The continuing influence of a once-forgotten shipwreck

Research Policy Office
Thursday 13 November 2014

Narrative of the Shipwreck of the French Vessel the Eole book coverThe important French text, the Narrative of the Shipwreck of the Eole by C.E. Boniface, originally published in Cape Town in 1829, lay forgotten in the National Library of South Africa (NLSA) until its discovery in 2010 by Dr David Culpin of the School of Modern Languages. The narrative is concerned with the equally forgotten shipwreck of a French vessel in the Eastern Cape earlier that year, and tells the story of the survivors’ walk, barefoot and without food, through 200 miles of unknown territory until they reached Cape Colony, and it is completed by a description of their reactions to life in Cape Town. The book gives a rare account of encounters between Europeans and the indigenous Xhosa population as well as offering an eye-witness description of several towns in South Africa just a few years after their establishment. In addition, this account, which was the first French book and the first travel narrative ever published in South Africa, is the first travel narrative ever to have been published in Cape Colony and provides a unique commentary on important political changes introduced by the English government in the 1820s into the administration of the Colony. It includes biographical information Boniface, a leading figure in the literary and musical life of Cape Town in the 1820s, and gives an insight into the literary and intellectual culture that underpins this text and his other writings.

Dr Culpin, who learned Afrikaans in order to read other scholarly works dedicated to Boniface which had been written in that language also corrected an error in existing biographies of Boniface, which suggest that one of the survivors of the Eole had a child by Boniface’s slave, whereas this child was Boniface’s own. Since then, Dr Culpin has been involved with several exhibitions, numerous public discussions, media coverage, over 20 school visits and online resources for schools. As a result, the cultural heritage of South Africa, through this insight into the French vision of the country’s pre-colonial period, has been enriched particularly on issues of cultural memory, reconciliation and social justice.

Forgotten musical items written by Boniface, notably his collection of Ariettes, expand upon the musical references included in the shipwreck narrative.

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