How to interpret documents I: some Forbes diary entries

How to interpret documents I: some Forbes diary entries

Please reference as: Liz Stanley (2015) ‘How to interpret documents I: some Forbes diary entries’ and provide the paragraph number as appropriate


1. Introduction: Interpretation

[NB. A debate regarding how to interpret the documents to be discussed in this ‘how to’, the Forbes diary entries which are provided and commented on below, appears as ‘How to interpret documents II: To the letter or more intuitively?’.]

1.1   ‘Interpretation’ is one of those terms like epistemology, ontology and reflexivity in being frequently used but in a taken-for granted-way, with people often talking past each other when discussing it. Here it stands for the activity that follows and builds upon analysis, with analysis being the detailed interrogation of some evidence, and interpretation being what is made of it, what it is seen to add up to in addressing some wider question/s.

1.2   Interpretation, then, is anchored in the analysis of a body of data (which can be theoretical as well as substantive), but also builds on this and takes it a step further in addressing some wider questions or issues. Its test is in this sense its ability to promote understanding of its theoretical or substantive basis, its ability to make better sense of this than is provided by the data and its analysis alone.

1.3   Because of this, for two rather different reasons it is difficult to set out exactly what interpretation consists of. Firstly, it will depend on the evidential basis and the analysis made of this. And secondly, it will also depend on what the researcher makes of this, on their intellectual input in interpreting beyond the specific details of analysis and data to a wider picture. And here it is ‘a’ wider picture, not ‘the’ wider picture, because part of the interpretational activity involved lies in deciding what theme or issue or question the researcher deems it most appropriate to focus their interpretive work on.

1.4   The result is that in what follows the components of interpretation will be teased out through ‘actual interpretation’ regarding the analysis of a specific set of WWW research material. This is composed by a number of linked diary-entries written by the Forbes which are concerned with a dispute between two of their farm workers about a child, and which also raise among other things issues about the rights, or absence of them, of women over their children.


2. The Forbes diaries and the scriptural economy

2.1 The Forbes diaries were written by a number of members of the family and are one component of the many different forms of writing that they engaged in, and which add up to what in WWW publications and webpages has been described as a ‘scriptural economy’. The main diary-writers were David and Kate Forbes, while at times the entries were also contributed to by their adult children. They start in the 1850s, and end in the 1920s. Kate Forbes is (probably) the main writer in the scriptural economy overall, while David Forbes is (probably) the main diary-writer.

2.2   The genre of diary involved can best be described as ‘farming diary’, a recognized sub-genre in the South African context, with publishers such as Lett’s selling days-to-a-page diaries called this. As the name suggests, these are not ‘sturm und drang’ (storm and stress) kinds of diaries, but focus on the largely routine events of their (very large) farm, Athole, its farming tasks and divisions of labour, visitors, and also temperatures, rainfall and wind velocities. ‘Outside’ of this small world appears largely in hints and brief mentions of visitors, events and people in the local small towns, very occasionally national or international matters.

2.3   Alongside these things, on occasion there is something more: small eruptions into the otherwise placid unfolding of the routine and ordinary, but which are of large significance and import for the people concerned. A striking example concerns the diary-entries discussed here, written from 12 to 18 July 1904 by Kate (then in her 60s) and David (then aged 74). These concern what is described as the ‘misbehaviour’ of Nomalanga, the wife of Bismark, a long-term skilled worker at Athole, and who was still active in 1922 when Kate died, the diaries stop and the wider Forbes collection of assorted documents winds down.

2.4   The entries in question are for 12, 14, 16 and 18 July 1904. Transcriptions of these are provided below, following summaries of their contents and discussion of them. These are of course accounts by the diary-writer, and they represent their way of seeing, interpreting and inscribing the events concerned and the significance or otherwise of these, and not ‘the events’ themselves in any unmediated form. Consequently, the focus is necessarily upon the representations of matters that are provided, the accounts that are the diary-entries, which do not give direct access to the events or persons themselves. They are precisely accounts, they represent a viewpoint and an interpretation and have built into them the interpretations and understandings of the writer, rather than being description ‘pure and simple’, which does not in fact exist of course.

2.5   What this raises in turn is a fundament of the interactional and phenomenological sociologies, that social life is always already first order theorised and interpreted. A consequence that the role of the researcher is a meta-interpretational one, and there are issues here in terms of avoiding or claiming epistemological privilege regarding this.

2.6   These wider points of relevance will be returned to later.


3. Overviewing the diary-entries

3.1 Diary 12 July: This entry starts with Kate Forbes writing about some recalcitrant workers at Athole, in particular Mafesh, David Forbes reporting them to the SAC, that is the local South African Constabulary, and that they required passes – written certification that they could travel from one place to another – that were signed by an appropriate authority. Independently it seems, an SAC police-officer came to Athole to report on events concerning Mrs Bismarck, at this point not given a personal name. The report was that Bismarck over three days had been chasing her with a knife and threatening to kill her. ‘Mr Forbes’, that is David (the diaries always refer to him in this formal way, while other Forbes writings use familiarities), is described as commenting that it was more likely the other way around. The last comment concerns farm matters.

3.2 Diary 14 July: This entry is in two parts. The first is by David Forbes and reports briefly on mules, cattle and oxen, all of which the Forbes farmed on a large scale. He refers to the farm workers generically as ‘Kafirs’, now a term of great opprobrium but at this time used in this generic way by the Forbes to refer to the ethnically-mixed workers (Xhosas, Swazis, Zulus and others) on the farm, and that they had arrived from the family farm Tolderia (which the Forbes youngest son Jim ran at this point) to collect various stock.

3.3 The second part is by Kate Forbes. It is specifically and entirely concerned with the matter of Bismarck and his wife, now named as Nomalanga, and who is said to have gone to live with another farm worker, Mashisiman. The issue is named as a dispute over the child of whom Bismark was father, and whether the infant was or was not too young to remove from the mother, perceived around weaning. ‘All the men’ and ‘All the Kaffirs’ appear as critical actors in these events, indeed as actually trying a case brought by Bismark against Nomalanga and Mashisiman. Here, customary law and official law of the settlers intersect, with David Forbes (and ‘all the men’) interpreting the law and the age of the infant in question one way, and the SAC police-officer in another. The ‘great state’ in the last line of the entry concerns a perceived undermining of customary law, which assigned rights over weaned children to the father, and the men’s disturbance concerning this as an erosion of a key way in which women who might otherwise ‘misbehave’ could be controlled.

3.4   Diary 16 July: The first part of this entry is written by David Forbes, who in it returns from a Transvaal town from a trip away on political matters.

3.5   Its much longer second part is written by Kate Forbes, and again is entirely concerned with the matter of a child, a husband, and women who ‘find they can misbehave’, with the implication that this specific case was seen by ‘All the men in the neighbourhood’ as having wider possible reverberations. The age of the child appears as critical in whether the mother has any rights. The customary law case then proceeds, with the men publicly condemning Mashisiman and Nomalanga, with the traditional punishment of death also mentioned. The entry thus far is organised in a way in which the named people have agency in and over the unfolding actions, while none of the Forbes are explicitly mentioned in it. It ends with Mashisiman and Nomalanga being banished, with agency for this to a significant extent dissolved onto Mashisiman and Nomalanga themselves – ‘it was such a bad case Mashisiman was told… we will not allow such things here’. ‘We’ are inscribed as simply responding to ‘such things’ in ‘such a bad case’.

3.6   Diary 18 July: The final entry concerning the case is written by David Forbes alone. It consists of three paragraphs. The first mentions a farm manager, the second concerns building and decorating work at Athole, and the third reports that Nomalanga and Mashisiman were given passes to enable them to leave the farm. Given the extensiveness of Kate Forbes’ accounts in the entries of 14 and 16 July, the absence of any account from her here concerning this final chapter in the case is notable, although its meaning remains opaque.

3.7   What has been provided above are overviewing discussions of the Forbes diary-entrance, rather than a full close detailed analysis. However, ordinarily the interpretation stage of a major project would be preceded by many detailed analyses of specific documents and sections of documents.


4. Some interpretive points

4.1   The diary-entries discussed have been transcribed in full and are provided below. This will enable readers to make up their own minds about how and why events unfolded in the way they did, and the rights and wrongs of, perhaps not the events themselves, so much as Kate Forbes’ inscription of them, for this is obviously her interpretation of the character of the events and the positioning of those involved in them. Considering this is the core of interpretation. What supports it is drawing out the key analytical aspects referred to above and building the interpretation on these. This is what follows.

4.2   The 12 July diary-entry starts in a way that implies there may have been some already existing doubts about the stability or volatility of Nomalamga more generally (although no entries mention this). There was discord between her and Bismark, and she seems to have been giving as good as she got.

4.3   Nomalanga’s ‘misbehaviour’ is on one level the sexual relationship with Mashisiman, but it also involves her not giving up the child by misrepresenting its weaning status. Indeed, the implication is that the latter was more serious because disturbing customary social organization and hierarchy. ‘All the men’ or synonyms of this appear four times in the two entries of 14 and 16 July and they are the major players in the case and events. This is clear in the 14 July entry: ‘if the child was given back to this woman it would cause trouble’, for the men are unwilling to give up their redress for ‘misbehaviour’.

4.4   Another aspect to the men’s perturbation is that the SAC police-officer believed Nomalanga when Bismarck and Gubassi removed the child, and so the officer returned the child to her. This was a public affront to them and to Bismark’s customary rights. The 14 July entry is also written in such a way that an affront to ‘Mr Forbes’ is also implied, both that his note was not read, and that the matter of ‘cause trouble’ was thereby not responded to.

4.5   However, there are also trickier matters which require a greater degree of interpretive work. A key question is, who owned the child? This does not actually differ before and after weaning: it belonged to the father (and this was not necessarily biological fatherhood), although the mother had a necessary involvement while an infant was dependent on her milk. The child, however, is proxy for something else. This involves the rights of the men and through this the redress they had over ‘misbehaving’ women.

4.6   Another interpretational matter concerns the various mentions of passes, and what is this about? At this point in time, there was strictly observed legislation that all African workers needed to have a pass in order to travel between places, and these places had to be those of employment. Only a short period of grace between one employment ending, and another starting, was permitted. If someone was stopped without an appropriate pass, they were liable to fines and/or imprisonment. The implications were serious for the future of Nomalanga and Mashisiman, also for Mafesh, who is mentioned at the start of the 12 July entry.

4.7   There are clearly differences in who records what in these four diary-entries. All the details in the case of the men and Nomalanga’s ‘misbehaviour’ are written by Kate Forbes. The spare descriptions of events external to Athole and concerning its stock are written by David Forbes. David Forbes also records, equally sparingly, the outcome of the case. Kate ceases to write about these matters once a conclusion has been reached, that ‘we will not allow such things here’.

4.8   An important interpretational matter arises from this. Why does Kate Forbes take the writing position she does? In other situations, her diary-entries and letters are such that women are written about in ways that are more sympathetic to them when gender troubles occur. However, in these particular entries there is no sense that Nomalanga’s position is recognised, this isn’t reflected at all in what Kate writes. There are, however, some clues about this, three of which can be noted as they feed into the further interpretational work on this matter that is needed.

4.9   Firstly, there is a strong sense that there would have been ‘trouble’ caused by undermining the men’s customary rights, and Kate’s perception that their sense of themselves as a collectivity had been wronged comes across. A census from about this time required by the Government indicates that over 500 people lived and worked on Athole estate, with probably around 100 of these being male workers. ‘Trouble’, then, would have been no insignificant matter.

4.10   Secondly, there is the rather stiff way that the SAC officer’s failure to read the note from ‘Mr Forbes’ appears in the same sentence as the child being given back without the police-officer reading the note. Indeed, it is possible to see all of the second half of the 14 July entry as actually concerning an affront to Mr Forbes, a plausible reading of it.

4.11   Thirdly, it is important to remember that these diary-entries were written as part of a public document, a farming diary that could be and on occasion was required to be produced in public and legal situations. Regarding the Forbes diaries, there were at least three occasions when the Forbes had to produce one of their farming diaries in court in order to demonstrate movements of people and activities regarding such things as fires, trespass and so on. These entries are not written in ‘personal’ ways – not even in November 1905 regarding David Forbes’ death – but always have a formality about them. What Kate or David or any other writer of the entries were ‘really thinking’ cannot be discerned, for the formalities of the genre and also prevailing conventions within the Forbes’ scriptural economy always already stand between the events being represented and the present-day reader.

4.12   Fourthly, it needs to be recognised that the interpretational work of research made right now is largely dependent on the interpretations of Kate Forbes that were made back then. Her diary-entries in fact include two levels of interpretational activity, the first her understanding of the events concerned, and the second her rendition of these in the representational field of her diary-writing. Reading along and against the grain is important here, in gaining the measure of her interpretational work and through this finding ways to interrogate and pin it down as precisely interpretation. However, the point is not to crudely overturn, dismiss or deny the validity or ethical propriety of any of this, but to understand better the rationale involved, including where appropriate by following intertextual references and also by exploring the originating context and the post-text context for things which may help put greater perspective on this rationale.


5. How to interpret

5.1   There are few rules of thumb about how to interpret a body of evidence, whether this is letters, interviews, survey data or theoretical precepts and insights, but there are some points that are helpful to keep in mind.

5.2   Interpretation is usefully seen as an iterative matter of working backwards and forwards between data, analysis and the production of an interpretation that addresses wider questions.

5.3   While interpretation is not fettered to an evidential base, it is linked to this; and in the last resort an evaluation of its credibility also involves that iterative relationship between interpretation, analysis and an evidential base.

5.4   In producing an interpretation, it is almost impossible for this not to be wrapped around with the analysis of the basis of what is being done. Picked out and stated in abstract, interpretation is worth comparatively little compared with an evidenced and analytically grounded interpretive argument.

5.5   The approach adopted here is not one concerned with interpretation as the exertion of epistemological privilege over and against the understandings and viewpoints expressed in the documents under consideration. It is after all easy to find the past and the remaining traces of people’s activities, viewpoints and relationships wanting according to the understandings and convictions of the present-day. It is instead an approach concerned with understanding such traces, both in the terms of the people who produced or were influenced by them, and also in relation to research questions and issues. These will frequently rub up against each other in uncomfortable ways, with the diary-entries discussed here case being in point.


6. The transcribed diary entries

6.1 Readers should note that the transcriptions provided below are exact verbatim ones. ‘Mistakes’, deletions and other such things appear exactly as in the original manuscript entries.


12 July 1904

Kate Forbes writes:

Mr Forbes went to Amsterdam to report to the S. A. C about Mafesh and the others They are to send to Litchfield to see if they have passes from there

An S. A. C. came over to say that Mrs Bismark had been over to complain that she was afraid Bismark would kill her For three days she had had no rest or sleep he was chasing her with a knife to kill her and a lot of other stuff The S. A. C. thought she was in no danger so left Bismark Mr Forbes told them that she was more likely to kill Bismark than he was to kill her

Killed a cow find it is old and not fat weiged 411 lbs it is one of Daves from Butchers

44 – 65

* * * * *

14 July 1904

David Forbes writes:

Sent four mules to Mr Saunders take on with me tomorrow to Mr Grimes s in the morning

Kafirs come from Tolderia for 23 cows and heifers 2 bulls and six oxen


Kate Forbes writes:

All the men are to be here on Saturday to try Bismark case against Nomalanga and Mashisiman she having left him and gone to live with Mashisiman Nomalanga went yesterday & complained to the S. A. C. that Bismark had taken her baby who was too young to be taken away and was ?sinweaned ?yet Bismark & Gubassie took the child who is 14 months old for the S. A. C. to see also a note from Mr Forbes saying according to Kafir and English law the Father claims all the children when the wife misbehaves like this woman has done but the S. A. C. who acts as clerk took it upon himself to give the child back to Nomalanga without reading the note. Mr Forbes also told that if the child was given back to this woman it would cause trouble for as the men say what redress have they if the mother who misbehaves can get the children All the Kafirs are in a great state about it

37 – 68

* * * * *

16 July 1904

David Forbes writes:

Came back from Florence where I met Lord Milner and a lot of New Scotland settlers


Kate Forbes writes:

All the men in the neighbourhood here to discuss what they are going to do, now, that the women find they can misbehave, and get the child, and the husband is helpless. They decided to go to the Magistrate next Court day and put the matter before him and ask what redress they have While they were talking the S. A. C. Sergeant came he said that there had been a mistake made in giving the child to the Mother, it being quite old enough to leave her. Nomalanga being here, he made her hand the child over to Bismark. The men all thanked him and said that now it was alright and they were satisfied The men then heard Bismark case and publicly condemned Mashisiman and Nomalanga and told them had it been in a Kafir country they would both have been killed, it was sh such a bad case Mashisiman was told to come on Monday for a pass to leave Athole for we will not allow sh such things here.

31 – 68

* * * * *

18 July 1904

David Forbes snr writes:

McNicol returned from Ermelo

Shoam painting the ceiling of Kitty and Madge s room. Gobaaz and Vinkel plastering

Gave Nomalanga and Mashisiman passes to leave here

31 – 67

* * * * *



Last updated: 4 May 2016


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