The day of small things

The day of small things

Please reference as: Whites Writing Whiteness (2014) ‘The day of small things’ Whites Writing Whiteness and also provide the paragraph number as appropriate when quoting.

1. There are just twenty letters written to the London Missionary Society by Gottlob Schreiner (1814-1876) over the period he was employed by the LMS, from 1838 to 1846. He was the father of the feminist writer and social theorist Olive Schreiner (1855-1920), whose circa 5000 extant letters have been published in a free-access form ( and who was later a notable radical in ‘race’ terms. And while Gottlob Schreiner’s letters are few in number, a number of interesting puzzles arise from them.

2. Gottlob Schreiner was from a poor background and had been a cobbler, then was educated and theologically trained by the Basle Mission Society. He experienced a ‘call’ to be a missionary, specifically to be so in Africa; and he received further theological training and then ordination in London. There he met and later married Rebecca Lyndall, whose father had been a well-known evangelical preacher and whose half-sister had earlier gone to South GSletterAfrica under the aegis of the LMS to run schools for children. Gottlob, or more precisely the couple, were accepted by the LMS and sent to South Africa.

3. Puzzle: Small number of letters, humungously large collection, and how to relate the minute part to the considerable whole? There are 18 Gottlob Schreiner letters, and these are located within the 2,260 archive boxes of the LMS collection, which spans the years 1795 to 1973. The WWW project is concerned with changing epistolary representations of ‘race’ and Gottlob Schreiner enters the frame because others of his letters are small components of two very large family letters collections, the Findlay Family Papers, and the Schreiner-Hemming Letters. So, in this context, what does getting a good or sufficient analytical purchase on his LMS letters require in the way of understanding the collection as a whole, the large southern African part specifically? Gottlob Schreiner’s LMS letters are different from his family letters, but his letters to various family members also differ depending on who they are addressed to, so wherein regarding the LMS ones does the difference lie? Does understanding require knowing the totality of everything, or can letters or other documents be treated in isolation from the collection which holds them, is these some point between these extremes that can be arrived at without knowing the whole?

4. Puzzle: How to understand variance in the numbers of letters different missionaries wrote to the Dirextors of the LMS, which employed them. Letters and their report-like communicative characteristics, and also annually their nearly ‘pure report’ variation, were the medium of exchange and grounded the accountability of the LMS missionaries for their endeavours ‘in the field’. Comparing just the numbers and dates of Gottlob Schreiner’s LMS letters with those of men/couples ordained and commencing work with the LMS at the same time, it is apparent that he wrote fewer more sporadic letters than they did and also there are gaps in his annual reports towards the end of his employment with the LMS. Is this variance to be seen as the product of the kind of placements he had (which were different from the ‘a mission station of my own founding beyond the frontier’ which most others had), or his often-stated lack of facility in English (often in fact stated eloquently by him), or perhaps something else, not yet pinpointed? One possibility here are some ‘organisational troubles’.

5. Puzzle: How to read these twenty letters. Both Gottlob Schreiner’s own and other related LMS letters show that Gottlob’s time with the LMS was surrounded by ‘troubles’. These surfaced as his inability to get on with fellow missionaries, his sometimes confrontational approach to church governance and the role of deacons and other lay involvements, his opaque way of handling money matters. They erupted in him resigning, with the stated reason a long-simmering objection to Episcopalian ordination (the appointment of Bishops and so a ruling church hierarchy) and his transfer of employment to the Wesleyan Mission Society. Various similar troubles continued and followed him from one Wesleyan placement to another and culminated in his employment being terminated because of breaking regulations about missionaries not ‘trading with the natives’. However, while these many organisational troubles imply something deep-seated around a dislike for or an inability to handle a hierarchy that demoted ‘the preacher’ as accountable only to God, and a perhaps feckless or naïve rather than dishonest approach to money matters, it is by no means clear cut that these ‘caused’ the events and his representation of them in these letters.

6. Puzzle: Focusing less on the communicative aspects of the content of Gottlob Schreiner’s LMS letters, and more on their rhetorical features and their structure, which comes into view is that these do not inscribe a moral order in which ‘race’ occupies an expected part of the framework. There is the preacher and the people under the hand and the will of God; ‘the people’ are those connected or perhaps associated with the preacher’s mission; there are also Basutoes and Hottentots who in time do or do not become associated with it too; and their are Europeans, farmers, who occupy land and monopolise sources of water and otherwise intimidate and usurp so that the previous inhabitants move on to poorer pastures. Comparing this with the one LMS letter written by his wife, Rebecca Schreiner, some differences are clear. In her letter, the inhabitants and the landscape are barren and melancholy to a European eye; the Griqua and Hottentots are inferior, the Basutos are cleverer but addicted to lying, while subgroups are benighted heathen, and the Baramakale are addicted to cannibalism. Are these differences rhetorical ones located in Gottlob’s sense of mission and Rebecca’s experience of dislocation? Or might they have referential aspects too, and have played out in some way in social relationships, or regarding their personal relationship as well?

7. Puzzle: The Schreiners travelled to South Africa as part of an LMS group on the ‘David Scott’ ship. This involved Dr John Philip, an LMS Director who had responsibility for managing the southern African missions; John Reed senior, an LMS missionary with radical ideas about ‘race’ and who had married a San woman; his mixed-race son John Read junior, also to become an ordinated LMS missionary; Jan Tzatzoe, a Xhosa chief (and minor royalty) who had converted to Christianity as a child and been adopted by Read senior; and Andries Stoffels, a Griqua who was an elder in his local church. They were returning from having been called to give evidence to the Buxton Inquiry, which eventuated among other things in giving a large parcel of land back to Xhosa peoples in the Eastern Cape. What influence if any might spending a long period of time with these men, who were not so much his class, educational, social and intellectual equals as his superiors, have on the young, devout and emotional Gottlob – and also on the better educated and more steely, but also female and so to a large extent excluded, Rebecca?

8. These puzzles are all transferable ones; there is no easy resolution of them; but they are all good to think with. They concern:

  • the specific object of research, a letter or other document, and its relationship to the larger archival whole to which it belongs;
  • the number, frequency, duration of such letters or other documents and variations regarding different addresses;
  • how specific letters/documents are related to other interconnected letters/documents and, where there are ‘factual’ differences, how best to understand and adjudicate these;
  • the need to attend in close detail to the communicative content of a particular letter/document;
  • while also recognising the rhetorical features and that letters/other documents do not have total referentiality; and
  • the importance of the social, political and relational context in which a letter/document was written and had its original meaning and reference.

Last updated: 12 April 2015


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