Indebted to your indulgence, 1795

Indebted to your indulgence: Macartney to Dundas, 1795

Please reference as: Liz Stanley (2016) ‘Indebted to your indulgence: Macartney to Dundas, 1795′ and provide the paragraph number as appropriate when quoting.

1. Most letters, like most other documents of life, are inconsequential in their content and intended purpose. They are simply part of the things that make the world go round and which do the mundane business they were intended for without very much notice being taken. The trace for discussion here is one of these mundane documents.
img_0005-small(Macartney to Dundas, 7 September 1795; Cape Colony Letters, Bodleian Library; a transcription will be found at the end of this Trace)

2. This letter asks for a favour, which is by implication that the addressee, the intended recipient of the letter, should use their position and power to help in some unspecified way a man named in the letter. It was written in Verona, Italy, and sent to someone in London. On the surface and at first reading, it has nothing to do with South Africa and nothing to do with whiteness. But can it be read in such a way as to demonstrate its connections with both? The answer is yes, through a combination of ‘surface reading’ and ‘reading against the grain’, and also by taking note of context, the context of its writing and the wider context of its origination and circulation, as well as the text itself.

3. On 7 September 1795 this letter, marked ‘Private’ and addressed from Verona, was signed by (George) Macartney and addressed ‘Dear Sir’. It was written before the use of envelopes and was sent folded and sealed. On its reverse, the date of its receipt is recorded as October 21 and that an enclosure had been sent with it. At its foot, who it was sent to is specified as the Right Honourable Henry Dundas, Secretary of State ‘&c &c’.

4. The former George Macartney, later Sir George, was by this date Earl Macartney. A career diplomat, he had been the Governor of Granada, of Madras, and had headed the British Mission to China. He became the first Governor of the newly acquired Cape Colony from the end of 1796 to 1798. He then retired due to ill-health. This 1795 letter was perhaps written when he was en route back to Britain from China or when he was travelling between postings.

5. Henry Dundas was the Secretary of State for War, a new political position that had been created and which he held from 1794 to 1801. He became Lord Melville in 1802. Then in 1804 he became First Lord of the Admiralty, a post he held until he was impeached for financial irregularities (not proven) in 1806. He was the person responsible for George Macartney’s appointment in 1796 as Governor of the Cape, and also the appointment of Macartney’s Secretary, Andrew Barnard. Barnard was the husband of the letter-writer and diarist Lady Anne Barnard, and she was a close friend of Dundas. Andrew Barnard was officially Secretary to the Cape Colony, and he and his wife travelled to the Cape when Macartney did but in a separate ship, with the party arriving there on 23 May 1797.

6. This 1795 letter is a formal one, in ways beyond being marked as Private. Throughout it observes the obsequies, but is not obsequious. That is, it conforms to the proper mode of address to be observed when writing to someone of an equal or superior standing that was current at the time between persons of ‘good breeding’. Its tone is one of great tentativeness, of the recognition of imposition even by the act of writing, and of being in a sense beholden to Dundas in anticipating a favour being granted, which is expressed as including him simply deigning to read the letter. Its handwriting is careful and legible and all the lines of the letter are equally spaced. The hand in which the signature has been written, however, is a different one, indicating that whoever was acting as Macartney’s secretary while he was in Verona had written the text, with Macartney providing his signature. He may have also dictated the letter, although with a formal and rather routine letter like this it is more likely it would have been penned by the secretary with just its overall message being approved by Macartney.

7. Who was the man for whom Macartney was requesting a favour, and what did such a request mean at the time? Colonel Robert Brooke (1744-1811) is named in the letter. He was an East Indian Company officer who had been appointed as Governor of St Helena in 1788, and later retired in 1800 having instituted and extensive public works programme on the island during his governorship. His appointment had been objected to by his fellow officers, in consequence of him overstaying his military leave but then being reinstituted and immediately given preferential treatment by being awarded the governorship. It would seem that he had had powerful patronage at his back in the 1780s too, and comments in the letter suggest that this had also been Macartney.

8. Patronage, in the sense of having a patron who would advance someone’s career by putting in a good word in relation to jobs on the horizon and so on, was at the time essential to the notion of ‘career’ in relation to government service, the military and navy, religion and so on, and across all of the European powers, not just Britain. Macartney was bringing Brooke’s name to the attention of Dundas and saying that he was good; what he was sending to Dundas is a cross between a letter of recommendation and putting in a private word for someone, and in these forms is familiar today as well as back then in the 1790s.

9. The letter was written to bring the good service of Colonel Brooke to the attention of Dundas, then, and Macartney notes that he had provided such patronage previously. The letter also states that he is not making any request on his own behalf, merely passing on a letter from Brooke, although this must be seen as part of the appropriate obsequies in such circumstances as he was doing rather more than this. But there is also a large degree of intertextuality here, for the good service referred to and any request being made are not spelled out, but were perhaps in the accompanying letter by Brooke. And as well as bringing to attention the surface matter of his good service, there is also the strong indication given that Brooke too was a person of good breeding, in commenting that he anticipated censure more than he did approbation, thus indicating his modesty and appropriate deference to hierarchy.

10. But where does South Africa figure here, and also what of whiteness?

11. Clearly South Africa enters the frame because Macartney was the first British Governor of the Cape Colony, while Henry Dundas was the first British Secretary of State with responsibility for the Cape and had appointed Macartney and also his Secretary to the Colony, Andrew Barnard. Given the long European presence in southern Africa before this date, Macartney’s appointment is not a complete epiphany or thunderous transition point in South African history. However, it was certainly a definite move in that direction because a clear indication that an imperialising spirit was in the air. At this point in time, the imperial gaze was cohering but more concerned with the control of sea-routes and the re-victualling role of a southerly toe-hold where British ships could safely stop when en route to and from the Indies than the possession of land. But nonetheless a ‘something’ had been set in motion, a cat let out of the proverbial bag, a sign that the times were changing.

12. And whiteness? This is implicit, because the letter is concerned with the world of careers, hierarchy and patronage within a small elite from northern Europe. Those concerned as letter-writers and recipients of letters were white and British; they were also all three of Irish and Scottish extraction, although in a context in which hierarchy and class out-trumped white ethnicities for the practical purposes in hand of getting jobs done. They were also of course all male. This was a resolutely masculine world of patronage, power and performance on a public stage. Macartney’s letter is, in a nutshell, a moment in the process of men reproducing themselves without women ostensibly being involved (although in fact, away from the public stage, Lady Anne Barnard had been directly instrumental in Dundas appointing Andrew Barnard). The traces remain, and how familiar these are.

14. So here the trace is, the very specific trace that is Macartney’s 1795 letter to Dundas. It rests upon a division of labour involving superiors and underlings, including those who wrote and those who signed, those who importuned and those who were fawned upon. It is an exercise in social hierarchy and obligatedness. It is intended as a demonstration of meticulous good breeding. It is one of the gathering signs of the coming of imperialism. It is a harbinger of whiteness. It encapsulates male socio-political reproduction.

15. It also represents something of a mystery. What on earth is it doing where it is? It is one letter among the several hundreds in the Cape Colony Letters, a collection bound in two volumes and part of the South African collections held in the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford (no longer at Rhodes House, for those who might have worked on such collections at an earlier point). A few dozens of these letters date from the 1790s to the 1820s and can be related to various Cape officials and their activities. However, the largest number are letters written by Robert White of Grahamstown to his uncle and business partner Robert Godlonton. There is no collection information about when and where all these letters were obtained, whether they were together, or else scattered and assembled together only through being sold, whether they were already in bound volumes, or any other aspect of provenance. However, reading them all shows that – with a very small number of exceptions they are ‘South African letters’, in the sense that they were written in South Africa, or sent to South Africa. Whatever else is not known of their provenance, it is known that they are in that sense South African letters. But not Macarthy’s letter to Dundas.

16. A plausible story could be concocted here, that Robert Godlonton, who became an MP later when the Cape gained responsible government, somehow obtained official Cape letters, perhaps from the parliament’s library; then later after his death these and his nephew’s letters were sold and eventually put together in the two bound volumes. Perhaps, but then again perhaps not; this is just surmise and there is no evidence for it no matter how plausible it might sound. And in addition, it still does not explain how it is that a letter that sent to a British Secretary of State in London and marked as received (and so it is not a copy) is now located amongst these other letters.

17. Another plausible story could be concocted that would bring all these different letters together in a sale room in New York or London, but coming from very different sources, with some of them from South Africa, and others from Britain. And then some later archival hand, perhaps in the Bodleian library back in the mists of time, produced the two bound volumes. But this is equally surmise, and equally evidence-free. The mystery must remain, for the traces stop with the letter.

18. This 1795 letter to Dundas from Macartney is routine, mundane; it is just part of the business of colonial administration and giving preference to ‘good service’ carried out by socially acceptable men as vouched for by other more powerful men. But what a weight of meaning it carries within its content, its tone, its mode of address, its purpose, its writing on the page and signature in a different hand. South Africa, imperialism, whiteness and male reproduction are all to be found through surface reading and reading against the grain, and then by relating this to its contexts of production and circulation. But they are to be found as through a glass, darkly.

19. Traces remain. Traces are always particular. Each remaining trace promises by its survival to bear with it what remains of some aspect of the past. But each trace is just one tiny piece of flotsam or jetsam among the many millions of ‘stuff’ that it originally coexisted with. The 1795 letter from Macartney to Dundas is a case in point, for ultimately it had its meaning as part of the context in which it originated, was read and may have been acted upon. What we do with it now is another matter.

Verona September 7, 1795
Dear Sir
I must be indebted to your Indulgence to pardon my Troubling you with a letter, which may possibly reach you at some busy moment, when the slightest interruption may be considered as a trespass upon the public. If therefore I shall have unluckily hit upon an improper time, You will be so good as to throw my letter aside, & only take it up again when you may chance to be entirely at your leisure. You will be the less inclined to censure me when you ^have^ looked into the inclosed paper, & seen that in transmitting it to you with a few words from myself, no personal interest of my own, but solely a desire of recommending to your protection a most deserving officer, has led me to take this liberty. – I had the honour of already mentioning to you Colonel Brooke & I shall always remember with pleasure the obliging manner in which you received my application in his favour. – I had informed him of it & the service of meriting still further your goodness to him was an additional motive to his late exertions in the public Service. You will perceive by his letter how modestly he speaks of them, & that he seems rather more apprehensive of censure than certain of approbation. Should he be so fortunate as to meet with the latter from you, – it will be very happy, & particularly so, as it will have given me an opportunity of repeating to you those sentiments of sincere esteem & regard with which,
I have the honor to be,
Dear Sir, You’re Most faithful,
& Most Humble Servant

The Right Honorable
Henry Dundas, Secretary of State &c &c


Last updated: 12 September 2016


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