A seven-year-old English girl, washed up on the Wild Coast in about
1736, is adopted by the amaMpondo, grows up to become a woman of
surpassing beauty, marries the chief of the clan and becomes an
ancestor of many of the Xhosa royal families in the nineteenth
century. It sounds like the stuff of romance, but this is verified,
documented fact. Although her surname is unknown, in spite of a
persistent 19th-century story that she was the daughter of a
General Campbell, we do know that her name was Bessie. The
amaMpondo named her Gquma - 'The Roar of the Sea' - and she won
their affection for her compassion and generosity, and became
famous for her love of ornament, covering herself with necklaces,
beadwork, seashells and bangles. But she was no mere fashion-plate,
winning renown for her wisdom, becoming involved in the politics of
her adopted people and wielding an influence virtually
unprecedented among women of her time and place. Inspired by the
story of Bessie, in Sunburnt Queen, Hazel Crampton has delved deep
into the history of the castaways from the many ships wrecked on
this beautiful but perilous shore.;In a highly entertaining way she
tells their story, which became inextricably interwoven with those
of the people of the Wild Coast: whole clans, such the abeLungu
('the White People') trace their ancestry to castaways. The book
traces the lives of Bessie's descendants and those of some of the
other castaways whose names are known. Their stories are
intimately, often tragically intertwined in the sad history of
contact between the Xhosa-speaking peoples and the white settlers.
The author, although obviously a person of strong opinions, like
all the best historiographers, she presents people and events in a
non-judgmental way, allowing contemporary voices to pronounce on
the actions, good and bad, of the actors in this drama. If there is
a message to be gleaned from the story of Bessie it is this: South
Africans are far more alike than we are different, and we all have
so much more to gain by emphasizing our similarities rather than
our differences, and by cherishing our common heritage.
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