Maverick Life


Robert Grendon: A Life Rediscovered 

Robert Grendon: A Life Rediscovered 
Book cover, supplied. Image composite, Maverick Life

A new book revisits what is thought to be the first piece of extended literature written by a black South African, Robert Grendon’s Paul Kruger’s Dream.

Poet, scholar, botanist, auxiliary soldier, journalist, politician, talented sportsman and grandson of a famous Herero leader, Robert Grendon is one of the most extraordinary people in South African history. What is incredible is that he has been almost entirely forgotten.

Born to an Irish trader and the daughter of Maherero in 1867, Grendon was sent to Cape Town to be educated at Zonnebloem College. There he excelled and became a highly regarded teacher. He was one of the first editors of the ANC’s newspaper, Abantu Batho, but spent much of his life being hounded out of positions by the colonial authorities. He died in poverty, in a small hut.

The first extended piece of literature written by a black South African, Robert Grendon’s Paul Kruger’s Dream, is an extraordinary work. Believed to have been lost, it was rediscovered by Dr Grant Christison in an archive. 

It has now been republished for the first time since 1902, by Strandwolf African Classics. 

The poem details South Africa’s hostile racial relations while beautifully rendering the country’s landscapes. Mixing Greek, Roman, Christian and African mythologies, the work is entirely unique.

The Dream begins with the arrival of the Dutch in southern Africa and tells the story of the birth of the Afrikaner people: their trials with the British and Dingane and their reestablishment of the Transvaal Republic. The goddess Fortuna then arrives to warn Kruger of his and his people’s fate.

Here is an extract from the book.


When the once ‘famous Nongamu’ – the name given to the half-Irish half-Herero Robert Grendon by his Zulu students – died, blind and impoverished, in rural Swaziland in 1949, his productive life was long behind him. 

In the decades that followed, the record of his life and achievements came within a whisker of being forever forgotten. Thanks however to assiduous detective work by the late Tim Couzens in the 1970s, the memory of Grendon was resurrect­ed. 

When TD Mweli Skota died shortly after supplying vital information about Grendon, Couzens could write that the “link in the Grendon chain never came so perilously close to snapping”. 

We today would not be able to recover many important details of our shared South African past were it not for Couzens and brave scholars like him who during the apartheid era recognised the intellectual endeavours of black South Africans as worthy of respectful study. 

In undertaking his doctoral research, Tim combined meticulous archival research with interviews of surviving members of South Africa’s ageing mission-educated black elite. A few of these had known Grendon near the start of the twentieth century. A chapter on Grendon appeared in his dissertation and was subsequently published as a paper in English in Africa in 1988.

While carefully perusing the columns of Ipepa lo Hlanga, Couzens discovered the first three parts of Grendon’s poem titled Paul Kruger’s Dream. 

He instantly recognised a work of considerable importance. 

Simultaneously, he came across other poems by Grendon published in Ilanga lase Natal during the years 1903–1906. He described Paul Kruger’s Dream as Grendon’s “most interesting poem of the period” and lamented that “tragically for South Africa’s literary history only three of the thirty-six parts seem to have been published”. 

He concluded that “with his incomplete epic poem”, Grendon “is to be regarded as an early literary figure of importance”. He also predicted that if Grendon’s epics and other writings ever surfaced, they would “put him in the same category as his contemporary, Sol Plaatje …”. 

The Cambridge History of Africa (1986) picked up on this, stating that “Robert Grendon (c.1867–1949), a coloured teacher, is known to have written much in English that may yet be discovered”.

Interestingly, when Couzens asked Skota if Grendon had been “a good writer”, Skota replied that he “almost class[ed] him with Sol Plaatje”. It was with good cause that Skota held Plaatje up as a benchmark of literary achievement in South Africa. 

Despite receiving very little formal education, Plaatje at his death in 1932 left behind a prodigious body of journalism. He also authored the first novel in English by a black South African, a full-length exposé of the injustice of the Natives Land Act (1913), a work on Setswana proverbs, translations into Setswana of some of Shakespeare’s plays and other works besides. 

Most of this material appeared in print during his lifetime, but his manuscript diary of the Siege of Mafeking was first published in 1973. Its acclaimed debut on bookshelves coincided with a paradigm shift in scholarly approaches to the South African War (1899–1902) and, more generally, with the onset of the current drive towards racially inclusive regional historiography. 

Together with Plaatje’s diary, Paul Kruger’s Dream stands foremost among the few surviving texts that reveal in one way or another the responses of black and coloured people to the South African War of 1899–1902. 

Although belonging to very different genres, both Diary and Dream show their authors to have been deeply committed to the triumph of British arms and to the overthrow of Boer domination in the South African interior. 

Grendon and Plaatje were not mere bystanders who happened to find themselves in the theatre of war: they were active participants, albeit non-combatant ones. 

It is highly probable that Plaatje and Grendon knew each other personally. While living in Kimberley during the 1890s, Grendon collaborated on political and sporting projects with Plaatje’s brother-in-law, Isaiah Bud-M’belle, who later described Grendon as his friend. Grendon and Bud-M’belle both lived in Kimberley’s Malay Camp. Plaatje lodged for a time with Bud-M’belle. 

In 1904, Grendon’s poem Defence of Tommy was republished in Plaatje’s paper, Koranta ea Becoana, where it was endorsed with “a hearty AMEN” from the editor.

Grendon and Plaatje had very different modes of thought and expression, and Skota’s description of Grendon as “almost” in a class with Plaatje does Grendon a disservice, for whereas both men were masters of discursive prose, only Grendon could lay claim to being a poet. 

It is worth noting that Grendon’s poetic talent did not go unnoticed by his black contemporaries. “Resurgam”, writing in 1923, describes Grendon as “one of our African poets and writers”, and again in 1925 as “the coloured poet and writer”. “Resurgam” has been identified variously as Allan K Soga and Henry Daniel Tyamzashe.

My discovery of Grendon 

When I undertook my doctoral research in 2005, I was privileged to be placed under the supervision of Catherine Woeber, whose own doctoral research had been co-supervised by Couzens. 

It was she who introduced me to Grendon. 

The more I read and discovered, the more riveted I became. I made it my goal to discover, if possible, a complete exemplar of Paul Kruger’s Dream. 

An appeal in the press proved fruitless – but then, on an impulse, I thought to consult South African Bibliography … to 1925. To my delight, this work located a single repository for the Dream. 

It directed me back to the Pietermaritzburg depot of the South African National Archives where Couzens had earlier located the first three parts of the Dream in Ipepa lo Hlanga

As a schoolboy, I had spent many absorbing hours in the reading room of the “Natal Archives”, and I was happy now to be back in my old haunt. After some searching, I located an entire copy of Paul Kruger’s Dream, printed in Pietermaritzburg, possibly at Grendon’s own expense, shortly after the end of the South African War.  

Here is just a flavour of Paul Kruger’s Dream:

 Part 1

[In his youth Paul Kruger traces the history of the first Dutch settlers in South Africa (1652), and the cause of the migration northwards of their descendants two centuries later (1836).] 

Two centuries—two centuries well nigh 

Have pass’d away, since on yon foam-fring’d coast 

Beneath old Table Mountain’s wind-fann’d brow, 

A band of Dutchmen – sailors – homeward bound 

With treasures from the East, was shipwreck’d cast. 

Five months they sojourn’d in that pleasant land 

In ease – in ease, and plenty, undisturb’d, 

Forgetful of their home beyond the sea. 

And when the time for their departure came, 

They bade farewell with loathing, and regret; 

And gazing back upon that foam-fring’d shore, 

That fruitful valley, and those azure peaks, 

With tearful eyes they yearn’d, and hop’d, and pray’d 

That they thereto might wander back again. 

And yearning, hoping, praying, thus they sang:– 

‘O Land of Hope – O Land of Hope –

Far brighter than our own! 

O foam-fring’d coast! O fruitful slope, 

Where we have reap’d and sown! 

O azure peaks! O skies serene! 

O silent crystal streams! 

O pleasant woods for ever green, 

Wherethro’ the sun’s bright beams 

Do never pierce, adieu – adieu! – 

And whilst this parting strain 

We chant, we pray that unto you 

We may return again! DM

The book Robert Grendon: A Life Rediscovered retails at R200 and is available at several Exclusive Books, Clarkes Book, and online at Reader’s Warehouse and Wordsworths.


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