From The Origin of Language to a language of origin:

A prologue to the Grey Collection


This piece attempts to chart the curious, contested space occupied by the Grey Collection in contemporary South Africa: how this once celebrated but now forgotten bequest housed at the National Library in Cape Town might be (or might not be) approached, used or appreciated; the complex networks of exchange across the southern hemisphere through which it was constituted under British imperialism; its curiously dual nature and its afterlives, or lack of them. Paying attention to a provocative series of ‘doublings’ that structure the archive – among them the division between medieval European treasures and nineteenth-century ‘indigenous’ materials, as well as the Jekyll and Hyde like double-act performed by George Grey and Wilhelm Bleek  – this account suggests that while several approaches (particularly the more celebratory narratives surrounding the Bleek and Lloyd Collection) seek to separate out the uncomfortable and enlightened elements of colonial text-making and translation, it is their co-presence within the language act which constitutes the ongoing, difficult but also enabling paradox of working with such materials.  Specifically, I hope to offer an account of Grey’s compilation of translated Maori narratives, Polynesian Mythology (1855), which in New Zealand literary culture occupies a similar (and similarly troubling) place to that of Specimens of Bushman Folklore (1911) in the South African context.

Hedley Twidle, 2010.