Elizabeth Lees Price Letters, Cory Library, Grahamstown

Elizabeth Lees Price Letters, Cory Library, Grahamstown

There are nearly 200 Elizabeth (Bessie) Price (nee Moffat) letters and other writings in manuscript in the Cory Library, Grahamstown. She was one of the younger daughters of Mary Smith Moffat and Robert Moffat and married the LMS missionary Roger Price in 1861. Bessie Price lived for much of her life in Kuruman, Shoshong and Molepolole; then after these letters stop in 1901, she lived in Cape Town with her youngest daughter Christian (Kirstie) Wallace Price. As is usual with Cory, these documents are are not ‘a collection’ in a strict classificatory sense, as all of them have separate individual archive reference numbers, preceded by either MS for manuscript or PR for printed record. They cover the period from 1854 to 1901. They are helpfully read in conjunction with the overviewing commentary on letters written by Bessie Price’s mother, Mary Moffat.

The WWW work on these letters has been extensive. As part of this, lengthy ‘light touch’ transcriptions that focus on Price’s relationships with black people and ‘Others’ more widely are provided for the majority; any sections of letters which are not included are briefly summarised in square brackets at appropriate points. All of Bessie Price’s writings in the Cory Library are recorded in this WWW dataset, including miscellaneous ones noted rather than transcribed. Selections of most, but by no means all, are in Una Long’s (ed, 1956) now long out of print The Journals of Elizabeth Price (London: Edward Arnold).

Bessie Price’s letters are typically extremely long and mix aspects of a number of genres of writing;  are written over a number of dates; and are variously called letters, journal and reminiscences. Indeed, she sometimes refers to them using all these terms within just one piece of writing. However, mostly their basic form is that of the letter, in having personal address and signature and being written from one person to another with the expectation of both communication and response. The majority are multiply dated scripts written on various occasions as she waited for ‘opportunity’, aka ‘oppy’, to dispatch them on their way, frequently via passing travellers and traders.

The content of Bessie Price’s letters is richly detailed and provides an extraordinarily interesting body of information about important African peoples and what was happening to them, both with regard to internal events, and also the effects of external influences following the intrusions of white people of various kinds with different agendas. As a result, debates concerning ‘the mfecane’, the period of disturbance, turbulence and violence involving many peoples on the move across southern Africa from around the 1810s to the 1850s and the aftermaths to this, take on a very different complexion when seen through Bessie Price’s letters and their emphasis on the human scale of what was happening and the worries and violence involved.

Bessie Price’s letters are fascinating too in their rich detail in tracking her increasing knowledge of the people she lived among at the different mission stations she and Roger Price were based at, and her changing and developing views of them. The sense is conveyed that she uses categorical descriptions, sometimes in negative ways but not always, of people she did not know personally and had little knowledge of. However, the people she knew at first-hand and whose lives closely intersected with hers and those of others of her family were increasingly over time either liked or disliked or loved in terms of their individual characters and behaviours and her response to these. She was also very aware that African peoples of the day were interested in having a missionary presence and kept missionaries much like pets ­– a term she uses – and pleasant to have around but not really on a par with the people who kept them. It is important to keep in mind that most of her letters were written in context of still independent African kingdoms and polities, with white people as missionaries, traders, farmers and so on present in a grace and favour way at the disposition of local rulers.

The Prices

Elizabeth Lees Moffat b.1839 Table Bay Cape Town; d.1919 Cape Town. See also the Mary Moffat Letters, Cory Library.

Roger Price, b.1834 South Wales; d.1900 Kuruman

Roger Price’s first wife Isabella and their young baby died in tragic circumstances and he nearly did so; he was in part nursed afterwards at the Kuruman mission station. Price and Bessie Moffat married in 1861. They had fourteen children, ten of whom lived to adulthood.

  • Moffat, 1862-1863
  • Evan, 1863-1864
  • Roger, 1864-1936, married Ethel Johnston
  • Isabella Mary, 1866-1943, married Frank Henson
  • Jean, 1867-1937, married John Ashburnham
  • Elizabeth (Bessie), 1868-1947, married George Beare
  • Mary, 1870-1877
  • Daisy, 1872-1948, entered All Saints Convent, London
  • Helen (Nellie), 1874-1951, entered All Saints Convent, London
  • Thomas Livingstone, 1876-1899
  • Slater, 1877-1888
  • Christian Wallace (Kirstie), 1879-1949
  • James Baldwin Brown, 1881-1907
  • Robert Moffat, 1883-1953

The Prices spent a large part of their work as missionaries at Shoshong (until 1866) and Molepolole, formerly known as Logagen (until 1885). Price was then appointed as the successor to Rev John MacKenzie as Tutor to the Moffat Institute, which the LMS had built at Kuruman. From 1877 until approximately 1898, Miss Christian Wallace, a governess and general factotum, lived and worked with Moffats and often appears in these letters. At Kuruman, Roger Price deemed the standard of education provided by the Institute as too low and made a number of reforms. Under his successor, Rev John Tom Brown, the school moved to Tigerkloof, near Vryburg, and became a different kind of educational situation and of considerable renown until compulsorily closed during the apartheid period.

The letters

As noted above, many of Bessie Price’s letters are cross-genre writings combining the characteristics of letters, journals or diaries and reminiscences, and are sometimes referred to using all these terms within one piece of writing. Mostly their basic form is that of the letter, having personal address and signature and being written from one person to another with the expectation of both communication and response. Added to this, a piece of writing that she refers to as a journal or reminiscences might be written in parts on a succession of dates and addressed and sent to particular correspondents, another letter-like feature, but with this often framing a piece of writing that is more a reflection on past occurrences than a communication about present ones. In these writings, she also has a keen eye for character and interesting events, comes across as an open-minded person who is aware that her ideas and views may sometimes turn out to be wrong, and is unafraid of communicating this to the people she is writing to.

Some of Bessie Price’s preoccupations, particularly in respect of matters of race and ethnicity, may now seem mistaken, distasteful or odd. Alongside this, there is also her at basis liking for people and willingness to look for the good in them, her rueful perception of being a ’pet’, her compassion and helpfulness towards people who were ill or suffering other misfortunes even though they may have belonged to categories she otherwise has negative views of, all of which convey the sense of a basically kind-hearted woman of considerable insightfulness.

Interesting features of Bessie Price’s letters and related writings include:

  • Their mixed genre character lends them a particular interest in epistolary terms.
  • Their typical considerable length is related to Bessie Price’s sense of recording the fabric of missionary life for her correspondents and other readers (the ‘dear friends’ sometimes addressed). The detail is striking and also gives a valuable account of local ways of life soon to be overwhelmed.
  • The Prices were associated mainly with members of the ruling elites of the African peoples they lived among at Shoshong, Molepolole and later the Moffat Institute at Kuruman. Where they lived, help they wanted with building and other activities, the employment of people as servants, and the ways they could exercise their calling, were all mediated by this and were at the disposition of the King in particular.
  • There are rich accounts of these elites and the stresses and pressures they were facing in a period of great change, their kings especially. Bessie Price’s over time changing views of the people concerned – various of whom are important historical figures – is also interestingly conveyed. Her relationships with women of the ruling Bechuana elite are particularly interesting.
  • The language of communication was Setswana. Bessie Price grew up speaking Setswana, Roger Price did his work in the local language, and their children had Setswana as a first language because looked after by Setswana speakers. The governess Christian Wallace (who also had a missionary calling), however, ‘did not like the natives’ and insisted on speaking only English. What is strongly conveyed, about the language of communication and also more generally, is that the missionary presence was precarious and at the sufferance of local rulers and they necessarily accommodated to this in how they conducted themselves.
  • While not especially attracted by Christianity, both rulers and many of their peoples were interested in perceived progress and routes to it. Here the considerable enthusiasm with which reading and writing were embraced is notable and there are many comments from Bessie Price about ‘our school’ and teaching methods, although other focuses for instruction seem to have been less attractive to people.
  • Bessie Price had a large number of children of her own and in addition attracted child waifs and strays, various of whom were assimilated into her household for shorter or longer periods of time. Alongside this, new medical technologies were associated with the missionary household, and in consequence its yard area became a place of encampment for many people who were ill or injured. Out of this a hospital developed on a more regular basis. Interesting in its own terms, these activities also show how she responded to the customary ways of treating children, the sick and the old that prevailed locally.
  • Flattery and begging are seen by Bessie Price as both endemic, particularly among the Bechuana, and difficult to cope with. She associates them, not with racial characteristics as such, but with lack of ‘civilisation’ (requiring adopting European ways of behaving) and being ‘heathen’ (requiring becoming a Christian). She does not relate them to the different meanings they had in local societies, as people aiming to please others further up the social hierarchy, and their assumption that patronage in the shape of material goods would flow in the other direction.
  • In terms of characterising people and groups, the terminology Bessie Price uses is predominantly that of the names of African peoples or ‘tribes’. In addition, she also uses the names of individuals, who are characterised as precisely that, rather than being reduced to categorical types.
  • Within this framework Bessie Price uses the terminology of aristocratic hierarchy borrowed from a European context, such as kings, princes and princesses and so on. The companion term at the other end of the social hierarchy involves her frequent references to servants, some of whom had previously been servants of the local ruler and were probably deployed to keep a close eye on the Prices.
  • Negative ethnic categorisations are applied to the Dutch aka Boers, and to the Matabele, in the letters. There are relatively few negative references expressed in homogenising race terms, especially given the large number of very detailed writings involved.
  • There are many negative comments written concerning ‘the heathen’ and ‘heathenish practices’, terms which Bessie Prices relatedly applies to ‘raw savages’. It is difficult to disentangle the meanings present here and differentiate them from more obviously racial terminology, but this seems related more to the emphasis on Christianity and being civilised noted above than it does to racial categorisation as such.
  • In later life Bessie Price reportedly stopped thinking of herself as a Christian. This raises interesting questions about whether her ideas about the ‘heathen’ and Christian civilisation might have changed. However, the letters cease soon after the death of Roger Price, and although among the other writings in the Price papers there are some notes and reflections on religious reading, almost none of this is dated and little of it addresses such ‘real world’ matters.


Last updated: 8 February 2017


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