Two Victorian books celebrate the Cape of Good Hope

12 11 2008
The title page of the book

The title page of the book

“There are few ships more happily christened than the steamers of the Castle Line. They, the ‘beautiful adventurers’ of today, inherit by right the traditions of the old strongholds of adventure. Sailing through distant waters, touching upon strange shores, they seem to offer the chance of stirring incident once sought in the castles that kept watch upon the land. Life at home may fall into the prose of routine, but in the very smell of ships there is promise of romance.”

So begins the text of Tantallon Castle the Story of the Castle and of the Ship told by Elizabeth Robins Pennell. This book, with its handsome illustrations by five artists, one of them the renowned print maker Joseph Pennell, whose wife Elizabeth was, was printed by T and A Constable in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1895. This copy of the book was inscribed on the fly-leaf to: “Mrs. Lewis with Captain Hay’s compliments.” Stuck onto the fly-leaf is an undated


The fly-leaf

newspaper article announcing the death of Captain W. Hay, then Marine Superintendant of the Union Castle Line.

Joseph Pennell at work

Joseph Pennell at work

Said Joseph Pennell explained the genesis of the book in the introductory Note to the book: “The germ from which this book sprang was Sir Donald Currie’s desire that I should make a series of drawings of the very delightful interior decorations of the ‘Tantallon Castle,’ designed by Messrs. Niven and Wigglesworth. The drawings were made, and around them, the book has grown up. My designs have become but a part of what I hope may be a beautiful whole.”

The name of Sir Donald Currie, the founder of the Castle Line, precursor of the well-known Union Castle Line, is still a household one, especially among white South Africans, as it was he who donated, in 1891, the eponymous “Currie Cup” for which rugby teams still vie, with their fanatical supporters. The Currie Cup competition is one of the oldest rugby competitions in the world today.

Pennell and W.L. Wyllie were the most distinguished and well-known of the five artists who contributed to the book. Pennell was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1857 but lived for many years in London, where he and his wife were very close to their fellow-United States artist James McNeill Whistler, whose biography they wrote and published in 1908.

William Lionel Wyllie was born in London in 1851 where he trained at the Heatherleys and the Royal Academy Schools. He won the Turner Medal in 1869. Wyllie lived for many years in Portsmouth and became known as one of the leading marine artists in England. His work, like that of Pennell, was widely shown and widely admired, especially in the early years of the 20th Century. The National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, holds a large collection of Wyllie’s works.

The title page of Arthur Vine Hall's book

The title page of Arthur Vine Hall's book

At about the same time a book of poetry entitled Table Mountain and sub-titled Pictures with Pen and Camera was published in Cape Town by J.C. Juta & Co. The writer of this book was Arthur Vine Hall, and it celebrates his arrival at the Cape some six years before. According to The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). Vol. 14. The Victorian Age, Part Two this book was published in 1896. Before finding this reference the closest I could come to an estimation of the book’s publication date was the inscription in pen of the date 27 Nov 1897. This is written below an indication of the price of the book: 2 shillings! I assume that this is the date on which the book was bought by its original owner, or perhaps it is the date it was given by the buyer to someone else as a gift.

A note on the Contents page says that, “The majority of the illustrations are taken from views by Mr. S.B. Barnard of Cape Town, the others by Mr Jarman of Claremont.” Which are which though, is impossible to say, I believe.

One reason for this article about these two books is that they were both in my late father Murray McGregor’s collection and are to me interesting examples of a particular Victorian genre of bookmaking marked by somewhat overblown and bombastic writing combined with rather charming illustrations.

The writing of Elizabeth Robins Pennell seems bland when compared with Vine Hall’s:

“O morning music of the wak’ning glade!

O fiery noon and pine-wood’s purple shade!

O timid Twilight, beautiful but fleet!

O star-eyed balmy Night! Whose gentle feet

Awake no sleeping flower so light they pass,

Nor shake one diamond from the dewy grass.

Great Summer, Hail! All hail!”

Tantallon Castle and the Bass by Joseph Pennell

Tantallon Castle and the Bass by Joseph Pennell

And those are just the first seven lines! It gets worse, believe me! And how almost normal by comparison is Elizabeth Robins Pennell’s description of the Tantallon Castle in Scotland, after which the Castle Line ship was named: “Earls of Fife, Macduff’s descendants, were the pioneers who entrenched themselves upon the sea-vexed promontory; Stewarts made it for a time their home. But fortune was fickle in the feudal age as now, and there came a day, in 1425, to be accurate, when the Duke of Albany, then in possession, forfeited Tantallon to the Crown.”

Another reason for writing about these two books together is that they both celebrate Cape Town and Table Mountain in a particular, somewhat romantic, but nonetheless interesting way.

Nearing Cape Town from teh Arthur Vine Hall book

Nearing Cape Town from teh Arthur Vine Hall book

After the description of the “eleven days between Madeira and the Cape” in which “life on board never savours of the monotonous” Elizabeth Pennell describers the arrival at the Cape in typically florid but somehow fitting prose:

“For all the pleasure of the journey, joy is keen enough when the first rumour is heard of the South African coast fast approaching. And, now, steaming into the Bay, the great, square-topped Table Mountain, with the ‘Twelve Apostles’ on guard and white Cape Town spreading over the plain to climb up its sides, is a contrast, indeed, to those quiet, low fields and shadowy roofs that lie on Thames’ side. Table Mountain has had its frivolous critics to suggest ‘Hill’ as a name more appropriate. But whoever has seen it first from the Tantallon deck will be impressed by its severe outlines and solemn simplicity, as was Drake in his day, and Diaz in his.”

The mountain from Table Bay from the Arthur Vine Hall book

The mountain from Table Bay from the Arthur Vine Hall book

How different is the bombast of Vine Hall in the opening lines of his long, incredibly long, poem called “Table Mountain”:

“More blue than cloudless canopy of Noon,

More bright than star-pavilion of the Moon,

The sapphire pavement of the sunlit sea

Sparkled before thy feet unceasingly;

Yet when I first across that shining bay

Drew near to thee, my thought fled far away,

Back o’er the twice three thousand miles to where,

From out the wave, white cliffs like sea-birds fair

Arise; more dear to England’s scattered sons

Than e’en to those whom ever runs

The roar of her thunderous seas.”

And so on, for page after page!

Elizabeth Pennell, in her description of the arrival at the Cape, goes on to highlight the contrasts she experienced there:

“To go ashore at Cape Town is to enter a capital unexpectedly like home, and yet curiously foreign. For if its position has been described as a plagiarism of Edinburgh, there is nothing British in the brilliant sunlight and clear radiance of the atmosphere; if Houses of Parliament and more than one public building suggest an English town, there are old mansions and a castle that would be more in keeping on the canals of the Hague or of Leyden; while the dusky faces that outnumber the white are essentially African and Oriental.”

The view from the summit overlooking Wynberg from the Arthur Vine Hall book

The view from the summit overlooking Wynberg from the Arthur Vine Hall book

Vine Hall takes a loftier (literally – he is looking down on Cape Town from the summit of the great mountain at daybreak) view of the scenes so prosaically described by Pennell:

“More frequent grow the voices of the plain:

The leader of each farm-yard’s feathered train

Gives shrilly call; the house-dog’s honest bark

Follows the hurrying footsteps of the Dark.

These homely sounds alone distinctly come,

With the toy village’s faint murmurous hum,

Climbing to Heaven. All is more clearly seen:

(Except the vleys, which now have lost their sheen),

The little houses, gardens, fields of vine,

The heathery waste, and many a thin red line

Of dusty road. Yon speck? Some crazy cart,

Whose dusky driver, seeks the morning mart.”

And after some more expostulations on the geography, Vine Hall continues with the description of Cape Town, which you might see from the summit as:

“The chess-board city, and you might descry

The red spot where our legislators ply

The tasks which on the plain appear so great.”

A present-day writer, who actually lives in Cape Town, also highlights the contrasts which are so great a feature of Cape Town. He is Mike Nicol and his book on Cape Town Sea-Mountain Fire City is a wonderful read. This passage in particular is relevant to what Elizabeth Pennell also felt about the place:

“From the beginning Cape Town was built on an accumulation of paradox and contrast: to every development a shadow side. The heart of the city formed below the mountain, yet even as the mountain gave the town its distinctive beauty it also gave the town’s slaves a passage to freedom. And when the white citizens saw the night fires on escaped slaves flickering above the town they surely must have recognised a threat.”

And at the end of the preface to the book, entitled “Imagining Cape Town”, this wonderful paragraph:

“Centuries ago the Portuguese described this spit of land that extends stubbornly into the Atlantic Ocean as the Cape of Storms and the Cape of Plagues. The Dutch changed this to the Cape of Good Hope – of course they had to, they were going to establish a settlement. In that simple act of renaming, the fate of the future city was determined on principle of contrast and paradox: it would be a city of trouble; it would be a city of hope. It would be a city of beauty; it would be a city crippled by disease. Like many, I was seduced by the attractions and opposites of this city, just as I was fascinated by its story.”

The Voyage of the Tantallon Castle

The Tantallon Castle leaving dock by Wyllie

The Tantallon Castle leaving dock by Wyllie

Of course, the Tantallon Castle book is about much more than Cape Town. The ship herself and the journey from London, around the Cape to Durban are substantial parts of the book, and make for fascinating reading (once one reads past the overblown language!).

I found an interesting companion description of a journey on the Tantallon Castle by no less a personage than Lord Baden Powell, the founder of the Boy Scout movement. In his book on the The Matabele Campaign, published just a year after the Pennell’s book, he tell how he was “invited” to take a trip on the Tantallon Castle by a memorandum from the War Office. It is worth quoting in full:

WAR OFFICE, S.W., 28th April, 1896.

Passage to Cape Town having been provided for you in the s.s. Tantallon Castle, I am directed to request that you will proceed to Southampton and embark in the above vessel on the 2nd May by 12.30 p.m., reporting yourself before embarking to the military staff officer superintending the embarkation.

You must not ship more than 55 cubic feet.

I am further to request you will acknowledge the receipt of this letter by first post, and inform me of any change in your address up to the date of embarkation.

You will be in command of the troops on board.

I have the honour, etc.,

Evelyn Wood

Evelyn Wood

The Evelyn Wood who signed this memorandum was at the time the Quarter Master General. He had served in South Africa in both the Anglo-Zulu war of 1879 and the First Boer War. He had won the Victoria Cross at the age of 20 for rescuing a merchant from a band of robbers in India.

Back to Baden Powell and the Tantallon Castle. His reaction to receiving the above invitation was natural: “What better invitation could one want than that? I accepted it with greatest pleasure.”

He then goes on to describe the journey from Southampton in ways often very similar to the way Elizabeth Pennell had described her experience on board.

His entry in his diary for 4 May reads: “.—Perfect weather, palatial ship and fast. Delightful cabin all to myself. Best of company.”

For both Elizabeth Pennell and Powell Madeira is the first place of note on the journey. Pennell describes her experience of the island:

“In a journey of contrasts Madeira, following upon England, presents, perhaps, the strongest. A bitter east wind may have met the Tantallon as she steamed down the Thames; here the air is soft and balmy, and boys bathe in the sunny waters that wash the island’s coast. The ship amiably waits for a time in these waters, while the modern Rinaldo goes ashore to feel something of that thrill which the maiden excursion in the Tropics must ever give. There is an excitement in the first walk under palms which few other travel experiences can rival; and the gay exuberance of Southern blossoms, the flamboyant eccentricity of Southern foliage, strikes the

Diving boys at Madeira by A.S. Hartrick

Diving boys at Madeira by A.S. Hartrick

unaccustomed Northerner with a delighted wonder hard to excel. Moreover, Madeira has certain unique sensations to offer the wondering traveller. For he may go swinging through the streets in a hammock, and he may coast down its steep stony roads in a sled. In his consequent bewilderment, as like as not he will let the screaming, struggling natives fleece him to their heart’s content; and in the bargain for the chair which he carries back to the steamer his sensations will have had their price.”

Baden Powell is rather more restrained in his diary:

“6th May.—Madeira. You know. Breakfast with fruit at Reid’s Hotel. The flowers and gardens. Scramble up on horses to the convent, up the long, steep, cobbled roads, and the grand toboggan down again in cars. How I would like to live there for — a day!  Then back on board, off to sea by eleven. Dock loaded up with Madeira chairs and fruit skins.”

The contrast between the two experiences is, though, more than literary. For Pennell the voyage from Madeira provides ample opportunity for putting the recently acquired Madeira chairs to use: “days of steaming through an ocean that has a cloudless sky for roof and a sun-swept sea for floor, and is fed with air hot from the Equator. Awnings are up over promenade deck and bridge. Thin white linen is in fashion. And there is quenchless demand for long, cooling drinks. The burning hours follow each other relentlessly, day and night, night and day.”

By contrast,Baden Powell notes in his diary of the voyage:

“8th May.—Daily parades, inspection of troop decks, tugs of war, concerts on deck, and gradual increase in personal girth from sheer over‑eating and dozing. Our only exercise is parade for officers at seven every morning in pyjamas, under a sergeant‑instructor, who puts us through most fiendish exercises for an hour, and leaves us there for dead. We just revive in time so put the men through the same course in their turn, stripped to the waist, so that they have dry shirts to pat on afterwards. “Knees up!” I’d like to kill him who invented it,—but it does us all a power of good.”

Sports on deck by A.S. Hartrick

Sports on deck by A.S. Hartrick

But both Pennell and Powell experienced on board what Pennell described as the ship’s “athletic sports to prove – if proof were needed – that manly vigour and physical prowess were not the monopoly of old Tantallon’s lords and men.”

Powell, of course, puts it much more economically: “15th to 18th May.—Athletic sports, tableaux, concerts, ‑ and the fancy dress ball, and oar dinner party to the captain.” (I’m not sure if the “oar dinner party” is a typographical error or not?).

Only in describing the dances does Powell exceed Pennell in description. He writes: “The ball was interesting in showing the diverse taste of diverse nationalities. Four Frenchmen and one lady so prettily and well got up. The British officer, save in one or two instances (of which, alas! I wasn’t one), could not rise to anything more original than uniform. An ingenious young lady put us all to

Britannia At the fancy dress ball on board the belle of the ship appeared as Britannia. The only incongruity was the helmet, whose peak did not agree with the wearer's nose; the hat had therefore to be reversed, and the back-peak was bent for additional comfort.

Britannia At the fancy dress ball on board the belle of the ship appeared as Britannia. The only incongruity was the helmet, whose peak did not agree with the wearer

shame, appearing as Britannia, “helmet, shield, and pitchfork too,” all complete. (Nose and helmet didn’t hit it off – at least—yes—the nose did hit it (the helmet) off, and the hat had to be worn the wrong way round to allow more room.)”, where Pennell puts the dances into one sentence: “And there are dances in the sweet still evenings, when the stars shine so gaily that the gayer electric lights on deck seem impudently superfluous.”

Baden Powell’s description of the ship’s arrival in Table Bay is also interesting in its contrast to Pennell’s:

“19th May.—At 4 a.m. I Awake with an uncanny feeling. All is silence and darkness. The screw has stopped, the ship lies like a log, the only sound is the plashing of the water pouring from the engine, and occasionally sharp footsteps overhead.

“And looking from my port, I see, looming dark against the stars, the long, flat top of grand old Table Mountain—its base a haze from which electric lights gleam out and shine along the water.

“Old Cape Town just the same as ever. Same lounging warders and convicts digging docks, Malays and snoek fish everywhere. Adderley Street improved with extra turreted, verandahed buildings. The Castle, venerable, low, and poky as of yore, and—of course—under repair. Short visits there, to Government House, and to that beautiful old house in Strand Street where one learns the Dutch side of the questions of the day.”

That phrase: “Malays and snoek fish everywhere” is just so redolent of the casual racism which I take to be characteristic of the Victorian era, with its perhaps unconscious equation of “snoek fish” and “Malays” as of the same order of creation, worthy of only a passing glance.

Pennell also shows something of the same attitude: “Zulus and Kaffirs gave the soldier his chance, lions and elephants his to the sportsman.” Such words have an incredibly insensitive ring to them, read just more than 100 years later.

A Victorian view of South Africa

A scene in South Africa by Joseph Pennell

A scene in South Africa by Joseph Pennell

The Pennells’ book makes an interesting link between the Tantallon Castle of Scotland and the South Africa of the end of the 19th Century:

“The Castle may rest in the twilight of its troubled life. But the name has taken on a new youth, and, in picturesqueness, Tantallon’s latest records vie with the old. Adventure was not at an end when the last feudal fortress was dismantled: after the sword and buckler age, commerce itself gave the chance to those who chafed at the counting-house desk, and grew restless behind the shopkeeper’s counter. For across the seas were unknown lands, and each boat bound for foreign ports, though its hold might be packed with commercial cargo, went well laden with romance.”

From the Willy Pogány illustrative interpretation of the E W Rolleston translation of Wagner's Tannhäu

From the Willy Pogány illustrative interpretation of the E W Rolleston translation of Wagner

Pennell goes on: “The Cape’s story is old as the Pyramids; that southernmost point of the African peninsular, delightful in climate, rich in possibilities, was as irresistible a magnet to the ancient sailor as the Hörselberg to the mediaeval knight.” (This is a reference to the mediaeval minstrel contests celebrated in Wagner’s opera Tannhäuser)

The story of the Cape is continued in the book, after a brief survey of the circumstances which led to the British taking over the colony (for the second time, and finally) from the Dutch in 1806, with the comment: “The Dutch may not have been wise rulers, but they were the best of pioneers. Pretty Dutch towns were scattered over the country. There were fertile farms in the Veldt and pasture-lands in the broad Karroo, while the excellence of the wine proved to what good purpose grapes had been made to ripen on the slopes of Stellenbosch and Constantia.”

Then the story of the opening up of the hinterland by first the Boer Trekkers and then the fortune hunters of Kimberley and the Witwatersrand are recalled: “For the more adventurous was all the excitement of spying our the land, the ‘trekking,’ as the Boers call it, in search of fresh pastures; all the joy of the hunt after gold and earth’s hidden wealth; the squatting in the wilderness at the first faint clue, the sudden clearing in the woods where, from the squatter’s hut, a town would spring up in a day; while, no matter how far the hunting and the ‘trekking’ might lead, still beyond lay the Undiscovered Country, a snare to the reckless who cared not whether the quest led to King Solomon’s Mines or to malarious swamps, since their joy was ever in the continued chase.”

Tropical forest by Joseph Pennell

Tropical forest by Joseph Pennell

Pennell’s description of the beauty of the land, to my mind, begs the question of whether she actually saw this or not: “There was the endless beauty of the mountain passes; of the strange rivers, wide as lakes; of the great tracts of tropical forest.”

Still, the books and its illustrations are a wonderful window into the way the Victorian mind saw this great country and its colonisation by Europeans, with the consequent dislocation of the way of life of the native inhabitants: “But if trade-winds, the old enemy, were conquered, there was now a savage native to dispute the land, inch by inch, with the new-comers. Bushmen and Hottentots were never pleasant foes to meet.”

The Ship

The sailing ship Tantallon Castle by Wyllie

The sailing ship Tantallon Castle by Wyllie

Much of the book is taken up with descriptions of the ship. But before going into some of the more technical descriptions, the section on South Africa ends with this: “A fine boat calls for a fine name. The little record-breaking ship (the original sailing ship Tantallon Castle) yielded up its rights, and there was a new Tantallon Castle in southern waters to keep fresh the memory of the old Tantallon Castle on the bleak northern coast. And thus was the last link added to that long chain stretching from Scottish promontory to African Cape.”

Elizabeth Pennell gives a good description of the technical details of the ship: “To the technically learned there will be clue to perfect proportions in the record of her dimensions; in her 456 feet of length, her 50 and a half breadth, her 35 of depth moulded, in her one huge funnel that accomplishes the work of two, in her 5700 tons of registered tonnage. One can fancy the wonder of Diaz in his little 50 tons ship could he return to watch this monster steaming by!”

Pennell goes on to give glowing accounts (how could it be otherwise, considering she and her husband were travelling at Sir Donald Currie’s expense and invitation?) of the appearance, both external and interior, of the ship. The following passage is typical, and singles out the music room on board for especial praise:

In the music room by Jospeh Pennell

In the music room by Jospeh Pennell

“But, in decoration, there is endless scope for variety and on the Tantallon not an opportunity has been neglected. Its companion-way, with the lions on guard, has a fine air of dignity and restraint in the sober sweep of its lines. The rich sombre brown of its deck smoking room is as elegant as appropriate. But it is in the music-room, above all, that it has achieved its success. This, indeed, might answer as a background to a new Ballade a la Mode. The pale gilded walls, the rose-strewn green damask of the long cushioned seats, the wide bow-window with its tiny glass panes and flowers on the sill, the little recesses, one with its pretty inlaid

A bookcase in the music room by Joseph Pennell

A bookcase in the music room by Joseph Pennell

piano, the others with writing tables, no less dainty, – all these might well serve as a setting to the modern substitute for powder and patches, for periwig and buckles.”

One wonders what the apparently straight-forward and practical Baden Powell made of such a room?

The End

Unfortunately, even so grand a ship as the Tantallon Castle is mortal. The end came for the ship on 7 May 1901, when she ran aground on Robben Island in dense fog. Not the sort of ending one would have hoped for for such a ship, but perhaps more dignified than the breakers yard.

The Tantallon Castle on the rocks off Robben Island

The Tantallon Castle on the rocks off Robben Island

Nevertheless the end of the ship was not in keeping with the final words written about her by Elizabeth Pennell:

“It is in all truth upon the shores of the Undiscovered Country that the Tantallon Castle touches, though along its coast South Africa has grown so staid and sober with civilisation. If the steamer carry in her name memories of an adventurous past, in her route she holds out promise of a present no less stirring. She wears gallantly, as Castle of old, the watchword of her Douglas inheritance: – ‘Forward.’”



One response

8 08 2010
Gail Mann

I own a ship’s decanter set marked The Tantallon. It is stamped in the brass fittings and has the British crown hallmark. Is The Tantallon the same ship as Tantallon-Castle?

If not, ws The Tantallon a fighting ship in the British navy? What time period?

Thank you.

Mrs. Mann

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