David Chalmers Aiken Diary, Killie Campbell Library

David Chalmers Aiken Diary, Killie Campbell Library

The David Chalmers Aiken diary is part of the Aiken Family Papers, located in the Killie Campbell Library, Durban. This is a small collection related to the Aiken family of Maryville, near Ifafa, Natal, who were farmers of cotton, arrowroot, coffee and sugar. The collection consists of four files, including photographs and the diary of David Aitken for the period 1867-69. It is not known whether Aiken kept a diary for any other periods of time, although none appear to exist other than this. The diary in the Killie Campbell collection is a direct copy of that in the Old House Museum Collection, Aliwal Street, Durban, Ref 581.

David Aiken was the youngest son of the family and one of seven brothers. The Natal politician, accountant and agent James Burnett Aiken was a brother. In 1893 JB Aiken and DC Aiken published a pamphlet on ‘The marbles, lime and cement of lower Umzimkulu, Natal’, and in 1898 their collection of marbles and vein calcite from Lower uMzimkhulu was donated to the South African Museum. David Aiken’s father Robert was from Falkirk, Scotland.

It would seem that Aiken’s middle name refers to the ‘Mr Chalmers’ who his diary intimates owned a number of local farms, and perhaps that of the Aikens too, although this is unclear. David Aiken had six older brothers, and at least one of the lengthy gaps in entries in his diary being written is explained by the death of the oldest, Willie, with a death and graves referred to.

Diaries and the WWW project

The Whites Writing Whiteness project is specifically concerned with letter-writing and the representational order that letters, from one person to another and with the expectation of response, inscribe. In addition, however, a small number of diaries have been included in the sources it has interrogated, for particular reasons.

Initially the possible existence of Aiken family letters was of interest, as the Akens were farmers of cotton, arrowroot, coffee and sugar and Natal plantation owners at a point in time when strong claims have been made about the role of settler farming and governance in Natal in enforcing patterns of segregation and thereby configuring the racial order in more extreme forms than earlier. As no family letters are now extant, attention turned to the diary. Diary-writing generally brings people up close to the fabric of their everyday activities and meetings with other people of a range of kinds, and are therefore possible sources of the writers’ recognition of the diverse character of South African populations, particular rural ones. As a consequence, some diaries of people involved in a very hands-on way with farm workers have been included as a source: the David Chalmers Aiken diary of 1867-9, written in south Natal, in the absence of Aiken family letters; the 1867 John Robert Lys diary, written in Pretoria, in the absence of Lys family letters; the Mark Elliott Pringle diaries of 1911 to 1960 written in the Baviaans River area of the Eastern Cape, included to complement the Pringle-Townsend papers; and the Forbes diaries, written in south-eastern Transvaal and Swaziland, stretching over many years and acting as a daily supplement to the large number of letters written by and to many members of the Forbes family.

The Aiken diary

The David Chalmers Aiken diary was written over the period 1 July 1867 to 15 November 1869. There are a number of gaps in daily entries being written; these are largely spasmodic, although some are up to ten or more days. The gaps increase over time, while the reasons for this are never referred to. Also the diary eventually becomes a combination of a daily entry and which, with summary detail on farm wages, is used to stand for a whole month. There are indications that the entries were written up after the day in question, for some entries mention later dates of up to a week after the date of the entry concerned.

While a range of activities are referred to, the diary entries are largely concerned with farming matters and related occurrences concerning members of the local settler farming community. Aiken appears from the diary to have been involved in a very hands-on way in both the management of people and work on the farm, and also in carrying out some of its work himself.  This concern with the practical matters involved in farming and the people carrying them out is particularly interesting in giving insight onto how people of different kinds were employed on farms such as the Akens’, including white workers as well as local African peoples.

Interesting features of the diary include:

  • There is little reference to Aiken’s family life, with its focus being very much on farming and the context this was located in.
  • There are many elliptical references to name people, and while their presence and activity is noted, their relationship to Aiken is generally not referred to. One of these concerns a number of references to Bishop Colenso of Natal, noting his presence at a local marriage, later lending Aiken a book, and officiating at a funeral and then a baptism, but with no mention made of the controversies surrounding Colenso because of his unorthodox religious views or his firmly liberal approach to matters of race. There are also other elliptical references, such as to drill, accoutrements, that are not explained.
  • There is a death mentioned, that of Willie, but who he is remains unexplained although he is buried ‘near our dear father and mother’s graves’.
  • For much of the diary, Aiken regularly records the specific details of what was going on in the farm. This includes new farming practices, extending the range of crops grown and related matters. In addition, there are detailed entries regarding payments of various kinds, including wages. These all lend the diary a considerable significance.
  • A very hands-on approach to farming is conveyed and barely an entry goes by in which Aitken was not present on the farm and recording things happening on it. The question arises as to whether he was doing various of the activities mentioned or overseeing them. For instance, ‘We ploughed’ probably does not mean that he was ploughing himself, although when he writes ‘I filled in misses’ in weeding he probably did do this himself.
  • Matter of fact repeated references to a category, ‘caffirs’, as in ‘Sent caffirs’, are made in the large majority of diary entries. These refer to groups of people who did the activities referred to, in clearing land, harvesting crops of diverse kinds, and carrying out a range of other tasks. In them, people are undifferentiated as individuals and appear just as a component of a category.
  • In addition, there are a number of references to local African people by name. These occur specifically when Aiken newly engages farm workers or pays them off when they leave, and also when they are part of events and transactions of significance in farming terms, such as concerning a man he bought a stud bull from.

 

Last updated: 8 February 2017


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