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Significant Scots
Thomas Pringle


PRINGLE, THOMAS.—This excellent poet and miscellaneous writer, was born at Blaiklaw, in Teviotdale, on the 5th of January, 1789, and was the son of a respectable farmer. In infancy he was so unfortunate as to have his hip joint dislocated by an accident, and this evil, which might have been cured, was culpably concealed by his nurse, until it was past remedy, so that he became a cripple for life, and was obliged to use crutches.

Having completed the usual course of preliminary education, Thomas Pringle was sent to the grammar-school of Kelso, and after continuing there three years, he went to Edinburgh, to finish his literary training at the university. Up till this time, owing to his lameness, his life had been one chiefly of reading and contemplation, while his favourite sports were those of a stationary character—fishing, gardening, and mechanical experiments. While a student at the college, he, like most persons of an imaginative temperament, exclusively devoted himself to poetry and belles-lettres, to which every other acquirement was made auxiliary. At this period, also, his impatience of tyranny and oppression, and stout love of independence were curiously manifested. On hearing that Joanna Baillie’s play of the "Family Legend," which was about to be produced in the Edinburgh theatre, had been previously doomed to ruin by a literary clique, and was to be strangled upon the stage, Pringle gallantly shouldered his crutch, and resolved to be the lady’s champion. At the head of a body of forty or fifty young men, armed with cudgels, he took possession of the centre of the pit as soon as the doors were opened; and when the play went on, their applauding shouts, seconded by the terific drumming of their staves, put every token of dissatisfaction to flight, and secured the success of the tragedy. It was the French mob in the gallery, keeping the Convention below to rights—a remedy every whit as mischievous and unjust as the evil which it sought to cure.

As during his stay at college, Pringle had been unable to settle his choice upon any of the learned professions, he betook himself on quitting it to the pursuit of literature; and as some permanent situation was necessary as a mainstay, he became a clerk in the Register Office, where his duty consisted in copying out old records, by which his mind was left unincumbered for the literary occupation of his leisure hours. The fruit of this was a poem called "The Institute," which he published, in conjunction with a poetical friend, in 1811. It seems to have been of a satirical nature, and was abundantly lauded; but as his salary from the Register Office was a small one, he soon found that something more than mere commendation was needed. In 1816 he was a contributor to "Albyn’s Anthology," and to the "Poetic Mirror," in the last of which he published a poem in imitation of the style of Sir Walter Scott, and of which Sir Walter declared that he wished "the original notes had always been as fine as their echo." But who can forget that benevolence and self-negation which made Scott so ready to perceive, and even to over-estimate the excellence of others, and prefer it to his own? This poem, which appeared in the form of "An Epistle to R. S.," brought the great poet and his successful imitator into close acquaintanceship. As Pringle’s salary was still inadequate, he now set himself in earnest to literature, and resolved to start a new periodical that should supersede the "Scots Magazine," already worn out. His proposals were so well received that he was encouraged to relinquish his clerkship in the Register Office, with the liberty of resuming it should his plan be unsuccessful; and in 1817, the first number of his projected work appeared, under the title of the "Edinburgh Monthly Magazine." In this work at the commencement he had for his coadjutors those who were afterwards to obtain high distinction in literature—Mr. Lockhart, Mr. Wilson, Mr. Neil, Mr. Cleghorn, Dr. Brewster, James Hogg, and the Rev. T. Wright. Mr. Pringle’s own contribution was an article on the Gipsies, the materials of which were supplied to him without solicitation by Sir Walter Scott. This spontaneous kindness on the part of the mighty minstrel and Great Unknown was the more generous, as he had intended to use these materials for an article of his own, which was to appear in the "Quarterly Review." About the same time Pringle became editor of the "Star" newspaper, in which, besides the selection and arrangement of materials, he had to write the leading article twice a-week. This, though more than enough, was not all, for in a short time the "Edinburgh Monthly Magazine" changed proprietors, and passed into the well-known title of "Blackwood’s Magazine," while Constable’s was started at the same time, of which Pringle was editor also. He was thus not only the conductor of two monthly periodicals of high literary aims and expectations, but also of a half-weekly newspaper, and with such a thrice-honoured position, it might have been expected that his fortunes would have thriven in some measure commensurate with his labours. But the two rival magazines could neither continue on peaceful terms, nor remain under a single editorship, and after a furious affray between their supporters, in which Pringle was handled with most unmerited roughness, he withdrew from "Blackwood’s Magazine," and attached himself to that of Constable. But the latter periodical was so unproductive, that he was fain to quit it also; and, finally, the "Star" newspaper, which had proved equally unprofitable. To add to his difficulties, he had ventured, when his prospects were most flattering, and before the battle of the magazines had commenced, to enter into marriage with Margaret Brown, daughter of a respectable East Lothian farmer. He had thus given hostages to fortune just before he was deprived of the power to redeem them, so that when the hour of payment came he was poorer than ever. His first step for extrication from his difficulties, was to publish the "Autumnal Excursion, and other Poems;" but the poetical field at that season was so preoccupied with "Moss-troopers," "Giaours," and "Corsairs," and so hostile to "Excursions" of all kinds, from Wordsworth downwards, that Pringle’s volume, though appreciated by the judicious few, brought him little or no profit. He then resumed, at the beginning of 1819, his laborious and scantily-paid drudgery at the Register Office, while his late literary compeers were rapidly advancing to fame and fortune.

Pringle’s condition was now as disastrous as it well could be. He was no longer a buoyant stripling, who could be content with bread and cheese, and a garret, as the mere starting-point of a race before him. The race, as it seemed, was already over, and the sun was going down while the course was but half finished. He thus found himself under a stern necessity of quitting the land of his fathers, that he might find the means of living elsewhere—a necessity as grievous to a literary Scot as it is to the literary man of any country whatever. The direction of his pilgrimage alone was in question, and that was quickly settled. His father and four brothers, who had followed the occupation of agriculture, had been as unfortunate as himself, and were equally ready to embark with him in the bold enterprise of commencing life anew, while South Africa was at present the favourite quarter of Scottish emigration. A grant of land was soon obtained from government, at this time desirous of colonizing the unoccupied districts of the Cape of Good Hope, and Thomas Pringle, accompanied by his father, two brothers, and several friends—comprising, in all, twelve men, six women, and six children, embarked for the Cape in February, 1820.

Of all possible governments, that of Sancho Panza’s island of Barataria not excepted, the most difficult of management, and the most prolific of political discontent and quarrel, is that of a British colony. We well know that it is neither the most contented nor the most moral of our population who leave their native land for the purpose of becoming colonists. On the contrary, every one who has made his country too hot for him—every one who hates the powers that be, and wishes to escape their restrictions—every one who dreams some impossible theory of liberty, which he hopes to realize at the greatest possible distance from the home-government—hoists sail for the new land, as if everything were to be reversed for the better the nearer he approaches the antipodes. With such a population, what system of rule short of martial law can be available? A soldier-governor is therefore commonly imposed upon our colonies; one who, having been accustomed to implicit military obedience, will have no toleration either for mutiny or murmur. In such a case the result will be misunderstanding and discontent between the ruler and the ruled. The former, while he cries "Eyes right!" is only looked at the more askew; and while he thinks of the summary processes of the black hole or the triangles, his mutinous brigades are talking about the rights of man, the liberty of the subject, Brutus and Hampden, and Magna Charta. Such is the origin of nine-tenths of our colonial quarrels; and, in most cases, they may be traced to misunderstanding rather than misrule. These explanations it would perhaps be well to keep in mind, when we read of the injuries sustained by Thomas Pringle at the hands of our Cape government.

The emigrant party landed at Algoa Bay, on the 5th of June, 1820, and proceeded to their location, a wild and lonely district, to which they gave the name of Glen-Lynden. It comprised twenty thousand acres of land—a magnificent idea when applied to the rich fields of England or even of Scotland, but very different in South Africa, where everything was to be grown, and where, in perhaps half the territory at least, nothing could be made to grow. Here Thomas Pringle, whose lameness precluded him from more active employment, officiated as mechanic, gardener, physician, teacher, and occasionally as chaplain, to the emigrants and their neighbours. After having remained with them till 1822, when they were comfortably settled, Pringle travelled by land for the purpose of residing at Cape Town, and during this journey his observant eye saw much of what was strange and interesting, a full account of which he afterwards published in his "Narrative." The situation of librarian to the government library at Cape Town had been already awarded him, and though the salary was only 78 per annum, this small modicum was regarded as the foretaste of better things to come. All promised this, indeed, in a colony which had lately passed into our hands, and where a British population and character were to be superinduced, as speedily as possible, upon the original Dutch colonization. Slavery was to be extinguished, churches and schools to be erected, the English language to be established, and all things changed for the better. This was the commencement of a colonial millennium, into which Pringle threw himself with ardour. Eager to be at the head of the literary and educational departments of this happy change, he received pupils for private instruction; wrote to his talented friend Mr. Fairbairn, in Scotland, to come out to his aid, for the land lay before them to enter and possess it; and planned, in conjunction with the Rev. Mr. Faure, a Dutch minister in Cape Town, the publication of a new periodical for the wider dissemination of knowledge, that should be written both in Dutch and English. This last project would have been admirable in London or Edinburgh; but in a colony where discontent was so rife—above all, in a conquered colony, where the two European races were still at daggers-drawing—what individual man, however good or talented, could be intrusted with the unlimited power of publishing what he pleased? Besides, was there not already the "Government Gazette," which contained everything, in the shape of political intelligence, at least, that the colonists needed to know? It was no wonder that Pringle’s application for permission to start his journal was refused. He received a verbal answer from the governor, through his secretary, intimating that "the application had not been seen in a favourable light." Nothing, of course, remained for him but submission; but as the arrival of British commissioners was expected, who were to examine into the state of the colony, he hoped they would sanction his proposal. The commissioners arrived, and thought well of it; but all that they could do was to report of it to the home government. Thus thrown back for an indefinite period, if not for ever, he resumed his educational labours with greater zeal than before; and Mr. Fairbairn having arrived from Scotland, the two were soon at the head of a large flourishing boarding establishment of pupils at Cape Town. And now it was that a whole sunny shower of good fortune had commenced, and was to fall upon him as it had done in Edinburgh; for while he was thus prospering, the home government had received his proposals of a new journal, and sent out full permission for its commencement. Thus the "South African Journal" started into life upon the original plan, one edition being in Dutch, and the other in English. Soon after, Mr. Greig, a printer, encouraged by this beginning, commenced the "South African Commercial Advertiser," a weekly newspaper, of which Pringle also undertook the editorship. He was again a twofold editor, as well as government librarian, and at the head of an educational establishment which was daily becoming more prosperous. But how long was this good fortune to last?—scarcely even so long as it had done in Edinburgh, while the downfall that followed was to be more sudden and complete.

The commencement of the evil was of a kind always dangerous to free, high-spirited, colonial journalism—it was a government trial. A person named Edwards had libelled the governor, and was tried for the offence, while a report of the proceedings was expected in Pringle’s newspaper. This expectation was fulfilled; but as it was a ticklish duty, the editor had done his best to expunge from it whatever he thought might be offensive to the ruling powers. Still, the feeling on the other side was that he had not expunged enough, and a stringent remedy was forthwith applied to prevent all such shortcomings in future. The fiscal was ordered to proceed to the printing-office, and assume the censorship of the press. This interference, however deemed necessary on the one side, was not to be tolerated on the other; and Pringle and his colleague, who had no other remedy, abandoned their editorships of the "South African Commercial Advertiser," while Greig, its printer, for announcing his purpose to appeal to the home government, was ordered to leave the colony within a month. The "South African Journal" was the next point of attack on the part of the zealous fiscal, as in the second number, which had just been published, certain obnoxious paragraphs had appeared; and although Pringle declared that had he seen them in time he would have expunged them, or suppressed the number, the plea of inadvertence, so available to journalists at home, was not judged sufficient in South Africa. The dragon’s teeth of Cadmus, which, if sown at the foot of Hymettus, would not have produced a dragonet, or even a lizard, were enough, in the mischievous soil of Boeotia, to bring forth a whole harvest of pugnacious homicides. The fiscal performed his duty to his employer, and Pringle his to literature and the liberty of the press, so that the magazine was discontinued, and the fact announced in the Gazette. And now entered a third and more formidable element of discord to deepen the confusion. The public at large were determined not to be bereaved of their periodical, and a petition to that effect, and numerously signed, was presented to the colonial council. In this trying dilemma, the governor, Lord Charles Somerset, had recourse to what he would no doubt have called negotiation, but which Pringle termed "bullying;" and sending for the latter, subjected him to a very stormy course of questioning, which he answered with equal spirit, and, perhaps, with almost equal asperity. The result was, that Pringle sent in his resignation of librarian, and thus shook himself loose of every government tie. But this was no expiation; on the contrary, it was regarded as a defiance of government, and as such it was treated. Every mode of disparagement was therefore brought against him by the government officials and their adherents, which soon told upon the prosperity of his seminary; for who could venture to send his children thither, when its proprietor was under the ban of the colonial aristocracy? The school was soon closed; and thus bereft of every resource, Pringle, with his wife and sister-in-law, left the colony, and arrived in London on the 7th of July, 1826. He had still two sources of consolation in his affliction, of which his enemies could not deprive him. He had given such a literary and educational impulse to the colony, that the good work was certain to go on and prosper, even though it was deprived of his presence. And as for the community which he had been the means of planting at Glen-Lynden, their numbers at his departure had been doubled, while their industry had so effectually enriched the wilderness, that every year promised to bring them additional comfort and abundance.

On returning home, Pringle applied at headquarters for a compensation of his losses, which he estimated at a thousand pounds; but the claim was disallowed, as his statement of wrongs sustained from the colonial government was contradicted by the Chief Justice of the Cape. To add to his difficulties, that sum which was refused him he must now refund, for he was a thousand pounds in debt, in consequence of the abrupt manner in which his prospects in the colony had been crushed. He must once more place his sole reliance in his pen, a fatal necessity, which he had always deprecated. He edited an annual entitled "Friendship’s Offering," and seemed to be irrecoverably doomed to such humble and precarious authorship, when, fortunately, an article which he had written upon the subject of slavery in South Africa before he left the colony, and transmitted to the "New Monthly Magazine," arrested the attention of Messrs. Z. Macaulay and Buxton, by whose influence he was appointed secretary to the Anti-slavery Society. No situation could have been more accordant with his predilections. He had hitherto been the advocate of the enslaved Hottentot and injured Caffre, while the recollection of his own wrongs gave a double edge to his remonstrances, and fresh fire to his eloquence; but now there was full scope for his pen upon the subject, and that, too, not in behalf of one or two tribes, but of humanity at large. He not only threw himself heartily into the work, but inspired others with congenial enthusiasm, while the directors of the society could not sufficiently admire the greatness of his zeal and value of his services. At length, as all the world well knows, the persevering labours of the slavery abolitionists were crowned with success, and on the 27th of June, 1834, the document of the society announcing the act of abolition, and inviting all interested in the cause to set apart the approaching 1st of August as a day of religious gratitude and thanksgiving, was signed "Thomas Pringle." In this way he had unconsciously been removed from Africa, the interests of whose oppressed children he had so deeply at heart, to a situation where he could the most effectually promote the great work to which his philanthropic energies were devoted. What, compared with this, would his solitary appeals have been in behalf of Hottentots, Bosjesmen, and Bechuanas?

And now his appointed work was done. He had lived, and toiled, and succeeded—and what further can man expect upon earth? Only the day after the document was given forth that proclaimed the triumph of Africa and humanity, Pringle was attacked by his last illness, and from the most trivial of causes—a crumb of bread that had passed down the windpipe, and occasioned a severe fit of coughing, by which some small blood-vessel was lacerated. Consumption followed; but, unaware of the fact, his chief wish was to return to the Cape, and settle, with a few hundred pounds, upon a farm on the frontier of Caffraria. As a voyage was judged necessary for the recovery of his health, he resolved to combine this with his wish to become a settler, and had engaged a passage to the Cape, with his wife and sister-in-law; but his disease assumed such an aspect that he was unable to embark. The result may be easily guessed; he sunk under the cureless malady, and expired on the 5th of December, 1834, in his forty-sixth year. His remains were interred in Bunhill Fields, and a stone, with an elegant inscription by William Kennedy, marks the place where they lie.

Electric Scotland Note: We got an email in from Rob Pringle saying...

I notice that the conclusion states that his remains are in the Bunhill Cemetery in London. My father, Dr.John Adams Pringle, was involved in building a Memorial Church on the farm Eildon on the Bedford District in South Africa.

Thomas Pringle’s remains were re-interred in this church on the anniversary of his death, on 5 December 1970.

I would appreciate it if you would change the details. It took many years for my father and his colleagues to fulfil the final wish of Thomas Pringle, i.e. to return to the farm where members of the Scottish Party settled. As far as I know, this farm is still owned by a member of the Pringle family.


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