Francois le Vaillant: 18th Century explorer
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Le Vaillant and other explorers carved their names in a cave on the West Coast.
On December 18, 1781, there was a festive air in the streets of Cape Town. A young Surinam-born French explorer was departing for the wilds of the Eastern Cape in absolute style.
Francois le Vaillant had an ostrich feather in his hat and two wagons packed with more travelling goodies than a whole gypsy train: specimen drawers, guns and gunpowder, an elaborate kitchen setup, a dressing box, tents, tools and much brandy, beads and tobacco for barter and the general enjoyment of ‘my Hottentots’, the large retinue of Khoikhoi camp followers he gathered to himself.
As he moved eastwards, his wagon train grew longer. In the Swellendam area, Le Vaillant acquired a rooster which he used as a faithful alarm clock for early morning rising. He also bought a tame Chacma baboon called Kees, and this became his travelling companion, security guard, food taster and court jester.
Le Vaillant’s mission was to collect bird, insect and animal specimens for a wealthy Hollander who also happened to be the treasurer of the Dutch East India Company, which was very prominent in 18th Century South Africa. So, well-sponsored and well-equipped, the jaunty Frenchman wandered through territories considered hostile and dangerous.
Completely unperturbed, Le Vaillant behaved as if he were South Africa’s first leisure tourist. He marvelled at and recorded the country’s vast landscapes, social habits of its indigenous people and its wildlife wealth.
He was the first white man to freely immerse himself fearlessly in the wonders of South Africa. Many saw him as naive, but his accounts of travelling through South Africa became the new, more benign way Europe would view this part of the world.
He picked up enough of the Khoikhoi tongue to be able to converse with his companions, and in the evenings he and the faithful Kees would join them at the camp fire and listen to their stories. Le Vaillant also became infatuated with a young Gonaqua woman called Narina in the Kok’s Kraal area of the Eastern Cape. The rare Narina Trogon bird is named for her.
His second journey, to the banks of the Orange River in the Richtersveld, was just as grandly executed and at some stage involved hunting a full-grown giraffe – and performing some on-the-road taxidermy later.
When he returned to France with his extensive collection and colourful records, Le Vaillant effectively ‘branded’ South Africa as one of the most fascinatingly exotic destinations in the world.
Ironically enough, after all his illustrious travels and publications, Le Vaillant died a pauper in 1824.
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