The Covenant: A Novel
Republiek van Suid-Afrika, a strange and complex place
5 enthusiastic stars
This is the fourth of these James Michener books that I have read, and I'm starting to see a lot of recurring themes.
1. There is some big man who leads his people somewhere in a semi divinely-inspired migration.
2. Those people undergo well-trod path: band--> tribe--> chiefdom -->state.
3. Trade brings together people who would have not other reason to interact, and trade is also what brings better organized powers to establish their own sovereignty over some new area.
4. The Golden Age That Never Was: even as far back as 6 centuries ago, people were hunting animals to the point of extinction for both food and trade.
This thematic overlap is not the fault of Michener as a writer. It's more like: there really are only a very few paths that human beings can take.
There were also a lot of historical resonances to other places and times that were so striking, I thought I might just note them here.
1. The tenacity of ethno-religious groups. And, it is interesting that the Boers repurposed the large number of the Old Testament myths of Jewish people, because they felt those parallels.
2. A government making extremely determined enemies of a large subset of the population. Over a large number of decades. Slagtersnek and the Anglo-Boer war happened almost a century apart. The Jim Crow laws went on all the way from the 1890s until 1964.
3. Total warfare is well known, brutal, and impersonal. Sherman's March to the Sea was meant to break the will of the south, and the English put Boers in concentration camps to kill off tens of thousands of them.
4. People in one place who are similar to each other locked in struggle against one another. In this case, we have English and Afrikaaners, both of whom are Europeans but mortal enemies--but ignore the Africans that are much more numerous and who finally turned out to be a bigger problem. In the United States case, you have (white) Conservatives and Liberals who have become mortal enemies of one another--even as they ignore much larger looming language conflicts/problems with unchecked and Muslim immigration. (Ihlan Omar showed up in Congress and nobody even knows where she came from.)
5. Settled city dwellers crushing nomadic people, a la "Guns, Germs, and Steel." (In the case of the Boer republics, they have been settled but for much shorter periods of time and consequently did not have as much city experience as the English-and they were subjugated in the same way that they subjugated the Africans.)
6. An ethnic group is defeated in warfare, but they find other ways to continue to preserve their identity. (There was a 2000 year hiatus between the last group of Israelis and the current one, both ends bridged by Jews.) And so the Boers focused on their Bibles and language.
7. Affirmative action is an excellent way to turn people against each other and there is no stopping point. (And let us be clear that the Afrikaaners did practice affirmative-action-in-extremis.)
8. Poor population management (as in the American South and South Africa) can have spillover effects that last for many decades longer than the length of the initial problem.
The excessive length is not too bothering, because there are enough variations/details around the edges in each specific case to still make for a very interesting narrative arc--which Michener skillfully provides.
1,153 pages of prose over 14 chapters works out to just about 83 pages per chapter. As in Michener's other works, each chapter is a novella in its own right.
This was not an excessive number of pages, given that the history of South/Southern Africa is so vast and complicated. (And, I have heard more than one American try reinterpret the South African case as a replay of the American case-- which it is emphatically not.)
These 14 novellas that comprise this book coverage such a long time span (so many characters, and so many different narratives), that the overall feeling can only be described as impressionistic.
What do we learn from each chapter?
1. Exposition of Khoi-san people and their hunter-gathering lifestyle.
2. Exposition of the settled Bantu Africans and there higher level of civilization and trade contacts.
-Also, their absolutely appalling mistreatment and enslavement of Khoi-san people. (Inter-African slavery was a thing for thousands of years and still is today. Why nobody knows this is beyond me.)
-It appears that it must be something genetic about black men and fat women (p.64). And I guess people have observed that even several centuries ago.)
-Hunter-gatherers are nothing even close to a match for settled city dwellers.
-The resource curse has a very long history. (Gold. Diamonds. Elephant tusks.)
3. Exposition of the three main colonial powers in that region (Portuguese, Dutch, and English) and their internecine strife for ultimate victory.
-It's amazing how much better off the average human being is today then what they were in those times. A person can buy cinnamon for the price of about 5 minutes worth of labor, and yet whole fleets sales from one place to another to get those things.
-Even though the words Hottentot, Bushman, Koi-san, Khoikhoi (etc) are used interchangeably, they are all quite the different things. They just happen to speak similar languages.
-Governments are extremely slow to realize what are conditions on the ground, and it has been that way for at least three and a half centuries.
-There are Malay people in South Africa, and the mechanism of transfer was as slaves from one Dutch colony (Java) to another Dutch colony (South Africa).
4. How Huguenots made their way into South Africa.
-The religious wars in France were quite intense, with so many tens of thousands of people dead. (They came through it in short order, and now they are a secular country. Maybe there is yet hope for that Muslim Middle East.)
-The Vereenigde Oostindiche Compagnie colonized so much of the East is a testament to the Dutch business acuity.And that serves to highlight how different they were from the Afrikaners, even though they speak the same language.
-The Boers were/ are not entirely Dutchmen. There was a significant influx of French and Germans, but somehow they all ended up speaking Dutch / Afrikaans and coalesced into one ethnic group.
5. Genesis of the Trekboers, and that Cape Dutch and Trekboers are two different things, although they are related.
6. Some of the first English men that came there and lived further inland were missionaries.
From this, it appears that they are some part of the fairly heterogeneous Colored population.
7. Exposition of the paranoid, childless, murderous emperor Zulu conqueror, Shaka Zulu.
-Similar to many other conquerors, he never had any offspring period and it appears that he did not realize that he would die.
-Even back then, there was no clear succession pattern for African rulers. Much like today, they usually end up leaving as a result of assassination. (In recent times, one ruler in the Congo was assassinated by his own son.)
-The current African characteristic of wanton slaughter and brutality actually much predates European contact. Mzilaki-of-the Matabele and Shaka-of-the-Zulu were responsible for the murder of somewhere between 1-2 million Africans. (Far more than perished on The Middle Passage.)
And yet how many people even remember the Mfecane?
-Present day Lesotho and Swaziland are a direct result of the Mfecane.
8. Exposition of the Voortrekkers.
-These extremely sturdy people were still a different group of Boers who fled North to try to escape British rule.
-The English and the Boers are not friends in South Africa, and they have not been for a long time.
-Michener takes the trouble to let us know that the Boers of that time were only semi-literate, and they repurposed the myth of the Israelite expansion to apply to themselves.
-They also made extensive use of the Curse of Cham in their (primarily) Old Testament version of Christianity. (p.639)
-(p. 644) In so many ways, Boers are just like any other tribe in Africa: They engage in the same internicene warfare, and seem completely nonplussed about slaughtering or being slaughtered in tribal warfare. (That's just the way they do in Africa.) Huge numbers of the Boers were slaughtered--and they shook it off and kept moving. I would estimate something like a third or a fourth of them died in such warfare.
A lot of what animated them was fighting due to population pressures.
-As another times, gunpowder was a great equalizer. (p. 613)-At the Battle of Veg Kop, 50 Voortrekkers defeated 6, 000 African attackers. (p. 644) at the Battle of blood river, 4,000 Zulus were killed and not a single Voortrekker--and this is in spite of having a 30:1 numerical advantage on the Zulu side.
-The tsetse fly made it such that the Voortrekkers did not go even as far north as they wanted to. (Their horses could not live past the Limpopo River.)
9. Exposition of other big events.
-Nongqawuse was a female prophet who created a bunch of hysteria, and encouraged the Xhosa to kill all of their cattle (~400,000 head) and burn their crops to hasten the coming of spirits rising from the dead.
End result: about 75,000 people starved to death as a result of deliberately killing their only food source.
-Like the Boers, the German populations in places such as current day Botswana actually came from a very small number of people (p.671-673): Something like 2,350 mercenaries were randomly assigned to German women around 1857, and that explains their existence there 150 years later.
-South African Indians (people like MK Gandhi) came there as an escape of the crushing poverty of India. Almost none of them chose to go back. (p.682)
-We are introduced to Cecil Rhodes (of Zimbabwe - Rhodesia). Michener characterizes him as a closeted homosexual whose single-minded drive was to expand the British empire
10. The Anglo-Boer war
-A most perplexing episode in history: essentially, a bunch of white people fighting each other to the death even though they were much outnumbered by black people. (It has vague residences to conservative / liberal white people in the United States fighting each other tooth and nail even though they are surrounded by more numerous enemies.)
-Even though the varied Afrikaans speakers were not the same thing as the English speakers, they also were not the same thing as each other (Cape Dutch Boers were not the same thing as Voortrekkers)
-Of course with the numerical superiority that the English had, we would not expect the Boer republics to prevail. But, they certainly gave the English quieter run for their money.
-Great figures were present at that moment in history that formed their worldview based on those circumstances. Churchill. Tenacity. Gandhi. Nonviolence. Botha. Commonalties of English and Afrikaans against common black enemies.
-The English were not always the most benevolent of conquerors, and they did resort to concentration camps in the end in order to bring Boers under control.
11. Exposition of the incorporation of the Boer Republics into the new nation of South Africa.
-The "Afrikaaner" was born probably only within the last hundred years or so as an amalgamation of several different Boer subgroups.
-1904 Chinese expulsion from South Africa.
-The hatred of the Bantu people is something that came about because of the humiliation and disenfranchisement of the Afrikaaners and, the clergy was instrumental in developing the conceptual space to support that hatred.
12. Exposition of the Afrikaaner consolidation and control of the country.
-At one point, they considered joining in the side of Germany both in WWI/WWII, so rabid was their hatred of the english.
13. Specific case studies concerning the apartheid laws. (Birth/Work/School/Home/Death).
-Said laws did not exist for the first 300 years that there were "Dutchmen" in that region. They only came to exist as a way for these beleaguered Afrikaaners to protect themselves.
-There was a Race Classification Board (and that is because people of a certain race were only allowed to live and work in certain jobs). There was an example of a person having 2 ancestors out of 256 that may have been Malay/Hottentot, and that person was classified as Colored.
-(p.1000,1002) Crime has been an ongoing issue in South Africa for a very long time. At least since the 50s.
-Asian Indians do not like black people *anywhere* they live, and for black people who are trying to form a political coalition with them ("people of color"), they are going to be sorely disappointed. Just because people happen to be non-white does not necessarily make them friends with each other.
-Brutal interrogations of dissidents by Afrikaaners. (Coincidence. Blacks under Robert Mugabe were just as brutal to each other.)
14. Modern times/ odds and ends.
-This book finished up before the end of apartheid, but the author was cognizant of a sea change underway in the country.
-Then, as now, English have always been much more willing to abandon the country. (The Saltwood family was a well-chosen example of that exodus.)
-The book foreshadowed becoming of a moderate, triangulating Nelson Mandela. (p.1100). When they reverted over to Black rule, places like Mozambique collapsed instantly.
-The country takes on a bizarro world type quality, with people being "banned." (In some ways, it almost puts me in mind of North Korea.)
1. Ultimately, South Africa was a spillover consequence of English misrule. The later events of apartheid were not because of/ by the english, but they were an impelling factor.
2. This book took me the best part of 6 weeks to read, and I don't think that it was time wasted. Highly recommended, even at the new price, as a way to get some insight into the history of that strange country. Republiek van Suid-Afrika.
Mercifully, this book had a glossary.
Just the same, here are the words I extracted.
Lay in fee