The Forbes ‘business’ letters: Overviewing comments

The Forbes ‘business’ letters: Overviewing comments

We have been working on a sub-set of six boxes which, when the Forbes collection entered the National Archives of South Africa (in Pretoria) in the 1950s, were sorted and labelled as ‘business letters’, with other parts of the collection categorised as official letters, letters to family and friends, and undated letters, and with its additional parts consisting of other kinds of (non-letter) materials. As might be expected, making these kinds of distinctions is not a matter of science and many of the letters in all sections of the collection could well be placed under other headings, particularly because the Forbes and many of their connections failed to make such distinctions between organisational, business, family and social activities. Now, at the end of three weeks of work on these ‘business’ boxes, some general comments are in order.

1   Who are the letter-writers? They are attorneys, notaries, shipping agents, forwarding agents, seed and nursery merchants, iron foundries and ironmongers, horse dealers, stockbrokers, engineers, wool dealers and auctioneers, surveyors, stockbrokers, diamond merchants, companies and directors and board members, banks, gold prospectors, general agents, gunmakers, bicycle manufacturers, government departments, general merchants, farmers, stockmen, farm and grazing tenants and more. By and large, they are from people of an administrative and managerial class mixed with farming and mining folk and they concern business and its organisation in a formal sense. There are about 1800-2000 of these ‘business’ letters, from the 1860s to the 1920s. Most are to David Forbes senior, followed by his eldest surviving son Dave Forbes junior.

2   Where are the women? Overwhelmingly these letters are written by men and sent to men, while letters elsewhere in the collection are about equally by women. The knee-jerk response here is that this is to be expected, for these are business letters and so could be anticipated to be predominantly by and to men. However, a number of the Forbes women had a significant presence in business activities, including Kate Forbes, Sarah Straker, Lizzie Forbes, and Kate’s daughters Kitty and Madge. In addition, as WWW project work on the Pringle collection has shown, ‘middling sort’ women played an important role in business life elsewhere in South Africa albeit in a somewhat earlier time-period. Nor can this pattern be put down to who kept the letters, for all the signs are Kate Forbes was the family archivist from 1860 up until her death in the early 1920s.  Perhaps part of the explanation is the happenstance matter of the kind of organisations that these letters are from, mining Companies and banks, for instance, rather than those of schools, lodging houses, blacksmiths, haberdashers, milliners and so on where middling sort women were involved in business life. Another part of it is that although, for example, Kate Forbes and Sarah Straker were farmers and also ran businesses in dairying and pig farming respectively, and in addition both were shareholders who actively attended to their investments, the letters of SS are not found in the collection apart from in a few instances, while those of KF are predominantly incoming ones from family and friends rather than outgoing letters related to her business activities, although again with a few exceptions regarding KF’s seed-selling, cheese-making and other aspects of her dairy business.

3   Where are the black people? The WWW project is explicitly focused on the representational activities of white people in their letters, and during the time-period that these business letters cover, from the 1860s to the 1890s, it might be expected that business letters would not come from members of the different sections of the black population. However, the ‘actual world’ in which these letter-writers, and also the members of the Forbes figuration that they were sent to, lived most certainly involved to members of the majority population. Considering that the letters are business ones and at basis refer to the world of labour, work, and the making of profit from these, the dearth of references to the majority population is startling. Out of the around 1800-2000 letters that have been worked on over the last few weeks, there can be no more than a few hundred references to them – the representational world of the letters has been conceived and written in such a way that whiteness is inscribed at the core in a way that largely blinkers out blackness. Where black people are referred to, this is very much in those letters which are at the boundaries between business letters and the rest of letter-writing in the Forbes collection and concerned with the everyday quotidian aspects of working life in farming and to a lesser extent in mining. Where the letter-writers have a hands-on involvement in a working activity, they are correspondingly much more likely to refer to the majority population. It is, then, around manual labour that black people are referred to, while most of the letters deal with administrative and organisational matters and are concerned with a more managerial level, within which very few black people if any in the then-Transvaal were located at the time.

4   What makes the world go round and letter-writing with it? At basis, the world of work which is not so much represented as elided in these letters is the world in which black people’s labour was increasingly omnipresent, and in which white people were also present although typically at a somewhat different level. But most of the graft was the labour of black women and men. In the earlier part of the period these letters cover, the 1860s to the mid 1880s, the letters typically were sent ‘per Kaffir’ – even when long distances were involved, rapid communication was achieved by letters being taken and delivered by messengers who also then brought back the replies, and this is frequently commented on in the letters themselves. By the early 1890s, the use of envelopes and postage stamps and the post becomes a feature. Earlier the speed of the postal system internally to South Africa was generally unreliable and slow even while steam transformed international post and pony deliveries existed on a few routes, so that ‘per messenger’ was much more reliable and was the rapid communication system of the day and the place.

5   What of prepositional politics? As commented elsewhere on the WWW webpages, the project is tracking over time the changing use of terminology which became increasingly racialised although often having innocent beginnings. Thus, for example, ‘the Caffre Nation’ became the ‘Kaffir nation’ became ‘the Kaffirs’ became ‘the kaffirs’ became ‘a kaffir’, with respect and an ethnic basis at the start, but over time accruing increasing levels of racial and racist meaning and eventuating in a dismissive and homogenising term. And in this, prepositions such as ‘the’ and ‘a’, and also capital letters and their absence are loaded. Overviewing so many letters for this approximately 70 year period suggests some broad patterns: Caffre and the Kaffirs as ethnic appellations gave way to the homogenising form, but this was in a Transvaal-based set of meanings, with for example Swazi people always being referred to as Swazis. And the diminishing form in this eastern Transvaal area then gave way to ubiquitous references to ‘boys’ with and without capital letters. And there is another side-development here, that people in Natal or who come from Natal tended to use Native with or without a capital letter as the homogenising term of preference.

6   Was distance no object? Sending messengers with letters sometimes extremely long distances has already been noted for the earlier period from the 1860s to the late 1880s. Sending letters ‘per Kaffir’ was of course not just sending a letter, but also a person – almost invariably male – who took the letters with them, delivered them, waited for replies, and then brought these back. In addition, the vast majority of the people who wrote and received these business letters and also those people mentioned in them were very mobile and took travelling long distances seeming in their stride (and literally so for the messengers who took letters). Reckoning with the geography of South Africa and the sometimes immense distances exist between places is important here. On a map, travelling between the farm Athole and the local towns of Ermelo and New Amsterdam looks an easy matter, but even driving it in the cars of 2016 is a matter of considerable time, and even more so between Athole and Pretoria, Johannesburg and Durban but with journeys frequently undertaken by family members at a time when there was no railway connection locally and certainly no motorised transport. It is also not unusual that letter-writers based in one or other of these towns and cities mentioned that they might ‘run down’ to Athole to visit, with the hospitality of the Forbes even to comparative strangers being much praised. It also happened surprisingly often that many of these people who came originally from Britain managed to ‘return home’ for visits of sometimes many months, and repeat-returning on a number of occasions, with some of the land surveyors, mineral prospectors, geologists, engineers and others represented in the business letters as well as the Forbes family being peripatetic in this way. There are also examples of serial migrators in the Forbes extended family, people who originally migrated to Natal or the Cape, who then went to New South Wales or Canada, and to then returned to South Africa again, doing not because they failed in economic terms but because personal circumstances had changed.

7   Why an absence of organisational references? These are business letters and they were written by people who were members of business organisations of a wide range of kinds, or else they were involved in activities designed to produce such business entities. In this context, another surprising dearth of references concerns organisations themselves. The letters come from business organisations and organisational-persons and concern business activities, but by and large they do not refer to other such organisations. Perhaps the question to ask is, why should they? In a business environment, it would be unusual to mention other organisations in circumstances where communication was intended to be directly performative of action. This gives the clue as to these particular letters, that they are indeed concerned with action taken, for example with regard to merchants in acknowledging cheques to pay for goods and services, or in setting such action in motion, such as banks certifying transfers of money. The communications in these letters are typically very direct and to the specific point: they are sparely written and do not stray off the topic in hand, apart from in circumstances in which the letter-writer had social relationships with the member of the Forbes family they were communicating with independently of the business connection.

8   Is the medium of this letter-writing the message, or rather is the message in the medium? That is, is the form of these ‘business’ letters distinctive among the Forbes letters overall, because of their focused and performative business concerns? Recognising that there is a range of letter-writing involved, and that some of the letters are much more like ‘ordinary letters’ than this is important. That is, they are not to be seen as single and undivided and easily distinguishable from other kinds of letters. For too long epistolary scholarship has been bedevilled by focusing on small subsets of letters – often those of literary figures – and treating these as definitional of the genre, so it is important not to repeat this problem. That being said, at the other end of the spectrum of what appears in this collection as ‘business letters’, there are quasi-letters, letters which appear on the cusp of becoming or being other genres or forms of writing, such as shading into (or out of) being invoices, memorandums, orders, receipts, inventories and notes. The best answer to the question posed here is that it all depends, for there are different shades of letter-writing involved and it is important to get away from making categorical statements which actually don’t fit the category as a whole but only selected parts of it. Here, the boundaries between types or categories of letters and related forms such as memorandums, invoices, orders and so on Is fluid and permeable according to the matters in hand.

9   How did they keep track of it all?  The scale of business activities that members of the Forbes clan or kinship group or figuration were involved in was extremely wide and diverse. From a farming base, crops were grown for a national and international market, horses were bred for all political entities, trading trips were undertaken, sheep and cattle droving occurred on a large-scale, prospecting for gold and coal and other minerals was carried out, companies were formed and floated, shares were dealt in, farms were bought and sold and farmed in a variety of ways, and these activities involved family, kin and wider connections not only in southern Africa but also Britain. Without going into detail about the specifics of these business activities, their diversity can be easily appreciated and also that most of them required record-keeping on an extensive and efficient scale. The signs are that Kate Forbes presided over the family archive of documents of all kinds – on the reverse of letters in her handwriting are the names of their writers, a two or three word description of contents, and the letter-date; and when documents were needed, telegrams and letters were sent asking Kate where they were and to retrieve and dispatch them. The key question is, just how did she do this, how were they organised, and was there a filing system or some other means of keeping tabs over the whole business edifice beyond her brief notations on the reverse of letters? The collection divisions that presently exist are the result of the activities of archivists when the collection was donated, with this mentioned in its 1957-dated inventory. How tantalising and infuriating not to know the form in which it was kept at Athole!

10   And what of whiteness?  There is much food for thought here. One of the privileges of whiteness is not to know that whiteness as ‘a way of seeing’ is treated as normative and everything else as ‘other’ and that it is also ‘a way of not seeing’. The representational world of these business letters highlights this privilege of not-seeing and not-representing the world as it is, but rather as it is conceived and enforced through blinkers which are white-coloured. All of the activities which these letters are concerned with initiating, expediting or reporting on rest upon the presence and the labour of the majority black population – how extraordinary that by and large this is not represented in the heterotopic world inscribed by these letter-writings. But, the closer to the everyday and the quotidian and the less this holds true. It is the inscribed representational world of activities conceived abstractly that supports such exclusions. The closer to the coal face, to the gold mine, to the farm, to the work, then the more the ‘other’ comes in to view. And how this is represented changes over time, from respectful recognition of ethnicity and the structures of African societies, to homogenising and diminishing terms to characterise people. Another but – but not everyone does this, indeed it is a minority of letter-writers who deal in such terminologies. And, there are some people who write in ways that assign named individual presence to people. And also, some of the homogenising is respectful and some of the naming is disrespectful. And it is the context that gives the clue about this, it cannot be simply read off from isolated words on the page but requires placing these in relation to the whole. Food for thought indeed.

Last updated: 24 November 2016


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