Whose collection is it?

Whose collection is it?

Thanks to the at points frankly bizarre oddities of Word 2016, the saga of preparing the book manuscript for publication has reached Icelandic or Finnish proportions – the Kalevala has nothing on this! Word 2016 seems to hate versions of Word earlier than itself and persists in sticking field codes in, instead of ordinary numbers, like page numbers, and also it reduces words in a table of contents to a field code. And if a file was prepared in an earlier version, there is no way of permanently removing the field codes! They keep reappearing! So the MS creeps, accompanied by much swearing, rather than marches towards completion. But onto more interesting matters…

In between whiles, pottering on the Henry Francis Fynn letters, the interesting question of whose collection a collection is has come to mind. A quick example here is that the May Hobbs collection in the South African National Archives in fact consists solely and entirely of letters written by Jan Smuts to her, and there is not a shred of writing by her in the collection, nor is there indeed in the main Smuts collection either. But at this point I can hear someone thinking, well, they are all to her, and so what’s the problem? This is a simple example just to make the point. In general, examples are more complicated and need more explanation and puzzling over. Enter Henry Francis Fynn.

The collection here is in Pietermaritzburg and is called by Fynn’s name. Indeed there are a number of collections  here and in Durban under his name. The contents are generally referred to as the Fynn diaries, the Fynn papers, the Fynn letters and so on. Regarding the Fynn letters, there are some c560 of them. But look a little closer and it becomes more complex. There are c290 letters under the heading of ‘received’, c190 letters under the heading of ‘dispatched’, c65 ‘other’ ‘letters but which are mainly enclosures sent with letters received, and a smaller group of c15 letters to and from various African kings and chiefs. The letters dispatched were written sent by Fynn himself, the letters received are those sent to him, and the rest were mainly enclosures also sent to him. There are 142 separate correspondents involved, including Fynn himself.

Certainly all these letters involve Fynn as the writer or addressee or the person to whom an enclosure was sent. But they also involve other people as well, some of whom are important players to whom significant numbers of letters were sent and from whom significant numbers of letters were received. They involve Fynn, then, as a member of a figuration that was composed of men mainly involved in colonial life and in particular colonial governance at a very early point in the ‘invention’ of what became Pondoland (now in the Eastern Cape) and Natal, with dates running from 1835 to 1861. This is less helpfully seen in network terms and more helpfully seen in figurational ones, as these correspondences run over a 25 year period and a high proportion of the players come but then later go and others join in. But whatever name it is called by, the collection is composed by interrelated and entangled lives, careers, and letter-writings. It isn’t a matter of Fynn on his own, but Fynn as part of a group of people who were linked by some however loosely formulated and changing sense of common purpose.

There is of course no straightforwardly referential relationship between what is written in this letter-writing and the events (including letter-writing) in which colonies were made. These letters have many of the features of a heterotopia in the sense discussed by Michel Foucault, and even more so those of the ‘space of literature’ as discussed by Maurice Blanchot. But although it may not be straightforward, there is at basis nonetheless that certain referentiality of the letters referencing and representing in their own terms the events of colonisation. And these terms were discussed, disputed, negotiated and often agreed – albeit with changes occurring over time – between the letter-writers.

The bottom-line here is that calling this collection the Fynn letters is a convenience, a shorthand. But it is one that is actually misleading, in the sense of leading researchers away from considering the heterotropic and figurational aspects of these more than 500 letters and towards putting too much emphasis on the person of Fynn himself. And as for the ‘Fynn Collection’, so too for many others as well – and not just in the WWW research. What’s in a collection name? Probably a little too much!


Last updated: 25 May 2017


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