Elegy/Louisa van de Caab (d.1786)
One thousand seven hundred and eighty-six. The year that Mozart premiered The Marriage of Figaro. When a devastating earthquake struck Sichuan and a hurricane hit Barbados. And the year that you left us, Louisa. Two hundred and thirty-two years before we would begin to recall you – to remember a woman we could never entirely know.
Record number CJ 423, like a magic spell, conjures up your story and offers it to us on a platter of tattered, yellowing pages. The swirls of faded, brown ink encode, in an impossible script, what happened that day in the Tygerberg. Or at least what they say had happened: what your mother and Stoffel saw, the violence your attackers confessed to. And, finally, the surgeon’s observations.
I will tell you what they say happened to you. And I will wonder if you find these reports accurate. Or even surprising? It was the 20th of February. Your mother, Sanne, related [in a Malabari accent?] that it was eight o’clock in the evening. You were busy in the combuijs, warming water in the tea kettle, to bring to the master’s children upstairs. Ceres [did you love him?] entered and, without saying a word, [but did his eyes speak to you?] he grabbed your hand and took you outside. [What did it feel like when he grabbed your hand? Was there an urgency? A warmth?] You never returned.
Before any of this happened, there were words floating in the air. Unkind tales about you, about your character. But you know this. When Ceres came to confront you [did that feel like a betrayal?], they say you questioned the accusations, and then the accuser. Perhaps your questions proved too bold, for in the absence of a verbal response to your retorts he took your life and fled.
How would your mother have felt, finding you hours later between the house and the chicken coop? Bent over as if dead. I tried to listen with my eyes, to grasp the pain in her statement. In desperation I foolishly read it aloud, and still the Official Record spat back only facts. Dates, names, times. The trajectory of the knife as it cut through you and took your life – a life of which we will only ever know one brutal, last moment.
Yet, I would argue, the power lies in the fact that now we actually know. And so we can begin to remember. The 20th of every February will be marked by your absence for me, Louisa. The Tygerberg will resound with your name, and that of your grieving mother. And now that I’m aware, I also realise what I can’t know but still wonder about you. And so I ask: could you have seen any of this coming? What were your final thoughts? Did you ever dream of your mother’s Malabar? What used to make you smile? And did you ever feel free?
May you rest in peace, dear Louisa.
Saarah Jappie, September 2018
Initiated in 2015, Elegy is a long-term commemorative performance project. Staged in various locations and contexts, each performance calls together a group of female vocal performers who collectively enact a ritual of mourning. Durational and physically taxing, the performance sustains a kind of sung cry – evoking the presence of an absent individual.
Responding to the physical, ontological and structural outworkings of rape-culture in South Africa, Elegy performances recall the identity of individuals whose subjectivities have been fundamentally violated – and who are, as such, all too easily consigned to a generic, all-encompassing victimhood. With each performance commemorating a specific woman or LGBTQI+ individual subjected to fatal acts of gendered and sexualised violence, significant to the work is how loss becomes a site for community, and for empathic, cross-cultural and cross-national encounters. Seeking to work around the kinds of symbolic violence through which traumatised black and brown bodies are routinely objectified, Elegy performances open an alternative intersectional space, wherein mourning is presented as a social and politically productive work – not in the sense of healing or ‘closure’, but as a necessary and sustained irresolution.
Saarah Jappie, who scripted the commemorative text for this performance, is a self-professed ‘reluctant historian’, currently lecturing in the history department at the University of the Witwatersrand. Her research deals with textual, spatial and imagined connections in the Indian Ocean world, particularly those between Southeast Asia and Southern Africa from early modern times to the present.
Jacobi De Villiers