The ‘K word’ and the Forbes diary, 13 July 1904: Words, times and contexts

The ‘K word’ and the Forbes diary, 13 July 1904: Words, times and contexts

Please reference as: Liz Stanley (2017) ‘The ‘K word’ and the Forbes diary, 13 July 1904’ and provide the paragraph number as appropriate when quoting.



1   Farming diaries and the Forbes

1.1 The above entry appears in one of the many Forbes diaries. It is for 13 July 1904, which was indeed a Wednesday, and is fully transcribed below. David Forbes with his brothers had migrated from Scotland in 1850 and worked as a labourer, trader and then farmer in Natal, before moving along with many other Natal migrants to the New Scotland area of the Eastern Transvaal.  The attraction was the rich farming land being sold by the then-President of the Transvaal to incomers, with David Forbes purchasing a number of large farms at a modest amount. A number of them were leased to his compatriots, and others joined together to form the very large farming estate Athole, near to the present-day Amsterdam and Ermelo.

1.2 The diaries in question were farming diaries. Recording a range of information was required of farmers in particular regarding temperature variations, wind speeds and the presence or absence of rain, and providing them could be required in official and legal situations as a means of checking or corroborating statements made by farmers. These were not ‘personal’ documents, then, and their contents are certainly not concerned with matters of affect, the inner life or relationships and feelings, but practical accounts that record the fabric of the quotidian life in particular with regard to farming and in respect of events in the household and home farm as well as on the Athole estate more widely.

1.3 The Forbes as a family were writers in the strong sense and wrote voluminous amounts across letters, diaries, inventories, notes, lists, accounts and anything else where they could put pen or pencil to paper. On occasion, both Kate and David Forbes and all their five adult children contributed to the diaries, depending who was at home, who was available, what was happening. Members of the Forbes more than did their duty in respect of maintaining an official diary, with their diaries existing for a more than 50 year period and entries in them often fairly full rather than containing just a few perfunctory facts.

1.4 This entry for Wednesday, 13 July 1904 is fairly typical in its structure, although its details are specific ones. It was written by David Forbes senior, who was around 75 at the time. The Athole homestead was at the time being rebuilt following its near destruction during the South African War 1899-1902, and thus the presence of the plasterer and the painter that this entry is in large part concerned with.


2   The transcription

2.1 A transcription of the entry is now provided, with discussion of its contents following.

13 July Wednesday 1904

The plasterer was in a bad temper this morning throwing the buckets at the kafirs who carried the ?dargo to him I told him I would not have that sort of thing- he was insolent and said I had given him kafirs who did not know how to mix ?dargo I told him they knew better how to mix ?dargo than he did how to plaster he then said I got him to work at starvation wages- I told him he could leave at once if he thought so he said he would and I measured his 4 days work it came to £3-14 I paid him and he went
he had five kafirs helping him
this man came here begging for a job he had walked from Delagoa and his boots were done

The man who called himself a painter left this morning – he said he was a “yank”

Mr Grimes has sent asking me to come to Florence on Friday to meet Lord Milner

38 – 67


3   The diary entry

3.1 The diary entry begins with reference to the plasterer. The plasterer is not referred to by name but using the occupational title, and he was present because rebuilding work at Athole was at an advanced stage and a number of its interior rooms were been completed, with the mention of the painter later in the entry also indicating that things were being finished off. The two occupational terms of plasterer and painter are not marked, in the sense that they are not qualified by reference to the type of person who does these activities, such as woman plasterer or Chinese painter, and so it is implicit that the two are white men, reinforced with ‘him’ and ‘he’ being used. The black workers concerned are referred to differently, simply as ‘the kafirs’, a homogenised ethnic or racial or appellation with no individuals among them mentioned, so they are referred to always as a group on the three occasions mentioned. The wider context of letters, diaries and many other writings by David Forbes indicates that in a rather old-fashioned way in 1904 he is using what when he first arrived in South Africa in 1850 had been an ethnic description, but over the years with this becoming a shorthand for ‘a mixed group of black workers at Athole who might come from a number of ethnic groups and include women as well as men and children as well as adults’. Does this make his usage necessarily racist?

3.2 The ‘K word’ is a term now seen as offensively racist and has enormous opprobrium in South Africa, and it might be supposed that the white workers are being referred to in a more privileged way than the racially-marked black workers. But immediately this can be seen to be not so. The plasterer, DF’s entry comments commence with, ‘was in a bad temper… throwing the buckets…’ and the entry indicates that DF had immediately told him that ‘I would not have that sort of thing’, with the man’s response described as insolent. This term was used perhaps because of the manner in which the response was made, but it seems it was also its content as well, for the plasterer blamed his behaviour on the incompetence of the workers ‘who did not know how to mix ?dargo’, to which DF immediately said ‘they knew better how to mix ?dargo than he did how to plaster’.

3.3 Clearly DF was having none of it from the plasterer, was defending the Athole workers, and was also calling into question the ability of the plasterer by reference to the knowledgeability of the workers: they knew better how to mix the ?dargo than he did how to plaster. Although the term is used elliptically and not explained, it seems that ?dargo was a kind of slip-plaster, a particularly wet form of skimming plaster used at the final stage of finishing walls and ceilings and so requiring a high level of skill to use properly. The plasterer could not do this, but blamed his lack of competence on the workers, presumably implying they had made the mixture too loose or wet. The workers concerned would have made this mixture on a number of other occasions regarding the many more rooms completed in the renovations at Athole, so DF is likely to be referring to this. In addition, how the plasterer made his mood known was in itself seen as unacceptable – ‘I would not have that sort of thing’, with ‘that sort of thing’ being the extreme character of his response in throwing the buckets at people and the loss of temper and violence that this suggests.

3.4 The behaviour of the plasterer, then, is described in ways that make it clear that DF found his behaviour unacceptable because it involved ‘that sort of thing’ and was also insolent in other ways. So unacceptable was it indeed that the man was asked to leave with immediate effect. Thus, ‘I told him he could leave at once’, his days of work were tallied, he was paid off and then went. This is then followed by two separated but connected sentences, that the plasterer had five workers helping him, and that he had begged for a job. These drive home aspects of DF’s comments in the preceding paragraph, with the implication being that the plasterer had had a disproportionately high level of assistance from the Athole workers, and that he had been on his uppers, but could not actually do the job he had begged for.

3.5 The plasterer it seems was not actually a plasterer, but a man begging for a job, and this implication is added to by the next sentence following. This concerns ‘The man who called himself a painter’, who had also left. The form of words used here clearly suggests that this man was not actually ‘a painter’, that is, he was not a member of this occupational group, but simply someone who called himself this because he wanted a job. And in turn the implication is that this is also a summation regarding the man who did the plastering, that he was not a plasterer by trade, just a man on his uppers who called himself this because he wanted work, or rather needed money.

3.6 So what is the relevance, if any, of the comment that the second man was ‘a “yank”’? In the wake of the discoveries of diamonds and gold, miners from all over the world arrived in South Africa, for there had been gold-rushes in California, the Coromandel in New Zealand and elsewhere, giving rise to a large group of peripatetic miners who followed the latest discoveries in hopes of ‘a find’ and making their fortunes. The Forbes like many South Africans had headed towards Kimberley and Barberton then the Rand and elsewhere, including Swaziland, where Forbes mining claims and mineral concessions were located. Racialised and immediately derogatory terminology had been imported by those who came from the USA, who brought with them highly negative terms that had been used in US mining contexts and in particular the ‘n word’. DF himself and most members of his circle never use this word. The exceptions are his younger brother James, his son Dave junior and his brother-in-law Joshua Straker, who all had long-term involvements in mining communities, where use of the word remained largely confined (it did not gain wider usage in the South African context).

3.7 It seems that in using the word ‘yank’, the actually mining and not painting background of this man was being highlighted, and also with the possible further implication that extreme kinds of racial views and behaviours might be expected.

3.8 Marked off via a line space from the previous sentence in this diary entry, there is a comment that an invitation had been received by David Forbes; this is an entirely different topic from the more domestic matters dealt with in the rest of this day’s entry. Florence is a farm in the Chrissiemeer area, then owned by JW Grimes, and located not far from Athole. David Forbes had been a member of the Transvaal Labour Commission, which had met and reported the previous year. His membership of this high-level committee had been accepted by Milner, then Governor of the Transvaal in the period of post-war reconstruction, recognising DF’s ability to speak to the labour needs of both the farming and the mining sectors in the Transvaal, rather than representing the interests of one against the other. The invitation represented a compliment to DF, for although coming from Grimes it would have been either proposed by or agreed by Milner himself. The visit was subsequently reciprocated by Milner and his entourage visiting Athole, with a number of photographs taken on the occasion.


4   And what of whiteness?

4.1 Regarding the main concerns of this diary entry for 13 July 1904, the episode of the plasterer and the way it is written about makes it clear that David Forbes was in charge. It was not the Athole workers who had buckets thrown at them who achieved the removal of the angry plasterer, but DF as it were acting on their behalves, around the extremity of the plasterer’s response but also because of the insolence to DF himself. While on one level this is paternalist, it is nonetheless clearly of a different order of conduct from losing temper and throwing things at people who are then blamed for this response.

4.2 Most of the workers at Athole were long-term presences, and in contexts where there was a one-to-one activity being written about they are frequently referred to by personal name. On occasion there are exasperated comments made but never of the order of temper loss or physical violence of any kind. And on other occasions too in diary entries where Athole workers experience problems with other people (often white men), DF takes the side of his workers. The instance with the plasterer is indicative of his loyalty based on knowledge of their competence: he will begin by assuming his workers did nothing wrong, and that the accuser is being unfair or even racist. To use the terms of Norbert Elias here, there are clear established-outsider implications in this, with the Athole workers and especially those that DF snr always writes of by name being part of the established group here.

4.3 In addition, that this is a diary entry and written in a particular kind of way also needs to be taken into account. It is possible and even likely that David Forbes would not have been present when the man first lost his temper and threw the buckets, but would have been called to intervene. In fact, then, ‘dealing with’ the plasterer might have been initiated by the workers who were directly on the receiving end, but this is elided in the way the entry is written because DF perceived himself as the key agent in these events, not the people who worked for him. Indeed, as the person holding the purse-strings and who owned the building being worked in and the farm it was located on, he was the key agent.

4.4 Overall, a number of interesting aspects of whiteness come into view through the lens provided by this diary entry for Wednesday, 13 July 1904 written by David Forbes. The fact that it is a diary entry, that it was written in 1904, that it represents a view on some domestic events written by a particular person, and that this person was in his later 70s and used terms in ways that dated from earlier times, are all relevant. ‘Whiteness’ is not a single and unitary thing, it is not composed by fixed behaviours, it is not lived out in the same ways by different people, it changes over time, and contexts and those who are present in them, all make a difference.

4.5 Racialised terms and categories are indicated and used by these being marked or unmarked, depending on the circumstances and the relationship between different category-members. Sometimes they take the form of ‘rude words’, deeply offensive words and phrases meaning and used to mean racial insult of an extreme kind. However, even here the original meaning of such words (boy, maid, girl, Kaffir, among them) needs to be recognised, for their intent and reception have changed over time, and also vary according to context. In addition, there are other ways of diminishing or dismissing a person and their worth in addition to racialisation, but related to it in some ways, such as reducing people to category-membership, and picking out character traits or behaviours seen as unacceptable.

4.6 This raises the fact that it is not just a matter of words and that, in diary entries as in letter-writing, the words have referential aspects. Whiteness has never been just a matter of words, but has involved a range of behaviours, many of them contradictory or perplexing, some of them offensive or even murderous. And anyway the words refer to the things that actually happened, such as when an inadequate man in a temper threw things at people he then angrily blamed for his behaviour. Regardless of how complex matters of facticity and social construction are, denial of the at basis referential aspects of what diary entries and letters are about should not be an option.

4.7 And what of David Forbes, with regard to this particular diary entry, but also looking wider than just this one piece of writing? Such words as upright, liberal, disciplined, honourable, loyal, inflexible, in charge, come to mind. And they come to mind recognising that these qualities were lived out and given flesh in a context involving a hierarchy in which DF was in effect a patriarch in the classic sense of the term, and was recognised to be such not only by black workers on the Athole estate and elsewhere, but also by his wife, his daughters and his sons. It is unlikely that DF would ever have thrown buckets at people or displayed the ungoverned ill-temper of the plasterer. It is also unlikely that he might have seen the patriarchal arrangements that existed across the small empire he presided over as problematic in any way.

4.8 The privilege of those who have it is to remain unaware that how they behave, how others behave towards them, how they experience themselves, is a product of privilege. As a consequence, they are likely to experience such things as ‘just how it is’. It was just how it was that it was David Forbes who gave the plasterer his marching orders, even though it was the Athole workers who were most adversely affected by the man’s racially-directed ill-behaviour.


Last updated: 3 April 2017


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