French­man who put SA’s nat­u­ral his­tory on the map

Weekend Argus (Sunday Edition) - - METRO - VIVIEN HORLER

FRAN­COIS Le­vail­lant. “Who’s he?” you ask. Well, one mis­guided South African jour­nal­ist wrote that he was an 18th cen­tury French­man who be­lieved all sorts of mad things about Africa, in­clud­ing that there were birds who f***ed goats.

Re­tired UCT aca­demic Ian Glenn, who wrote The First Sa­fari: Search­ing for Fran­cois Le­vail­lant, wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry.

The jour­nal­ist had come across an old English trans­la­tion of one of Le­vail­lant’s books in which the “s” was printed to look like an “f”.

Glenn writes: “Goat­sucker, you id­iot. Caprimul­gus. Don’t you know that night­jars used to be thought of as goat suck­ers be­cause they hung around an­i­mal pens to catch the in­sects there?”

The mis­take prompted Glenn to write to the ed­i­tor, ac­cus­ing his re­porter of not know­ing “his arfe from his el­bow”.

Glenn is the au­thor of a num­ber of books on Le­vail­lant, who was French but born in Suri­nam (then Dutch Guiana), which meant he spoke Dutch.

He later ac­quired Ger­man and Khoikhoi, which was a huge ad­van­tage when he first came to south­ern Africa in 1780, as he was able to con­verse with set­tlers and indige­nous peo­ple with­out need­ing a trans­la­tor.

He was just 10 when his fam­ily re­turned to France, but in that time he had fallen in love with forests, birds and in­sects, and spent much of his later life de­scrib­ing them.

He col­lected thou­sands of spec­i­mens of birds in south­ern Africa, some of which are still to be found in mu­se­ums in France.

He was, in Glenn’s opin­ion, the first of the re­spected ex­plor­ers of our part of the world. Be­fore Le­vail­lant there were sto­ries of an­i­mals, af­ter him there was or­nithol­ogy and ethol­ogy. It was he who named the bateleur (tum­bler) ea­gle af­ter the way these birds spi­ral down af­ter their prey, the bok­makierie and the south­ern boubou.

He was in the Cape for about four years, dur­ing which he made three ma­jor jour­neys, the first four-month sa­fari (the word was not yet in use in English) in 1781 around Cape Town and Sal­danha Bay, later to the south­ern and eastern Cape and then on to the Orange River and into Na­maqua­land in 1783 and 1784.

He col­lected thou­sands of spec­i­mens, mostly birds, but also the gi­raffe and the now ex­tinct bloubok, made many sketches and filled scores of note­books (now ap­par­ently lost).

He then re­turned to France and pro­duced a num­ber of vol­umes that Glenn de­scribes as “first-per­son ac­counts of travel we (now) as­so­ciate with Na­tional Geo­graphic sto­ries”.

His trav­els in­spired what is known as the King’s Map, com­mis­sioned by a French no­ble­man, and which Glenn likes to think was pored over by King Louis XVI in the months be­fore he was ex­e­cuted.

In the mid­dle of the map is what Glenn de­scribes as “what can only be called a selfie” of Le­vail­lant in his camp in Na­maqua­land.

Some years ago Glenn cu­rated an ex­hi­bi­tion at the Iziko mu­seum in Cape Town which fea­tured this map, which de­picts many of south­ern Africa’s flora and fauna.

He was the first or­nithol­o­gist whose books fea­tured colour plates, and this is in part thanks to his ac­qui­si­tion of a recipe for an ar­senic-based soap that pre­served colours.

Glenn be­lieves Le­vail­lant was the first and great­est or­nithol­o­gist of lo­cal birds, that he was an in­no­va­tor of tech­niques and tech­nolo­gies to por­tray na­ture, and that he was a ma­jor so­cial and cul­tural com­men­ta­tor.

He was also a prod­uct of the anti-colo­nial mood of his times.

See this and other re­views by Vivien Horler on her web­site (the­books page.co.za).

THE Que Pasa Dance Stu­dio will host its Christ­mas char­ity dance event Toys for Tots on Fri­day at La Parada in Bree Street. Two read­ers can win tick­ets.

FRAN­COIS Le­vail­lant’s plates of Cape his­tory.

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