Robin and the cuts, 15 November 1911

Robin and the cuts, 15 November 1911

Please reference as: Liz Stanley (2017) ‘Robin and the cuts’ and provide the paragraph number as appropriate when quoting.

15 November 1911 [Forbes Family A602 Diary 1911]

1. Diary-entries can (although they do not necessarily) bring the reader and of course the writer closer to the action, to the scene of what is written about. Letters are always at least in part concerned with the other person, the addressee or intended recipient or sometimes a third party who receives and reads them, and so they are engaged in part and sometimes in entirety with an elsewhere and elsewhen that inhere in the circumstances of the other person. Lacking audience in this strong sense, however, diary-entries are as much about the writing as they are about what is written, and with the space of the day or the space of another period of time that they are explicitly or implicitly bound by.

2. In the case of the farming diaries written in South Africa, the scene of what was written about and the space of the day covered nearly always involved interactions at close quarters between white and black and many shades between. Not always, and with slips and hesitations and glossings and silences, these things are written into usually printed diaries with allocated space for recording each day, and in so doing the small worlds of white-owned farms and their denizens as seen by the writers come into distanced sight. The practice and purpose of the farming diary provides something of a shape to the scene of what is written about and to the space of the day, but just in broad terms, for the many surviving examples are significantly different from each other, because the what and the how of their writing is so intimately connected with the who, when and where of the writer.

3. The Forbes farming diaries are a fascinating case in point here, for these are in no sense personal diaries and over the years they were contributed to by different people: David Forbes senior, Kate Forbes, their daughters Nellie, Kitty and Madge, their sons Alex, Dave and Jim, Kate’s sister Sarah, and various of the men who managed different aspects of their farming operations, introducing many variant writing practices. Perhaps the main diary-writer from the 1860s on was David Forbes senior until his death in 1905; thereafter the main writer was Kate Forbes until her death in the 1920s, when the diaries cease.

4. The particular diary-entry for discussion is dated 15 November 1911 and was written by Kate Forbes. It is shown above and a transcription will be found at the end of this trace. It concerns a dispute concerning reporting, or rather not reporting, cases of, perhaps chickenpox, but certainly an outbreak of rash of some kind among the children of workers on the Forbes’ farm-estate Athole. Chickenpox was a reportable disease and restrictions on movements of people could follow. That is to read it on one level, the dispute about sickness and reporting or not reporting its occurrence. On another level, it concerns the routinisation of regulation and punishment for infringements of rules that were sometimes tacit and sometimes explicit. This particular diary-entry is topped and tailed by important matters in South African farming terms, that it had rained, and the temperature high and low for the day. Once rain had been recorded at the start, the entry goes straight into ’We had a dispute’.

5. The ‘we’ who had the dispute are not named or detailed, although the workers ‘we’ had it with are – Unconane, Skellen and Shiawako, who are later by implication seen to be male and fathers. ‘We’ Is in fact never completely unpacked in the diary-entry, although the dispute is. The dispute seems to have a number of facets: that there was an outbreak of perhaps chickenpox that had been kept quiet about; that perhaps Managaka and Robin had talked about it and Mangaka had told another worker, Bismark, to keep his children away from a kraal where there was a rash; and that the variously spelt Shiavaka was ‘very impudent’. The heart of the dispute seems to lie in this latter facet, so that Robin, implicitly white by his name and then by his behaviour, gave him ‘a couple cuts over the back’, and when this provoked Shiawaka into saying ‘we shall meet again’, a ‘commotion’ ensued and Robin ‘gave him two more cuts but not enough’.

6. The rider that is then added concerns the notoriously racist miners of diamonds and gold in South Africa. These are implicitly white and male, and the comment that follows is that ‘I don’t wonder at the miners wanting to hurt the Kafirs if they are so impudent as this fellow was’. This is the culmination of the dispute as it appears in the diary-entry, after the initial ‘couple [of] cuts’, followed by ‘two more cuts but not enough’.

7. ‘We’ is minimally Robin, joined by Kate, although it is not clear whether Kate Forbes was actually present when the dispute took place or is recording something she had been told about. ‘We’ could mean the two people of Robin and Kate, or it could mean the implicitly white group in control of the farm and its workers. This would be a significantly larger number of people, although in a very real sense the person who counted both legally and in terms of her firmness of control was Kate Forbes. Robin Forbes was the son of David Forbes’ cousin Robert, and had lived in Natal before coming to work for a period of some years at Athole as one of its managers.

8. The ‘cuts’ referred to are likely to be those inflicted by Robin’s use of the much-hated sjambok, a hide whip originally used for controling animals, and which is particularly associated with a ‘baas’ approach of inflicting summary punishments for assumed mis-behaviours which might be no more than minor challenges to the assumed superiority of the baas man, but having a deeper import because implying animalism. Under which heading of minor challenge a comment such as the slightly threatening ‘we shall meet again’ might be placed, of course, uttered by a man who did not find being treated as though an animal acceptable.

9. Concealing chickenpox and other such diseases was a serious matter when resistances were low and inoculation was scarce and not always effective and people, especially children, might die in hundreds or thousands, although the Forbes were in fact assiduous in trying to ensure vaccination programmes for their workers. While this diary-entry focuses on Shiavaka and Robin, there were other people on its outskirts as well, a number of other workers importantly including Bismarck, a very skilled peasant farmer who worked long-term for the Forbes in a senior position, and it is by no means clear what part they took if any in the unfolding events, and if there were sides to be taken then which side they were on for which part of the dispute. The core of the dispute seems to be less the concealment and the confusion of who knew what about it, and more about a perceived challenge to Robin’s authority, that is, Robin’s perception of this, seemingly shared by Kate Forbes as well.

10. It is interesting that in her reporting of the events, Kate Forbes wrote the diary-entry in a way that invokes ‘the miners wanting to hurt the Kafirs’. She was not unfamiliar with the behaviours and conduct of miners, having lived at New Rush/Kimberley when diamonds were first discovered and having a son, Dave, who was the manager of a coal-mine in Swaziland, not to mention a husband and brother-in-law James senior who had been deeply involved in other mining ventures. One reading of the diary-entry is that Robin’s ’cuts’ reminded her of the often openly violent treatment of black workers by many of the white men involved in mining, but that she attributes this to a kind of rough quid pro quo, that ‘I don’t wonder’ that the miners behaved as they did as the workers were impudent.

11. But the question is, whether the ‘impudence’ here is just the response to Robin, or whether it is this topping off the concealment of a potentially dangerous contagious disease by Shiavaka. Perhaps the latter is more likely, as Skellen and Unconane at the start of the diary entry were very upfront in saying ‘who told you’ and speaking in ’such a manner’, but there is no further comment on their response.

12. Mentions of physical punishments in response to perceived infringements by workers in the Forbes diaries and letters are extremely rare, so rare as to be countable. This diary-entry concerns one of a very small handful, and because of its rarity it is all the more shocking because out of sync with other diary-entries and how they record the ongoing course of things and daily life on the farm. There are disputes and disagreements with workers, some workers are seen as slackers and others as tried and trusted, and so on; but physical violence is an absence and on the few occasions when it did occur these are treated as extraordinary. It is not treated as such in this particular diary-entry, but as accountable within the circumstances described. Was Robin’s conduct on 15 November 1911 out of the ordinary? Might Robin have behaved in similar ways on other occasions, but Kate either not have known about this or not recorded it? Do other diary-entries bracket or silence similar occurrences which everyone knew about and took for granted?

13. Robin’s infliction of ‘cuts’, an increasingly prevalent social form, were generally not rare, and such things became less rare over time, stretching across most of the 20th century. In some circumstances, use of the sjambok and its cuts prevailed as part of the ordinary course of things, and so as part of the way that baas men signified and claimed their authority and rule. The sjambok became a hated symbol for this systemic matter of imposed white rule, as well as being a hated instrument of routinised casual punishment by those of baas mentality and behaviour.


15 November 1911

There was rain in the night
We had a dispute with Unconane Skellen & Shiawako over as they said some one telling us that their children had chicken pox Skellen when asked said who told you my children have naming the Kafir name and spoke in such a manner that we had no business to speak to him about what his children Unconane did the same after a talk it was said that Shaiwayo was taking Billy to the Kraal and heard Mangaka telling Robin but both Robin & Mangaka deny it Mangaka said he did tell Bismark to keep his children away from that Kraal as they had a rash there and it was going all through the children there was a lot said Shiavaka was very impudent so Robin gave him a couple cuts over the back he got up walked away saying alright we shall meet again he came back with his stick saying you know Mangaka told you and you say Mangaka did not just to ?scare him of course there was a commotion Robin gave him two more cuts but not enough I dont wonder at the miners wanting to hurt the Kafirs if they are so impudent as this fellow was
Unpacked and put up the Buck head Dave shot in British East Africa they look very nice

Temp 56 – 72

Last updated: 15 June 2017


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