Review of Knot of Stone

  • Steven 

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: to commemorate South Africa’s first massacre on 1 March 1510. A new book reveals how an isolated 16thC murder altered the course of North-South relations, and is reviewed here by world-reknown historian, Malyn Newitt, Emeritus Professor of Spanish, Portuguese and Latin American Studies at King’s College London.

Knot of Stone: the day that changed South Africa’s history
by Nicolaas Vergunst

*Review by Malyn Newitt

Arena Books (September 2011) ISBN 978-1-906791-71-1 available at amazon barnes&noble

The history of Portuguese overseas expansion is a quarry where writers of all kinds continue to dig for treasure. In the sixteenth century it inspired lyric poets like Camões to embellish history with tales of pagan gods, prophecies and supernatural beings; and travellers like Mendes Pinto to invent a wholly new literary genre—the fictional autobiography—as a vehicle for his commentary on “life, the universe and everything”. More recently the writers of ‘alternative history’ have given it their attention. Some, like Mascarenhas Barretto, have unashamedly claimed their work as history—others have adopted the decent fig leaf of fiction which allows them to explore the remotest corners of their topic without any sense of guilt or the need to make any concession to probability.

The idea that there is an ‘alternative’ history—a secret narrative that is fully revealed only to the initiated—can probably be traced back to the Apocryphal Gospels and the Gnostic writings of the ancient world. In the Middle Ages it found expression in the canon of Arthurian literature and the work of writers like Mandeville. Since then it has found many exponents, each carrying forward, through a kind of apostolic succession, their belief in the existence of a ‘secret’ history. To take an example, Margaret Murray, and her populariser Hugh Ross Williamson, interpreted English history as the narrative of a pagan cult of the ‘divine king’, as described by Sir James Frazer in his epic study of mythologies, The Golden Bough. More recently best-selling authors like Dan Brown and Umberto Eco have exploited, to the considerable advantage of their bank accounts, a vast and apparently insatiable popular interest in ‘alternative’ history.

If ‘alternative’ history influences, convinces or just intrigues you, then Nicolaas Vergunst’s Knot of Stone is the book for you. The event around which the book is built is the murder of the first viceroy of the Estado da India, Dom Francisco de Almeidam, in 1510. According to the chroniclers, he was killed, along with sixty of his men, by Khoikhoi herdsmen when he landed at the Cape of Good Hope on his return voyage from India. The author’s interpretation of this event is set out early in the book. Speaking through the voice of the learned professor Mendle, Vergunst claims that the viceroy was not simply the victim of a skirmish with local herdsmen but was assassinated by some in his own party—in a kind of ritual execution, his throat was pierced by a lance and “thus they silenced him for ever”.

Why should such a distinguished servant of the Crown have been ritually murdered? This is what the novel seeks to explain through an elaborate journey (a real as well as an intellectual one) taken by the hero and heroine of the novel—Jason and Sonja—through the literature, lands and shrines of the ‘alternative’ history. The novel begins with the discovery of the bones of Almeida and his men and moves swiftly to the discovery of a secret and uncatalogued dossier on Almeida, which Sonja steals from the library. Jason is one of Cape Town’s leading archaeologists and a former Coloured (this is post-apartheid South Africa) who lived “in a netherworld of different cultures and disparate histories”. (p.57) Throughout the novel he acts as the sceptic—sceptical chiefly of the myths and self-delusions that white Europeans indulge in when considering their colonial past. “Colonialists”, he says, “always impose a culture of violence on those they conquer, convert or civilise…”. (p. 25)

The author is extremely well read in early Portuguese history and very knowledgeable on a vast range of topics, all of which becomes clear as the reader is led to explore not only the early history of Portugal but Templar sites and shrines in France—including Mont St Michel and Mont Ségur—and then on to the writings of Rudolph Steiner and John Buchan with even a walk-on part by Heinrich Himmler. The key to the novel turns out to be a belief in reincarnation and the unravelling of which historical figures are reincarnations of each other; though as one of the characters understandably asks, “are you trying to unravel or tie up these loose ends?” (p.41)

There is, indeed, a basic implausibility about the official version. How were Portuguese soldiers, equipped with crossbows and armour, men who had successfully fought the armies of the Ottomans, the Indians and the Egyptians, massacred by herdsmen armed only with fire hardened sticks? Something in this story has been left out, and it is this that the novelist seeks to supply. Almeida’s early life is the clue. Coming from a distinguished noble family he fought for king Afonso at the battle of Toro and was present at the fall of Granada in 1492. There he became possessor of a manuscript which opened to him the world of secret knowledge that had been possessed, among others, by the Templars. Possession of this knowledge meant that he was entrusted with taking forward the great task of “re-establishing intercourse between Europe and the East”. (p.50) Like Camões, “Almeida could fuse Catholic notions of Grace with a sense of karmic justice”. (p.49)

Further than this I will not go because readers of this review may already have decided whether this is the book for them.

However, this book is not just another expedition into the hidden realms of ‘alternative’ history, it is also an extremely interesting and intelligent discussion of the problem of historical knowledge. What can we know of the past and how do we know it? Historical writing, Sonja concludes (p.49), is “a mix of archival research and bardic inspiration, personal opinion and public information”. Later, the author says, “nothing is mere legend; fact and fiction co-exist in history”, but surely, Sonja counters, “we should draw a line somewhere”, and the answer she gets is, “we shouldn’t believe in something we can’t look at critically”. “History”, she claims, “offers a plausible accord between our experience and our imagination” (p.102) but, she is told by professor Mendle in reply, historians only “wrote what they thought we needed to know.” (p.103) So, history is almost always propaganda. This is merely an example of the crackling philosophical exchange which fills the book and that constantly challenges our ideas about truth, knowledge and reality—and it is this philosophical discussion which, on second reading, becomes the real purpose of the book.

This is a rich a remarkable book. It is better the second time it is read and better still the third time. It makes an interesting addition to any library on the history of the descobrimentos.

Malyn Newitt
King’s College London

‘Knot of Stone’ is available at amazon and barnes & noble, see http://www.knotofstone.com/online-offers for details.

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