“Astral Forms: Halley’s Comet and Sol Plaatje’s Reading of the “Long White Tail” of Colonial History.”

Monday, 14 August, 2023 - 14:00

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This is an on-line seminarPlease, register for the session in advance of the meeting at :  https://wits-za.zoom.us/meeting/register/tJckd-ytrzwiEtHogJsRMtAP8ZsyGZpprMs4

This paper explores how Sol Plaatje’s Mhudi (1931) charts astral movements in the articulation of what I will argue is the novel’s ‘astrological form’ through which it reimagines colonial history. The novel anchors its structure to the perennial return of Halley’s Comet, which not only complicates the mode of historical epic with a parabolic form, but Plaatje also offers an eco-critical theory on the movement of colonial history. The diegetic time of the novel and the time of its writing by Plaatje, hinge on the cosmological significance of the Halley’s Comet sighting in southern Africa, which I will argue links the historical moment of the Mfecane (the great nineteenth century scattering of peoples across southern Africa due to expansionist wars in the creation of the Zulu Empire) together with the early twentieth century consolidation of the four colonies of the Cape into the Union of South Africa in 1909-10. Plaatje returns to the 1835 sighting of the Comet in order to gesture towards the nation-making and dispersals and the violences witnessed at the start of the twentieth century, when the Comet next appeared in 1910, the year of Unification. This paper argues that Plaatje employs planetary, more-than-human markers, or ‘astral forms’, in order to offer a philosophy of history specific to the colonial condition in southern Africa. Locating historiography in astral forms, I will read Plaatje’s writing as a kind of eco-philosophy on colonial history, by and for the colonized. Through its eco-cosmological marking of time, Mhudi provides a decolonial model of history outside of the nation-time of the South African state and the colonial politics of Unification. The paper will conclude by suggesting that within Plaatje’s astrological form is also a future, a projection towards the Comet’s next arrival. This positions Plaatje’s writing and his cosmological reorientations to colonial historiography as part of a genealogy which grounds African speculative/science fictional reckonings of the future within a history of writing by African authors from the start of the twentieth century until the present.


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