It was while cataloguing several of his books that we learned of the death, earlier this month, of South African polymath Karel Schoeman. There has been widespread consternation at the loss of such a towering scholar who, although exceedingly private, was by all accounts very kind to those he knew and trusted. In the current issue of Huisgenoot magazine, one finds the expressions of Schoeman’s Basotho caregivers, a handyman, and others who experienced the writer’s generosity firsthand: gifts of a house, a motor car, a cataract operation financed, a child’s school fees paid.
In his will, Karel Schoeman requested that there be no funeral or tribute for him. By the reckoning of Protea Boekhuis publisher Nicol Stassen, however, Schoeman had a hand in authoring or editing 130 books in his lifetime, and these are surely an enduring tribute. The value of Schoeman’s achievement is further emphasized by the breathtaking range of his works. They include the various titles in the Vrijstatia series, featured in this month’s list, along with prophetic and historical novels, and the celebration of the love between President M T Steyn and his wife Tibbie, In Liefde en Trou. The manuscript of a final book, Die Laaste Reis, was sent to his publishers shortly before Schoeman took his own life.
Lawrence Oates was the nephew of Frank Oates, one of the earliest Europeans to reach the Victoria Falls. Frank Oates succumbed to malaria on his return trip to Tati. We are reminded, in the synopsis for Captain Oates: Soldier and Explorer, that Lawrence Oates “will always be remembered as a hero, as the man who walked willingly to his death on the ill-fated expedition to the South Pole led by Captain Scott, in order that his comrades might have a better chance to survive.” It is generally known that Oates, owing to frostbitten, gangrenous feet, was unable to maintain the pace required to reach the next food depot on the supplies that remained available. Accordingly, he walked out into a polar blizzard, uttering the famous words, “I am just going outside and may be some time.” What is less well-known is that he had suffered a gunshot wound to his left thigh in hostilities around Aberdeen in the Karoo, during the Anglo-Boer War. Oates was recommended for a Victoria Cross for his part in the engagement. It has been suggested, though not proved, that Oates’ war wound re-opened in the Antarctic due to scurvy, further hampering his progress and contributing to his decision to die.
The ‘heroic suicide’ of Oates was, of course, in vain, as the remaining members of the British South Pole team also died on the return journey to base camp. Several of the titles in this month’s list – which is laden with books on the Polar Regions, including some from the ‘Heroic Age’ – dwell on the tragic fate of Captain Scott and his companions. The most exciting item among these is, however, a book with a positive title, With Scott: The Silver Lining, by expedition member Griffith Taylor. We have a lovely example of the first edition, which is widely regarded as one of the most uncommon of the autobiographical narratives relating to Scott’s last expedition. The book has been tastefully re-bound by Alex Faria, whose work deserves wider recognition.
Griffith Taylor went on to become a famous geographer and anthropologist. His name is associated with environmental determinism, which has to do with the supposed effects of environment in shaping race. Although this philosophy has been used as justification for belief in the superiority of Europeans, Taylor in fact did not have that sort of mindset. He was opposed to the policy of ambitiously settling Australia with large numbers of Europeans, arguing that the continent’s arid interior was better suited to settlement by Mongoloids.
Scott’s rival in the race to the South Pole, Roald Amundsen, also receives attention in our list, notably in his own book The South Pole: An Account of the Norwegian Antarctic Expedition in the “Fram,” 1910-1912. Oates had a high opinion of Amundsen’s methods, which, with the benefit of hindsight, proved far more practical than those of Scott. The “Fram” of Amundsen’s title had been used earlier in the Arctic by Fridtjof Nansen. We also offer the attractive two-volume first edition of Nansen’s Farthest North.
It is fascinating to study what became of the men who went to the frozen South in the ‘Heroic Age’ of polar exploration. Perhaps the most interesting of all of the survivors was Frank Wild. Wild was Shackleton’s right-hand man, and the one left in charge of the Endurance crew remaining on Elephant Island when ‘the Boss’ and some others set off for South Georgia in a lifeboat on their famous rescue attempt. Concerning Wild, Shackleton said: “ … it is hardly necessary to write about him. He is my second self. I love him, as does every decent man on the expedition. He has been a tower of strength to me. Take him absolutely into your confidence about everything, including finance. He is … a damn sight better than a good many generals we have.”
Curiously, though, despite his immense ability and universal popularity, Wild had a very rough time in later life. At the encouragement of General Smuts, who became a close friend, he settled in South Africa, and sought work in such remote places as Mkhuze, Golela, Haenertsberg, and various mining settlements. He had two marriages. The second and happier, was to a Port Elizabeth woman, Trix Rowbotham. Never one to shirk, Wild could so easily have appealed for a government pension, which was ultimately forthcoming when news of his plight became known in England. However, he never sought to “cash in” on his fame. Angie Butler, author of The Quest for Frank Wild, which also appears in our list, has done a remarkable service in revealing what became of the resilient explorer. She discovered Wild’s ashes in the vault of the Braamfontein cemetary, and in 2011 these were united with Shackleton’s grave on South Georgia.
The Polar books have come from a variety of sources, including some left over from an earlier purchase: the library of Major Max Unwin, who was an expedition companion of Sir Vivian ‘Bunny’ Fuchs during his Falklands Dependencies Survey years. Max Unwin ended his days in Mooi River, KwaZulu-Natal. Several of the other books were recently acquired from a dedicated enthusiast. Here’s a thought: With proper cataloguing, a library, even after its disposal, can remain a happy reality to the former owner. The catalogue, in a sense, keeps the books together.
Other highlights of this month’s list include several books about Moravian missionaries in the Cape, and the first edition of Mungo Park’s Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa. Historian of exploration, John Keay, says of Park: “Unlike most other solitary travellers he would never be accused of exaggeration. There is evidence that he in fact suppressed some details because they were so horrific they might strain credulity. This transparent honesty is part of the book’s charm.”
We hope that we have found something to charm you. There are several books in this month’s list illustrating that a life, well lived, is worth celebrating.
The list can be found here:
Lindsay and Wendy