Eighteen years ago we emigrated to South Africa. Then, like now, it was early October and the open fields around Cape Town were covered in thick carpets of purple flowers. I remember asking our driver what the purple flowers were? He kindly replied: “It’s a weed”.
The Love Moment
I left it at that and got busy settling in and slowly growing new roots in my new surroundings. One of the first things I learnt to love about Somerset West was the spectacular light show that the last rays of the sun setting in the west puts on our mountain range in the east. It’s a short performance of about 15 minutes but it’s always beautiful. The mountains go from blazing orange through candyfloss pink and lilac to deep violet and blue before they eventually turn grey.
When my daughter was about four the two of us stood by the window one evening watching the colours on the mountains.
“Mamma, do you know why the mountains turn pink?”she asked.
“Why do you think they turn pink?” I asked in return.
“Because they’re celebrating love.”
But of course!
It might have been cheesy coming from anybody else, but she was only four and utterly adorable. Ever since that day we call it the ‘Love Moment’. In the evenings I like to take a few minutes to see the Love Moment unfold.
Lady Campbell Weed
It wasn’t until a few years ago that I finally decided to look up the purple flowers that met us when we arrived and subsequently appear en masse every spring. They turned out to be Echium plantagineum: a weed indeed, a noxious and highly invasive alien weed. The plant is so infamous that it goes under a whole row of common names in English. Viper’s bugloss, blue weed, Salvation Jane, Paterson’s curse, Riverina bluebell, and Lady Campbell weed..
‘Lady Campbell weed’ caught my interest. My great grandmother twice removed was a Campbell. Since I was little I’ve known about her mother, Mary Fraser of Fairfield who travelled to India. She was born in Inverness in Scotland and sailed to India to find a husband. She was captured by French pirates on the way and only barely survived a great storm on the Indian Ocean. My great aunt Ella wrote a book about this voyage and my mom made sure I had a copy – which I’m embarrassed to admit I had never read.
However, Lady Campbell weed was interesting in other ways too. According to some sources you can get a red dye from the roots; it’s a cousin of alkanet, Alkanna tinctoria. Alkanna tinctoria is also known as dyer’s bugloss and is used as a natural colourant in soapmaking. The purple flowers of Echium plantagineum dry to a beautiful blue. As they fall off the plant they lie in blue droves on the sunny ground. The dry flowers retain the blue colour well and can be used to decorate soap tops – if botanicals on top of soap is something you like.
Clearly, I had to test getting red dye out of these plants so readily available everywhere around here. So I dug up a whole lot of Lady Campbell weed or viper’s bugloss roots. I washed them, dried them, and then made an oil infusion with them.
Whiter Shade of Pale
The infusion did take on a beautiful deep red colour. I made a small test batch of soap with the infusion and the reaction was also spectacular. As soon as the lye solution hit the oils the mixture turned from red to a stunning greenish blue colour – much like alkanet. But it lasted all of 30 seconds – after that the colour faded. By the time saponification was complete the bars were a very pretty white without any trace of blue or purple.
I guess the compounds that give red colour in oil infusion are closely related to those in dyer’s bugloss (alkanet). But there’s just much less of the colourant in viper’s bugloss than in dyer’s bugloss. By infusing the same oil with several lots of new plant material you might get a colourant concentrated enough to show up in fully saponified soap.
Echium planagineum seed oil (which is different from an infusion made with roots) is said to have skin conditioning properties. However, viper’s bugloss also contains a variety of unsavoury alkaloids. I.e. you don’t really want Echium plantagineum extract in quantity in cosmetics. Hence, I’ve never re-done my experiment with soap. But one day I might try and make some leather dye from Lady Campbell weed.
My Great Great Great Great Grandmother Mary
But back to my ancestral mother Mary Campbell née Fraser. As I was going about my oil infusion experiment it suddenly occurred to me that this adventurous Scottish lady who sailed to India in 1810 must have rounded the Cape of Good Hope. The Suez Canal (more recently receiving attention for being obstructed by the infamous Ever Given) was only completed in 1869. Up until then all European and American ships travelling to and from India had their route around the southern tip of Africa.
I started reading great aunt Ella Pipping’s book about Mary Fraser. I learnt that Mary had written a novel based on her journey to India. It’s a novel in three volumes called ‘Life in India; or, the English at Calcutta’ published in 1828 and written under the nom de plume ‘Mrs Monkland’.
I was very keen to know what my ancestral mother’s novel said about Cape Town. I downloaded the book and found a well-written novel with interesting descriptions of places and customs – and some less than flattering portrayals of characters that must have been based on real people she knew.
Mary and the Mountains
We know that Mary herself sailed from Portsmouth on the Northumberland on 14th of March 1810. The ship reached the Cape Colony in April 1810. Winter was coming and instead of anchoring in Table Bay they docked at Simon’s Town in the more sheltered False Bay. Upon reaching land the characters in the novel decide to go for a refreshing evening walk and they look out over False Bay. That’s were this splendid passage comes up:
“Accustomed as I have been to picturesque effect in my own mountains,” said Miss Hume [a Scottish lady], “the extent of the scene, the magnitude of the objects, and the purity of the atmosphere, exceed all I have ever fancied. Behind, what a lofty screen of rocky mountains, rich in vegetable wonders, rears its head to heaven! At our feet the wide extent of the noble bay, and beyond, the blue mountains of Hottentot Holland, in three distinct ranges!”
“How the sun, as he descends, seems to accelerate his course,” added Bentley; “like a courser hasting to his goal – he has finished his race gloriously, what a flood of splendour he leaves behind him!”
“Look,” said Miss Percy, “mark the changes which, while we are speaking, his setting produces on the mountains! Observe the clear ethereal blue of the near range, the brilliant purple of the second, and the faint rose of the distance, glowing in the latest beams of the splendid luminary which has just left us; and now the grey air-tint envelopes all, and blends into one mass the objects but this instant so fully relieved. Can anything be more exquisite than the clear dark shadows which tremble on the deep waters of the bay?”
Incidentally, this moment in the novel seals the fate of two of the main characters. Looking out at the beautiful evening scenery they realize that they share the same profound, romantic feelings for each other. A love moment indeed..
So she was there, in Simon’s Town, overlooking the same bay I can see from my window, enchanted by ‘my’ mountains! Between us lie two centuries and a long and unbroken chain of mothers and daughters. Generations of strong, bright, and opinionated women. But the fact that she also discovered and clearly enjoyed my Love Moment means that the two of us share more than just genes. We also share a nice first-hand experience – in this place so far away from where either of us started our journeys.
When you read a book written by an ancestor it’s tempting to look for some form of family traits; something you can relate to and recognize in later generations. I had to smile at Mary’s description of the end of the walk mentioned above. Miss Hume asks the others to wait up because she quickly wants to dig up a geranium to take with to India. My grandmother, my mother and my aunt – all passionate gardeners – would have done exactly the same thing. I also admit to having ‘stolen’ a few geraniums in my day. It may be chance but perhaps it’s in our genes. Nature or nurture..
Damsel in Distress – Without Soap
Does Mary mention soap in her novel? No she doesn’t – but she does hint at the lack of it.
On the way from the Cape of Good Hope to India the British ladies on the ship are captured by French pirates (this passage in the novel is also based on actual events). They are brought on board a French ship without any belongings other than the clothes on their backs. (The Napoleon Wars are in full swing and England is at war with France). The French pirate ship then runs into a mighty storm leaving everything on board wrecked and soaking. After many weeks under miserable conditions and with a shortage of food on board, the French ship finally anchors at Port Louis in Mauritius. The prisoners are not allowed ashore but the French ladies in Port Louis are told about the ladies on board. They kindly send them pretty flowers but nothing practical like a fresh change of underwear – or soap.
Once the characters reach India rosewater and essence of sandalwood get mentioned as scents added to little bouquets given to guests at festive functions. Mary also mentions the beautiful gemstone mosaics at Taj Mahal in Agra a couple of times:
“…the magnificent baths and dressing rooms, the floors, walls, and ceilings of which were all equally beautiful, inlaid in the richest and most exquisite mosaic; every flower, and even every turn in every leaf, was faithfully represented in coloured stones of every hue.”
Soap Inspired by Mary
Did I make a soap inspired by Mary Fraser’s voyage to India? Of course I did. I played with incorporating various elements from her novel. The soap is made with cold winter rain water from the Cape of Good Hope. It’s coloured with clays from the foothills of the very mountains she describes. The scent features essential oil from indigenous rose geranium and essential oil of sandalwood. I added some delicately scented old-fashioned orris root which would have been a standard scent ingredient in 1810. The terrazzo mosaic design is inspired by Mary’s description of the inlays at the Taj Mahal.
A terrazzo effect is one of my favourite soap designs. It reminds me of the floors in the vestibule and staircase of the 1920s building where I grew up in Helsinki. It lets you work with sharp contrasts which add interest to the look. And the bar will continue to look interesting as you use the soap. Often the look improves with use as surfaces become rounded and wear down revealing the soap shards inside. It’s also a good way of incorporating intensely coloured soap without staining lather. Plus it’s a handy way of working with highly accelerating fragrance and soap at very heavy trace.
To enhance the bright natural colours of the clays in this soap I brightened the white soap by using brine for the lye solution. The salt makes the soap opaque – which makes it look several shades lighter than without salt.
There is no Lady Campbell weed in or on this soap; the lady who now has to share her name with the dreaded weed was born about a century after Mary Fraser-Campbell. Viper’s bugloss had probably spread from Europe to the Cape of Good Hope by 1810, but it wasn’t called Lady Campbell weed at the time. And of course Mary Fraser wasn’t called Campbell at the time either. She only married my grandmother’s grandmother’s grandfather Alexander Campbell in 1811 in India.
There is also no whale oil in my soap. At the time whaling was an important industry along the coast of the Cape of Good Hope. Locally, whale oil might have been the most readily available soap oil in 1810. Masses of whales had been hunted and killed here in the previous two decades and whale oil was a familiar commodity in Britain too at the time. Whale oil was used for soap, but it was particularly sought after as fuel for oil lamps. Oil from spermaceti whales was said to burn with a brighter flame than any other oil. Today whales still swim in these waters from winter solstice to early summer. But now these gentle giants are protected and all whaling is banned in Africa.
My soap is a modern day coldprocess soap made using pure sodium hydroxide. Nicholas Leblanc had patented his process for making pure sodium carbonate from sodium chloride in 1791 in France. The sodium carbonate was then treated with calcium hydroxide to make sodium hydroxide But only in 1816 were the first soda works established in Britain. And, because of high British salt tariffs soda production didn’t really take off in Britain until 1824. Before this industrial sodium carbonate production began, impure sodium carbonate was made by burning plants rich in sodium (barilla in Spain, kelp in Britain). Soft potassium soap paste was probably more common in 1810 than bar soap.
Pear’s or no Pear’s
It’s likely that any soap Mary Fraser was familiar with in 1810 was made with lye from plant ashes. Mass-produced soap didn’t appear until mid 19th century. Pear’s transparent soap had been introduced in London in 1807 and she may or may not have come across it. But had it made a great impression on her she might have mentioned it as something she wanted to bring along to India. However, she is consistent in mentioning no other cosmetic than rose water.
Would she have approved of my soap? She probably would have found the design peculiar, if not bizarre or frivolous. “Why would anybody want toilet soap to look like a garish terrazzo floor? What’s wrong with white or ivory soap?” While Mary would have been familiar with the notion of mud baths and healing mineral baths she might have been suspicious of the addition of clay in soap. In commercial soapmaking in the 1800s clay, sand, chalk etc were regarded as cheap ‘fillers’, added to increase the weight of the product without improving its performance.
Yet, I think she might have liked how the soap made her skin feel; and she might have enjoyed the beautiful scent – geranium, orris root, sandalwood and all.
And now when I watch the colourful mountains in the evenings I do it knowing that I’m not the first of my family to do so. I share the joy with my grandmother’s grandmother’s grandmother who was here more than two hundred years ago.