South African Family Collections

South African Family Collections

Please reference as: Whites Writing Whiteness (2014) ‘South African Family Collections’ Whites Writing Whiteness and provide the paragraph number as appropriate when quoting.

1. It is a truism that Sociology is concerned with explaining the processes of change, a concern embedded in such concepts as modernity, late modernity, postmodernity and globalisation. Indeed, it has been proposed that sociological attention to change is so central that historical sociology should be seen, not as an area of specialism but the essence of the discipline. From this viewpoint, for sociological explanations to ‘work’ they need to get to grips with how change happens. And while the main focus of disciplinary attention has been at the macro level and large-scale transformations such as industrialisation, capitalism, urbanisation and migration, the smaller-scale focus of the interactional and everyday life sociologies is no less concerned with such matters, not least because telling about the social world and its past, present and future necessarily engages with time and change. So, how to do it, and what particular methodological stratagems should be deployed?

2.  This can best be explained by reference to a detailed example. The papers of the Forbes family run from 1850 to 1930, with a tail to 1938. The collection includes over 20,000 letters between family, friends and business and official connections; there are also many diaries, ledgers, lists and tallies, notes, maps, land records, wills, powers of attorney, and more, adding up to a huge number of documents. The Forbes papers are ‘documents of life’ par excellence, provide a continuous week-on-week (at points day-on-day) longitudinal record of the everyday lives of the people concerned, and were mainly written in circumstances of interrupted presence, rather than long-term more permanent absence.

3. As discussed elsewhere on WWW webpages, Norbert Elias’s concept of ‘figuration’ is particularly apposite for conceiving the contents of this collection and South African family collections more generally, for the writers are connected throughout; although none involved at the start are still there when the collections end, the flow of letters and connections is uninterrupted. Thought of in figurational terms, the Forbes collection contents enable a truly Qualitative Longitudinal Research (QLR) approach, exploring how the people concerned from 1850 to 1930 represented the everyday and its events and rhythms as well as social transitions, and also changes in these representations. South Africa is a microcosm for exploring social transformation and its ‘big questions’, while the Forbes and related collections enables doing so at small-scale, over a lengthy time-period, using very large amounts of qualitative data.

4. This is to recognise that macro questions concerning social change can be analytically explored through the small-scale and specific. And an emphasis on seeing the past ‘as it happened’, not as it turned out, underpins everyday life sociology’s attention to the unfolding ‘as it happened’ character of life in the past.

5. Michael Sheringham’s (2006) interesting strategy for everyday life research focuses on how the everyday is configured, as a temporal and spatial entity. Around this, he pinpoints the figural (sites of practice where key aspects of the everyday become more visible, including ‘the day’ and ‘the street’) and also ‘the project’ (specific practices through which lived experience can be added to figural thinking) as theoretically-driven ways of operationalising an everyday life investigation. These are returned to and used, once some broad characteristics of such family collections are considered in analytical terms.

6. The Forbes collection is composed by letters, diaries, ledgers, lists, tallies… These are the components of what Michel de Certeau (1984) calls a ‘scriptural economy’ and its ‘quotations of voices’; and, as a representational order, these documents add up to something which differs in kind from the lived experience that everyday sociology is generally concerned with. They are all part of (rather than a commentary on) the everyday; however, they situate audience, the moment of writing, and what can be written and how, differently from each other. They are about ‘the same thing’, the everyday, but represent this in different terms, with each scriptural form having its own conventions.

7. This everyday writing and its scriptural apparatus is a constitutive medium with key elements: a blank page specifying what form of writing is required, a text constituted via the conventions attached to this, and an enactment in which the text refers back to a lived reality and claims referential force. Certeau terms this a ‘writing laboratory’ that collects, classifies and transforms. This includes the relationship with speaking, by transforming speakers into textual subjects and remaking the varieties of talk into texts structured by genre conventions. Certeau also perceives fissures, metaphorical (and sometimes literal) smudges and scribbles that insinuate the oral into the written.

8. However, what is particularly notable about the Forbes scriptural economy is not that it contains what is written, but rather its sheer excess. The Forbes parents and offspring, sisters, brothers, uncles, aunts, cousins, friends, neighbours, business connections, shop owners, merchants, tax inspectors, vets, magistrates and many more wrote, and wrote again. The letters circulating within South Africa provide greetings and information, but the core purpose is of a performative (Austin 1962) ‘I send you pig lard, please send me a cartload of mealies [corn]’ kind; they are very much on-going communications in circumstances of interrupted presence where people will meet again fairly soon and/or where the activities expedited by their letters are ongoing. Thus, although not akin to talk, they are the continuation of an active relationship by means proxy to talk. Letters circulating between South Africa and Scotland show surprisingly few differences. There is more relaying of ‘news’ about things known in common to keep the other person up to date, but these exchanges too are marked by their performative character and concern shared activities of a ‘will you go to a share-holders meeting for us’ and ‘I sent you a newspaper with information of interest’ kind. There is also little sense of permanent absence or the mediation of identities of gain and loss that the migrant letters literature considers definitional, much more the characteristic shared with the intra-South African letters, of getting on with the shared business in hand.

9. These largely unschooled practical farming and business folk produced everyday writings on a massive scale, with the scriptural economy interconnecting with wider Forbes economic activities. In these everyday writings, the business involved is usually literally business, concerned with expediting their shared economic interests; and they are characterised by exteriority (things, people, activities) rather than interiority, and performativity rather than reflection or retrospection. And while it is not surprising that ledgers, lists and tallies would have such characteristics, they also mark the many Forbes diaries, which rarely mention anything ‘personal’ or self-fashioning. These typically describe the working day, its tasks and divisions of labour between different groups of workers and family members; weather patterns; and measures of high/low temperature, wind and rainfall; only occasionally are ‘outside world’ matters mentioned. They are in fact farming diaries pertaining to linked economic entities: the homefarm, Athole Estate, linked farms and their households.

10. Certeau’s (1984) ideas about the scriptural economy and its relationship to ‘voice’ raise interesting issues concerning how these Forbes everyday writings are to be understood vis à vis each other. Jack Goody (1977) points out that writing not only permits communication across time and space but also re-orders and thereby re-defines meaning through its acts of translation. The list is an important exemplar, for it ‘relies on discontinuity rather than continuity… can be read in different directions… encourages the ordering of the items… [and] brings greater visibility to categories, at the same time as making them more abstract’ (Goody 1977: 81). But while re-ordering is strongly characteristic of lists, and less so of tallies (counts) and incomings and outgoings in ledgers, these latter give as much emphasis to the categorical as a means of organising information. In addition, while letters and diaries are outside the parameters of Goody’s discussion, the form they take in the Forbes scriptural economy has similar characteristics. Many Forbes letters have sandwiched between address and signature what are in fact lists and tallies, tables and inventories, as well as sometimes enfolding banknotes, maps and other items. And given their structure, the diaries can be read from bottom up, from temperatures etcetera, through weather variations, to the working day; and their measures have definite list features.

11. So how to put into research practice Sheringham’s ideas for operationalizing everyday life research, regarding the Forbes scriptural economy? Sheringham’s (2006) thinking about the figure and the project provides a theoretically-grounded basis for research design. The question then arises, what figural aspects of the Forbes scriptural economy are comparable to the day and the street? In deciding this, the emphasis in what follows is the unfolding racial order and how people and activities are represented in the practices of this particular Forbesian writing laboratory.

12. The Space of the Day: The first figural device follows Sheringham’s ‘the space of the day’. One such day is 3 May 1909, selected by searching across the collection for writings with a common date (transcriptions of all the documents discussed herein will be found at This produced sixteen instances of multiple items (letters, diary entries, ledger statements…) with a common date, with this particular day chosen randomly. Given the size of the Forbes collection, the low number may seem surprising. However, although most diary-entries are dated, as are many letters, there are still many letters without years or no dating at all, and a small minority of ledger-entries and even fewer notes and lists are dated.

13. ‘The space of a day’ as inscribed across these everyday writings shapes up differently, with the specifics discussed in detail in a forthcoming project publication (‘The scriptural economy, the Forbes figuration and the racial order: Everyday life in South Africa 1850 – 1922’; see It is a single activity, a letter arriving; two economic transactions, cheques written, and with surrounding references implying black workers; and a diary-entry including black people in not entirely straightforwardly ways. The more formalised and abstract the writing codes and genre conventions, the less black people are represented; and the closer to the lived experience of everyday life the representational order is, the more their presence comes into focus. The projects which have also been carried out pursue this focus.

14. Mrs McCorkindale’s Permission, Umquaka’s Voice, Featuring Bismark: Three projects were selected to add signs of everyday lived experience in representational form to the figural stratagem of ‘the space of the day’. These are a pass to travel from one place to another, a letter that is more exactly the quotation of voice, and a compendium of everyday writings referring to someone. They are discussed regarding particular documents and the practices of the writing laboratory that produced them, again with the details provided in the article referenced in the preceding paragraph.

15. The pass is a note of formulaic kind acting as a quasi-legal document, and this example was written by Kate Forbes and Sarah Straker’s maternal aunt, Mary McCorkindale. Dated 13 November 1876, it certifies her permission for ‘the bearers 2 Kaffirs’ to travel from Pretoria to Athole to deliver parcels for her.

16. The pass system of control had longevity and more draconian forms it persisted up to the 1994 transition. The pass system was omnipresent in the everyday realities of black people’s lived experiences of the racial order. It operated as a covering law; and as in this 13 November 1876 example, people of specific identities ‘vanished’ and reappeared in licensed simulacra form reduced to a ‘race’/ethnic category.

17. The second project concerns an eight page letter of 11 July 1886 by Umquaka. Umquaka was Swazi and from c1871 worked at Athole as nursemaid to the Forbes children. The letter was sent to Kitty Forbes, in Scotland with her parents, and is certainly Umquaka’s letter and authored by her. However, her authorship takes the form of a written ‘translation’ of her speaking, made by a third party, James junior (Jim), with the translation a double one, from voice to writing and from Swazi to English.

18. Umquaka’s letter points up interesting aspects of her relationship to various of the Forbes. Also whiteness is present in not entirely favourable ways. Umquaka is clear Kitty should not return ‘white’, but nice as she was before, and that not eating properly makes people ‘thin and white’, with nice, fat and black the implied contrasts. How Umquaka’s translated voice positions other black people is also complicated. ‘Kaffirs’ is used generically, regarding two no-show men from Swaziland who were to have helped re-thatch the farmhouse, and people who put out a fire. However, most references to black people in her letter use personal names.

19. The third project is a compendium of items over a twenty-seven year period which, among other matters, feature Bismark, a long-term worker at Athole: his first appearance in a letter, on 16 July 1889; two ledger-entries of May 1913 and May 1913; an undated Athole census; and his last appearance, in a diary-entry of 14 November 1916. There is nothing extraordinary here; Bismark stood out because his name took the eye, not any activities he did or events he was part of.

20. Bismark is a familiar figure in the landscape of the Forbes scriptural economy. However, he remains at a distance, apart from once when Kate Forbes returned from a visit with presents for people, with Bismark receiving a knife, as did Kate’s father. From 1889 to 1916 Bismark is always referred to by name, glimpsed going about his business and that of the Forbes; there is no change of nomenclature and little of activity, except the sub-divisions of farms change and the machinery becomes mechanised, while the labour remains a constant presence.

21. The World and the Word: The second figural stratagem is a spatial parallel to temporality and ‘the day’, but conceived in recognition that ‘the street’ does not translate regarding a large but complexly peopled Transvaal farm across the time-period concerned. ‘The world and the word’ is the figural device. ‘The world’ centres on the farmhouse, the homefarm and the Athole Estate, which encompassed the lives of the large majority of the people the census recorded as living there. At the same time, all its denizens, not just the Forbes, were also in figurational (in Elias’s sense) contact with others working on farms elsewhere, in South African and Swazi mines, and in their towns and cities. ‘The word’ concerns the time-travelling words ‘Kafir’ and ‘boy’. At the beginning of the period the scriptural economy covers, these words circulated in South Africa generally to characterise particular collectivities of people by ethnicity and age. Over time they took on negative meaning as homogenised and negatively loaded racial markers.

22. ‘Kafir’ appears in many Forbes writings across the seventy year period these cover. It is capitalised and complicatedly indicates ethnicity, being for example always distinguished from Zulus but on occasion encapsulating Swazis. In lower case and used pejoratively, it occurs later, from the late 1870s and almost entirely in letters by James senior and those later still by Dave. Similarly, ‘boy’ is a literal boy and appears in this way in diaries, ledgers, lists and tallies. Later it is capitalised as ‘Boy’, mainly in letters from James senior and occasionally Dave, with its capitalising contradictorily giving it some of the qualities of an ethnic marker while also negativising its meaning. In mining – the source of the negative usage – it arose because particular age-regiments of young boys were sent by their Chiefs to work on the mines for short periods, and was then later used as a diminutive to refer to adult men.

23. Is the use of racialised terms perhaps less a matter of generation, gender and context, and more one of particular people – James senior and Dave especially – ‘by temperament’? The main economic activity of both men was mining, James as a digger for diamonds, prospector for gold and coal and hands-on mine owner, and Dave as a Swazi mining concessionaire and then manager of a coal mine there. Also Sarah Purcock also once makes such a reference – and this came at a point when Kate was at New Rush and Sarah had just returned. And David Forbes, also a New Rush veteran, uses the word once, in an outburst of some considerable and negative force, something all the more shocking because of his otherwise very temperate way of writing. Context, then, is more important than may appear at first sight. However, while Dave is the readiest of all the letter-writers to use these words being racialised and becoming racist, at the same time he was also the Forbes closest to black people and constantly kept company with particular black men on the borders of servants and friends. But of course the written has a tricky, less than fully representational relationship with other aspects of the lived life, and the perception of these relationships on both sides remains elusive.

24. There is also an important difference between the letters and other everyday Forbes writings. ‘Kafir’ and ‘boy’ as used in the ledgers, tallies, lists and so on retain their ‘old’ meaning through to the 1920s. This usage persisted perhaps because of the spare structure of these forms of writing, including the stylised diary-entries, perhaps because the contents refer to the familiar world and known people of Athole and environs. In addition, the plasticity of the epistolary form noted earlier has to be reckoned with, in particular the capacity of letters to register wider changes occurring and act as an index of change.

25. However, if the name of the scriptural game is change on the one hand, and stasis on the other, and if the representation does not give referential access to what is represented, then how best to interpret and understand what was going on? And what does this imply about everyday life, the racial order and change?

26. Coming to Terms: Real Times, Places and People: In any research on South Africa, it is difficult not to operate in a mind-set of ‘how it turned out’ and allow the conceptual categories of ‘now’ override the emergent, piecemeal, contradictory, character of how it happened, as explored above. It is difficult even when working longitudinally and regarding specific circumstances and people to find clear evidence of what the changes occurring – including the spread of racialised word uses from one context to another – actually entailed in terms of the conduct of people towards each other. And while the landscape of dominating whiteness and its figural ‘Others’ can be seen, it is only with difficulty and in the smudges and scribbles of writing laboratory practices that an implied positive blackness and a more troublesome whiteness come into focus. These marginalia, then, need to become central for an everyday life sociology concerned with the making of the racial order. Umquaka’s complaint, Bismark’s knife and David’s outburst raise these complexities and they and other such scribbles can be pursued.

27. There is much else to discuss regarding the space of the day, projects, and the word and the world, regarding the Forbes family collection. The discussion of them is taken further in the article referred to in paragraph 13 above, and will also be built on in future work on this collection. In addition, the broad framework of a family collection as a scriptural economy and the methodological stratagems of the space of the day, projects, and the word and the world will be used regarding the other family collections the WWW research is concerned with.


J.L. Austin (1962) How To Do Things With Words Cambridge: Clarendon Press.
Michel de Certeau (1984) The Practice of Everyday Life Berkeley: University of California Press.
Jack Goody (1977) The Domestication of the Savage Mind Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Michael Sheringham (2006) Everyday Life Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Last updated: 23 February 2016


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