Mark Elliott Pringle Diaries, Cory Library, Grahamstown

Mark Elliott Pringle Diaries, Cory Library, Grahamstown

Mark Elliott Pringle and the Pringle clan

Mark Elliot Pringle (1880-1962) was an Eastern Cape farmer who lived and worked at Glen Thorn (and later Spring Fields), in the Baviaans River area where many members of the Pringle clan were located. He was also one of the family’s historians and with cousins produced Pringles of the Valleys: Their History and Genealogy (Eric Pringle, Mark Elliott Pringle, John Pringle; Adelaide, Glen Thorn, 1957). His wife was a cousin, Harriet Pringle Scott (1876-1954). They had a son, Malcolm, who died in 1914 when he was three; twin daughters born in 1913, Jean and Isobel; and a third daughter, Elspeth, born in 1917.

Mark Elliott Pringle kept a diary over many years, with this now part of the Cory Library collections. The main Pringle Collection, also in the Cory Library, contains the papers of Harriet Townsend and her second husband Dods Pringle and also Harriet’s mother Elizabeth Hockly; and it is discussed separately. The relationship between them and Mark Elliott Pringle and Harriet Pringle Scott was a complex one, due to the Pringle and wider family practice across the generations of frequently marrying cousins and half-cousins. In summary, Harriet and Dods could be referred to as approximately aunt and uncle at remove to both.

The WWW project is concerned with letters, and so the question arises as to why there is interest in the Mark Elliot Pringle diary. The contents of the Uncatalogued Pringle Collection provide focused letters coverage of the period from the 1820s to the 1880s, with a tail composed by the business letters and papers of a family that married in, the Quirks, whose daughter Annie Evelyn married one of Dods Pringle’s grandsons from his first marriage, Edward Joseph Townsend Pringle known as Joe (with Dods Pringle’s son Robert, the father of Joe, having married Mary Ann Townsend, the daughter of Harriet Townsend who was Dods Pringle’s second wife). The Pringle-Quirk component of the collection approximately covers the 1890s and early 1900s. In addition, while Mark Elliott Pringle left no extant letters that could enable an uber-collection approach to Pringle letters, he was an inveterate writer of diaries. MEP’s first extant diary was written in 1911 (when he was 31) and the last over the year 1960, a 49 year period for which there are 40 extant diaries in total. Taken together with the letters in the Unatalogued Pringle Collection, they enable a140 period of Pringle papers and how they represented people, events and places to be reviewed as part of WWW research.

Diaries and the WWW project

The Whites Writing Whiteness project is specifically concerned with letter-writing and the representational order that letters, written and sent from one person to another and with the expectation of response, have inscribed in them. In addition, however, a small number of diaries have been included in the sources WWW has interrogated, for particular reasons.

Having first worked on the Ucatalogued Pringle Collection, the possibile existence of letters and papers of other people connected with the large group of interrelated Pringle families in the Baviaans River area was investigated. While there are no extant letters by or to Mark Elliott Pringle, the extensiveness of his diaries, both in the detail of their contents and also the long period over which they were written, meant they were of immediate interest. In addition to these two features, the entries in MEP’s diaries stay close to the farm work that was done and the people – largely black – who did it, providing immense longitudinal detail over a 40 year period both on farming matters and also on the racial order that enabled and supported the white settler colonial presence.

Diary-writing in general brings people up close to the fabric of their everyday activities and their meetings with other people of a range of kinds, and are therefore possible sources of the writers’ recognition of the diverse character of South African populations, particular rural ones. As a consequence, a number of diaries of people involved in a very hands-on way with farming have been included as a source: the David Chalmers Aiken diary of 1867-9, written in south Natal, in the absence of Aiken family letters; the 1867 John Robert Lys diary, written in Pretoria, in the absence of Lys family letters; the Mark Elliott Pringle diaries of 1911 to 1960 written in the Baviaans River area of the Eastern Cape, included to complement the Pringle-Townsend papers and discussed in detail below; and the Forbes diaries, written in the eastern Transvaal, which stretch over many years and act as a daily supplement to the large number of letters written by and to many members of the Forbes family.

The MEP diaries

The diaries written by Mark Elliott Pringle consist of entries handwritten usually in ink in printed diaries, almost all of these being Lett’s Diaries. As noted above, the first was written in 1911 and the last in 1960, with 40 extant diaries covering this 49 year period. After the first, the diaries used were foolscap ones with just enough space to be able to write some hundreds of words for a day’s entry, given writing sufficiently disciplined and small enough. His diaries can be seen as quintessentially farming diaries, indeed with some of the printed diaries having this term on their covers, and their contents are very much concerned with farming matters. The actual entries were completed for almost every date in a year and are largely ones that record ‘the facts’ of a day, and in particular the farm jobs in hand, who did them, records of payments made or due, future work to be attended to and other matters related to the encompassing world of work on the farm. There are some matters concerning MEP’s family and wider events that also appear, but this is relatively infrequent and in a fairly schematic way, indicating that these are not seen as the central concern of what is being recorded.

The MEP diaries are voluminous both in a longitudinal sense and also regarding the immense amount of substantive detail provided in them. They are so voluminous that it is not possible within the framework of the Whites Writing Whiteness project to research them exhaustively. Therefore a particular sampling strategy has been adopted, as follows.

The particular interest of these diaries in WWW terms lies in their longitudinality, in how they record the face-to-face aspects of farming work and its racial order, and also regarding whether and in what ways developments and changes occurring elsewhere in South Africa over this long time-period impacted locally (or not) and how such things were (or were not) recorded. They have been sampled as complete diaries in the following way: The first diary and the last diary written, plus a mid-point diary; two further random years; and purposive samples of 1914, 1920, 1946, 1948 and 1952 for reasons alluded to in short form in the list below:

1911   = first diary

1914   = Natives Land Act and its first effects

1920   = strikes, Lovedale riot

1936   = random year

1938   = Great Trek re-enactment, approx. mid-point diary

1946   = student riots, Lovedale

1948   = May/June 1948 election

1952   = defiance campaign

1959   = random year

1960   = last diary, Sharpeville

Within these ten years of diaries, the entire entries for each year have been read and overviewed and the ways in which matters of race and ethnicity and also any other topics of interest were written about have been noted in database records for each day’s entry. In addition, time-periods in which particularly momentous happenings in South African political life occurred have been focused on, so as to provide pivot-points around which the interface between the local and the national was or was not recorded in the entries.

The result is that diaries for 10 years have been worked on in detail out of the 40 that are extant, chosen so as to give good longitudinal coverage and also to ensure that time-periods when major political events and occurrences took place were potentially covered (ie. if MEP chose to record anything about them). In addition, the diaries for the other 30 years have been skim-read, to ensure that there are no major differences between those that were selected for detailed work and those that were not.

Not surprisingly, there are many interesting and important aspects of the MEP diaries, both as diaries and also regarding their specific contents.

As diaries, the longitudinal character of the MEP diaries is exceptional in that making entries has been done consistently over such a long period of time. They are also diaries of a particular kind, which eschew the personal life and matters of affect and interiority, and focus on externalities and quotidian events and concerns. They can be seen as farming diaries par excellence, except that while the form of the farm diary was a requirement, the particular ways in which this was worked with by Mark Elliott Pringle indicates a degree of customisation by him (as comparison with diaries and journals by Aiken, Lys, Stirk and the Forbes family suggests) and also that a close fit existed between the form and Pringle’s interest in making a detailed record of particular aspects of his life and work.

In earlier years, the attention is overwhelmingly on farming matters, then. After 1952 this changed as MEP moved from the farm to a smaller property, and some other interests come into the foreground, such as  gardening on a small scale, fundraising for the local hospital and church matters. Perhaps surprisingly, there are very few references to the family history project he was involved with and the book produced from this. This confirms the centrality of the everyday, the quotidian and working life on the farm for his diary-writing.

Over the 40 year period, the substantive content of the MEP diaries is considerable, both in the volume sense, and also in the evaluative one, for these give insight into the conduct and development of farming practices and labour relations between white farmers and their workers over a very lengthy and also absolutely crucial period in South African history. Specifically with regard to how interesting aspects of race and ethnicity are recorded and changes in this over time, the following points are of note:

In earlier diaries, activities are recorded around the work of named people, with their names being multiply repeated across many entries. This is done in an elliptical way, with it not being explained who these people are and what organisational roles if any they might hold. In addition, whether they are women or men or include both is neither stated nor can it be discerned from pronoun usage, while the variant practices in spelling names in entries means that it is difficult to pin down exactly what the names are and whether these were at the time gendered. However, what is clear is that there was a core group of farm workers, these people lived on the farm, and they worked for Pringle over a period of some years.

By 1919, this had changed substantially. There is now the use of homogenising Racial terms, ‘Boy’ and ‘Boys’ especially, and also the presence of members of a core group of named workers of earlier years is no longer noted. This might be due to a number of factors, including attrition due to the age of the people concerned, but also the effects of the 1913 Land Act and an increase in buying-in workers for short-term periods and tasks, rather than having a resident tenant farmer population established on farms such as Pringle’s.

Another factor involved here concerns the recording practices used by MEP, how he actually writes about things, and changes in this over time. In earlier years he writes in the active voice, differentiates between things that workers did and things that he did. By 1919 there are many more entries in the removed and passive voice, in which crops are harvested, fields are cleared and so on, but without the subjects or agents who did this being encompassed within sentence construction.

A constancy over time in MEP’s diary-entries is that these record ‘the facts’ and not views about farm work or farm workers. As a consequence there are rarely evaluations made either in race terms or in any others, apart from by implication in the categories used to describe people as Boys and Natives. Examples here are the matter of fact way of recording entries such as ‘Boys stumped field’ and ‘Boys on booze again’ (24 March 1946), neither of which have evaluative or other descriptions or qualifications attached to them.

Generally speaking, another constancy in the diaries in that after approximately 1919 the term ‘Boy’ is used of Pringle’s farmworkers, sometimes individually as in ‘a Boy’ but more often to describe workers in groups, as with ‘the Boys finished the fencing’. Pringle also often uses the term ‘Native’, but does so in a different way, to refer in very general terms to people who are black, or those who do not belong to the groups who work on the farm.

This is not to say that people’s personal names are never mentioned in the later diary entries. However, when they are, this is very different  from how it was done in the earlies diaries and the ubiquitous use of personal names without ethnic or racial qualifiers in their entries. Thus later, when names are used this is usually done in a way that ‘races’ them, as with ‘Maid Agnes arrived’ (6 May 1946). The earlier names that Pringle recorded of his workers were more obviously ‘African’ ones, while later many of the people who worked for him had European-originating names, so perhaps this was done to make clear what kind or sort of people they were in the terms that mattered locally, that is, in race terms.

Some non-farm and non-Peddie circumstances and events are recorded in the diary in at least an in passing way, although few were reported or commented on over repeated entries. The start of what is described as England being at war with Germany is briefly recorded in September 1914, as is the Rebellion against the Botha and Smuts government in South Africa later the same year. The 1948 election does receive a number of entries, including Pringle attending election meetings and him and his wife going to vote. Similarly the start of the 1952 ‘defiance campaign’ is recorded and also a number of political events connected with this appear in further entries. However, regarding the last years of Pringle’s diaries there is a sea-change.

For complicated reasons, including the death in 1954 of Pringle’s wife, his infrequent contact with his daughters, his increased religiosity, perhaps also some mental health issues, and this sensitive man’s response to the changed and more obviously violent racial circumstances of South Africa, the later diary entries seem almost overwhelmed by external circumstances. These include shipwrecks, plane-crashes, miners trapped underground, holiday motoring fatalities, rapes, murders, knife attacks and other terrible things. From the early 1950s on, recording what Pringle describes as ‘Native/European problems’  is a key element in this list of horrors and disasters, with many of these events occurring in South Africa and what is now Zimbabwe and including increasingly terrible enactments of racial violence on both sides.

Around recording such matters, Pringle’s writing can become wild and wavery then return to something like normal then become wild and almost unreadable again. It is as though at points he was overwhelmed by a combination of external and internal demons, and driven to focus on, to seek out, reports of the awful and terrible wherever he could find them, from the radio, newspapers, his reading, comments people had said and so on. It would be going too far to lay all of his concerns at the door of the racial order of South Africa, and it would certainly be going too far to suppose that his sympathies were always on the side of those who were black. What appears to hold together his concerns is the sense he expresses that the world is composed of many terrible things, all of which came to, in popular parlance, ‘prey on his mind’ and centrally occupy it. And as his diary had always been concerned with the quotidian of his everyday life, so he recorded this new quotidian.

Last updated: 15 March 2017


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