Charles Etienne Boniface

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Charles Etienne Boniface (1787 – 1853) was an enormously talented, intelligent and abrasive dramatist, actor, theatre director, dancing instructor, linguist, language teacher, sworn translator, fencing teacher, choreographer, composer and guitarist, music teacher.

Often referred to as C.E. Boniface or simply as Boniface, and in at least one instance as Ignace Boniface. Over the years he also worked under a number of pseudonyms, especially for his more polemical writing, or his efforts at gaining publicity and self-promotion for himself and his works. These include: Mr C.B., Vyfstar of Wraak, Affront and (possibly) Clavigo.


Born in Paris on 2 February 1787, the son of a prison warder, he grew up a precocious child who, at "the age of twelve had a grounding in French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Latin, Greek, had written short dramas in the style of Molière, played the guitar and had learned to dance" (Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia[1])

In 1798 Sir Sidney Smith, who had apparently been helped by Boniface's father to escape French imprisonment, assisted the Boniface family to resettle in the Seychelles, where Boniface enrolled in as a cadet in the Royal Navy. When the Cape Colony was annexed once more by the British, Boniface made his way to Cape Town via Mozambique on board a Portuguese slave ship, arriving on 10 February 1806.

In the period 1807 to 1840 he lived and worked in Cape Town, where - due to his amazing aptitude for languages - he managed to learn enough German, Dutch and English to work as a language and music teacher. He was the first person in the Cape Colony known to have noted down the local music. He would also play an enormous role in the development of journalism, theatre, and Dutch and Afrikaans theatre in particular, in Cape Town. (For more on his journalistic and theatrical activities, see the next section.)

In 1824 he became the head of a school founded in Rondebosch by D. van Reenen, but apparently quit in 1825, founding a Latin School in 1826, but by 1827 he was declared bankrupt and had to sell his books and theatrical costumes. In 1828 became a sworn translator and in 1829 wrote the book Relation du naufrage du navire français L’Eole sur la côte de la Caffrerie, en avril 1829, a record of the French ship L'Eole, which had foundered off the eastern coast of Southern Africa while on its way to Réunion.

He now appears to have left theatre activities for a while, working chiefly as journalist (1830-1844) and only became involved in theatre again from 1832 till he left for Natal in 1844, producing some of his best writing for the theatre in the 1830s.

He had married Maria Geertruida Heyneman in Cape Town in 1817, fathering a son. Maria died in 1835 at the age of thirty-nine and between 1838 and 1843 Boniface also a relationship with a freed Mozambique slave named Constantia Dorothea le Mordant, with whom he fathered three daughters from had a number of children over the years.

A key element in Boniface's make-up was the dangerous combination of a satiric bent, and a quick and unforgiving temper, which not only lent fire to much of his journalistic and theatrical output, but led to his uncompromising and vicious feuds with a number of Capetonians, most notably with his former friend and colleague J. Suasso de Lima.

In 1844 he fled to Pietermaritzburg, to help Cornelis Moll start the first newspaper in Natal (De Natalier) and practise as an advocate at law, although it is not known of he was involved in theatre whilst resident there. Dorothea le Mordant followed with their three children.

Never really financially successful, he died in Durban on 10 December 1853, having committed suicide by taking laudanum.

His contribution as journalist

He was a fiery journalist, who was the first writer to use Afrikaans for journalistic purposes when he co-founded and was the first editor of De Zuid-Afrikaan in Cape Town in 1830. He later also was briefly the first editor of De Natalier (which he had co-founded with Cornelis Moll) in Pietermaritzburg in 1844. He used his journalistic writing to attack various social, political and personal targets and raise many issues, an approach he also carried over into his theatrical work, much of which was published in the journals of the day. For a while his feud with De Lima played a cardinal role in firing up his satiric imagination in poetry, journalism and drama, while his societal targets included the many fanatical philanthropic movements of the time.

He also produced a historical account of the shipwreck of the French vessel L’Eole, on its way from Bourbon (Réunion) to France in 1829, ostensibly based on the narratives of some of the survivors. The book, entitled Relation du Naufrage du Navire Français L’Eole sur la Côte de la Caffrerie, en Avril 1829, was published in Cape Town by Bridekirk in 1829. It has been newly edited D. J. Culpin and published in the series MHRA Critical Texts (Vol. 37) in 2013[2].

His contribution to South African theatre and performance

As producer and director

Although he had been writing and performing before his arrival, Boniface started out his theatrical career in Cape Town by joining the French Amateur Company (or Het Fransche Liefhebbery Geselschap), taking on a central role by 1809, and then became an active founding member of the multilingual (French/Dutch/English) company Honi Soit qui Mal y Pense from 1814-18. In 1823 he revived the company, now under his own formal management, and once more performing as Honi Soit qui Mal y Pense. The company was later also referred to as Het Zuid-Afrikaansche Tooneel Gezelschap or The South African Amateurs in most adverts. "Honi" became Door Yver Bloeit de Kunst in 1833 and eventually Vlyt en Kunst in 1834-1837. All in all had an enormous impact on both the development of Boniface's art and on South African theatre, Afrikaans theatre in particular.

As dramatist

As a dramatist he wrote a number of plays in Dutch, Afrikaans and even English, many of them produced in Cape Town, as well as translating and adapting works from other languages. Being of a temperamental and somewhat choleric nature, and F.C.L. Bosman (1928, p. 118) claims that he was the first to really make the Cape theatre a site for political, social and personal vendettas.

He produced a number of "firsts" in the Cape theatre, including the first ballet in South Africa: Sapho(1815), the first known South African play in English: Kockincoz, or The Pettifogging Lawyer's Plot (1843) and De Nieuwe Ridderorde, of De Temperantisten (also known simply as De Nieuwe Ridderorde or De Temperantisten - 1832), said to be the first true play in Afrikaans-Dutch and possibly his best work. A case could also be made for his authorship of the "Introduction in three languages" called Jean-Pierre-Diogenes, of L'Orateur dans un Tonneau, performed in 1815, since it was performed by the company Honi Soit Qui Mal Y Pense, of which he was a key member.

His original plays include:

L'Enragé (1807). Translated into Dutch by J. Suasso de Lima as De Dolzinnige, of De Gewaande Dolleman (1823)

Het Beleg en het Nemen van Troyen, 1813

Sapho (1815)

De Nieuwe Ridderorde of De Temperantisten (1832)

Clasius, of Het Proces om een Komedie-Lootje (1834)

Kockincoz, or The Pettifogging Lawyer's Plot (1843)

Bluettes Franco-Nataliennes (1846-1849*??) (also given as De Natal Bluetts in Dutch, and The Natal Bluetts or The Natal Bluettes in English).

Possible other titles

A satirical dramatic scene or "intermezzo" entitled Castor en Pollux was performed in 1834 and probably written by Boniface.

Occasionally Boniface published an advert in the South African Chronicle and De Zuid-Afrikaan announcing a number of titles for poems, prose works, and plays he intended publishing (e.g. in 1825 poetry mostly in French and plays in Dutch; in 1836 plays mostly in Dutch and English). (In response J. Suasso de Lima did the same.) While these titles may simply have been meant as satirical commentary, F.C.L. Bosman argues that the texts may actually have been written, or Boniface fully intended to write them, but that they were never published and/or performed. (See Bosman, 1928: pp. 289-290 and 337)

Play titles that occur in these lists include:

In 1825: Negro-Brutalo, of Tippo Saïb, Jr ; De Verlorene Doos, of Het Loterymannetje

In 1836: Tzatzoe in Engeland ; De Meineed ; De Advokaat en De Barbier, of Hoe Men Pro Deo Wordt Geschoren ; Het Akelige Slot van Madacrestan, Vryheer van Gierenburg ; Mowshuns and Resoliushuns, or A Peep in the Commercial Room ; The Glow-Worm, or I'll Give It Ye, The Wonders of Cape Town, possibly something called The Blasted Lyre, etc.

As translator and adaptor

He also translated and reworked plays by others, including:

Robert, Chef de Brigands (from Lamartélière)

Jocrisse Corrigé (from Sewrin)

Dago, of De Spaansche Bedelaars (from De Trye, adapted and new music composed)

De Burger Edelman (from Moliere),

Limaçon de Dichter (based on Von Kotzebue)

Pygmalion (from Rousseau)

None of these translations were printed and De Burger Edelman is the only manuscript preserved.

As ballet master and musician

He wrote, choreographed and composed music for a number of ballet's with his children's company.

Besides the work he did on his own productions, he apparently also on occasion choreographed, composed and arranged the dances and music for some other production companies.

E.g.: A production of Frederik de Groote te Spandau, of Het Lasterschrift (Dorvo) and Meester Vink, of De Vermiste Diamant (Desaugiers and Gentil) in 1834.

[TH, JH]


F.C.L. Bosman, 1928. Drama en Toneel in Suid-Afrika, Deel I: 1652-1855. Pretoria: J.H. de Bussy. [3]: pp. 5, 8, 44, 50-59, 84-92, 118-145, 163-179, 201, 233-4, 246-7, 257-267, 274-3339, 343-6, 351, 359-375, 392, 441, 452, 488-496, 510.

De Beer, Mona 1995. Who Did What in South Africa. Johannesburg: Ad Donker.

P.J. du Toit. 1988. Amateurtoneel in Suid-Afrika. Pretoria: Academica

Jill Fletcher. 1994. The Story of Theatre in South Africa: A Guide to its History from 1780-1930. Cape Town: Vlaeberg: p.

Kannemeyer, John Christoffel 1978. Geskiedenis van die Afrikaanse Literatuur I. Pretoria: Academica[4].

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