Book Review: Red Dog

Coenraad de Buys was the great grandson of French immigrants who farmed in the Cape area of South Africa from the seventeenth century. His grandfather and then father married Cape Dutch women and had numerous children. When his father died of suspected poisoning, the seven year old boy chose to live with his sister, Geertruy, raising livestock he received from his father’s estate on her husband’s farm. By the early 1780s Coenraad had his own farm and had taken a common law wife of slave descent. He became one of a number of white and coloured people who were on the Xhosa side in the frontier wars against the Boers and then the British. Due to his stature and self-confidence his antics became legend.

Willem Anker has taken the known facts about this larger than life historical figure and woven a tale of day to day living on the raw and brutal South African frontier. As well as Europeans trying to force their ideas of civilisation onto the native population, the warring tribes of indigenous hunters and pastoralists are seeking alliances that they believe will prove advantageous. Cattle rustling is common. Ivory is bartered for guns and ammunition. Women are commodities to be given or taken.

From an early age Coenraad values his freedom. He nurses a hatred for his mother who he blames for his father’s death. He also hates his brother-in-law who regularly beats him until the boy leaves to live elsewhere. By taking a coloured woman as his wife, Coenraad ostracises himself from much of the white community, including his wider family. He struggles to settle to farming with its government mandated laws and expectation of submission.

“A bureaucracy understands maps, not land. A company does not understand war, it flourishes in meetings.”

“The commission does not succeed in persuading the Caffres of the principle of private property”

When farmers mistreat the natives who work for them, complaints can reach tribal leaders who may then have the farm burned to the ground. With the wars in Europe at this time, including the French revolution, there are changes to deal with and growing resentment. Farmers cannot rely on central support so take matters into their own hands.

“all news is half a year old here. It is uncertain who is ruling us”

“The devil take equality and fraternity. But liberty sounds like a good idea.”

Coenraad lives a savage lifestyle and his ruthless treatment of, particularly, the bushmen he encounters is described in distressing detail. Written as his own account of his life, there is occasional acknowledgement that some of the scenes depicted may have been embellished, perhaps to ensure other vicious men remain wary.

“Everybody wants to rule and nobody wants to follow”

“revolutions end up making bureaucrats of the most hardened rebels”

Coenraad befriends a local chieftain and crosses the border to live amongst natives taking multiple wives including the chieftain’s mother. During this period he befriends a missionary to whom he acts as interpreter. He tries settling to farming again but is forced to leave after he testifies against a white women who has been torturing and murdering her slaves.

With no wish to return to the Cape colony, Coenraad, once again, packs up his by now large and complicated family and heads north.

“If the law says a man can no longer be what he is, then it’s time to clear out”

“If you want to start behaving like a free human being, your boss must make you less than human”

Coenraad, not for the first time, has a price on his head. As a result he struggles to trade for ammunition. Empty guns prevent him from defending his cattle. After a lifetime of fighting and periods of feral existence, his aging body is failing.

The story is lengthy and brutal.  Coenraad travels around the country, murdering and thieving, taking whatever pretty woman catches his eye whilst expecting his wives to remain loyal. He is base yet a fine orator. He seeks learning whilst meting out death without apparent empathy. His attempts to settle in one place offer him the chance of wealth but his refusal to bow to authority, including that of society and the church, leads to periods when he must fight alongside whoever rules the land he has moved on to.

The narrative pulls no punches in evoking the cruelty and violence of the time and place. The natural beauty of Africa barely merits a mention. Coenraad’s sexual urges are described in detail. All of this adds to the portrayal of a man whose reputation became a part of his currency – a cloak he wears with pride and alacrity.

The structure and writing style work well in bringing to vivid life a torrid country and its vying people. It is not easy to accept how humans and animals were treated but this is a part of South African history and an aid to understanding subsequent issues that still reverberate. Coenraad’s story offers a perspective on complex aspects of European empire building. It is a fascinating if at times gruelling read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Pushkin Press.