Fynn Letters

The Henry Francis Fynn Letters, Killie Campbell Library, Durban

 Henry Francis Fynn

Henry Francis Fynn (1803-1861) was variously a trader, Resident Agent, Diplomatic Agent and Resident Magistrate in Natal, Pondoland (Eastern Cape) and then Natal again, with his career occurring at a point in time when the earliest stages of settler colonialism were expanding into a system of governance in the area. Fynn is now perhaps best known for what it is usually referred to as his diary, although this has some hallmarks of a memoir and letters as well as a diary, and it also bears clear signs of the work of editors in piecing together ‘the diary’ from an array of rather disparate materials.

In the past Fynn has been lauded as an adventurer, pioneer and a founding Natalian, although times change and some of his activities have later occasioned more criticism than praise. There has however been a recent resurgence of interest regarding, Fynn’s much referenced diary and how best to interpret its contents, what are seen as his opinions and exaggerations in the diary about the Zulu king Shaka, Fynn’s changing relationship with other indigenous rulers, especially the Pondo King, Faku (ruling from 1815 to 1867), and the winds of change over the period of Fynn’s career and the changes that were occurring to the relationship between pre-colonial African states and the colonial system of governance in the making.

In addition to his more public activities, Fynn is known, or perhaps notorious, for aspects of his private life. In particular, he was married to a number of Zulu women who were given by King Shaka, ‘gifts’ it would have been dangerous to have ignored even if he had wanted. A number of children resulted and later a considerable ‘Fynn clan’ of his children and their progeny existed. Later, around one of the turns in his official career, he moved to another area and took on more of the external trappings of respectability, including marriage in 1837 to a white woman, Christiana, with whom he had a son given the same name as himself. The paucity of information on these matters is such that it is not known whether and to what extent he retained contact with his earlier families.

In the considerable literature drawing on Fynn sources, the references made are almost invariably to the diary. However, there are many letters both by and to Fynn, including by many of the leading (colonial and African) figures of the day, in the archival sources, having been written as unfolding exchanges between a loosely connected figuration of people composed by Fynn and others in his network.

The Fynn Letters

There are some 550-600 manuscript letters extant in the Henry Francis Fynn Papers in the Pietermaritzburg Archives Depot, with the exact number depending on how ‘a letter’ is defined. There is no published version and the manuscripts are fragile and hard to read, as well as written in many different and difficult handwritings. However, they have richly detailed content on key matters of the day concerning the settler colonial project in the Natal and Pondoland areas.

There are a large number of letter-writers involved, and there are more letters to Fynn than by him, so the world-view the letters inscribe takes the form of a heterotopia which exists at the representational level as a co-construction of the over time figuration of the approximately 150 people who wrote and received these letters. The letters provide great insight into the ideas and working practices of members of a particular social and political milieu within the settler colonial community, those involved in different aspects of colonial governance, not just Fynn himself, and including people on the receiving end. The contents represent a largely shared but at points disagreeing or conflicting world-view on the matters dealt with, many of which concern questions and issues surrounding influence and governance and the extension of colonial rule.

The letters in the collection start in the 1820s and continue to 1860, just before Fynn died. This was a period over which a great transition of change occurred in Pondoland and Natal, the two locales he worked in for extended periods. The change was from African-controlled states and polities in which white functionaries such as Fynn were present only individually and on a grace and favour basis, and where the prevailing economy was based on stock-rearing and pastoralism; and a shift to a colonial settler-controlled state and polity organised around a labour market and a semi-modern capitalist economy, in which the rules and regulations of white governance were administered by a large number of such functionaries. Their coverage of this crucial period means that the Fynn letters provide a particularly rich resource for investigating how a centrally involved figuration of people saw, promoted and responded to the changes occurring.

There are three instantiations of the Fynn letters, in two separate archives, and in three locations within these. In a formal sense, however, there is just one ‘real’ collection of the manuscript letters, described above.

(i) The Fynn Inventory

There is an extensive typed Inventory of the Henry Francis Fynn Papers, with the Papers being ‘the’ collection of Fynn materials which results when searching for Fynn sources, with both held in the Pietermaritzburg Archives Depot.

The Inventory provides a detailed overview of the contents of the collection in the form of itemised lists of the letters received and dispatched. These are in date order, preceded by the name of the letter-writer (which, as noted, is not always Fynn) and the recipient. For example, two entries, one from the Received part of the list and the other from the Dispatched part of it, are:


R Southey 5 1 1848 [ie. From Richard Southey to Henry Francis Fynn, 5 January 1848]


Thomas Jenkins 24 6 1849 [ie. From Henry Francis Fynn to Rev Thomas Jenkins, 24 June 1849]

The Inventory provides a good schematic overview of the Fynn letters, and its format enables some useful questions to be asked in gaining a sense of the collection as a whole. They include:

  1. How many letters? When do they start and when do they finish?
  2. How many letters by each letter-writer? and how does Fynn figure in this?
  3. What are the numbers of letters to particular people (the addressees or recipients) and when do they start and when do they end?
  4. What patterns are shown by the flows of letters by and to different people over time?

By highlighting seriality, longitudinality and network membership in this way, the patterning of repetitions and flows of letters and changes in membership of this set of people over time is revealed, adding up to a kind of summary of the figurational aspects of the Fynn letters. The Inventory, then, provides a handy shorthand way of discerning patterns and changes occurring over time in a pared down way.

(ii) The Manuscript Letters

The Fynn Papers in the Pietermaritzburg Archives Depot are ‘the’ collection of Fynn materials, holding among other things the manuscript letters written by Fynn and his associates. Many of these 550-600 letters are multiple sheets of paper in length, and some are more than one actual item, in the sense of being composed by linked letters, reports, receipts, lists…  The richness of the contents of the letters coupled with some of the issues in reading and using them have already been suggested.

The letters are of considerable fragility with many encased in sealed protective folders and cannot in the literal sense be grasped without causing damage to the items within. Consequently, while these manuscripts are the ‘actual letters’, ‘the trace’ in the originatory sense, they cannot be handled and worked on except with extreme difficulty.

As a result, a different strategy for working on the Fynn letters is required, and this involves the existence of a full set of typescripts of the letters.

(iii) The Typescripts

The Killie Campbell Library in Durban also has a Fynn Collection, with its contents variously a draft typescript by James Stuart regarding his wider work when editing Fynn’s diary, typescripts of the diary and of Fynn’s letters, Fynn’s evidence to an 1852 Native Commission, the script of an interview carried out when the Fynn papers at the Killie Campbell were opened for use in 1946, and some other items. The contents of the Collection appear to have been all produced by or came from James Stuart, the initial editor of the Fynn diary, later joined by D. Malcolm. Overall, it consists of meta-versions. That is, its contents are in the form of typescripts, typed copies; and there are typescripts of a biographical account, a diary, letters, evidence, an interview, with just a few minor manuscript items.

The Fynn letter transcripts are hard to date, but may have been produced by Stuart as part of his work on the diary, or by Killie Campbell when she set up the collection for public access in 1946. Clearly these are not the ‘originals’, because the manuscript letters exist elsewhere, in the Pietermaritzburg Archives Depot. However, a preliminary comparison with the manuscripts suggests that the transcripts are complete and, as far as can be told without checking every word in every letter, accurate.

Working Method

In relation to the Fynn letters, the original manuscripts could it in a way be worked on. But no matter how carefully this was done, it is still likely that they would be damaged, or else the work would be so constrained by the plastic folders and the inability to see many of the letter sheets that it would be untenable.

Once the existence of the Inventory and the transcriptions is known about, a different strategy becomes possible, however. This is based on the recognition that, in consequence of the de facto inaccessibility of the manuscripts, coupled with the existence of a full set of typescripts, ‘the trace’ here has become both the manuscripts and this related meta-form. There is also the Inventory, which provides a detailed albeit schematic guide to the overall shape of the manuscript letters, and which can therefore provide an intermediary check that the typescripts do indeed conform to the ‘actual letters’.

These three different forms of the manuscripts, the typescripts and the inventory share an object at the core – some observations made in writing by one person to another, about people and events of times now gone but of the moment when they wrote. Although they represent or re-represent this in different ways they can be used together to provide a full and for all practical purposes accurate dataset for the Fynn letters.

The working method in the production of the WWW Fynn letters database is as follows.

  • The database has been prepared and populated using the Durban typescripts, and the records in the database are referenced using Killie Campbell referencing information. This referencing information is prime in how the dataset has been published and how searches are organised.
  • Records in the database have been first-checked against the Pietermaritzburg Inventory and assigned a subsidiary Pietermaritzburg referencing number, which appears elsewhere in each database record for the Fynn letters.
  • Records in the database have been second-checked against the Pietermaritzburg original manuscripts, for two purposes. All the records have been cross-checked against the original manuscripts to ensure that the referencing information in the Inventory is fully accurate. A cross-check of a sample of letters and the accessible sheets of these has also been made against the typescripts, to double-check that the contents of the typescripts are accurate.

Some Notable Aspects of Content

In reflecting on the points below, it is important to remember that the ‘Fynn letters’ are in a way misnamed, for while they all involve Fynn in some way, the majority of them were written by other people, although he is the largest single contributor of letters. The things commented on, then, were produced and expressed in a figurational context, and views and times changed over the time-period of the figuration’s existence. There are reflections and expressions of this in the letters, and show that these matters are not just the sole property of letters by Fynn himself.

  • Fynn and many of the other letter-writers over time had a variety of roles within the structure of colonial governance as this was being produced – a ‘responsible government’ of Natal did not really exist in his lifetime, and also Fynn himself was in the area now in the Eastern Cape known as ‘Pondoland’ for nearly twenty years, as well as in Natal before and after this. In 1859 when he retired, the settler presence in Natal was still not a large one, although labour was becoming a topic in relation to the increasing centrality of sugar as well as cotton production in its economy.
  • As the letters commence, Chiefs of groups of people most often referred to as tribes are the local power being dealt with. Colonial governance is largely removed or present in a military aspect if not. Colonial governors and the very few officials in the field address ‘the Chiefs’ directly,
  • The Resident Agents or Resident Magistrates had to contend with both the colonial and the indigenous systems of governance; and they were ‘interpreters’ in a wide sense, of speaking to each side in a way that made sense to both. However, the bottom line was that in the 1840s and for part of the 1850s, this embryonic colonial presence engaged on terms largely set by the Chiefs.
  • Later, there were incremental increases of colonial intervention. An example is that while earlier they were free to do what they wanted, in 1848 it became necessary for traders to purchase a colonial license to do so; this cost £50 per annum, a large amount of money in today’s terms and a clear sign that increased governance was in the making and in search of a taxation base.
  • The activities of the Resident Agents, Resident Magistrates and other colonial functionaries where largely unspecified and very much up to the person in the field. They centered on wheeling and dealing in a way that would support and enhance but cause little bother or cost to the colonial enterprise. Fynn and other RMs and RAs at this time and place were primarily go-betweens and intelligence-gatherers on the one hand, and on the other were required by the local African powers to engage and help with a range of practical matters that it suited them to have an outsider deal with. This included dealing with legal cases, helping to settle disputes, and also endeavoring to solve emergent crises.
  • In the earlier letters, racial and ethnic terms are used descriptively and practically:

Native – lower and upper case

kaffir – in lower case, signifying a member of a ‘tribe’

 A very occasional appearance of Caffer

Personal names – usually just one without clan or other group membership

‘Tribes’ – upper and lower case, and names of these

eg.‘the Zulu native might… be kept together as a tribe’

  • In the 1830s, there were ambushes and killings of whites and also fights and raids, with Fynn being consulted as an expert in the field by the British authorities in Cape Town, including the governor of the day, Benjamin D’Urban, in 1835. Fynn was clearly used at this time as someone who went between but also who could be trusted to be on the British and settler side.
  • The 1840s saw the formation of locations for ‘natives’ and also the first grants of land to setters in Natal by the Colonial Office. In the later 1840s, there was a dispute between Fynn and the very liberal LMS missionaries James Read snr and James Reads jnr concerning the former’s response to a crisis that had occurred regarding the people on now usually referred to as San, with them describing Fynn as punitive to Bushmen around the case of Makilima in 1848/9.
  • Even in the late 1840s, there were significant numbers of the white community who rejected an extension of the colonial presence as an organised system of governance attached to extensive migration. In 1849, for instance, Fynn’s associate Thomas Hancock stated firmly that Natal was not British and it should not become so.
  • An issue regarding treaties arose at the start of the 1850s, specifically regarding Fynn’s role concerning a treaty with the Pondo King Faku. At basis what seems to have been involved was the balance of powers between contending groups – Bushmen, Amapondas, Tamboukies and so on – with Fynn seen as having acted as the tool of Sir Harry Smith in this matter. A major dispute broke out between Thomas Jenkins and other missionaries with Fynn, with the related result that Fynn lost most of his influence with his colonial masters. This was less in deference to the feelings of the missionaries, more that ‘the tribes’ had collectively gathered, something that had never happened before and which was viewed as a potentially terrifying prospect.
  • By the 1850s, the Resident Magistrates had an extended sphere of activity and were dealing with a wide range of disputes and cases, including concerning deaths and intra-‘tribe’ disputes (raids, cattle, land). An observation by one of the letter-writers to this effect in 1850 was that ‘the people already look to this Govt. to settle their disputes’. Some of these disputes involved or were brought about by ‘Boors’ – they are a perhaps surprisingly shadowy presence in these letters, appearing when they make incursions into land and conduct their presence in ways seen as unacceptable.
  • Through the 1840s and 50s there is very much the recognition of the existence of different ‘tribes’, also including the Gouka, Illhambo, Kaffirs, Tamboukies, and that there were consequential differences and conflicts between them. In important part, Fynn and others see this as underpinning the expansion of colonial governance, for ‘tribes’ and their rulers appealed to the colonial functionaries and also went to mission stations when there was trouble, including as refugees when violence occurred; while in other disputes about land, white settlers and the black people concerned also had reference to colonial governance to settle these.
  • On 28 Feb 1849, a settler migration scheme was mooted, signed by Dunbar Moodie, at this time Acting Chief Clerk, Colonial Office Natal, on behalf of the Governor. This is the origin of the Byrne emigration scheme.
  • In the period of the later 1850s, the terminology of race and ethnicity changes. ‘Kaffir’ becomes the general term in the 1840s, there is the occasional use of ‘Hottentot’, then following the Kat River rebellion its use greatly increases. ‘Tribes’ is widely used regarding the Pondoland and Natal contexts. The main term that comes into usage is native, with or without a capital letter, and often in association with discussions of labour and accompanying thoughts about breaking up the native locations and ending polygamy.
  • These are among measures to encourage, or rather push, men onto the labour market and available to the settler community. However, even among colonial functionaries there is a difference of view about this, with many of the Resident Magistrates indicating that the creation of free-floating native labour would be injurious all round (May 1850). By the end of the 1850s there is recognition that this process is well underway through the creation bribing Chiefs to send young men to work for limited periods of time, with their wages or the goods they received such as guns in view of wages, less individual and more communal.
  • In large part, the desire was for labour brought from ‘outside’, in the form of Indian or Chinese indentured groups, rather than indigenous people, who would separated from their ties to land and so sequestered away from whites. Contract labour could be dispensed with or increased while the spectre of indigenous wage labour was that it would be disenfranchised and disappropriated, bringing to the surface fears about to ‘them’ combining.


Fynn Papers Inventory, Pietermaritzburg Archives Depot, Kwa-Zulu Natal, South Africa.

Henry Francis Fynn Papers, Pietermaritzburg Archives Depot, Kwa-Zulu Natal, South Africa.

Henry Francis Fynn Collection, Killie Campbell Library, Durban, Kwa-Zulu Natal, South Africa.

Stuart, J. and Malcolm, D.M. eds., 1950. The Diary of Henry Francis Fynn. Pietermaritzburg: Shuter and Shooter.


Last updated: 4 April 2017


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