Sunday, 9 June 2013

James Hogg, Southern Africa, and the Orangutan

From Thomas H. Huxley, Evidence as to Man’s Place in Nature (London and New York, 1863), 16. 
Image from the Gutenberg edition:

One of James Hogg’s works on which there is very little contemporary criticism is his short story “The Pongos:  A Letter from Southern Africa,” an epistle dated October 1, 1826. However, in Hogg’s lifetime, the story was well received in Britain, published in the Americas, and even translated into French (“Les Pongos,” Revue de Paris, 1833, vol. 56). As early as 1838, Hogg’s story was referred to as “Hogg’s famous Pongos” (Tait’s Edinburgh Magazine, vol. 5).

In the story, the letter writer William Mitchell (writing from Vander Creek near Capetown) tells of the abduction of his young son William by orangutans (pongos) and later of his pregnant wife Agnes. William falsely suspected for some time that Karoo, the Kousi chief, had abducted Agnes, since Karoo had earlier attempted to buy Agnes for four oxen.  By the time William discovers the whereabouts of his wife, son, and two-year old daughter Beatrice (born in “captivity”), Agnes has become a ruler of the orangutans and is capable of giving forceful speeches to “her subjects,” accompanied by grand gesticulations, ultimately persuading the pongos to permit her and the children to leave with her husband (which the orangutans had earlier refused). These events lead William Mitchell to immediately move to Vander Creek and to prepare to immigrate to Sydney. He hopes that his children’s breeding “among creatures that must still be conceived to be of the brute creation” will never be discovered by the Australians. 

This story is a rich source of information on the understanding of gender, race, evolution, language, nature and culture in the first few decades of the nineteenth century, particularly from the perspective of a Scottish working-class author.  

“The Pongos” is included in James Hogg’s The Altrive Tales (1832). A copy of the 1832 edition of The Altrive Tales is available on Google Books.

For recent criticism on "The Pongos," see:

Alker, Sharon, and Holly Faith Nelson. “Empire and the ‘Brute Creation’: The Limits of Language in Hogg's ‘The Pongos.’” James Hogg and the Literary Marketplace: Scottish Romanticism and the Working-Class Author. Ed. Sharon Alker and Holly Faith Nelson. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2009. 201-217.  

Vigne, Randolph. Thomas Pringle: South African Pioneer, Poet and Abolitionist. Woodbridge: James Currey, 2012. 221-222. [Vigne’s reading contests aspects of Alker and Nelson’s interpretation of the story.]

—Holly Faith Nelson

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