Frenchman who put SA’s natural history on the map
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.