On the panikin filled to the brim, no date

On the panikin filled to the brim, no date: just desserts for wage labour

Please reference as: Liz Stanley (2017) ‘On the panikin filled to the brim, undated: just desserts for wage labour’ http://www.whiteswritingwhiteness.ed.ac.uk/Traces/On-the-panikin-filled-to-the brim-undated/ and provide the paragraph number as appropriate when quoting.


1   Unfinished business: scraps and other archival debris

1.1 The most favourite part of archival collections lies in the ‘miscellaneous’ and ‘various’ boxes and files right at the end [and please note that the subject who ‘favours’ it is excluded from this sentence, the relevance of which comment will become clear later]. In these are to be found the things that really are flotsam and jetsam. An example is shown in the photograph above. It concerns the amount of food given to farmworkers at Athole, the Eastern Transvaal farm estates belonging to the Forbes family, and a transcription is provided later.

1.2 As the photograph shows, this item (what else to call it?) is a small rather dirty scrap of paper written on one side in faint pencil. There is nothing to indicate who the writer was, and nothing to date the words on this scrap of paper either. However, what is on it is written in surprisingly neatly formed sentences that add up to an argument about something. It looks like, it reads like, a try-out, a practice run, that is, an attempt to put something in words on paper later to be conveyed in a better form to another person. It was selected fairly randomly from the hundreds of items in an archive box labelled ‘various’ and an end-part of the Forbes Family collection. ‘Fairly randomly’ because it was one of very few indeed such items that had ‘real sentences’ on it, and it came under scrutiny in an attempt to figure out who might have written it and to whom.

1.3 The term ‘flotsam and jetsam’ is often used in discussions of archival research, but usually of things that are in fact quite neat and tidy, like successions of letters, a pile of wills, a set of maps and surveying documents, manorial rolls… It is more properly used of what lies in these miscellaneous boxes and files, which consists of torn scraps, empty envelopes, inventories and tallies, half-finished lists, and many more such tatty items. Such things have a mysterious randomness. Only rarely Is it possible to say who wrote them, when they were written, what the purpose was, whether they were ever passed on or otherwise used, why they were kept, how they ended up where they have.

1.4 The rustle of language, as Roland Barthes calls it, is there of course, but so softly it is barely perceptible regarding such odd little scraps and happenstance items. What is there, and immediately detectable because visible, is the sense that such scraps convey of unfinished business – what, who, why, with what effect? And this is unfinished business, not for the original writer and their intended addressee, if any, but rather for the happenstance third-party reader who is a researcher or other user of an archive and its collections and what lies in the boxes or files that compose such collections.

1.5 The draw to the unfinished business of such things is, succinctly, because they make you think. The rustle of language is not clamorous, although the words are there and have import. However, what is in your face is that they look what they are, which is ‘unfinished’ in the sense that they usually lack the things that signal the codes and conventions that enable them to be placed as being produced or scripted (another Barthes term) by such a person, intended for such purpose, directed to such a another person, and so being this or that particular kind of genre-item or document.


2   One fill of the panikin: on what is in/sufficient

2.1 The –  what to call it? – short scrappy document with tea- or coffee-stains shown earlier has some interesting aspects.  A transcription is:

Umlandu. Inaiquai. Mesatchux.
Worked 9 days on our line fence
Kaiep. Unchingeta. Ingolibazi.
Umkati. Umpina – worked 4 days on it
During the time they were working on
the Mr Turners own work they got sufficient
food but when the men were on the Athole line
they got one fill of the panikin which they
have left here three times a day – only full to the brim      

2.2 The document concerns the amount of food given to people who had been working ‘on the line’ at two farms, Mr Turner’s and that of the Forbes at Athole. They are named individually, and the numbers of days work that they did is specified. What they were doing is fencing, but it could have been clearing some land or other group tasks such as weeding or harvesting. The panikin is important. And that at Mr Turner’s it was filled three times and at Athole just once albeit to ‘the brim’ is literally the bottom-line, the denouement, of this piece of writing.

2.3 Being fed was an important part of wages received by workers, and there were certain expectations about what was normative in this regard. This is the topic of other scraps of paper and some letters in the Forbes collection, to the effect that what happened in the Transvaal was very different from Natal, where the Forbes and many other white farming households in the New Scotland area had come from, where workers were not fed ‘properly’. However, ordinarily the Forbes were not offenders in this regard, although neighbours and kin sometimes were while without really realising the implications. And this was that workers might simply up sticks and leave, usually between dusk and dawn, with the reputational aspects following and being that these settler colonial farming households would thereafter find it difficult to attract and keep labour.

2.4 ‘But when the men were on the Athole line…’ The implication of how this document is written is that the measure of food given at Athole was not just because it was not sufficient even though the panikin was filled to the brim, and so the recompense given to the workers for their labour was problematic. And by implication the document is trying to find a way of putting the case for the food ration in the panikin to be increased or some other recompense to be given. A further ‘hidden’ implication is that, while the case needed to be made by whoever wrote this, the wider context of material in the Forbes collection indicates that Athole was run in a way that enabled it to keep its workers on a long-term basis, and so there was at least the likelihood that such recompense would follow or at least future policy about feeding people ‘on the line’ changed.

2.5 In relation to the panikin document, the first four lines about the men working are clearly very different from the following five lines. The first four lines are a kind of list of names and days worked. The following five lines provide a narrative of two different instances of ‘they got’ which are de facto compared and with one seen as sufficient and the other insufficient. The conclusion to be drawn is an implied moral one, and travelling the route to drawing it requires both the list and the narrative.


3  The in/transitive

3.1 There is much about time in this piece of writing, but it is not dated. It is by a writer, but their name never appears and nor is this implied. It is a sort of note. But it is not a ‘note to self’ because the way it is written implies another reader. It does not have a direct address to another person, but it is a kind of explanation or argument expressing some facts and implying a conclusion and in this sense it does imply an external reader, one who is not the writer, but someone who needs to have things explained to them and to be led to draw particular conclusions from this.

3.2 Another demonstration of this document being something different from a ‘note to self’ is that it is not written using intransitive verbs, something that notes to self are ordinarily characterised by. Intransitives are action verbs, but without an object, and also in the case of ‘notes to self’ not having a subject either. Consider ‘The crop was gathered. It was eaten’, for who did the gathering and eating, and also who wrote this, are not acknowledged, indeed are silenced in the rustle of this language. It is, interestingly, Jan Smuts’ favoured way of writing about people and activities in South Africa in his letters to women friends in England, with his letters to May Hobbs (commented elsewhere on WWW pages) a good example. Meals are made, clean clothes are provided, there is a farm where crops grow and cows are milked or cattle slaughtered, and cars are driven, all seemingly by themselves.

3.3 Outside of the letter-writing practices of the very white Jan Smuts, the intransitive characterises ‘notes to self’ because self does not address self directly, although ‘one’ in English serves a similar purpose, for ‘one’ thinks removes the thinking subject/object, while ‘I think’ centres it. ‘One’ has the effect of removing the subject and by doing so provides a spurious, or rather a false, objectivity and distance. When a piece of writing has subjects and objects, this acknowledges presence. Notes to self ordinarily have intransitive verbs in the sense of not having objects as well as subjects, because self knows what self is referring to. There is activity, but the ‘who’ aspects of subjects and objects are treated in particular way, one that results in any later third-party reader being unknowing of such matters. ‘Ticked off 26 hamels [castrated young male sheep], 143 ewes, 2 loads mealies’, for example, has an activity but no subject who did the ticking, while the object or purpose of this activity is not mentioned either. How to know who and what? The present-day reader cannot in a full sense of the word ‘know’.

3.4 The removal of the writer as also a subject, the ‘writing I’ or to use Barthes’ term ‘the scriptor’, has some interesting effects regarding this scrappy document. The scriptor is the person, here made invisible, who is knowing of and reporting on the details of the days of work that the men had carried out. Because of reports in the Forbes farming diaries and because of discernible handwriting on some inventories and tallies, it is clear that all members of the Forbes family might be involved in writing such things, as also might the various men they employed as managers of different aspects of their farming activities on the Athole estate and on the other farms that they owned elsewhere.

3.5 In this particular instance, the scriptor is liable to have been one of these managers or one of the Forbes sons, for while the Forbes daughters did oversee the activities of work groups, this seems to have been regarding either gender-mixed groups of male and female workers or age-mixed groups of adults and older children. The removal or elision of the scriptor through this particular rustle of language silences the presence of white on black hierarchy as not just an ordinary, but an in effect omnipresent, feature of labour relations.


4   Among the privileges of whiteness

4.1 It is interesting that these eight workers ‘on the line’ fencing at Mr Taylor’s and Athole are named individually, rather than homogenised in providing just a number and an ethnic/racial category, as with ‘4 Swazis’ or ‘4 Kaffirs’, and also that they are noted as being men (not a mixed group or women). Who they were individually was important, because it involved payments. And the closer the Forbes documents come to the interface of economic exchanges between people – which occurs largely but not exclusively in the ‘miscellaneous’ detritus – then the more likely it is that these are recorded in terms of named persons, rather than these people being homogenised as category-members.

4.2 But there is also something more going on with regards to how people are named or categorised across the Forbes documents as a whole.

4.3 Standing back from the details of this letter and that, this diary entry and that, this miscellaneous scrap and that, a pattern can be observed. In the New Scotland and Amsterdam and Ermelo area, there were other settler farming households, a number of which had kinship connections with the Forbes, others of which leased farms from the Forbes or had other economic bonds with them. There were also other white neighbours and farming connections of Boer (later Africaner) stock. But basically these were very small numbers of white people among a large number of people who were black. For instance, when a government census was carried out on Athole in the early 1900s, over 500 black people lived there, and with the Forbes and their farm managers adding up to no more than about 15 or so white people.

4.4 In terms of the nomenclature that typifies how the Forbes referred to the different groups of people involved, there were concentric rings of usages applied to people and groups. Among the black workers, there were key people who are always named personally, such as Bismark, a long-term tenant farmer on the Athole estate. There were also workers with a long-term presence on the estate but who are referred to collectively in group terms as ‘the Kaffirs’ or some variant of this ethnic/racialised category-term. There were in addition occasions and groups of people of whom more dismissive terms are used, and these tend to be more obviously racialised rather than being used in an ethnic sense. Large distant groups, it seems, were almost always ‘othered’ and seen negatively – and this includes the Boers and the English as well. The Boers have more negative characteristics applied to them and there is less willingness to suspend this when faced with pleasant or ordinary individuals than exists regarding black people. The insistent nationalism that increasingly typified how the white majority local Boer people behaved towards the white minority Scottish/English settlers locally was clearly an important part of this, but social distance was perhaps the most significant factor.

4.5 Among the many privileges of whiteness, both in South Africa and more widely, has been that black people have worked and white people ‘supervised’ and taken the profit. There is something of this about work and workers on the Athole estate, although often members of the Forbes family co-worked alongside their black workers. This included Kate Forbes and her daughters as much as the male members of the family, weeding, milking, pruning, picking, husking… It also seems to have characterised the relationship between their farm managers and the workers who were involved in clearing land, weeding, crops, stock-managing, horse-rearing and other aspects of the farm’s range of activities. Perhaps supervision was a part of this, although at times who was supervising whom is not so clear, as for instance when David Forbes snr set a fire to clear some land that then went out of control, to what seems the clear disapproval of the workers present.

4.6 If supervision was a part of what is going on here, it is worth noting that there also seems to have been a system of overviewing the work of the white managers that the Forbes employed. The family archivist and book-keeper Kate Forbes, for instance, on occasion refused to pay expenses claims because she had cross-checked across ‘Miscellaneous’ documentation and found discrepancies; and David Forbes snr eased out managers who used excuses is to go on trips to collect machinery or other items that could have been dispatched from source.

4.7 Also among the privileges of whiteness is that s/he who writes is almost always ‘not there’ in what they write. Most of the miscellaneous items take the form of notes, including ‘notes to self’, and related documents such as lists, tallies and inventories, which are intransitive documents in spades. The many Forbes diaries, written over a long succession of years, are not ‘personal’ but rather farming diaries which detail farm work and record such crucial matters as daily temperature ranges, wind strength and rain or its absence. It is interesting to think about the many thousands of Forbes letters in this respect, for these are notable in recording a wide variety of different kinds of shared activities. However, while there is some mention of activities at Athole and some mentions of farmworkers there, these are fairly atypical. The letters represent a kind of heterotopia, a construction shared between the writers and their addressees, and they are concerned with to-ing and fro-ing other different matters than the quotidian everyday ones of working and supervising and making and recording.

4.8 The Forbes writing laboratory is large and impressive, but it is also noticeable that the different genres of writing that compose it have, lying between them, a gap, an elision, a silence, and that this is somewhere where the rustle of language is rarely heard. What comes closest are recordings of the nexus of economic exchanges where payments to workers and other economic encounters with them are involved. On occasion these occur in entries in the diaries, but it is mainly in the miscellaneous items of lists and ‘notes to self’ and so on that some faint echoes are still to be heard of the Umlandus and their fellows.

Last updated: 3 April 2017


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