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History  & memory

Bree Street, 31 January 1799


In the first of a series of fictional essays that re-imagine the lives of Cape Town residents, past and present, novelist Rehana Roussouw travels back to Bree Street at the turn of the 18th century.

Dearest Diary, my truest Companion in my darkest of times. Our Solitude is soon to end. My time is upon me. I woke this morning troubled by a dull ache come to rest above my hips. Samira says ’tis a sure sign that my time has come. Samira! To escape that Pestilence of a woman I have locked myself away in my bedroom, my only escape in this tiny house. She has seated herself outside my door, the wailing that she set upon hours past showing no sign of abating. Her tempo increases each time a span of oxen passes the house. They haul goods up and down Bree Street all the long days. The whips’ lashes streaking across the beasts’ flanks send Samira into a frenzy of despair. She pounds her head against my door.

Today marks four months since Mama ordered Ashraf’s 50 lashes, Samira clinging to Mama’s skirts begging for her son’s release from the wagon wheel, pleading to take his place. Four months since Samira and I were banished from the farm to the Bree Street house to hide my condition from the world. How I long for this ordeal to end. I let slip to Samira this morning, distracted by the dull ache in my hips, that Ashraf will be gone when we return to the farm. Mama sold him as soon as he healed.

Samira will not see the sense of this, nor will she accept Mama’s plan for the babe. She will not desist from her infernal pleading that she be allowed to raise it. I tried to set her to rights, for the umpteenth time, but she will not listen to Reason. I will not countenance the proof of my laying down with Ashraf to run underfoot for the rest of my life. What if it bears a resemblance to me? Shall I be expected to tolerate such a Slave? I am close to despising Samira; she cannot see that my Predicament has done nothing to change her station in life as a household Slave. Mama will dispose of the babe; ’tis her prerogative, and nothing will deter her.

I had to set you aside for a while, Dear Diary, for my ache grows stronger. It abates when I pace the room. Soon enough will I have to unlatch the door and let Samira enter. She has to see me through this Travail. Mama will not allow a midwife’s knowledge of my shame, and Samira has birthed many in the Slave quarters. I want it over. I have missed several balls and parties these past four months. I grow tired of listening in my solitude to revellers and theatregoers traipsing down Bree Street after a night of Glee. Mama has sent letters of regret to all invitations, with the explanation that I was sent to a remote hunting lodge for seclusion following a bout of Scarlet Fever.

She has promised me the most Elegant sixteenth birthday party the Cape has seen. I have a scant three months to plan the Festivities. In her letter received last night Mama said a ship docked last week, bearing the most delicious silks, and she has acquired lengthsfor my frock. Imagine the surprise when I appear at my party in a frock designed according to the latest Parisian fashion, and not the faintest blemish of a fever blister!

Mama writes that I am old enough to be introduced to suitable suitors and prospects at my party. She finds it hard to keep the vineyard going since Papa’s passing. The Slaves have been restive of late and hard to control. She wants a Son-in-Law to assist.

Will Mama allow me freedom of choice? ’Tis no trifling matter to be wed and lay down with a Husband. For Ashraf and me, a lifetime of childish games turned into easy adult play. I fear Mama will choose a beefy Dutchman with blue eyes and blotched red skin peeling off his nose, and marry me off post-haste. She is truly miffed.

Dearest Diary I cannot continue. The ache eats away at my insides. Soon this will be over. Soon, my Life will start anew.

Yours ever,
This article first appeared in the August 2015 issue of Molo, The world of Bree Street. Download the PDF (11mb) or flip through the digibook below.



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