Travels Through Historical Fiction: The White Lady
If readers saw the film version of The English Patient, they may remember that the opening scene showed the main characters in a desert cave marveling at drawings depicting humans and animals painted on the walls. While those cave paintings were in northern Africa, there are cave paintings in southwestern Africa that are just as dramatic and interesting. One in particular is a major tourist attraction and well worth the trek through mountainous desert terrain to see it.
On a January evening in 1917, a topographer and a cartographer took shelter for the night under a rocky overhang on Brandberg Mountain, the highest point in German West Africa (now Namibia). When they awoke the next morning, they discovered they had slept under a wall covered in beautifully rendered Bushman drawings, of which one figure stood out from the rest. It was a human figure whose lower body and limbs were painted white.
Reinhard Maack, the topographer, made a sketch of the paintings and noted in his diary, “The Egyptian Mediterranean style of all the figures is surprising.” From there, the pair continued their task of surveying the mountain. Maack would not realize for some years the effect his sketches and diary comments would have on the cave drawing that became known as the White Lady.
The misinterpretation of Maack’s discovery began in 1929 with French priest, archeologist, and Chairman of Pre-History at College de France, Abbe Henri Breuil (1871-1961). Breuil was given a copy of Maack’s sketches while on a visit to Cape Town. Breuil, a recognized expert on European rock art, theorized that the figure central to the drawings was female. He based his conclusion on his knowledge of drawings of female athletes on the ancient walls of King Minos’s palace on Crete. To justify his conclusion, he posited that a small group of ancient mariners from the eastern Mediterranean traveled to the southern African coast and on to the interior where Brandberg rises up from the desert. He believed these travelers were responsible for the Maack cave drawings. While it was certainly possible for Mediterranean sailors, perhaps the Phoenicians, to have reached the coast of present day Namibia, there is no evidence they did so. The true artists are now known to have been ancient Bushmen native to the area. The White Lady, as the cave is still known today, is not the only cave drawing in the Brandberg area; it is simply the most famous. Brandberg is home to over 1000 rock shelters or caves and 45,000 individual drawings.
Unfortunately, the paintings are not as vibrant as they were in Maack’s time. For many years, tourists were allowed to pour water over the drawings to enhance the colors for photography, which damaged them, but did not destroy them. The cave proved to be one of the most fascinating things I’ve seen. As I observed the human and animal figures, I wondered if the drawings had been created over a rather extensive period because some of them seemed far cruder and more elementary than others. It appeared to me that the earliest artists began with stick figures, while later artists progressed in both perspective and representative skill. Furthermore, the lady looks more like a hunter or warrior to me. Some historians believe that this is most likely the representation of a chieftain or shaman.
Journey with me to the cave and decide for yourself. Are my theories correct?
And now for our final offering from Africa, two books that I promise will delight the hearts of readers of historical fiction:
With unsettling beauty and intelligence, Michael Ondaatje’s Booker Prize-winning novel traces the intersection of four damaged lives in an abandoned Italian villa at the end of World War II.The nurse Hana, exhausted by death, obsessively tends to her last surviving patient. Caravaggio, the thief, tries to reimagine who he is, now that his hands are hopelessly maimed. The Indian sapper Kip searches for hidden bombs in a landscape where nothing is safe but himself. And at the center of his labyrinth lies the English patient, nameless and hideously burned, a man who is both a riddle and a provocation to his companions—and whose memories of suffering, rescue, and betrayal illuminate this book like flashes of heat lightning.
The third of Bartle Bull’s Africa sagas: Set in 1935, with Mussolini”s armies marchin g to Ethiopia, we follow the separate and collective fates of a memorable cast of characters in Cairo and East Africa. Adventurers and heiresses, political intrigue and romance combine in A Cafe on the Nile.