Writings

Here are some samples of writing I have done over the years.

South African Lighthouses Ė Chance Brothers and the rest

This summary of all the lighthouses in South Africa was left out of my book, Lighthouses: The Race to Illuminate the World, due to lack of space. But for those interested in South African lighthouses it's a useful reference. Information was gleaned from multiple sources, but probably the best contemporary source is Gerald Hoberman's wonderfully illustrated book Lighthouses of South Africa, published by the Gerald and Marc Hoberman Collection in 2009.

Download it here. (310Kb)

Chance Brothers: Lighting the World

An edited version of this article on the history of Chance Brothers appeared in the March 2014 edition of History West Midlands magazine.
A short film on Chance Brothers will be appearing on their website soon.

Download the original article (428Kb)

Mfecane: The Image of Africa and the Land Question

I wrote this essay as an assignment for the DA's Potential Candidates Programme, which ran for six months in 2013. Its chief aim was to assist aspiring candidates learn more about the DA and issues they would need to deal with if elected a public representative.

Download the essay (335kb)

The Chance Connection

This article first appeared in The Keeperís Log Vol XXV Number 3. Reproduced with permission of the US Lighthouse Society www.uslhs.org

Download the original paper (965Kb)

From Cave Painters to Neuromancers

I wrote this paper for the First South African conference on Human-Computer Interaction, held in 2000. At that time I was very much in the vanguard of multimedia communications and the conference organiser asked me to give the opening address, which was a great honour. The paper is a whistle-stop tour through the history of interface design, and was lavishly illustrated.

On May 26th 2009 I gave an updated version of the talk at the University of the Witwatersrand Origins Centre, as an invited speaker in their Public Lecture series.

Download the original paper (316Kb) and presentation (2.1Mb), or the new presentation (2.3Mb).

Africa overland

In 1984 I joined an overland expedition from London to Nairobi, one of 17 men and 5 women who for 5 months had the experience of a lifetime. The journey, which ended for me in Durban in September of that year, changed my life upside down. I have lived in SA ever since.

I wrote a long (100 000 words) diary which one day might appear in abridged form as a book. Here is a short extract from it, written as I was steaming up the Zaire River (now, again, the Congo) heading for Kisangani, formerly Stanley Falls named after the Welsh naturalised American journalist explorer Henry Morton Stanley.

18th April
I'm on the bows of the leading barge, sitting on a pile of Lotokila timber, hippo spotting. It's a fantastic day - hot, with interesting shaped clouds, mainly cumulus, drifting by, and quite still. There is no noise apart from the lapping of water as the metal cuts through the oncoming current. We are about 60 yards from the superstructure where we sleep and eat, and the engines are quiet. There is no vibration and no oily smell to pollute the peace and purity of the atmosphere.

In front of me a boy plays with is younger brother, as their mother prepares a lunch of manioc and dried fish. A family of five lives on this barge, their belongings crammed onto a steel box six feet square by ten feet high. A wicker basket of fried termites sits close by, as a daughter squats on an enamel basket and pees. Most of it goes onto the deck and the mother tells her off.

Gill, Ross, Adey and Alan sit talking to Africa No. I, who is reading the Cool Aid Acid Test. He speaks quite good English, but is finding the book difficult because it is written in cult American style obscure even to most English people.

We've seen a couple of wallowing hippos. They look, at first, like blocks of wood with water running over them but then you look a bit closer and you might see a nostril or an eye. They don't like deep or fast flowing water, so they keep close to the bank. The crocodiles are harder to spot, but we have seen one swimming close towards the bank. There are lots of egrets, eagles, paraqueets, and other exotic birds, and hundreds of butterflies.

Every so often we pass by a tiny settlement and one or two pirogues come out laden with dry fish, freshly caught crocodiles or monkeys, palm wine and other delicacies. It's a hazardous business, timing the approach to the barge with the current and the wake pulling them off course. Sometimes, they miss altogether and slump into their canoes looking sad and pitiful, father like the losing crew of the Boat Race as they pass Putney Bridge. It might be a week before another barge passes.

Here comes a pirogue now. A man at each end, a woman in the middle in the usual wrap around batik. They approach carefully and judge it just right, slinging a creeper aboard to be tied up by one of the crew. I wonder what they've brought with them.

The jungle hugs both sides of the river like an enormous green blanket. Weed and rushes come right up to the water's edge, then higher growing further in the trees. In some places you can see a hundred yards or more in land through three dimensional corridors of brilliant shades of green. The water reflects it all and images merge into a kaleidoscope of colour.

The craft is a little village all of its own. The engine and control barge has its permanent crew, plus wives and families who live in small cabins at the stern and around the engine room, where to any person not used to it the noise is unbearable. Each barge has its owner, and then there are the passengesr, mostly small traders or tourists like us. Every family has its collection of food, pots, kerosene burner and other meagre belongings in a pile on the deck, and hardly a minute goes by without some form of food being prepared or cooked.

The staple is manioc, a root crop rich in starch which is either grated and reconstituted in long cylinders wrapped in palm leaves, or mashed with maize and mixed with water to form a soft, spongy dough. In either form it is eaten with vegetables, often the green leaves of the manioc, and meat. This is usually freshly cooked or smoke fish, smoked monkey, fresh antelope, wild pig, crocodile or chicken, and invariably mixed with pepper and spices and eaten fairly liquid. Other commonly eaten foods are plantain (a banana looking vegetable), sweet potatoes, yams, tree grubs, and all kind of fruit - mangoes, pineapples, pawpaws, oranges, bananas, and so on. The diet is very nutritious, and though food is expensive in relation to average incomes we have not seen much evidence of malnutrition.

Last night we watched a glorious sunset. The day started cloudy but the afternoon brightened up and by evening the horizon was clear of all but a few strands of stratus. The huge orange orb sank into the trees and gave off a fan of beams of red and orange and crimson, and the reflection in the water played games with the little islands of water hyacinth that drift aimlessly downstream. Like a dramatic finale to an act, it was over before we could really take it in, and the stars were out and the waning moon took over and the colours became a sombre monotone. And only the throb of the engines told me I wasn't dreaming.

The children beside me have started playing cards, and they sing together and clamber over the planks of wood that make up this barge's cargo. And I think, what makes them different from other children in the world happily amusing themselves? They will grow up among boats and see more of Zaire than most children, but they will inevitably be entrained in the culture of their parents and countrymen and will come to know enemies and patriotism and possibly war. And they will be told that black men are their brothers and white men should be treated warily and South Africa should be cut off from the continent and America and Russia are engaged in a futile struggle for world domination and they will pick up all this stale, regurgitated knowledge and the world will go on, and we will be no nearer the peaceful existence most of us secretly crave.



Lighthouses attempts to fill the gap in lighthouse history concerning the development of illumination technology during the 19th and early 20th centuries. The main characters are James Chance, who started the lighthouse department at the firm founded by his uncle Lucas Chance in 1822; and Sir David Brewster, a radical Scottish optical scientist whose entreaties to the British establishment to take the lighthouse question seriously from the 1820s were largely ignored until a Royal Commission on...read more
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