Open letters, famous letters, and a settler colonialism footnote

Open letters, famous letters, and a settler colonialism footnote

As a brief footnote, there is obviously an enormous amount that could still be said on the topic of settler colonialism and the large and diverse literatures that contribute to researching and understanding it. The pile of books at the side of my desk has diminished though is not exhausted and more could be added to it. However, it’s time to turn blogging attention to some other matters.

On 10 December 1936, Edward VIII abdicated from the British Crown. The release of official papers about this shows that the abdication document – ‘The Abdication Instrument’ – is in fact a letter, but of an odd kind. It has no address – no address in a sense was needed, as this was in effect ‘Great Britain’. It has no named addressee, because this was in a sense everyone (‘I declare’ is an indication). More unusually, but because of how important this was in terms of the succession (the change of monarchs), the date is fully spelt out and encompassed as part of the message of the letter. It has some related features of a communicative kind that characterise letters, for it conveys a message from one to others. And interestingly, it ends with the signature of not only the author (who in a literal sense would not have been its writer, with this done by a secretary or administrator) but also those of three witnesses. These witnesses were Edward VIII’s younger brothers, including the unfortunate Albert, the next in line, who in consequence became king and took the formal title of George VI.

The Abdication Instrument is in fact an open letter, and characteristics which look odd in relation to ‘ordinary letters‘ are shared with other open letters. There are many websites providing transcriptions or images or both of open letters. On a number of them, the ones described as the most famous are:

  • Letter from Birmingham Jail. Writer: Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • A Soldier’s Declaration. Writer: Siegfried Sassoon.
  • J’accuse! Writer: Emile Zola. …
  • Open Letter to the Kansas School Board. Writer: Bobby Henderson.
  • Letter on Corpulence. Writer: William Banting.
  • Open Letter to Hobbyists. Writer: Bill Gates.

Eh? Really? The most famous? Who says? The thing about open letters, as about other letters, is that they are recipient-designed. They are tailored for particular times, circumstances and places and people. And what is important in one time, circumstance et cetera is often, usually, not important in others. Importance like beauty is in the eye of the beholder/s.

Last updated:  15 February 2018


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