Cape Colony Letters, Bodleian Library, University of Oxford

Cape Colony Letters, Bodleian Library, University of Oxford

The Cape Colony Letters Collection in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, consists of two bound volumes, S1 and S2. There are 77 letters in S1 and 148 in S2, a total of 225 letters. Most of the letters indicate some connection with Robert Godlonton (1794-1884), a printer and publisher, polemical author, member of the Cape Legislative Assembly, and a disputatious and divisive figure in political life of the time.  However, not all the letters are connected with Godlonton, and it is likely they have ended together either by happenstance, or because Godlonton was lent files from the Library of the Cape Assembly containing them, but more likely by happenstance.

The collection consists of two rather separate entities, although the ‘political colleagues conniving’ aspect of the letters in the S1 volume discussed below flow into the 79 letters in volume S2 from Robert White (1819-1894) to his uncle, friend and business partner in the firm Godlonton, White & Co. The details are as follows.

Volume S1

Just six letters in S1 do not involve Godlonton. These are from the 1780s and predate him and are by and to colonial personnel at a high level, involving such key figures as Macartney, Dundas, Barnard and Caledon. There is also another letter where the writer is not known, although this is probably Macartney. These letters concern European incursions and what to make of them and of the various indigenous peoples thereby encountered and reported on.

The letters in S1 to Robert Godlonton, a sententious believer in his own righteousness known by critics as ‘moral Bob’, are on a wide range of topics. They involve quite closely interconnected people, some older than Godlonton and others younger, who were linked to him mainly by their political views and concerns.  The key groups of letters in S1 are as follows.

  • There are five letters from Thomas Philipps.
  • There is one letter from John Centilevres Chase to Philipps, sent by Phillips as an enclosure with one of his own to Godlonton.
  • Twenty letters are from John Montagu to Godlonton.
  • There are five letters from Henry Rivers to Godlonton.
  • Twelve letters are from Richard Southey to Godlonton. Another letter to Godlonton is from William Southey, Richard’s brother.

John Centilevres Chase (1795-1877) joined the Cape civil service and was stationed in Grahamstown in 1825. He moved to Cape Town and the Customs Department in 1830.  He was appointed a special justice under the Slave Emancipation Act 1834 and became a public notary in 1837. He was the leading advocate for separate government in the Eastern Cape.

John Montagu (1797-1853), originally a career solder, became Colonial Secretary of the Cape in 1843. He instituted a programme of tax revenue collection, and a system of constructing roads using convict labour. He returned to Britain in 1852.

Thomas Philipps (1775-1859) was an 1820 Settler party leader, a leading Eastern Cape political figure and an associate and political intelligence-gatherer for Godlonton.

Henry Rivers has not been traced.

Richard Southey (1808-1901) was an Eastern Cape political ally of Sir Harry Smith as well as Godlonton, He became secretary to the governor, auditor-general, and then Colonial Secretary in 1864, replacing Rawson W Rawson. He was an opponent of ‘responsible government,’ and supporter of Cape separatism. He was later shunted sideways to administer Griqualand West around the discovery of diamonds and the British takeover of the territory. His views later took a more liberal turn.

Volume S2

The letters in volume S2 are in effect all to Godlonton. They include the letters from the following:

  • 79 – Robert White
  • 1 – James Cotton
  • 2 – Richard Southey
  • 1 – Robert Godlonton White [Robert White’s son]
  • 3 – William Eyre
  • 2 – George Mackinnon
  • 1 – Rawson W. Rawson
  • 1 – William Southey
  • 1 – R. Finlay
  • 8 – Sydney Bell
  • 1 – James Flanagan
  • 1 – Henry Barkly
  • 1 – Edward Dwyer
  • 1 – C.T. Smith

A number of these men were significant presences in political life of the day and brief biographies will be provided at a later stage. By far the largest group of letters here are the 79 letters to Godlonton by his nephew and business partner Robert White, who was also a political intelligence-gatherer for him. There is another interconnected set of 39 more White to Godlonton letters in the Cory collections. These letters have some extremely interesting characteristics. These are referred to below and are elaborated in respect of the Robert White letters in the Cory Library.

Cape Colony Letters: overview

Some overall comments on the letters in S1 and S2 are as follows:

The earlier non-Godlonton letters in S1 frequently use, inquire into or centre what reads as ethnicity rather than ‘race’, and concern the parameters of this with regard to meetings between incomers (Europeans, Boers, particularly English) and various indigenous others. The incursions of English / Europeans into something ‘other’, that does not belong to them, and where the locus of power belongs with these ‘others’, are the focus.

The later letters in S1 and also those to Godlonton in S2 often but not always feature ‘race’ in a very different way. Here the colonists/ frontier people are at the centre, although precariously, with the indigenous ‘others’ positioned as opposing or subordinate groups, the activities of which make the colonists’ situation precarious.

Many of the letters to Robert Godlonton can be characterised as from ‘political cronies’, men who shared or thought they shared political ideas and policies with him, and who provided him with support of various kinds, in particular in detailing ‘intelligence’ regarding situations and persons they were familiar with.

Regarding these ‘cronies’ letters, some striking aspects are:

  • the importance of the separation/seat of government issue in relations between those representing the frontier people and those in the Colonial administration on Cape Town or Britain
  • the existence of sometimes fierce differences between the whites (English and Boer, separatists/federalists, missionaries and colonists)
  • political allegiances existing beneath administrative positions which created private connections and flows of information (eg. Philipps provided Godlonton with privy information, and Montagu assured Godlonton he would have access to the Governor)
  • Godlonton had allies and followers (Philipps, Montagu, Richard Southey, with both of the latter being/becoming Colonial Secretaries) who fed him detailed information about things happening as they happened. Phillips is a key example here, and is one of the reasons his letters are so illegible, because he was writing with very up to date ‘this is going down’ content and dispatching them literally on the hoof to catch posts
  • Unlike Robert White’s letters to Godlonton, these other ‘cronies’ letters do invoke and use notions of ‘race’ in a hierarchical moral order, around differences that are seen as ‘by nature’ ones, with Coloured people being problematic because seemingly between, but actually in allegiance terms part of ‘them’.

For comments on all Robert White’s letters to Godlonton, see the overview provided in the commentary on the Cory Library collection.

 

Last updated: 8 February 2017


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