More of the same, and two rings that bound them?

More of the same, and two rings that bound them?

The glamorous world of WWW research has continued over the last week with more and more and more cleaning of data files! Emilia has sat grimly in Sofia, Bulgaria, and I have sat grimly in the North of England, both of us head down checking and correcting meta-data, then swapping what we have each done to re-re-re-check it. But still, the eye catches interesting things in the many thousands of Forbes Family letters and files and archive boxes. Behold the two photographs below, neither of which can be firmly dated, alas, but they can be approximately and also what they show can be puzzled over.

The first photograph shows a young woman, Umquaka, who was the nursemaid of the Forbes children and then over many years a general factotum in the Forbes household at Athole in the Eastern Transvaal. She is shown with her charge, the youngest daughter of the Forbes. It was probably taken in around 1880, with Madge Forbes born in 1875. Umquaka was a definite ‘presence’ and a force to be reckoned with. For instance, on his various trading trips away one of David Forbes’ constant concerns was with buying presents in the shape of shoes, dresses and boxes of sweets that would meet her approval. She was also ‘respectably’ married and later had two or three children. In this photograph she is wearing a ring on her left hand, which is protectively encircling Madge. However it is not on the conventional ring finger but on her middle finger. Going by the likely age of Madge, it is likely that Umquaka was married when this photograph was taken. Had the convention of the ring finger being used to indicate a woman being bound to a man not yet taken off among Christianised Swazis? Did perhaps the middle finger have a symbolism in its own right? The Forbes letters and diaries offer no clues.

The second photograph also shows a young woman. This is Nellie (Helena Ann), the eldest child of the Forbes, who was born in 1860. It too is undated but was possibly taken in around 1884 in Edinburgh, where she was on a visit with her parents and her younger sisters. She too is wearing a ring on her left hand – and precisely on the conventional ring finger, while close scrutiny shows she is also wearing a keeper ring, akin to an engagement ring. However, Nellie never married and later, as her parents aged, she ran areas of the home farm at Athole (as distinct from the wider farm estate). Why was Nellie wearing the equivalent of a wedding and an engagement ring? For rings to have been worn like this by a respectable unmarried young woman suggests a public declaration of some kind. But of what kind? Once more, the Forbes letters and diaries provides no information.

Are these rings to be seen as binding Umquaka and Nellie? If so, in what ways and with whom? And why unconventionally worn by Umquaka and, even more unconventionally, why worn at all by Nellie? And in case anyone is wondering, the photographs have been reproduced here ‘reversed’, with the rings indeed being on their  left hands.


Last updated: 2 March 2017


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