I’ve been reading The Covenant for a few weeks now. It’s an epic novel–about 1000 pages long! When I put it on my reading list for sabbatical, I had no idea that it was that long–or I might have reconsidered it. It’s fictional, but like other Michener epics, it’s based on a huge amount of historical research, and gives a beautifully sweeping arc of the history of South Africa.
It starts 15,000 years ago with the San, later called the “Bushmen.” The characters leave the lake they have always known when it dries up. Michener lets us travel with them, hope with them, fear with them, as they move across the harsh landscape searching for a better life.
We move to the 15th Century, when Gold is being mined. We observe how seductive money and power are, even when pitted against family, home, and love.
In the next century, South Africa changes drastically. The Dutch seek a trade route to Java, and the Cape of Good Hope provides the perfect stopover place. At first, that’s all Cape Town is, and “The Company” Jan Compagnie rules with more than an iron fist. Eventually, of course, the Boers spread north and east. Those Boers who can read use the Old Testament as a guide for how to live in this new land. They consider themselves the “chosen ones” in “Canaan,” and have no compunction about killing, enslaving, and oppressing because God has given them the land and the right to do so. Besides, they doubt the “little brown” people they encounter in Southern Africa have souls at all. Missionaries who came along and treated the native Africans like people with souls were shunned and sometimes slaughtered themselves.
The Van Doorn family is one whose line is traced through the centuries, as is Nxumalo’s lineage. The Saltwood family from England figures powerfully, too. We meet the Xhosa nation, and Shaka the powerful and bloodthirsty Zulu king. Nxumalo’s descendant is Shaka’s trusted advisor, who also plots his death.
Michener, James. The Covenant. Fawcett, 1987.