A parallel form?

A parallel form?

Please reference as: Whites Writing Whiteness (2015) ‘A parallel form?’ Whites Writing Whiteness http://www.whiteswritingwhiteness.ed.ac.uk/curiosities/parallel-form/ and provide a paragraph number as appropriate when quoting.

  1. The London Missionary Society (LMS) was a non-denominational Protestant body that sent missionaries to different parts of the world. Its activities in southern Africa started in 1797 with a paper-trail lasting from then until 1950. In spite of differences of distance and circumstance between them and the parent organisation, LMS missionaries were required to be accountable, in terms of the spiritual, evangelical, occupational and financial aspects of their role. A prime means of keeping this in frame was that they were expected, as part of the contract between them and the LMS, to write regular letters and also an annual overall report explaining what was happening regarding their direct and indirect missionary conduct and both its earthly and its spiritual facets.
  2. One of the LMS Directors in London was the liaison point for this, acting as its Foreign Secretary. Certainly most of the LMS missionaries in southern Africa had met and knew the succession of men who served in this capacity, through the ordination process, through them visiting (a ‘deputational’ visit) the southern African missions, and because some of them and in particular long-running (1881-1914) Foreign Secretary Rev. Ralph Wardlaw Thompson had close connections with South Africa (his father had been LMS agent there and after retirement continued living in Cape Town). The result was a continuing flow of detailed letters from the southern African missionaries, consisting of those in South Africa and in Matabeleland and elsewhere in ‘the Interior’ (principally, what is now Zimbabwe and Botswana).
  3. There are many – over a hundred – archive boxes that hold the ‘Incoming Correspondence’ from Matabeleland and South Africa from the 1790s to 1939. Alongside (quite literally alongside) the letters that the Matabeleland missionaries sent to the LMS from the mid 1880s on, there are ur-letters. These are a parallel form, documents with an LMS printed heading, and they were written out as someone read the letters arriving from southern Africa at the LMS headquarters in London, who then attached them to the letter with a tag or something similar. They record in a short form the details in the letters, as these were interpreted by the (unknown) person who wrote them. For convenience, they’re referred to here as dockets, but what the LMS called them is not known.
  4. The dockets aren’t letters, or copies, or summaries. They’re something else again, for they focus just on one particular aspect of letterness, which is the communicative message involved, but only some aspects of this. One of them is presented in the JPEG provided here. As it shows, the date on the letter, the date it arrived at the LMS, the name of the writer and where they were writing from are all recorded under purpose-made printed headings, while the free-form empty space is filled in whole or part with a hand-written account of what the letter is seen to be about.
  5. These dockets – is there a better term to call them?
     perhaps ‘memo’ might be an alternative – have a flat way of rendering a letter’s communicative content, for numerous pages can be reduced to a numbered point provided in just two or three lines. Also, these are organisational documents, so the main content – for example, my week old baby has died, with all details of the baby’s short life provided – might be bracketed entirely, with the recorded points concerning, for example, such matters as minutes of a meeting that were enclosed, payment of wagon repairs was requested, that indigenous teachers were needed on mission out-stations and so on.
  6. It is the form of the dockets, rather than any specific content, that is particularly interesting, along with the frequent dislocation that exists between these entities that are not summaries or précis and the letters they are ‘of’. Their ontology is complex. Their existence signifies the ‘invention’ within the LMS bureaucracy of something like an ur-letter, although with the original being rewritten in organisational terms. They can perhaps best be seen as an early example of that weird thing, the executive summary: a shortened simplified version tailored for people further up the hierarchy to get the gist, or rather to be given a minion’s version of this, without having to read the letter itself. How very curious this is, for a number of reasons.
  7. As noted earlier, most of the southern African missionaries, certainly the older ones amongst them, were on close terms, indeed often terms of friendship, with the succession of LMS Foreign Secretaries and particularly Thompson, who was Foreign Secretary for the thirty-five years from 1881 to 1914. This shaped how they wrote their letters (personal address, familiarity, shared knowledge-base) and what they wrote in them (inter-personal matters, also regarding shared views about, for example in the 1890s, Rhodes and the British South Africa Company, as well as more briskly business matters). This direct address extended further, for the missionaries very often wrote in response to information or comment in letters that Thompson had written to them, so there is a strong dialogical and responsive aspect to them.
  8. This points up that Thompson as a correspondent of the South African and Matabeleland missionaries must have been no cipher, but an active personal presence. The question arises, then, as to the precise how and what of his letters, and whether they were entirely his, or written by a clerk or other functionary acting as an amanuensis for him, and if the latter whether at his dictation or from notes or what. To a significant extent Thompson’s letters can be gauged from responses to them in the letters written back to him by the missionaries concerned. The content seems to have been very varied and a combination of instructional, informational and personal guidance. However, the significant point here is that they are always responded to as his guidance, his information-giving, and there is considerable debate and fairly frequent disagreement or more strongly dissent from those at the recipient end. There is certainly no sense that Thompson’s letters were seen in the anonymous terms of the dockets, which begs the question of the organizational purpose and practical role of these.
  9. Were the dockets ‘just’ a bureaucratic device? Did the correspondences between the southern African missionaries and Thompson continue without recourse to these? Were they recorded to provide outline information for other LMS Directors and/or its Board? Or were they perhaps for people further down the organisational hierarchy whose organisational role it was to act upon factual requests and decisions? Clearly, more detailed work on the LMS itself and how it developed and changed as an organisational entity over time could most likely settle these questions. What this would not settle or solve, however, is how to read the over-time relationship of the ‘real’ letters in the correspondences between these missionaries and Thompson to the writing of the dockets. It is also worth noting how the existence of this curious parallel form of the docket impacts on the process and practice of archival research.
  10. On the first appearance of a docket in an archive box, with its strong red printed heading and bold black-inked comments among all the buffs and greys of the missionary letters, ‘sitting up and taking notice’ was the order of the day. The first maybe twenty or so were read and scrutinised carefully, then the dislocations between them and ‘their’ letters became apparent, so attention returned to the letters themselves. However, the trickiness of the letter/docket relationship has remained not only in the mind’s eye but in the body’s eye too, for at points the dislocations are so marked, so jarring, that they command attention. The ‘vanishing’ of the baby who had died is one kind of example here, another is the silencing of trenchant criticisms of ‘home’ LMS policy.
  11. To paraphrase Harold Garfinkel, what the dockets show is good organisational reasons for ‘good’ (rather than ‘bad’) organisational records. They are crisp, condensed, purposeful, and operate closure. The letters, by comparison, seem more a transitional, or rather a non-bureaucratic form if considered in organisational terms, for these are personal communications between named persons in a dialogical and so emergent form, people who are engaged in long-term correspondences with their ebbs and flows of activities and views. Curious to have them existing in parallel like this, for cheek by jowl invites comparison.

Harold Garfinkel (1967 [1984 revised edition]) ‘Good organizational reasons for ‘bad’ clinic records’ in his Studies in Ethnomethodology Cambridge: Polity Press.

Last updated: 5 June 2015


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