Assemblages, absences and heterotopias: The Henry Francis Fynn letters part 1

Assemblages, absences and heterotopias: The Henry Francis Fynn letters part 1

This is the first instalment in a two-part blog concerned with thinking through how to work on the Henry Francis Fynn Papers, its letters especially.

Henry Francis Fynn (1803-1861) was variously a trader, Resident Agent, Diplomatic Agent and Resident Magistrate in Natal, Pondoland (Eastern Cape) and then in Natal again (Pridmore, 2006; see also Davies 1974; Wright 1974; Ballard 1981). img_1288He also wrote what it is customary to call a diary, although this has hallmarks of a memoir and letters as well as a diary and there are many accompanying  signs of the assemblage work of editors in piecing together the ‘diary’ from an array of materials (Stuart & Malcolm 1950; see Wylie 1995, 2000, for a detailed discussion). Fynn has in the past been lauded as an adventurer and pioneer and a founding Natalian, although times change and some of his activities later occasioned more opprobrium than praise. There has however been a recent resurgence of interest in Fynn, in particular regarding (a) his well-known and much referenced diary and how best to analyse and interpret its contents, (b) respecting what are seen as his (or his editors’) opinions and exaggerations about the Zulu king Shaka, including in relation to the colonial project of the day, and (c) concerning his changing relationship with indigenous rulers, especially the Pondo King Faku (ruling from 1815 to 1867), including (d) in relation to the winds of change fundamentally altering the relationship between the pre-colonial African state and the colonial system of governance (Pridmore 1994, 1996, 1997, 2004; Stapleton 1998, 2001, 2006; Weir and Etherington 2008; Wright 2010; Wylie 1995, 2000).

There is a large and significant absence from discussions to date, concerning the hundreds of letters that are also to be found in the archival sources. That is, in addition to the diary/memoir, there are many letters by Fynn and even more to him, including by many of the leading (colonial and African) figures of the day. There are some 600-700 letters extant, with the exactly number depending on how ‘a letter’ is defined. However, it is notable that the letters, written at the time and in an unfolding day-on-day way and so escaping various of the issues recognised as characterising the Fynn diary/memoir, have been largely ignored in academic discussion.

There is but one Fynn diary and it exists in a published form, no matter what problems there are with this. By contrast, there are hundreds of manuscript letters which are fragile and hard to read, which are written in many different and difficult handwritings, and these do not exist in a clearly ordered state either, which compounds the other issues in reading and making sense of them. While the complexities of the manuscript sources of the letters may not fully explain the silence concerning their existence and import, and a simple lack of knowledge concerning their existence is also likely to be involved, it is certainly an important factor. However, why should this matter, why shouldn’t researchers focus on the Fynn diary if thIs is what engages their attention and interest?

The diary is generally agreed to have damaging flaws, but which the letters escape. The letters were not written retrospectively but in an emergent and day-by-day way and no hindsight knowledge was involved in this. There was never any thought of external readership for them, they are those of a loosely connected figuration of people and there are no exaggerations involved beyond those that might be shared between the different letter-writers and their addressees. No editorial hand has been involved in re-shaping the letters and their manuscripts exist just as the letter-writers inscribed them. Also there are a large number of letter-writers involved and there are more letters to Fynn than by him, so the world-view involved takes the form of a heterotopia which exists at a representational level as the co-construction of the over time figuration of approximately 150 diverse people who contributed letters and it provides great insight into the ideas and working practices of a particular social and political milieu.

In addition, the letters deserve detailed attention and analysis because of factors connected with genre characteristic of letters within correspondences and the kind of analysis they can support. Correspondences unfold over time as letters are written and responded to and as the correspondents take turns in writing and responding. The letters in the collection start in the 1820s and continue to 1860, just before Fynn died. This was the period over which a great transition of change occurred in Pondoland and Natal, the two locales he operated in for extended periods of time. The change was from African-controlled states and polities in which white functionaries such as Fynn were present only individually and on a grace and favour basis, and where the economy was based on stock-rearing and pastoralism; and a shift to colonial settler-controlled states and polities organised around a labour market and a semi-modern capitalist economy, and in which the rules and regulations of white governance were administered by a large cohort of such functionaries. The stronger reason for focusing on the letters, then, is that, because of their serial, longitudinal and emergent character and their related coverage of the crucial period from the 1820s to the end of the 1850s, they provide a particularly appropriate resource for investigating how a crucially involved figuration of people saw, promoted and responded to the ‘great change’ sketched above.

Is it a case of full steam ahead, in focusing a WWW sub-project on the letters? In fact things are somewhat more complicated than have been discussed so far and there are some complications of an ontological, epistemological and methodological character in working with the Fynn letters. These will be the topic of the next blog.


Archive source

Henry Francis Fynn Papers, Pietermaritzburg Archives Depot, Kwa-Zulu Natal, South Africa.



Ballard, C., 1981. The role of trade and hunter-traders in the political economy of Natal and Zululand, 1824-1880. African Economic History, 10, pp.3-21.

D. Davies, 1974. Twin trails: The story of the Fynn and Southey families. Cape Town: K.B. Davies (PVT.) Ltd.

Pridmore, J., 1994. The reception of Henry Francis Fynn c. 1824—1992. Current Writing: Text and Reception in Southern Africa, 6(1), pp.57-72.

Pridmore, J., 1996. Henry Francis Fynn: an assessment of his career and an analysis of the written and visual portrayals of his role in the history of the Natal Region. publisher not identified.

Pridmore, J., 1997. Hunter, Trader and Explorer? The unvarnished reminiscences of HF Fynn. Alternation, 4(2), pp.46-56.

Pridmore, J., 2004. Diaries and Despatches: The Life and Writing of Henry Francis Fynn (1803–61) and Henry Francis Fynn Junior (1846–1915). African Historical Review, 36(1), pp.126-147.

Pridmore, J. 2006. ‘Henry Francis Fynn’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography,

Stapleton, T.J., 1998. ‘Him Who Destroys All’: Reassessing the Early Career of Faku, King of the Mpondo, c. 1818–1829. South African Historical Journal, 38(1), pp.55-78.

Stapleton, T.J. 2001 “Faku, the Mpondo and Colonial Advance in the Eastern Cape, 1834–53.” In (eds) C. Youe and T. Stapleton Agency and Action in Colonial Africa. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. 12-33.

Stapleton, T.J., 2006. Faku: Rulership and colonialism in the Mpondo Kingdom (c. 1780-1867). 7). Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press.

Stuart, J. and Malcolm, D.M. eds., 1950. The diary of Henry Francis Fynn. Pietermaritzburg: Shuter and Shooter.

Weir, Jennifer, and Norman Etherington. 2008. ‘Shepstone in love: The other Victorian in an African colonial administrator’ in (ed) Peter Limb Orb and Sceptre: Essays on British Imperialism and its Legacies Monash: Monash University Press, 1-11.

J.B. Wright. 1974. ‘Henry Francis Fynn. Natalia, 4, 14-18.

Wright, J. (2010). Thinking beyond ‘tribal traditions’: reflections on the precolonial archive. South African Historical Journal, 62(2), 268-286.

Wylie, D., 1995. “Proprietor of Natal:” Henry Francis Fynn and the Mythography of Shaka. History in Africa, 22, pp.409-437.

Wylie, D., 2000. Savage delight: White myths of Shaka. University of Kwazulu Natal Press.


Last updated: 29 December 2016


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