Mary Moffat Letters, Cory Library, Grahamstown

Mary Moffat Letters, Cory Library, Grahamstown

Please reference as: Liz Stanley (2018) ‘Collections: Mary Moffat’ and provide the paragraph number as appropriate when quoting.

1. Introduction

1.1 There are 54 Mary Moffat letters in the Cory Library, Grahamstown. They were written from 1820 to 1870. As is usual with the Cory Library, these letters 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.

1.2 The Mary Moffat letters in the Cory Library are to two main groups of people. Firstly, many of these letters are to friends in the evangelical Congregationalist networks she had been part of before leaving for South Africa, with these people continuing to support both the Moffats’ missionary work and to raise funds for the LMS more widely. Mrs Greaves together with her daughter Miss Greaves later Mrs Habershon and also her son are important here, although there are many references to other members of these networks in the letters too. These letters also comment on her feeling of responsibility for accounting for her missionary work in the religious sense in writing them, but her feeling that maintenance of the fabric of life and the production of food, clothes and child-rearing drowned out such ‘higher’ activities for her.

1.3 Secondly, there are a large number of letters to those of her children attending LMS schools in England. Jane, Ann and Elizabeth (known as Bessie) are the principals here, with their sister Helen who married James Vavasseur and stayed in England, also a presence. These letters were to keep them in touch with life in Kuruman and the different aspects of this they had been engaged in before leaving or were expected to have later responsibility for after returning, and they are full of detail about both the mission station and local circumstances and people.

1.4 In a sense, Mary Moffat also used these letters as a record. Mainly she did not write in terms that would now be considered suitable for younger children, as they pull few punches about illnesses, deaths and fighting, among other matters. However, she treated her young children across the board as responsible in ways that would now be considered beyond their years.

2. The Moffats

2.1 Mary Smith, b.1795 Dukinfield, near Stockport, North-west England, daughter of market gardener and Congregationalist parents. Died 1871, London.

2.2 Robert Moffat, b.1795 East Lothian, Scotland. A market gardener who for a period worked for the Smiths and then in 1816 became an LMS missionary. Died 1893, Tunbridge Wells.

2.3 See also the Elizabeth (Bessie) Lees Price Letters, Cory Library.

2.4 Robert Moffat arrived in southern Africa in 1817. He was joined by Mary Smith in December 1819, when they married. The Moffats are principally known for establishing and heading the important LMS mission station at Kuruman, in what was originally Bechuanaland and later became part of South Africa. Robert Moffat is particularly well known for producing the first translation of the Bible in Tswana. They had ten children, a number of whom were also involved in missionary work in adulthood. The Moffats remained at Kuruman until retiring in 1870, when they returned to Britain. Their children are as follows:

  • Mary Moffat, 1821–1862; married LMS missionary David Livingstone 1845
  • Ann Moffat, 1823-1893; married Paris Missionary Society missionary Jean Fredoux 1851
  • Robert Moffat, b. and d. 1825
  • Robert Moffat, 1827-1862; a LMS missionary; married Ellen Platt 1851
  • Helen Moffat, 1829-1902; married James Vavasseur 1847; their daughter Hilda Vavasseur, born in 1868, married in 1899 her cousin Robert Moffat, a son of Robert Moffat and Ellen Platt born in 1862
  • Elizabeth Moffat, 1831-1832
  • James Moffat, 1833-1839
  • John Smith Moffat, 1835-1918; married Emily Unwin 1858; he was an independent missionary engaged by David Livingstone, later became an LMS missionary, and then was appointed Native Commissioner at Zeerust 1881, and was later the British Resident in Matabeleland and employed by the British South Africa Company (Rhodes’s Chartered Company) in 1890.
  • Elizabeth Lees (Bessie) Moffat, 1839-1919; married LMS missionary Roger Price 1861
  • Jane Gardiner Moffat, 1840-1927

2.5 In religious terms, Robert and Mary Moffat represented an interpretation of Christian mission focused around conversion to full Christian fellowship and communion, with other activities such as teaching or providing medical and other assistance seen as ancillary or even peripheral. Also, the later concern of many missionaries of younger generations with ‘African mission’ and the control of churches by African communicants lay outside their field of vision. This was partly a product of the context in which they worked, which was that of independent African peoples, kingdoms and rulers who largely resisted incorporation; and partly because they were unable to envisage the uneducated and ‘savage’ or ‘heathen’ people they encountered making such a profound change. Amongst other things this not only brought them into largely hidden conflict with more radical LMS missionaries of both contemporary and younger cohorts, but later also with some members of their own family, in particular their son John Smith Moffat and his wife Emily Unwin, and their daughter Bessie Moffat and her husband Roger Price.

2.6 Some of Mary Moffat’s letters in the National Archives of Zimbabwe were published in a selected and edited form in the 1950s. These are to her parents and have a very different feel from those discussed here. See Robert Moffat and Mary Moffat (1951) Apprenticeship at Kuruman: Being the Journals and Letters of Robert and Mary Moffat 1820-1828 (ed. I. Schapera) London: Chatto & Windus (Oppenheimer series no 5).

3. The Cory Letters

3.1 The Mary Moffat letters in the Cory Library are to the following people:

2 – Mr and Mrs Smith, Mary’s parents.

24 – Mrs Greaves, an older friend, in a sense a patron, who was known from Mary Moffat’s participation in the evangelical circles she had moved in before leaving for South Africa. Mr Greaves was a well-to-do businessman in the earlier letters and like his wife was closely connected with the LMS; he later lost his wealth in market and banking crashes and after a stroke or strokes.

4 – Miss Greaves became a teacher when her family fell on hard economic times. Her mother lived with her after being widowed. She later married Mr Habershon. There is also one letter from Miss Greaves to Mary Moffat.

21 – Jane Moffat was an older daughter and Mary Moffat wrote a large number of letters to her when with various of her sisters she was at school in England.

3 – There is a small number of letters to Mrs Brown, although whether she was one of the two LMS missionary Mrs Browns is not known but most likely not. She and Mary Moffat met in Cape Town; Mrs Brown later kept a friendly eye on the Moffat children when they were in school in Britain.

3.2 Some of the many interesting aspects of the Mary Moffat letters are as follows:

  • Mary Moffat is the mistress of excuses in her letters. She is always being ill or too busy, even about missing writing her daughters’ birthday letters. Indeed, 28 of the 54 letters start with such excuses. She comments that there is little time for anything other than keeping the household running. Headaches, many pregnancies, she needs to have total calm etc are also among her ‘good reasons’.
  • Many letters mention a religious circle and connections spreading from Dukinfield and Stalybridge out to Sheffield in the north of England.
  • Mrs Greaves, and also Mrs Brown, share religious views and involvements with Mary Moffat; these were continuing bonds expressed fondly over a long time period.
  • The Greaves, mutual friends with the Smiths and others, formed a kind of LMS support group for the missionaries, the Moffats especially.
  • Mary Moffat has a ‘benighted heathen’ view of the local people she lived among, they are crooked, heathen, barbarous. BUT, at the same time she loves various people, including Nattandloe, who died when many other local people did of some terrible fever. She also often expresses the need to keep up civilised customs in a barbarous country.
  • The rescued ‘little black girl’, Sarah Roby, who Mary Moffat saved from infanticide, later becomes a sort of servant, and is unsurprisingly resentful, badly behaved, but also at times good. The signs from later letters elsewhere is that, after a much troubled period, Sarah ‘settled down’.
  • Regarding the letters written to daughter Jane at school, she could be any age (although she is just 7 at their start), apart from comments about Mary Moffat missing her and her sister Bessie. This can be quite startling regarding some content.
  • All the Moffat children were expected to be useful, and had been given ‘opportunity’, so the letters emphasise that they must train to do productive things. The work of Mary and Ann at the Kuruman station is discussed, later involving Bessie, aka Betsy, while Jane was still teacher training in Britain.
  • Other LMS missionaries are mentioned in these letters. This includes David Livingstone, poor Mr Hamilton, Mr Ross, the Ashtons, the Solomons, the Helmores, Roger Price, the Sykes, Mr Thomas’s sad bereavement, lonely Mr Brown going to Taung, Mr Wright, Mr Hughes at Griqua Town and Mr Edwards who got into squabbles with people while the Moffats were away and neglected his duties.
  • There is a clear sense of Mary Moffat’s disapproval regarding how David Livingstone behaved towards his wife Mary and his children. Rather stiffly, and perhaps overly formally, in some letters she expresses approval of his missionary activities, but elsewhere conveys a sense of disapproval and indeed outrage about his conduct of family life and responsibilities.
  • There are connections shown between the Moffats and others at Kuruman, the wider missionary presence in southern Africa, evangelical circles in Britain, and also at a more humdrum level between the Moffats and some of the letter-writers represented elsewhere in the WWW corpus. This latter group includes people the Moffats had little time or respect for, such as Gottlob Schreiner, and the James Reads father and son.

Last updated: 1 January 2018