Thomas Pringle

Scottish writer Thomas Pringle (1789-1834) is considered the father of South African poetry. He lived in South Africa for six years, during which time he established a family settlement in the Eastern Cape. Unable to make a living as a writer in South Africa, he moved to London where he worked for the abolition of slavery. Pringle is recognized in South Africa as the first successful poet to publish in English. His poems and narratives describe South Africa's landscape, native people, and social conditions.

Pringle was the third of seven children of Robert and Catherine Haitlie Pringle. He was born January 5, 1789, in Kelso, Linton, Roxburghshire, Scotland. Tragically, his mother died in 1795, when Thomas was six years old, leaving his father to remarry.

When Pringle was three months old, his nanny accidentally dropped him, dislocating his hip. The nanny was afraid to admit her mistake, with the result that Pringle not given medical care until it was too late to correct the damage. Consequently, he walked using crutches throughout his entire life. Perhaps out of guilt, the nanny lavished attention on him, allowing him to become headstrong and unmanageable.

Because he was lame, Pringle was unable to participate in athletics and did not follow his family into farming. To prepare for a profession, his father sent Pringle to Kelso Grammar School and Edinburgh University where he became interested in writing. He wrote every day, producing letters, journal entries, poems, and essays.

Began Writing Career

Pringle left Edinburgh University without earning a degree and took a job in the General Register Office, where he worked as a clerk from 1808 to 1817. He continued to write and in 1811 published, with Robert Story, "The Institute," a satire on the Edinburgh Philamanthic Society, a literary group. The first of his poems to gain attention, "Autumnal Excursion," was published in 1816. The poem celebrates the Scottish land where Pringle grew up and includes vignettes from his childhood. Among those who read the poem was noted novelist Sir Walter Scott. Pringle and Scott soon formed a friendship that lasted until Scott's death in 1832.

In 1817 Pringle became joint editor of the Edinburgh Monthly but resigned after a disagreement with the magazine's publisher, William Blackwood. He later edited both The Star, a newspaper, and Edinburgh Magazine. Also in 1817 Pringle married Margaret Brown, a woman nine years older than Pringle, and two years later he published his first volume of verse, The Autumnal Excursion and Other Poems.

Affected by Economic Downturn

Unable to make a living as a writer, Pringle returned to the register office for a short time. His family, like many throughout Scotland during the early 1800s, was encountering financial difficulties; a decline in agriculture had forced Robert Pringle to move south to a farm in England.

In addition to agricultural problems, Great Britain and most of Europe were suffering economic difficulties as a result of the political restructuring following the Napoleonic wars. The British government now offered thousands of its residents the opportunity to resettle in South Africa, promising free land and inexpensive supplies for those willing to make the trip to colonize this new addition to the British Empire, recently purchased from the Dutch. Pringle pursued this opportunity and in 1820, through his friendship with Scott, obtained free passage for himself and his extended family to travel to the eastern cape of South Africa.

Settled in South Africa

The Pringles sailed for 75 days, then traveled inland for another month before arriving at their new home in Glen Lynden, located in the upper valley of South Africa's Baavians River. The location proved to be a good choice, as colonists who settled closer to the coast experienced difficult weather conditions that proved disastrous for farming.

It took two years for Pringle, his father, and the rest of the family to establish the family homestead, which eventually comprised 20,000 acres of land. As he had done prior to the family's traveling to South Africa, Pringle served as the family spokesperson and conferred with government and military officials. His influence helped the family succeed in South Africa whereas many other immigrants did not. After his family was settled Pringle himself moved to Cape Town, where he worked in the newly created South African Public Library and pursued his writing career.

To supplement his small income from the library, the enterprising Pringle opened a school with a friend from Scotland, John Fairbairn. In 1823 he also started a newspaper, the South African Journal, and a magazine, the South African Commercial Advertiser, in which he and his staff published editorials advocating reforms of the British colonial system. After both publications were censored by the government Pringle resigned. After his reformist views also led to the failure of his academy, he resigned from the library and in 1824 returned to his family's settlement. For the rest of his time in South Africa Pringle continued to fight for freedom of the press and improvement in the position of the native people.

Most of the poetry and prose Pringle published while living in South Africa deals with local matters. It contains images of the land and its native people and is imbued with its author's passion for promoting independence and spreading Christianity. Published in 1824, Pringle's Some Account of the Present State of the English Settlers in Albany, South Africa describes the landscape, the housing, and the experiences Scots settlers encountered in South Africa. Unlike the Pringle family, many settlers did not find life to be that which they had been promised. Their crops failed and inclement weather destroyed most of what they had. Pringle concluded that, despite all, Scots immigrants should remain in South Africa, and he began efforts to appeal to Britain for humanitarian aid.

Ultimately, the harsh conditions in South Africa took their toll, and the idealistic Pringle and his wife were forced to leave his father and returned to London in 1826, financially ruined. A recently published article about slavery in South Africa had attracted the attention of the British Anti-Slavery Society, which now offered Pringle a job as secretary. The job suited Pringle perfectly: his craving for independence extended to blacks as well as Scots, and he had firsthand knowledge of the conditions of Native Africans. He worked with noted abolitionists William Wilberforce, Thomas Clarkson, Zachary Macaulay, and Sir Foxwell Buxton, his anti-slavery writings earning him recognition around the world.

Pringle earned a modest living through the Society that he supplemented by working as editor of an annual literary publication. He continued to write poetry based on his South African experiences and in 1828 published Ephemerides; or, Occasional Poems, written in Scotland and South Africa. The South African poems in particular proved very popular, placing him in the ranks of Britain's favorite poets shared by William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, George Byron, Percy Shelley, and John Keats.

As the first poet from South Africa to write in English, Pringle had a captive audience that consumed everything he wrote, including his 1834 work Narrative of a Residence in South Africa. A travel adventure about the land, animals, and the native people of South Africa, Narrative of a Residence in South Africa is considered his greatest work. It stands out because it was written from the perspective of a man who, although a native Scot, considered South Africa to be his homeland. Traveling to places where few non-Africans visited, Pringle shared his observations with his readers, along with his love for the land and its people.

Life's Work Completed

Pringle's work with the Anti-Slavery Society ended when Parliament abolished slavery on August 23, 1833. Emancipation came after a decree signed by Pringle was published on June 27, 1834. The next day, Pringle showed the first signs of an illness, which was later diagnosed as tuberculosis. Doctors recommended a milder climate, and Pringle prepared to return to South Africa. Unfortunately, the disease advanced rapidly and on December 5, 1834, he died in London at age forty-five.

Pringle died having reached many of his life goals. He had published a book of poems that he hoped would establish his place in South African literature. He had published a narrative about his adopted homeland. And his work with the Anti-Slavery Society had succeeded. Decades after his death, his poems continued to attract attention. Though generally considered to be a minor poet, he is credited with beginning the modern South African literary tradition. His best-known poem is "Afar in the Desert," which was originally published in the South African Journal in 1824. The magazine's circulation was very limited and the poem attracted little initial attention, but when it was included in George Thompson's Travels in Southern Africa Samuel Taylor Coleridge read the poem and wrote to Pringle. As quoted in John Robert Doyle, Jr.'s biography Thomas Pringle, Coleridge exclaimed of the poem: "I do not hesitate to declare it, among the two or three most perfect lyric poems in our language."


Doyle, John Robert Jr., Thomas Pringle, Twayne Publishers, 1972.

Kunitz, Stanley J., editor, British Authors of the Nineteenth Century, H. W. Wilson, 1936.