William Ayliff Letters, Killie Campbell Library, Durban

William Ayliff Letters, Killie Campbell Library, Durban

Please reference as: Liz Stanley (2018) ‘Collections: W Ayliff’ www.whiteswritingwhiteness.ed.ac.uk/Collections/Collections-Portal/Ayliff-Letters-Collection and provide the paragraph number as appropriate when quoting.

Overview and analysis

1. The William Ayliff Collection is located in the Killie Campbell Library, Durban. It consists of 49 letters, dated 1861 to 1880, written by Ayliff to Robert Godlonton. Probably in the 1960s, the manuscript letters were transcribed and typed by an unknown transcriber; for what purpose they were transcribed is not now known. They are not part of the extensive Godlonton Collection in Historical Papers at the University of Witwatersrand, and location of the originals is now unclear.

2. William Ayliff (1825-1905) was an Eastern Cape landowner and farmer who became a member of the Cape Legislative Assembly representing Fort Beaufort 1864-88; he was Secretary of Native Affairs 1878-81 in Sprigg’s first ministry; and served in the Frontier and Basuto Wars. Ayliff was the son of John Ayliff, a Wesleyan missionary who was involved in establishing the mission station Healdtown, which was later to become a school. Some of the later letters were written from the Cape Town Office of the Secretary of Native Affairs in 1880. Ayliff was married to Elizabeth Anne Richards, the step-daughter of Robert Godlonton.

3. Ayliff was a political ally of Robert Godlonton and, like Godlonton, supported Eastern Cape Separatism, the increase of British influence in southern Africa, and also a bullish approach to the relationship between white settlers and African peoples in the Eastern Cape frontier area and elsewhere. During Ayliff’s period as Secretary of Native Affairs, there was conflict between colonialists and the Basotho, with Ayliff seeking to enforce colonial rule and threatening war to scare the Basotho into acquiesce. This in fact triggered rebellion.

4. These letters are all to Robert Godlonton (1794-1884), a high profile printer and publisher, farmer and also member of the Cape Legislative Assembly. Godlonton, a Methodist who was also a friend and associate of William Ayliff’s father John, was an important as well as divisive political figure of the day regarding his approach to the relationship between settlers and the ‘Kaffir hordes’, to use one of his polemical phrases. Most of the letters were written from Ayliff’s farm Wardens, near Beaufort and Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape, a few from England, and some of the later ones from Cape Town Office of the Secretary of Native Affairs in 1880.

5. Overall, they include information about matters concerning the farm as well as detailed comments on people and events of the day, particularly regarding political matters and concerns Ayliff shared with Godlonton, including people keeping people in their ‘proper place’ and dealing with African peoples.

6. Particularly interesting aspects of the letters are:

  • The elliptical aspect of the letters conveys the sense that Ayliff and Godlonton shared a political and also a social and family world and were drawing on a shared stock of knowledge, including about each others’ political and race opinions and views.
  • There are overlaps between these letters and those between Godlonton and Robert White, and also the Southey Family letters, discussed elsewhere in the WWW collections pages.
  • There is the sense that Ayliff is reporting on matters to Godlonton, is providing him with information about matters with political reverberations (although this is by no means as strong as in the Robert White letters to Godlonton). The absence of Godlonton letters to Ayliff means that nothing can be said about whether this is reciprocal or not, although the age, political standing and family relationship disparities between them suggest not, that Ayliif was an intelligence-gatherer for Godlonton but not vice versa.
  • There in an absence of reference to matters of race apart from in negative circumstances of crime, potential uprising and war. The important ordinary everyday presence of black people as, for instance, farm workers, servants, messengers and so on in Ayliff’s life is not registered.
  • When race and ethnic matters are mentioned, this is in negative terms, in which people are not present as individuals unless key leaders like Sandile, but rather appear as category members of negatively-defined groups.

Last updated: 1 January 2018