Writing the Company

From VOC Daghregister to Sleigh’s Eilande.


This piece explores recent literary re-creations of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) at the Cape of Good Hope, concentrating on Dan Sleigh’s Eilande (2002, trans. André Brink, 2005) to examine how an archivist turned novelist uses the textual ‘islands’ provided by official documentation to create a huge prose work that is remarkable for placing the seventeenth-century settlement in its properly global colonial context. Surely this region’s most exhaustive rendering of the genre known problematically as ‘the historical novel’, it ranges from Germany and Holland via St Helena and the Cape to Madagascar, Mauritius and Batavia. And if for Brink ‘the lacunae in the archives are most usefully filled through magical realism, metaphor and fantasy’, (Coetzee and Nuttall, Negotiating the Past, 3), I suggest that Sleigh’s work forms an opposite pole, offering an example of a much slower, lonelier genesis and a more cautious recovery of historical specificity. I hope to discern the possibilities and constraints of these very different fictional modes as they engage a vast archive that is in the process of being digitised. ‘Writing the Company’, then, refers not only to contemporary literary re-presentations of the VOC period, but also to the massive project of trans-oceanic correspondence through which this early ‘multinational’ constituted itself: a mass of journals, company reports and judicial records that constitute a vast textual exchange not only with the Heren XVII (Lords Seventeen) in Amsterdam and the Council of India in Batavia, but also between the buitenposte (outposts) of the VOC at the Cape, and the forgotten posvolk who inhabited them.

Hedley Twidle, 2011.