Who writes a letter: Umquaka to Kitty, 11 July 1886

Who writes a letter: Umquaka to Kitty, 11 July 1886

Please reference as: Liz Stanley (2017) ‘Who writes a letter’ http://www.whiteswritingwhiteness.ed.ac.uk/curiosities/Who-writes-a-letter/ and also provide the paragraph number as appropriate if quoting.

1. Who writes a letter may seem self-evident, especially when there is a signature and there is no need to doubt that this person communicated the content that appears in the letter. But it is not always so simple and can sometimes be quite curious, as discussing an interesting example will show.

2. The example concerns a long letter addressed to Kitty Forbes, the middle of the three Forbes (the eldest was Nellie, the youngest Madge) daughters. It is dated 11 July 1886 and has the address of Athole on it. Photographs of its first and last pages appear above, with a transcription of its full content at the end of this discussion. It is a message to Kitty from Umquaka, who had been Kitty’s nursemaid when she was younger and still worked for the Forbes family, with her name appearing at its sign-off, in stating ‘love to all of you folks from Umquaka’. An open and shut case, then? That is, this letter has signature, address, and communicates from one to another assuming, indeed in this case insisting on, there should be a response to it, and so there appears to be no problem in saying that it is indeed a letter by Umquaka. But it is not quite so straightforward, there are complexities, as reading it will indicate, with the text fully transcribed below.

3. The content quickly moves from an introductory first sentence, to news from Athole, to comments on Kitty in England to waiting for the post to people who have not written but should, to re-thatching the farmhouse to Fred, and more and more and more. It’s rather like a rapid conversation from one-side, but with many references to the interlocutor’s part. In the opening sentences, it becomes clear why – ‘you say that I never write to you, but you know very well I can’t read write or read’. This of course raises questions of who is writing in the literal sense of penning this letter.

4. The letter goes on to say that Umquaka would have written previously, but Mrs Straker was too busy, and that Mr Phillips had ‘offered to write for me’ but she didn’t like to accept. Various other members of the Forbes family and the wider household are accounted for, in addition to Mrs Straker and Mr Phillips (not traced, but connected with the farm of Sarah Straker nee Purcocks at Westoe) and so these people could not have been the writer. David Forbes senior, Kate Forbes nee Purcocks, their daughters Kitty, Nellie and Madge and son Dave junior were in Scotland together with James Forbes senior, younger brother of David. Their son Alick had already died from typhoid while they were away, which later led to Dave junior, who had borne the brunt of these events, joining his parents in the UK. This left the youngest Forbes son Jim under the watchful eye of his aunt, Kate’s younger sister Sarah Straker, who was also in charge of the Athole farm-estate. Jim, then, appears to be the writer by process of elimination.

5. In addition, there are some small details in the letter which corroborate this. In particular, there are signs of two in-passing mistakes, which occurred because of how the writer heard what was being said and write this down, but with this then needing to be unwritten because of small but consequential mistakes concerning the older and young Jims. One is, ‘How is old Jim?… I know Jim will not write to him me’, where the writer has slipped up regarding Umquaka’s spoken words and initially thought the second Jim was himself not writing to his uncle, but then realised it was not. The other is, ‘…I would not write to you. James J Big Jim’s time will soon be up now…’, where another confusion occurred as to which Jim she was referring to.

6. From being spoken by Umquaka to being written by young Jim, a lot of pronouns needed to be changed to make it into a letter from one person, Umquaka, to another, Kitty, rather than how it was said. What was said involved one person, Umquaka, talking to another, Jim junior, saying things that were for Kitty and about others. Added to which, the language this was spoken in was probably Tswana and not English, and so multiple translations would have been needed. These are from Tswana to English, from talk to a written text, and from something said to Jim about and for Kitty and mentioning many other people, to something directly addressed to Kitty.

7. So, who writes? The epistolary intent (for the content indicates that she kept trying to get a letter written) and communicative source (this concerns her news, and her inquiries) was certainly Umquaka’s. The amanuensis and translator aspects are young Jim’s, as are the occasional spelling mistakes. So ‘who writes’ depends on what the defining components of a letter are seen to be, and also regarding how much or how little it might be thought that Jim might have changed things when he was carrying out the levels of translation involved.

8. What is it that Umquaka writes about? And in particular, what does her letter say about matters of hierarchy, ethnicity and race, including whiteness?

9. One of the striking aspects of Umquaka’s letter is the level of familiarity involved, not only concerning how people are addressed but also how they are written about. No sharp hierarchy is indicated in how people are named and in general this is done in an informal way. There is an exception perhaps in a more formal reference near the start to ‘your mama’, but even here this is replaced later by references to ‘your ma’, a much more easy going way of referring to Kate Forbes. Throughout, familiar names including diminutives are used for all the Forbes children as well as Umquaka’s own children, not surprisingly so given that she acted as nursemaid to all of them.

10. However, the familiarity continues in referring to Fred, the Athole home farm manager, without using a title or surname, and indeed in expressing some criticism of him. There is also considerable familiarity in Umquaka’s reference to ‘old Jim’, meaning James Forbes senior, the younger brother of David senior, although this may perhaps have been to avoid complications about the two Jims, as well as in her reference to Stoffie Bresler rather than Stoffel or Mr Bresler. But, related to the ‘who writes?’ question, it also needs to be considered whether these two instances are the way that Umquaka herself referred to people in saying this, or whether this was young Jim ‘translating’ from what she said into his own mode of address when he wrote it down.

11. Another way round of thinking about this is to consider the people who are accorded titles and formality. These are ‘your mama’, Mrs Straker and Mr Phillips. Putting ‘your mama’ on one side because undercut twice with the more familiar ‘ma’, it is notable that these are the only references made to people who are not part of and resident on the Athole farm-estate. Kate Forbes was a kind but redoubtable woman and her letters and diary-entries convey the strong impression that nobody would be over-familiar with her nor cross any boundaries unless she had invited this. Sarah Straker ran the Purcocks farm at Westoe both before and after the death of her husband and was a woman used to command with a reputation for keeping tight control over her farm-workers. While Mr Phillips has not been traced, he was clearly ‘a gentleman’ and as Umquaka would not like him to do something she had asked almost everyone else to do – write her letter for her – the formal address here can be accounted for. Was perhaps Athole a place where a degree of familiarity was allowed to people who were so clearly an important part of the household as Umquaka was over many years? In the absence of any direct address to Kate Forbes and even more so to David Forbes senior in the letter, this is just speculation, although the familiar way of referring to David Forbes’ brother as old Jim is suggestive.

12. Whiteness is explicitly referred to by Umquaka twice, both times pejoratively. Near the start of the letter, she writes that the Forbes in Scotland should, ‘not come back as white as a ghost as though you had been sick’. Then later she comments about their state of well-being there and that they were probably not as fat as they were at home because ‘… I suppose you don’t eat there like you did here that will make you thin and white’. White and thin are indicated as unhealthy and undesirable, and it is not difficult to read from this that the characteristics Umquaka is implying – fat and black – are positive ones.

13. Indeed, throughout Umquaka makes many evaluative comments, often of a negative kind. Maggie (aka Madge) ‘never thinks of Kafass’, by which she means he never receives a letter from Maggie. Even though she has money, no one will mend Umquaka’s door or window, and Fred has done nothing even though she talked to him about it. Mrs Straker was ‘too busy’ writing her own letter to write for Umquaka. The ‘two new kaffirs’ are going to be chased away for their tardiness if they turn up. It is a shame that ‘none of you write to Kabase’, and Davie hasn’t written to her either. Also she can’t keep Scotia in order because ‘he is such a little monkey’ and he and Fimfy caused an out of control fire. In these comments, Umquaka makes little distinction between people in terms of social or racial hierarchies. And almost entirely, people are referred to using personal names.

14. The black people who are named individually are Kafass, Kabase and Scotia, who are Umquaka’s children; a farmworker Fuie, and Fuie’s son; and Fimfy, either another child or a younger worker. Other black people referred to are in groups, with the first instance concerning some Swaziland workers: ‘I sent yesterday to a kaffir girl…’ and ‘ there were two new kaffirs from Swazie land sent for… they would not come so when they come, we will drive them away’. The second instance is at the end of the letter, in which the fire caused by Scotia and Fimfy spread and came close to Umquaka’s house: ‘…I did not know what was up but the kaffirs beat it out’. In the first instance, she would probably not have known the men’s names, and in the second it is likely that there would have been a large number of people involved and so a list of names would be too long to be included.

15. What conclusions if any can be reached from this perusal of Umquaka’s letter?

16. One important point is that ‘who writes’ can be a complicated matter, for letters can come from a person who may not be literally the person who writes them. Umquaka’s letter came about in the circumstances of her not being able to write herself in this literal sense. There are many other examples involving people who acted as a secretary or amanuensis or, going further back in time, a scribe who wrote for someone who was too important to do the donkey work of actually writing themselves although they might affix their signature. In such instances, a definitional feature of ‘the letter’ in a formal sense is troubled. The assumption that the writer and the signatory are synonymous is foundational, but in practice this not adhered to regarding regularised and sometimes quite frequent exceptions like these.

17. Another interesting aspect, mentioned earlier, is the informality and familiarity of Umquaka’s letter. While some aspects of this may be due to the role of young Jim as her amanuensis, his own letters are very different from this. They are more stilted and much more focused on the ‘business’ aspects of writing letters; they have the purpose of getting things done, rather than keeping in touch. It is difficult not to think that the voice of Umquaka comes through in the writing of Jim, rather than that of Umquaka being shaped in the sense of distorted by this.

18. A last point of consideration concerns Umquaka’s references to whiteness and the moral order this is implicitly located in. In this, to be black and fat, rather than the pejoratively mentioned white and thin, has positive value. This seems an obvious aspect of her letter when read now, but whether it would be seen like this at the time raises some considerable interpretational difficulties, regarding what is signposted albeit implicitly in the letter, and surmises made from this that are not signposted in such a direct way. It raises interesting questions about the familiarity of relationship in some contexts and the ways in which this might impact on the moral order, including how matters of ethnicity and race were represented within this.

11th July 1886

My dear Kitty
Tis the first time I have written to you. When is your ma getting the Doctor? here we are all quite well and happy. I hear from your mama that you are beginning[sic] to like England. I am waiting every post to hear when you are coming back you must come down as nice as when you started, not come back as white as a ghost as though you had been sick, else your wife Fass wont know you Kitty, and she dont forget you Kitty she never cries for you, because Davie told her he was going to fetch you. I miss d Davie very much here I will be so glad to hear what month you think of coming back as we have been so long together I did not think we would have parted so soon How is it that Maggie never thinks of Kafass I have written to you this time but I dont know when I shall be able to write again you say that I never write to you, but you know very well I cant write or read. We are commencing[sic] the house to thatch it and how would you like to be here when the house is all pulled about its a good thing you folks are not here while the house is all pulled about. Well Kitty since my house broke I dont sleep nicely of a night I am so frightened. I cant get one to mend it for me I hear that fellow that broke my house is coming back I mentioned it to Fred about getting some one to mend it for me but he has not done so I suppose I shall have to wait till you folks come back Its a pity I cant get it mended though I have got money they wont mend it The dress you sent was a very long time coming I only got it now monday, I was very glad to get it its fits her nicely, if it came a little later it would not fit at all, many thanks for it Kitty. I would have written by last Sunday up at Mrs. Strakers, but she was too busy she told me she was going to write her letter on Sunday as she had so much to write about. Mr Phillips offered to write for me but I dont like to let a gentleman write any letter for me. I been to Westoe on Sunday with all my three children I think Mrs Straker will be here on Tuesday to get the things put right for thatching I shall be glad to get it thatched before the rains commence. I sent yesterday to a kaffir girl for some strings as there was not enough, there were two new kaffirs from Swazie land sent for to come and help Fuie take the thatch off but they would not come so when they come, we will drive them away. Very much thanks for the letter ?shoul you must not get tired of writing to me I am not tired of thinking of you all. Aunt Sarah is very good to me here and she always wants me to go there but its too far for me to walk but she does everything for me if I only send up to her Kabase always wants to know when you will write to him so if you can let one of the boys write to him, tis a shame of you Kitty none of you write to Kafase because ever post he looks out for a letter, he is getting a big man now he is not as lazy as he used to be, he is stone riding now because Kabase thinks you have quite forgotten him except when you sent him the card but he is not at home now he is away with ?Fuie’s son but I am sorry I sent him, so I am, they offered him a shilling a day & I thought it would be earning a little money for himself, at the Komatie, they told me they would only be away a week and they have been nearly two weeks. many thanks to Davie for sending me coffee and sugar When is he going to write to me? it was a shame to ask his mother to write to me as he was there because he was too lazey, please tell your ma not to write to me for his turn as he is big enough to do so for himself. How is old Jim? I heard he was very sick from Stoffie Bresler they write to him all right and I know Jim will not write to him me You must learn fast with the fiddle so that you can play me some songs when you come back to Athole.
How are you all getting on write and tell me. I think of all of you but when I I think of your ma I don’t think I shall see her again, she must not come back thin but as fat as when she left here I suppose you don’t eat there like you did here that will make you thin and white. I thought you folks would have your photoes taken before now but I know you are in mourning the Mill House is full of mealies and there is only half the mealies in, what is lef we are going to put in the waggon shed, I suppose they are so plentiful because there were none used green. Pity we cant sell them but mealies are very cheap and plentifull. But it is a good thing I cant write to you Kitty as because I would not write to you. James J Big Jim’s time will soon be up now for him to come home I will be very glad to see all of you come back again. Every wagon Fimfy sees he thinks it is your waggon coming back because he thinks very much about Davie but Fred is always teasing him and tells him Davie is never coming back and of course he believes it. & I cant keep Scotia in order he is such a little monkey, if they were in at sho home you could keep him in order well enough. Fancy one day he sent Fimfy for a box of matches in Fred’s bedroom, and they made a fire just beside the Craal wall and of course the fire went blazing up. and rushed down to my house I did not know what was up but the kaffirs beat it out love to all of you folks. from Umquaka 

[Umquaka to Kitty, 11 July 1886; Forbes 7/229]


Last updated: 13 July 2017


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