Lys Diary, Pietermaritzburg Archive Depot

Lys Diary, Pietermaritzburg Archive Depot

The Lys Collection is located in the Pietermaritzburg Archive Depot, Natal. John Robert Lys (1829-1880) was a merchant, mining entrepreneur and politician who spent most of his adult life in Pretoria. He was given a concession to all minerals in the Transvaal by President Pretorius, helped survey and layout the street-plan for the town with Landrost Du Toit, and became a member of the Transvaal Volksraad. He became Landrost in 1880. His son Robert Godfray Lys, a mining prospector and engineer, later ran the Crown Reef Mine for a time, but a financial disaster ended this. Lys had a family connection with the Strubens and there are many Struben references in the John Robert Lys diary, while some Lys letters are to be found in the Struben Collection in Historical Papers, University of Witwatersrand.

The shape of the collection is as follows:

1/1 JR Lys Letters Received and Dispatched, Letterbook: Mechanically produced copies of approximately 700 letters sent plus and some received, 16 Dec 1869 – May 1874, mostly unreadable.

1/2 JR Lys Letterbook: Mechanically produced copies of approximately 450 letters sent, 23 Aug 1876 – Sept 1880. Also 1867 diary [mis-dated 1876] Lys diary; and an 1880 diary not by Lys, as he died in August 1880, and consisting overwhelmingly of meteorological observations.

2/1 Lys family letters, 1847-1914.

2/2 Lys family letters, 1927-1939.

The family letters are just that, letters between family members about quotidian aspects of family life and events. The most interesting are copies made in 1939 of ROG Lys’s letters of 1884-1887, when with his Struben cousins he was prospecting for gold on the Rand.

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 letters the Lys family received were of interest, given that the mechanical copies of the letters dispatched in John Roberts Lys’ letter books were largely unreadable.  However, like some other family letters that have come to attention, those of the Lys family are overwhelmingly concerned with quotidian matters of family happenings and relationships and rarely refer to anything outside of this. As a phenomenon, this is interesting, it exists regarding t quite a large number of other collections of family letters that have been examined, and it is commented on in discussions of the White Writing Whiteness research overall. However, it makes for limited helpfulness in exploring how white people in South Africa have represented the racial order, beyond saying that many do not, In effect, this puts brackets around much of their lives and interactions with other people.

But it is also a truism for the WWW research that the closer white people are to black people in their everyday interactions then the more likely they are to observe, comment, describe and recognise their presence. Their diary-writing, where it exists, brings people up close to the fabric of their everyday activities and meetings with other people of a range of times, and therefore diaries are a possible source of wider recognition of the diverse character of South African populations. As a consequence, some diaries have been included as WWW source materials: the 1867 John Robert Lys diary, in the absence of Lys family letters; the David Chalmers Aiken diary of 1867-9, in the absence of Aiken family letters; the Mark Elliott Pringle diaries of 1911 to 1960 written in the Baviaans River area of the Eastern Cape, which complement the Pringle-Townsend papers; and the Forbes diaries, 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 John Robert Lys diary

The John Robert Lys diary in the Lys collection was kept for the calendar year of 1867. While dated with days and months, no year appears in it. However, reference to an historical calendar shows that the year in question is 1867, and is the only possible year for it to have been written in the 1860s and 70s, which is when content shows it must have been produced.

As diaries go, its entries are mainly fairly short and matter of fact. There are entries for most dates but not all, and there is one period in particular – from 11 July to 19 September – when there are no entries because these have been excised for reasons which remain unknown. The entries that exist provide summaries presumably of things of particular interest to Lys, even though these may not seem very exciting to many third party readers, and there is no attempt anywhere to cover all the events of a day. There are perhaps three things of particular interest in what is written in the diary, concerning the early days of Pretoria and activities and debates in the Transvaal Volksraad; other people in the social circles in which Lys moved and particularly those, like the Strubens, who were involved in minerals prospecting and exploitation; and lastly what appears to have been Lys’ fairly close if somewhat critical relationship with Alexander McCorkindale and the information in the diary about the land purchases made by McCorkindale, who spearheaded the development of the New Scotland area around what is now Amsterdam and Ermelo by selling on many farms to migrants who he had earlier run a scheme to bring from Britain to Natal, and many of whom then purchased or leased New Scotland farms from him. McCorkindale’s nephew by marriage, David Forbes, was also closely involved in this venture  and makes a brief appearance in the diary.

Notable aspects of the Lys diary include:

  • The everyday concerns of settler men like Lys at that time, and the way in which he represents this
  • Lys’ travels and places visited are interestingly commented on
  • The activities of Alexander McCorkindale are detailed, and also enter David Forbes, the latter unnamed in one entry and in another, the last, being referred to by name
  • Many references to different members of the Struben family are made
  • Early Pretoria and Lys’ active membership of the Volksraad are covered
  • There are mentions of happenings in the Raad that pre-figure later troubles regarding the case that ran for a number of years after McCorkindale’s unexpected death, concerning rights to the Transvaal farms in the Amsterdam and Ermelo area; a number of entries comment on land matters respecting this
  • There are few references to matters of race and ethnicity, although there are occasional mentions of differences between ‘Boers’ and ‘Englishman’, with the latter also referred to as Europeans, and Boer people of the day being presumptively of Africa
  • The references to matters of race that are otherwise included are few and far between and very matter-of-fact, mainly by using ‘kaffir’ as a combined racial and ethnic categorisation, while there are also references to people whose names, or context in which they are mentioned, suggest were either coloured or black


Last updated: 8 February 2017


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