With so much recently written about Lovedale Press in New Frame (here and here) and The Daily Maverick (here and here) – all of which has been really great to see – and with Athi-Patra Ruga and Lesoko Seabe’s amazing fund-raising campaign to save Lovedale Press it is perhaps worth noting another story. A story that I personally found fascinating while republishing Sol Plaatje’s Mhudi for Strandwolf Press. Mhudi was of course first published by Lovedale in 1930.
One narrative that has run in colonial and post-colonial worlds is the damage that the colonial-era missionaries did in Africa. It might be of interest that the chaplain RHW Shepherd, who was director of Lovedale’s publications, claimed that Lovedale Press was established by Glasgow Missionary Society in order to promote Christian knowledge in southern Africa and to propagate ‘civilised’ norms of conduct and moral behaviour. This attitude is very out of sync with our current world and interestingly (and ironically) with much of Sol Plaatje’s thinking in Mhudi.
What was fascinating about producing a new edition of Mhudi was the controversy that revolved around Lovedale and Plaatje’s manuscript. Tim Couzens explained just how the controversy began in his introduction to the Sefika Series edition:
In 1976, with student uprising spreading through the country, someone threw a petrol bomb into an office at Lovedale. Terrified that irreplaceable historical artefacts might be destroyed, the publishing house transferred its records to Rhodes University. In the course of the move the original typescript of Mhudi (with alterations in Plaatje’s hand) surfaced!
Possibly the most well-known article written concerning Mhudi was a collaborative piece published in 1978 by Couzens and Stephen Gray entitled ‘Printers and Other Devils: The Texts of Sol Plaatje’s Mhudi’. In it, they argued, that after analysing the typescript, they came to the conclusion that Plaatje’s original had been ‘bowdlerized’ by Lovedale. That is, that the missionaries had in some manner forced Plaatje’s hand and had him change certain passages to suit their ideology. This manipulation Gray and Couzens took it on themselves to correct seeing as they now had the correct version. And so they changed the Lovedale Edition into what is now the widely accepted ‘correct edition’, published most notably by Penguin. In fact Couzens and Gray’s argument, in the essay, has become the most widely accepted academic position with regards to the text.
As Brian Willan, perhaps the most knowledgeable Plaatje scholar, has pointed out, people like Horst Zander, have followed this argument claiming that Mhudi was published with ‘severe alterations that profoundly changed the nature of the book’, noting that ‘these modifications were evidently initiated by Shepherd himself’. As Willan observes the story of what Lovedale purportedly did to Mhudi is in many ways the best-known example of supposed missionary censorship of African creative writing. And for me, while I first began to put together the book, I was hooked on this idea. That was until I read Willan’s essay ‘What ‘Other Devils’? The Texts of Sol T. Plaatje’s Mhudi Revisited’.
For Couzens and Gray the main aspect of the missionaries’ ideological manipulation of the work was the removal of its main narrator, a man named as Half-a-Crown. As they state, this character played a ‘crucial and consistent role in the original’ and referenced African orality. They also claimed that Plaatje was force to rewrite passages in a more Eurocentric or Shakespearean cadence.
Well, if anybody reads both the typescript and the Penguin version this is rather a large overstatement of fact with regards Half-a-Crown. In fact Half-a-Crown is hardly mentioned, and when he is, one is slightly confused by his sudden arrival as narrator. In my first reading of the Penguin edition I barely noticed him. And he disappears as swiftly an as singularly as he appears. And what is more the book even without Half-a-Crown is overflowing with references to and notions of orality.
In fact all the evidence suggests that Plaatje simply removed a character which had, due to earlier rewritings, simply become surplus to the narration. It is both Willan’s (and indeed my own) judgment that the removal of Half-a-Crown was simply a consistent editorial decision. And what is more as Couzens himself pointed out in the typescript all the edits are done in Plaatje’s own handwriting. So unless a missionary physically stood over Plaatje, direct interference seems unlikely.
In fact far from Shepherd censoring Mhudi as Michael Chapman observed, the book was in fact published by Lovedale despite Shepherd ‘disagreeing with several of the author’s criticisms of Western and Christian standards’. Willan also goes on to point out that ‘Couzens and Gray did not have access to the records of Lovedale’s publications committee, which came to light only after the publication of their article.’ And the minutes shed some important new light on the argument. As Willan goes on, Shepherd in the meeting seemed ‘favourably impressed’ with Mhudi, and the committee went on to accept it for publication with no editorial proviso. The simple truth is there is absolutely no evidence that Shepherd and the missionaries at Lovedale censored Plaatje, or distorted the text.
This is not to say that the history of Lovedale College is without its controversies. There are several reports of confrontations between the students and the missionaries. But in the case of Shepherd, Plaatje and Mhudi, there was seemingly no conflict. The novel appeared in the Lovedale version as Plaatje wished it. Although in our edition I did consult all of the different versions including the typescript. And I occasionally made an editorial decision in the name of consistency. I also dutifully marked and footnoted the differences in the editions.
As most people who read Plaatje’s work should glean, he was no pushover. And despite having been largely brought up by missionaries, there are many examples of where Plaatje did not go along with what they desired. This is perhaps one of the faults of the anti-missionary argument, not that missionaries do not have a controversial role in our history (they do), but it quite often fails to acknowledge that the colonial subject has agency.