Forbes diary, 24 May 1904

Forbes diary, 24 May 1904

Please reference as: Liz Stanley (2015) ‘Forbes diary, 24 May 1904’ and provide the paragraph number as appropriate when quoting.

The kafirs went last night to burn along the spruit behind Greys beacon they were to commence near the beacon and follow the spruit down burning a narrow strip to prevent the grass fire burning us out but kafir like they put the fire in and let it rip consequently they burnt from the spruit up to W. Tosen’s and burnt quite 2000 acres of our winter grass. They were told exactly what they were required to do. ?Kobwami was the only man there – I blame him.

They have gone again to night to finish burning a belt there I went out to do it this morning but the kafirs turned up at 10-15 we tried to burn a particular band but it burned too ?ferce – had to give it up

Kate, Madge, Kitty, Miss Orr and Miss ?McKechern went to Piet Retief in the wagonette they had a team of six mixed horses and mules they go to a dance to night

Masons cutting stone the have fixed up Kates window all but one stone

The Carpenter getting on slowly he nailed up about 15 cealing boards to day

37- 67

(Diary, 24 May 1904; Forbes Collection, 20b-3152; NAD, Pretoria)

1. This entry in a farm diary was written in South Africa’s autumn in late May 1904, a point in the working year when arable fields were burned of their stubble before the next crop was sown. The farm diary was a recognised form at the time, with a considerable number having survived. On one level, what appears here is a routine entry by the then 74 year old David Forbes, concerning activities on his farm estate, called Athole and located in the old Transvaal, near the border with Swaziland. On another, it is redolent in terms of whiteness and the racial order on the farm, including by throwing diffuse light on some of the related stringencies and complications of gender.

2. The two opening words in the entry, ‘The kafirs’, would in many circumstances at the time not have had a particularly negative meaning (unlike now, when it is a term of opprobrium). However, it is used here in a glossing and homogenised way that does have negative force, particularly when later it becomes apparent that the people concerned were probably women and children, with only one man, Kobwami, being present. The effect is that just who they were is, implicitly, not considered relevant, with ‘the kaffirs’ being interchangeable, homogenous.

3. The remark that these people ‘were to burn along the spruit…’ shows that prior instruction had been given about how the field burning should be done, later spelled out as ‘they were told exactly what they were required to do’. The comment following this, that what they did was ‘kafir like’, is clearly dismissive and silently invokes incompetence as a defining characteristic of what is ‘kaffir like’. But now, in 2015, resistance comes into frame as a possible reading of what happened here: the result was the destruction of many acres of winter grass (for cattle and horses), but in a way that produced a dismissive remark from David Forbes rather than any punishment of the people concerned being mentioned.

4. The ‘us’ and ‘them’ aspect at this point in the entry is troubled later, for it goes on that the next day David’s intended initiation of a renewed attempt was undercut because ‘the kafirs turned up’, and also when ‘we tried to burn’ the same thing happened, with the fire going out of control again. However, the reason assigned here does not rest on a ‘race’ category applied to ‘them’, but has to encompass ‘we’ – it was that the fire was ‘too ?ferce’, rather than that ‘we’, including David, were incompetent.

5. Other complications also appear, in addition to this ‘we’. David’s comment that the only man there was Kobwami was not sarcasm but a literal statement, and it is this that shows that the opening gloss of the generalised term ‘the kaffirs’ actually involved women and children. It appears at the end of the first paragraph as an overall comment on its content – that, as a man, Kobwami should have known better. In some situations, then, ‘the kaffirs’ is differentiated, with men knowing (and by implication acting) better than women and children (and the comment of course ignores that this was not so regarding David as well as Kobwami regarding the fire). Other gender divisions also appear, in a lower key way, and with points of connection to the presence of racial categorisations.

6. Kate, Madge and Kitty appear elliptically, with their relationships to David not specified (they were his wife and two youngest daughters respectively). That they have ‘European’ names, are listed matter-of-factly, and had left for a dance in the small town of Piet Retief, taken together indicate whiteness, family connection, and also raise some points about the gender order at Athole. In 1904 Athole, and particularly the Forbes’ house, was at the end of a major period of rebuilding following damage during the South African War (1899-1902). Implicitly, while Kate, Madge and Kitty were in Piet Retief, David remained to oversee the masons and carpenter, who were finishing fitting windows and putting up ceiling boards (to cover rafters).

7. The masons and carpenter are implicitly white. David’s entry does not mark these two categories of skilled workers in any way, as would have been the case if they were ‘coloured’ and certainly if they were African. And that they are male is almost axiomatic – if not, this would certainly have appeared. However, while it might seem there is a stark racial separation (for black women and children are ‘the kaffirs’ and work on the estate, while white women and children are away at leisure for a dance), this is to take representation as descriptive fact and the entry for 24 May 1904 as typical of all Forbes diary entries. Elsewhere in the entries, and across many years of diaries, the Forbes women worked, in the house, kitchen, the home-farm and its fields and in many aspects of estate management, and they also participated in horse breeding and stock farming. Kate’s younger sister Sarah Purcocks, for instance, ran the Purcocks’ Westoe farm, not her father, and it was she who slaughtered pigs for a shared business because the men in her family were too squeamish; and Kate and David’s youngest daughter Madge later became a notable stock farmer in her own right.

8. Certainly aspects of these activities were gendered and also ‘raced’. However, evidence from across the humongous collection of Forbes family papers is that this largely took the form of marking the details of who did what with whom and in what ways, rather than producing presence or absence from stereotypically gendered activities. And for black as well as white denizens of Athole. What existed appears less as a gender order of stasis and stable positions, and more an interaction order in which behaviours and meanings were context- and situation-linked and so with complex variations existing.

9. Something else appears to happens with respect to ‘race’ and gender, but drawing this conclusion may be precipitous and the diary entries unintentionally misleading. In the representational ‘world’ of the diary, it often seems as though there is a set of fixed ‘race’-and-gender separations and absences, with African women appearing primarily in the kitchen, looking after the Forbes children when they are young, as figures in huts in the workers’ kraals or villages, and with men ‘doing the work’ on the farm. But this is precisely a representational system, a heterotopia, to use Foucault’s term, and has its own selections and interpretations and use of descriptive categories. In writing, ‘the kaffirs’ vanishes what would have been seen, which in the case of the field burning on 24 May 1904 was a group of workers composed by women and children with one man.

10. It is also worth pausing here, and considering more speculatively how this diary entry might be read if some specific aspects are changed but the rest left intact. What difference would it make, for instance, if the entry concerned a farm in Suffolk (UK) or near Tampere (Finland) and all the people mentioned were white? It’s also worth changing the date – what if it had been written in May 2014, 110 years on and and well after the 1994 political transition, and David was a well-off educated African man? Or, slightly change the scenario with regard to localism and ethnicity, and he is a Xhosa from the Eastern Cape and not Swazi or Tswana? The key question is whether abstracting ‘race’ in the form of skin colour, more particularly removing ‘whiteness’ and its superordinacy in a racial order, makes a significant difference to the dynamics at work, or whether other social divisions would take over superordinacy.

11. There is no easy yes/no answer to the question, for other hierarchies and inequalities would certainly remain present, including those of gender, ethnicity, class, education and occupation, and these significantly impact on the social order and its hierarchies in intersectional ways. The changes suggested above certainly make a difference – but of what kind and to what degree and to what effect remains moot.


Last updated: 26 August 2015


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