I purchased from a charity shop a small handmade photograph album with a wood cover and pages separated with tissue paper, containing 24 black and white photographs. Inside is handwritten “Copyright Photographs by Mrs Fred Clarke, Private Bag, Umtala”. My subsequent research has revealed this to be an amazing find...
The photographs are of the Mpondo (Pondo) people. Pondoland made up the largest part of the Traskei, the homeland of the Xhosa tribes (Nelson and Winnie Mandela are Xhosa!)
Located on the Indian Ocean coast, of the Eastern Cape province of South Africa, it is a mountainous grassland area with humid sub-tropical forests in the coastal valleys. It was on this coastland that many Portuguese ships floundered during the voyages of discovery!
With the first Mission established in the territory in 1830, Europeans spread throughout the region getting permission from tribal chiefs to open trading stations where the locals would exchange their cattle, grain, ivory, hides and tobacco for basic necessities such as pots, blankets, clothing, medicine and agricultural tools.
There were over 650 trading stations in the area in 1932, each five miles apart! The traders were hard working families who usually stayed for generations, becoming integrated with the locals and learning to speak the Xhosa language.
Western Pondoland had three districts: Ngqeleni, Libode and Nyandeni (encompassing the capital town of Port St John’s). It was in Gosshill, Libode that Mrs Fred Clarke (nee Ethel Goss) lived with her husband Fred Clarke, a third generation trader, his grandfather having been one of the first settlers to arrive in 1820.
Ethel became friends with the Pondo people and was privileged to be allowed to witness and record ceremonies that until then a woman had not been allowed to see. She spent years recording the life and customs of the Pondo and made photograph albums to sell at her trading store. She became known locally as the ‘White Pondo’!
The photographs were taken with a Brownie box camera and Ethel even developed her own pictures. These simple and inexpensive cameras made by Eastman Kodak revolutionised photography by allowing ordinary people to take low-cost snapshots.
This album has given me a private glimpse into the lives of the Pondo people. Many photographs depict everyday activities: a young boy cooking maize in an ant hill oven (the inside of the hard ant heap is scooped out leaving an oven space into which dry glass is placed and set alight); young girls looking at themselves in mirrors no doubt obtained from the trading store; women carrying huge clay pots and maize bundles on their heads; a thatcher at work on his house; harvesting of the pumpkins and men drinking beer and grilling their meat.
Other photographs are more extraordinary showing Pondo traditions. ‘Ukutwala’ marriage by force (this practice still occurs today) involves the abducting of young girls, often with the parents’ consent and forcing them into marriage although cattle is given to the family in compensation!
The Abakweta dance – a war dance performed from sunrise to sunset by young men as part of their initiation to become warriors and gain men’s privileges. They are not allowed to see their families during this time when they are also circumcised. The boys are naked and smeared with white clay and wear heavy straw skirts and headdresses which leave their skin raw and bleeding. If they do not endure the dances they can be sent back to the women and lose forever their position in the tribe.
One picture shows a man ‘doctoring lightning victims for burial’ – a one in a million photograph!
The landscape in the photographs behind the central characters shows just how empty and sparse the area was.
Undoubtedly Ethel has left us with a remarkable record of Pondo culture but she was not the only European at the time preserving history. Ethel was friends with two other women who also dedicated themselves to recording tribal customs and traditions.
One was Barbara Tyrrell (born in Durban 1912) who was brought up in rural Zululand and became fluent in the Zulu language. Barbara recorded through her drawings and paintings the beaded traditional dress used by the tribes in their daily lives and during ceremonies.
An independent woman who wore trousers when it was unheard of in the 1930s, Barbara was only in her 20s when she bought and converted into a caravan a Chevrolet Truck. She spent her life travelling around, painting the tribes and published various books which have become invaluable for anthropologists and bead collectors around the world.
The majority of Barbara’s work was purchased at the time by another of Ethel’s friends, Dr Killie Campbell (daughter of Sir Marshall Campbell a sugar baron and Natal senator).
Killie dedicated her life to collecting and preserving books, photographs, newspapers, paintings, diaries, letters and testimonials about native customs and their history.
Her collections are today administered by the University of KwaZulu-Natal at the Killie Campbell Africana Library which is housed in her old home.
I read that Ethel made six albums, two of them purchased by Killie who then gave one to Barbara containing over 450 photographs – so mine is substantially smaller!
Ethel’s niece Joan Broster also became known for her love of African dress beads accumulating a massive collection which was shown in museums and universities. She published books about her work and was known for her knowledge and collections of Xhosa dress.
Over time, as tribes have combined with modern society, many customs and stories, traditionally passed down the generations by the elders, are forgotten. These women, each in their different way, have ensured through their collections, paintings, books and photographs that the history of the Xhosa tribes is preserved and recorded for prosperity.
My album is clearly of historical value and belongs in a museum in South Africa for others to enjoy. I would love to know how it came to be in the Algarve!
So now you know…
By Isobel Costa
Isobel Costa works full time and living on a farm with many animals, her family is always involved in unusual life stories! In her spare time she enjoys writing, photography and family tree research.