An extract from Rogues’ Gallery: An Irreverent History of Corruption in South Africa by Matthew Blackman and Nick Dall, published by Penguin Random House in March 2021
A library, liberty and Thomas Pringle in the Cape
Perhaps one of the most incongruous aspects of Lord Charles Somerset’s governorship of the Cape Colony was his desire to improve certain cultural and educational aspects life in Cape Town. As it turned out a German colonist by the name of Joachim von Dessin had bequeathed a few thousand books, two ‘skulls of savages’, a collection of ‘native craft’ and a fund for the development of a library. With this, Somerset duly established a library in part of the Slave Lodge at the bottom of the Company’s Garden. And Lord Charles appointed a young man by the name of Thomas Pringle as its sub-librarian. Pringle had arrived in the Cape Colony with the 1820 Settlers.
The literary world in the Cape was, however, pretty limited. As one wag put it, it was sad that Von Dessin could not have donated to the Colony ‘a collection of readers’ to go with his collection of books. But despite the dearth of readership in Colony Pringle was set on pursuing a literary career and he had arrived in Cape Town with an introduction to the governor from Sir Walter Scott, no less. Lord Charles was suitably impressed and offered him a salary of £75 a year (a mere 134 times less than the governor’s own salary). Due to the insignificant nature of his salary, Pringle also applied to supervise and edit the Government Gazette, started by Sir George Yonge. Pringle had edited the famous Blackwood’s Magazine and then the Edinburgh Review – a role that would prejudice Lord Charles against him. The Edinburgh Review was a Whig publication, and the governor was a sworn Tory. Having been refused the position at the government’s publication due to his liberal associations, Pringle began to take on private students and persuaded a Scottish friend, John Fairbairn, to join him in Cape Town in order to start a school.
Fairbairn and Pringle had met one another through literary circles in Edinburgh, but they shared a great deal more than literary tastes. Both had an unswerving dedication to the freedom of the press and would also place themselves at the forefront of the anti-slavery movement. On receiving Pringle’s invitation to join him in Cape Town, Fairbairn wrote back saying he would do so, noting that ‘your hint about Magazines and Newspapers pleases me exceedingly. What should hinder us from becoming the Franklins of the Kaap? … I have a number of literary schemes in my head … Yet surely popular lectures on Chemistry, Geology, Botany, and other departments of science, might be rendered both acceptable and useful to your new country men.’
What Fairbairn had not gleaned from Pringle’s letters was that one very large impediment stood between them and their dream of an ideal academy: Lord Charles Somerset. Somerset and his Cape government had in place a policy that forbade the establishment of an independent press, as well as laws against the expression or discussion of grievances at public meetings. These laws, together with the flagrant corruption and ‘irregularities’ in the Somerset administration, had driven some of the 1820 Settlers to write a memorial to the Colonial Office. It was this memorial that in part had led to Britain’s Parliament appointing the commission of inquiry that arrived in the Cape in 1823.
Whatever initial good impression Somerset had of Pringle soon evaporated. Although he agreed to Pringle and Fairbairn setting up their school, Somerset would later say that it taught the ‘most disgusting principles of Republicanism’, and he did his best to drain it of students. So, when this liberal-minded group of men applied to Lord Charles for permission to set up a periodical and a newspaper, they were told by the colonial secretary, Colonel Bird, that ‘His Excellency had not seen your application in a favourable light.’ As Pringle tells it in his memoir,
Long before Mr Fairbairn had joined me, however, I had acquired a more intimate acquaintance with the character of the colonial administration and formed a truer estimate of the views, I soon saw that their professed anxiety to encourage education and the diffusion of knowledge was a piece of political hypocrisy, assumed to cloak the real character of the government from the prying eyes of his Majesty’s Commission of Inquiry.
When the commission of inquiry arrived at the Cape, Somerset went all out to ingratiate himself with the two commissioners. He accommodated them lavishly in Government House while he took to his luxuriously refurbished (at taxpayers’ expense) house in Newlands. From there, he sent incessant invitations to the commissioners asking them to join him on hunts, to attend race meetings and to sample the luxuries of ‘his’ government farm at Groote Post. These, by all accounts, the commissioners Bigge and Colebrooke steadfastly declined.
All the while, Somerset had been beavering away trying to stop the Colonial Office from granting Pringle permission to start a free press. And with the commissioners nosing around in official correspondence, Somerset took to writing privately to officials at the Colonial Office to oppose Pringle’s attempts. ‘I foresee so much evil,’ he wrote, ‘and a great public inconvenience might arise from the adoption of the measure.’
Pringle and Fairbairn may well have given up their attempts for a free press had it not been for the arrival of a Mr George Greig. Greig was in the printing trade and had arrived in Cape Town with skills and some equipment. Despite the shade Lord Charles had thrown on Pringle and Fairbairn, with Greig’s arrival the two did get permission from the Colonial Office in Britain to start a literary publication. The permission did, however, contain the caveat that the publication have ‘the strict exclusion from the work of all topics of political or personal controversy’ and that it may contain nothing that was ‘detrimental to the peace and safety of the colony’.
And so, under these conditions, Pringle and Fairbairn’s The South African Magazine was born. According to Pringle,
At the same time, Mr Greig, a printer who recently arrived from England, and established the printing press in Cape Town, commenced the publication of the weekly newspaper entitled the South African Commercial Advertiser. Every such attempt had hitherto been at once arbitrarily quashed by the colonial authorities; but the presence of the Commissioners of Inquiry, and the decision of Earl Bathurst in our case deterred the government from then directly interfering with Mr Greig’s publication, although they went as far as they decently could to discountenance and discourage it … After issuing his first two numbers he found himself in want of editorial aid and solicited us to undertake literary management of the paper. As the control of an efficient press, with a view to the diffusion of useful knowledge throughout the colony, was the great object of our ambition, we agreed.
Pringle goes on to write that they acceded to the demand from the Colonial Office not to engage in party politics. They also abstained from covering issues like slavery and the treatment of the native population. This was no doubt difficult, as these were issues close to both Pringle and Fairbairn’s hearts. They did, however,
[i]ntroduce the practice of reporting law cases and on this point the Governor and some of these advisors happened to be particularly sensitive; insomuch that although they had nothing to allege against the paper as respects the impartiality and discretion with which such reports had been hitherto given, they could not tolerate the continuance of such a privilege. The immediate cause of their interference was this. It was a prosecution for libel then before the Supreme Court, at the insistence of the Governor. In the course of the trial the defendant (one Edwards, a reckless and desperate adventurer), had brought forward certain scandalous and libellous charges against the character of the Lord Charles Somerset both in his public and private capacity.
William Edwards, who was masquerading as a lawyer in the Colony, was more than just ‘a reckless and desperate adventurer’. He was a convict who had escaped from the penal colony of Australia in 1821. He was also, by all accounts, a consummate showman who knew how to play to an audience. His entrance into the Cape courts was timed perfectly for the Cape’s first (almost) free media. What these trials and Pringle’s newspaper revealed was
that under the Cape judicial system the government had unlimited powers of search, detention and banishment; that the accused had no right to summon their own witnesses or cross-examine the witnesses of the prosecution; that the fiscal, or prosecutor, was also one of the judges and that there was no trial by jury; and that none of the Cape’s top judicial officers was fully conversant with the English language.
Perhaps the most interesting of the cases was that of Lancelot Cooke, who wished to take on the services of a ‘prize slave’. Prize slaves were the slightly more fortunate variety of slave who had been on board foreign ships that had been captured by the British navy and ‘freed’. They were freed only in the sense that they were ‘apprenticed to an owner’ in something like the manner of an indentured servant. That is, they had to work for a certain number of years before they could become truly free. If, however, the ‘owner’ of one of these ‘prize slaves’ died and the slave was capable of finding employment and taking care of themselves, they were free to do so. And this is precisely what happened to a Cape Town ‘prize slave’ by the name of Jean Ellé. After his master died, Ellé found gainful employment as a cook with a man named – with astonishing appropriateness – Lancelot Cooke.
However, the head of customs at the harbour, Mr Blair, was intent on spoiling their broth. Blair was in charge of the distribution of ‘prize slaves’, many of whom he assigned to himself or his friends. Jean Ellé was no exception. Blair promptly took him out of the services of Lancelot Cooke and placed him instead under Mr Wilberforce Bird’s mastery. Ironically, Bird was related to William Wilberforce, Britain’s greatest anti-slavery activist.
Lancelot Cooke did not take this matter lying down, and he persuaded the masquerading lawyer and escaped convict Edwards to take his case pro bono. Quite why Edwards at this stage was so eager to take on the powers that be is unclear. Certainly, Edwards understood that abolitionism and the mistreatment of slaves in the Colony was a hot topic, and one that Somerset was on the wrong side of.
Edwards, it seems, felt very strongly on the issue of slavery and would write to Somerset saying,
I have lived long enough to know that my life is only valuable in as much as it serves my fellow Creatures and if I should ever be martyred in the perseverance to destroy effectually the slavery my loved country has abolished.
Together, Edwards and Cooke collected evidence from various others in the Colony, drew up a memorial stating the grievances many had with Mr Blair’s conduct and sent it to the governor for it to be transmitted to England. But Lord Charles played the same legal trick he would later use with Bishop Burnett. He handed the memorial over to the fiscal, Daniel Denyssen, who charged Cooke and Edwards with ‘libelling a public servant’ – a charge that would result in banishment.
As McKenzie relays, ‘Cooke was charged with having written and signed the memorial, Edwards with having drawn it up and forwarded it to the governor, and the clerk Jan Bernard Hoffman with having copied it.’ Edwards would go on to mock the prosecution, asking why, given these terms, he had not attempted to prosecute others involved in the production of the memorial, such as ‘the papermaker or the goose, whence the pen which it was written was plucked’.
During the trial, Edwards went on the attack, calling the governor in as a witness and pointing out the various instances of Denyssen’s dereliction of duty. The court then sentenced Edwards to one month in prison for contempt. Edwards put his month in prison to good use, and when he was freed he produced in court an astonishing amount of legal precedents to substantiate his claims against the governor, citing everyone from the legal philosopher Hugo Grotius to the famous Tory judge Sir William Blackstone.
Every step of the way, Pringle, Fairbairn and Greig recorded Edwards’s legal crusade and his exposure of corruption in their newspaper, the South African Commercial Advertiser. Thanks to Edwards’s deft legal arguments and the groundswell of popular support for him that was developing in the Colony, Edwards surprisingly won the case brought against him by Somerset after an appeal to the full court. The trial ultimately exposed the great corruptions and injustices that were entrenched under Somerset’s rule in the Cape, not least the corrupt dealings with regard to prize slaves.
After assessing Edwards and Cooke’s memorial, the head of the Colonial Office sent Lord Charles a letter. The letter pointed out that Somerset’s case of libel against the two was deeply flawed. Libel, it argued, occurred when a statement was made in public; that is, when it was either said in a public meeting or printed in a newspaper or pamphlet. The Edwards memorial had been sent to Lord Charles privately. It was not a public document and therefore was not libellous. But now, they went on to explain, Somerset had made the memorial public and he had effectively become the publisher of the statements in the memorial. Lord Charles himself was thus guilty of libel, and not Edwards and Cooke. Edwards is recorded to have said:
I glory in having done my duty. I am proud to be the humble hand to open the eyes of a beneficent Monarch. I owe it to his Majesty not to leave him ignorant of the abuse of his officers. I will have the glory to be a broom in the hands of Royalty which shall cleanse this Aegean Stable and bury every pander in his own filth!
But neither Lord Charles nor Edwards was finished. On sending the governor two heated letters which our ever-sensitive governor deemed offensive, Edwards was rearrested and thrown into jail once again. Again, Somerset seemed to willfully misinterpret the notion of ‘publication’ and charged Edwards with libelling ‘His excellency the Governor’.
Edwards again went on the attack, calling a list of witnesses, including ‘a manumitted female slave’, ‘a concubine living with Lord Charles Somerset’ and Dr Barry, Somerset’s rather unusual personal doctor. Edwards, seemingly insultingly, referred to Dr Barry as a ‘Woman Doctor’. The fiscal, Dog Dan, was perhaps right in believing that Edwards had called these witnesses in order to ridicule them and the governor in front of newspapermen, who were eager to publish a salacious story.
With all of this theatre transpiring – and the choicest bits being published and sent around the Colony – Lord Charles intervened, demanding that Dog Dan censor the paper. Finally, Somerset ordered that the paper be closed entirely and that the press be destroyed. Initially, the fiscal merely sealed the printing press. But he failed to confiscate the type, and Greig succeeded in printing some further handbills. As these circulated Cape Town, the governor ordered that Greig be banished from the Colony.
With the press now out of commission, Greig banished and Edwards in jail, one of the most controversial and unexplained events in Cape history occurred. On the 1 June 1824, a poster was placed on the corner of Hout and Adderley streets stating:
A person living at Newlands makes it known or takes this opportunity of making it known to the Public authorities of this Colony that on the 5th instant he detected Lord Charles buggering Dr Barry.
The mysterious Dr Barry
Dr James Barry spent his formative years in Edinburgh, where he studied medicine. He first served as a doctor in Cape Town and then in several other parts of the British Empire. He rose to the position of inspector general in charge of military hospitals. When in Cape Town, he is reported to have saved the life of Somerset’s gravely ill daughter, Georgina. After this, Barry became a close friend of the family, frequenting the house in Newlands and becoming Somerset’s personal physician.
While in Cape Town, he also performed one of the first Caesarean sections ever documented where both the mother and child survived. The child was christened James Barry Munnik in Dr Barry’s honour. The name was passed down the family and was given to James Barry Munnik Hertzog, Boer general and later prime minister of South Africa.
Dr Barry is said to have been an unusual person, diminutive and prone to violent outbursts. He also had a high voice and wore special platform shoes to bolster his stature. Florence Nightingale, who worked with him in the Crimean War, said that he was ‘the most hardened creature I ever met’. But he was also well known for going out of his way to treat slaves and the poor and for his hospital and medical reforms.
Interestingly, Edwards used Dr Barry’s decency against Lord Charles in court. Edwards noted that Somerset made a law one day and permitted his friends to break it the next. Somerset had made a law that all doctors had to charge a fixed fee of one rixdollar for a visit. But Edwards pointed out that when Barry charged less than the law dictated, Somerset allowed him to get away with it.
According to recent research, after Barry died it was discovered that biologically he was in fact a woman. Dr James Barry was born Margaret Bulkley and grew up as a girl in Cork, Ireland. Barry’s recent biographers, Michael du Preez and Jeremy Dronfield, claim that Barry may well have had an affair with Somerset. Barry would describe Somerset as ‘my more than father – my almost only friend’.