The Voss Collection, Some Observations

The Voss Collection, Some Observations from Pretoria

The Voss collection is part of the TAB division of materials in the Pretoria Archives Depot (the other is called SAB). It consists of six large boxes filled with different kinds of documents – letters, legal papers and receipts, cards, goes-with-voss-blog-image-2016-11-27-at-3-50-pmnotebooks and appointment diaries, written by an array of people from two families joined by a marriage in 1882, the Du Toits and the Vosses. Two of the boxes are solely of letters and there are around 500-600 of these. They are in no order at all but simply tipped into large brown folders higgeldy-piggledy. The boxes of cards, notebooks et cetera are as immensely dusty and disorganised.

The person who eventually ended up with all this stuff, Dr Vivian Voss, was a physicist in the natural science department at the University of Pretoria. He did so because he was the longest surviving of a group of siblings and the remaining family papers in South Africa ended up with him. And to these, he added his appointment diaries and also notes on his studies in physics when a young man at university as well as some letters he received. Dates overall run from around 1880 to the later 1960s.

The letters are difficult to make sense of because the letter-writers often use nicknames, both of themselves and for people they are writing to, and a number of these people appear to have multiple nicknames. They are also difficult to make sense of because relationships are often used to identify people as, for instance, mother, father, baby or sister, rather than proper names or even nicknames. In addition, significant numbers of letters are not dated, adding to the difficulties.

There is no inventory or overall guide to this collection. So perhaps it might be supposed that material in the part of the collection that is not letters would help. In fact, not so. ‘Family trees’ in one of the boxes turned out to be no such thing, but rather attempts to identify the origins of particular family members who are by and large not numbered among the letter-writers. Perhaps, then, the letters themselves might be supposed to provide sufficient information to work out who is who, and so what this figuration – to use a Norbert Elias term – of letter-writers over time is like?.

Content? Actually this has proved less helpful in identifying people and developments over time than might be supposed because of the particular character of what this figuration of letter-writers were concerned with writing about. This is quotidian in a specific sense of the word.

Many details of events and activities of the letter-writers and others in their close circle are spelled out, and also those provided by their addressee in a previous letter are similarly responded to in detail. The result is that a latter-day reader finds out a great deal about, for instance, Baby and Baby’s illnesses, clothes and so on, and also those of the Sister who is Baby’s mother and of the Sister that she is writing to, but not who these people are or how they are connected with other letter-writers writing about similar things with similar names/relationships but in different handwriting and sent from different addresses. And although not in so great a detail, some of the same information is provided about others in the family circle at a more distant level, such as cousins, aunts and uncles, grandparents, nieces and nephews.

The result is that to read these letters is like entering a cloudy vortex: it is easy to become immersed in the unfolding detail in each letter, while every now and then with a jolt it is realised that who these people are remains opaque. This emphasis on the quotidian detail of family life and doings and relationships is a shared characteristic across this set of letter-writers. It includes both men and women, young and old, those who were born Du Toits and Vosses and those who married in, such that it is surprisingly rare to come across letters concerned with wider topics, even when it is clear that the writer for-voss-blog-image-2016-11-27-at-3-51-pmand/or their addressee were in contexts involving wider events. There are few exceptions to this. One is that there are two organisational letters and one or two family ones concerning the early work-life of Vivian Voss’s father Thomas J Voss (aka Tom) when he was an accountant working for the Transvaal government during the 1890s. Another is that his wife, nicknamed Cotie also Cobbie and whose formal name was Jacoba Helena, in a handful of letters briefly mentions difficulties about food and movements of people occasioned by the South African War 1899-1902.

This silence about wider topics and context is extraordinary in one related regard in particular, because the home of the Du Toits, the farm Doornbult near Hopetown, was for part of the South African War the site of a concentration or internment camp (not to be conflated with the later German work or extermination camps), referred to in the official records as Orange River Station. The Du Toits resident there at the time included Cotie’s sister Hester Aletta du Toit, who had married Petrus Johannes Daniel du Toit of Doornbult, a cousin with the same surname familiarly known as Riet and Piet. Life at Doornbult would have witnessed constant arrivals of people and a resident camp population of some hundreds of women and children, and there was also an adjacent military camp. But nothing of this is mentioned at the time (of which there are relatively few letters) or in subsequent letters (of which there are relatively many). Instead there is incessant family detail.

But what of ‘letters themselves’, what does this collection and its letters add to the stock of knowledge about letter-writing in the South African context? And specifically, what can be gleaned from it concerning the unfolding dynamics of its racial order?

The quotidian as it is inscribed in this figuration of letter-writing is the result of a very different kind of writing laboratory and attendent writing practices than, for example, characterises the Forbes, the Schreiner-Hemmings, the Findlays, the Moffats, the Godlonton circle and so on and so on. Following in an Elias-influenced line of thinking, the habitus of these different sets of people has produced different approaches to how letters were written and how they were used. There are what ethnomethodology would call ‘family resemblances’ across all these collections, because the form or genre of letter-writing and its I/You/We features result in some strong commonalities; but regarding this particular collection, it is the differences and departures that are most striking.

All figurations of letter-writing involve the representation of small worlds shared by the people involved and with outsiders treated in distinctive ways within this. However, Voss / Du Toit figurational letter-writing practices inscribe something that is tightly boundaried and where there are in effect no outsiders: outsiders are entirely beyond the pale of these concerns and knowledge and they cannot be made proper sense at a basic level concerning what is going on within this particular small world. And this is very unlike the other collections of letters noted above, which of course have their elliptical aspects and figurational knowledges, but nonetheless the latter-day reader can at least work out who is who.

An important question to ask at this point is whether this really is the product of particular characteristics of the Voss / Du Toit figuration and its members’ shared letter-writing practices and concerns, or whether it might result from something more basic. That is, might it be a simple matter of attrition that results in the mysteries, the large gaps in information and of basic knowledge of people and events? Might the fact that many more letters were written than have survived provide an explanation? There are at least three generations of letter-writers here writing over a nearly ninety year period and a wide extended family and kinship network is involved. So the 500-600 surviving letters are likely to represent just a proportion of those that were originally written, and certainly there are sufficient comments in the letters to indicate that gaps do indeed exist.

Perhaps some of the inability to know on the part of latter-day readers of these letters can be put down to this, for the absence of 1901 and 1902 letters can most likely be put down to waretime censorship. However, it really does not explain the characteristic above ascribed to habitus, of such an immersion in quotidian family relationship detail to the near-total absence of other topics of interest and concern. This really should be viewed as a specific feature of the Voss / Du Toit figuration. But what then of the racial order in relation to this?

‘Notable for its near absence’ is a succinct summary. A good few of the family members who lived in Britain or Ireland had earlier lived in South Africa and so were certainly not unknowing of the racial composition of South African society. Also, most of the letter-writers were permanent residents in South Africa and lived in areas including Hopetown and Orange River Station where it can be anticipated that they were not only surrounded by African and Coloured people, but also used their labour including in intimate domestic contexts. In the first 200 letters worked on, there are just three mentions of people not presumptively white: One involves a general comment from someone in Britain about disturbances in Grahamstown, and two are specific comments. One of these is about a young nursemaid called Dinah in an adjoining house being ill-treated, while the other mentions ‘my little servant’ being with Cotie and her four children when they were having a short holiday. And that is it.

In effect, nothing can be gleaned from this about the unfolding and changing aspects of the racial order of South Africa, because the eyes of these letter-writers are turned away from this. They do not see it and they certainly do not ordinarily represent it, even though for the majority of them it would have been the context for everything they did and said and wrote. But of course, this tells the latter-day reader a good deal about that racial order as it was seen, or at least as it was represented, by its white people.

The privilege of whiteness is to be able to treat this as the way things are and to see all else as ‘other’. It relatedly involves the failure to recognise that this is a blinkered and limited way of seeing and comprehending the world and other people. The small white worldism is inscribed within its representational practices, while the labour that went into perpetuating this small world has been rendered invisible apart from in the brief tantalising glimpses of Dinah and of the little servant girl.

However, there is something else that tells more directly about the unfolding racial and political order in South Africa over the 90 years that these letters span. In the earlier period there are very occasionally letters either wholly or in part in Dutch. By the 1910s and 20s there are letters wholly or in part in Afrikaans. The numbers of those purely in Afrikaans then increase in number, and for some letter-writers they write only in Afrikaans as time goes on. Language was key to cultural nationalism and its enshrinement of apartheid.

Both the Vosses, who in an earlier generation hailed from Britain, and the Du Toits, Huguenots initially from the Worcester area, were English-speakers by background, although some members of the latter also spoke and wrote Dutch. Tom Voss and Cotie du Toit married in 1882; by the early 1890s they had moved to Pretoria and he was working for the Transvaal government. Dutch language primers are among their remaining papers with dates from this period in them, Cotie later in one letter commented to her son Vivian about her strong feelings of patriotism and nationalism, while Vivian himself spent a significant component of his academic life in translating natural science textbooks into Afrikaans and worked in a university – Pretoria – that is particularly associated with the development of Afrikaner Nationalist ideology and specifically that of apartheid.

How significant this dual-medium use of language is will become more apparent once all the letters in the Voss collection have been worked on, which will be in the next few months. However, finding family letter collections that are in Afrikaans or have some degree of letters in Afrikaans in them has proved extremely difficult. Consequently the Voss collection is a particularly interesting one in this connection. The reasons for this dearth have been touched on elsewhere on these pages, and are connected with the fairly late development of written Afrikaans and the illiteracy of many boer farming folks who spoke the taal polyglot that later became Afrikaans, contrasted with the considerable literacy skills of many English-speaking colonists (many of them Scots) and their inheritance of a long tradition of letter-writing even amongst people who were only functionally literate.

Last updated: 7 December 2016


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