Joseph Stirk’s Journal, some more on reporting, something on conferencing

Joseph Stirk’s Journal, some more on reporting, something on conferencing

The ‘some more on reporting’ can be quickly summarised as, writing the different sets of information required for the final report to the funding body, the ESRC, was completed last weekend and the button pushed. Officially, the final date for this is 31 March, but working against a tight deadline for something so important is never a good idea, so it was done early. Phew.

On Monday, I was at an extremely good conference organised at the University of East London by Maria Tamboukou on behalf of the four of us who authored The Archive Project. Its overall focus was on the way that metaphors are used or interrogated in doing and/or writing about archival research. There were about 30 of us there, exactly the right size for enabling good deal of dialogue between everybody present. Abstracts of the 15 or so papers given can be found at

There has also been something else important going on alongside these two things. This has involved ‘finishing’ WWW work on the database of the Joseph Stirk Journal. Stirk was one of the 1820 Settlers who went to the Eastern Cape, intended to become a buffer group on the frontier between the white settler towns and existing farmers, and Xhosa peoples disgruntled about their displacement and even more so about their sometimes appalling treatment at white hands. Most of the new settlers abandoned farming rather quickly. Stirk was one of the few who not only persevered but succeeded handsomely. ‘Finishing’ is a shorthand for ensuring that all meta-data has been entered correctly and consistently, that the important parts of notes and transcriptions get picked up, and that JPEG numbers of original documents are entered. This has involved much to-ing and fro-ing between Emilia and me, with database files and comments and JPEGs whizzing about.

So what is interesting about Stirk’s journal, kept by him from 1850 to the end of 1854?  Lots!

Stirk was what is known as ‘functionally literate’, in that his ideas about spelling and grammar and punctuation were hazy, but he knew what he wanted to say and had enough command over his pen and how to transfer onto paper what he heard orally to write what in the event turned out to be quite a voluminous diary kept over a number of years. Its main concern is with the fabric of ordinary life, the ordinary life of farming and his other business activities including carting and trading among other things. Diaries are about the personal life? Phoey! Tell Mr Stirk!

Most of the diaries archived in South Africa are about the quotidian, that complicated mixture of working and living that people lived out in getting by and getting on in a time-period when, if you wanted something you either had to make it or grow it, or make or grow something you could exchange to enable you to get it. Matters of affect and interiority were either not of much interest or else overridden by the necessity of hard work to enable economic survival; but whichever, the end result is the same. The diaries and journals, just like the letters by white settler folk in South Africa, are mainly concerned with ordinary everyday life and what people actually did and who they did it with or who did it for them. And the latter of course is of signal importance regarding relationships between white settlers and the black people who worked for them or who they interacted with in other ways and other contexts.

In Stirk’s journal, a number of his economic activities involve black people, in particular the local refugee people known as Fingoes, in trading with them, and with buying and selling occurring on both sides. It also involved them sometimes in selling their labour to Stirk by carrying out fieldwork on his farm, not as permanent workers but bought in to carry out particular tasks at particular points in the farming year. In addition, his journal was written over a period of warfare as well as peace, and a puzzle and a dilemma are revealed as result. The puzzle is, at the time he was writing, just when did ‘the war’ actually start and when did it precisely end, and what were the markers of these? The dilemma is, what to call the ‘them’ who were the enemy during the war, and what was their relationship to the ‘them’ who were not on the ‘other’ side?  Indeed, more basically still, for Stirk and others it was a matter of, how to tell them apart?

The war is now known as the war of Mlanjeni or the eighth Frontier War. It is usually dated 1850 to 1853. Stirk is not so sure!  He mentions rumours of another war and he carries on farming; he mentions again rumours of a war, the sheep are sheared and the cart is sold; he announces that the war has begun; it is not mentioned again for some time; he notes fighting here and there and more sheep are sheared etc; he also writes that the war has ended, though fighting continues. This is not war as the 20th and 21st centuries have become accustomed to it, but combinations of fighting and peace and skirmishes and mutual dealings across enemy lines and more skirmishes, and always the sheep are sheared and the carts are sold because for most people ordinary life went on while the fighting and the skirmishes mainly occurred off-stage as it were.

But this complicated period brought with it dilemmas which could and sometimes did mean the difference between life and death. In Stirk’s journal, the local African people are referred to as Fingos, composed in fact of people who were refugees from fighting in a number of areas and whose movements around southern Africa had led many to the Eastern Cape area. Many of the people that Stirk had dealings with, in the buying and selling of carts, the shearing of sheep, the harvesting of crops and so on were in his terms Fingoes.

The rank and file of the local police force was composed by black people, and the militia and various regiments had black soldiers in them, all referred to as Kaffirs. But also Kaffirs were those groups who were not part of the white containment but retained independence under leaders known as ‘the Kaffir Chiefs’, and these latter did not take kindly or easily to attempts to regulate their conduct and more particularly their way of life. Specifically, they fought and fought back, including in relation to what was in effect the rustling of horses and stock on both sides. And then the police force, or part of it, changed sides; so did some soldiers. The slide in terminological usage was to position ‘the Kaffirs’ as a priori enemies, and to shift from seeing a situation in which there were Fingos v. Kaffirs, to not being able to tell these groups apart, perhaps literally but certainly figuratively. The brief mentions by Stirk of the people referred to as Hottentots are litmus-paper here, as core rank and file members of regiments and militias, but also deserters, traitors within.

Did things get back to ordinary? On the surface yes, the skirmishes as well as more set-piece fighting came to an end, and buying and selling and trading and carting and shearing and cropping continued. But. But in a sense things were never ordinary again. In the wake of this war-and-peace period of the eighth Frontier War, millennial movements amongst the peoples concerned grew, and a widely-accepted prophecy that a cattle-killing would usher in victory actually led to mass starvation and the crumbling of effective resistance to white rule. The necessity of economic dependence – depend and labour or die – achieved what military imposition had not. However, Stirk’s Journal does not give ingress or insight into this, for it ceases with the resumption of  lesser war and greater peace at the end of 1854.

Last updated: 16 March 2017


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