithologist whose books featured colour plates, and this is in part thanks to his acquisition of a recipe for an arsenic-based soap that preserved specimens and their colours better than anyone had done before.

Glenn believes Levaillant was the first and greatest ornithologist of local birds; that he was an innovator of techniques and technologies to portray nature, such as the arsenic soap; that he was a major social and cultural commentator, and that he was the first writer to convey the excitement of the African wilderness both as hunter and explorer.

He was also a product of the revolutionary anti-colonial mood of his times and the writings of people like Diderot and Rousseau, which influenced his critical stance on colonialism.

Levaillant says of Van Riebeeck: “His shrewd policy was to appear as an able peacemaker and he used all the devious means necessary to attract the good will of the Hottentots, and covered the lip of the poisoned cup with honey…they (the Dutch) did not fail to finish off the work, by offering to the Hottentots two highly seductive lures: tobacco and brandy. From this moment on, no more liberty, no more pride, no more nature, no more Hottentots, no more men.”

Glenn has been immersed in his study of Levaillant more more than 25. He is obviously totally familiar with his subject, but I could have wished for a bit more detail of the journeys themselves.

That’s a small quibble. This is an interesting and rather beautiful book, written with authority and humour, and illustrated with pictures taken from Levaillant’s travels (many of which are in a collection held in the library of the SA Parliament) and from the King’s Map.

(See this and other reviews by Vivien Horler on her website thebookspage.co.za)



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