The ‘n word’: Le Sueur’s note, Sept 1901

 The ‘n word’: Le Sueur’s note, Sept 1901

Please reference as: Liz Stanley (2017) ‘The “n word”: Le Sueur’s note, Sept 1901’ and provide the paragraph number as appropriate when quoting.

1.  The ‘n word’

1.1         What’s in a word? It depends of course on the word, the context of saying or writing, the context of hearing or reading, and also the wider time and place and what is deemed permissible and acceptable (not always the same thing) in them. The word in question is the ‘n word’. As a heavily racial and racist and demeaning term, it has enormous opprobrium in the USA, the UK and other parts of the English-speaking world. Although it has less negative salience than the ‘k word’ in the South African context, it still involves racist reference and meaning. However, it has not had the same trajectory of usage as in, say, the UK, because having its own historical pattern in South Africa.

1.2         Succinctly, the ‘n word’ seems to have been absent from the largely ethnic terms that whites used to describe different groups of black people in southern Africa from the 1770s through to around the 1860s. And although the ‘k word’ was used among those terms, over this time-period it had an ethnic meaning and not a generalised racial or negative one, although as used by some people and in some locations this was beginning to change by the end of the period. Over time the ‘k’ word began to accrue racial and racist connotations.

1.3         A wider set of changes then occurred around the discoveries of diamonds in the 1860s and 70s and gold in the 1870s and 80s, and the influx of large numbers of miners from elsewhere in the world, who had prospected in California, the Klondike, the Coromandel in New Zealand and other places. Use of the ‘n word’ largely came with them, being used to categorise generically and pejoratively the indigenous labourers whose work they relied on. In addition, in the form of ‘Nigers’ it had an earlier somewhat negative meaning in South African terms, used to refer disparagingly to people who had been enslaved further north in the Niger delta and were present mainly on Boer farms. For a time, these different meanings and usages came together and reinforced each other, at least as used by particular groups and networks of people.

1.4         In the letters researched as part of the Whites Writing Whiteness project, the pattern that exists is that, overall, the ‘n word’ is relatively rarely used and what prevails instead are the diverse patterns and changing meanings of the ‘k word’ and a number of other connected terms such as ‘boy’ and ‘maid’. However, when the ‘n word’ is used, it is used by particular people in particular contexts, locations and time-periods, rather than being in more general usage. These are (a) from the 1880s to the early 1900s, as used largely by people who had direct links with or more often personal involvement in mining, and (b) over the 1930s, as used by people involved in or supporting more extreme Nationalist politics, in those parts of the country where Nationalism was particularly on the rise.

2.  Stevens’ letter

2.1         On 18 September 1901, JA Stevens, the Secretary (its chief administrative officer) to the British South Africa Company’s key Cape Town office, wrote to Philip Jourdan, Cecil Rhodes’s main personal secretary. A detailed extract from his letter appears in section 5 below. The BSAC is often referred to as the ‘Chartered Company’ and was licensed to open up territories to the north of South Africa. It did so with particular respect to gaining (aka grabbing by trickery and force) mineral wealth and so the land on which it was located. It subsequently formed a de facto government following its conquest of both Mashonaland and Matabeleland, which then became the two Rhodesias (later Zimbabwe and Zambia). Cecil Rhodes had a leading role in this. Although formally speaking his other involvements and particularly his leading role in the De Beers diamond-mining company were separate, in practice he treated them, as did those who worked in them, as all part of his fiefdom. This is among things shown in Stevens’s letter, because the enquiries he describes making when he was looking for a ‘billet’ for someone cut right across these companies and involvements.

2.2         The person Stevens’s letter is addressed to, Philip Jourdan, was one of ‘Rhodes’ young men’, also known as ‘Rhodes’s lambs’. These were often callow or feckless, and always good looking, who Rhodes was attracted to and employed in a variety of factotum roles (aka go-for jobs), but for which most of them were less than well-suited. Jourdan, however, was a cut above most, having held a civil service administrative post and being skilled in shorthand and other relevant skills. Experiencing a number of periodic serious illnesses, Jourdan himself proposed to Rhodes in 1897 that a younger friend – Gordon Le Sueur – should replace him in accompanying Rhodes on an immanent trip to the then-Matabeleland (although in his biography of Rhodes, Le Sueur presents this in terms of Rhodes ‘spotting’ him, so perhaps he did not know about the part that Jourdan had played). After this, Jourdan continued in Rhodes’s employ at a confidential level. Also – and importantly in posterity terms – Jourdan was the key person who organised how Rhodes’s papers were kept and filed, while after Rhodes died it was Le Sueur who removed the more revelatory or disreputable and constructed the shape they still have in archival situ.

2.3         Stevens’s letter concerns this younger man, Gordon Le Sueur. Le Sueur (born 1874) became Rhodes’s factotum-cum-secretary in June 1897, and he did indeed go with him to Rhodesia-in-the-making. At the time that Stevens’ letter was written, then, Le Sueur had worked for Rhodes for over four years. As a consequence, the intervention from Rhodes by letter and cable that the letter mentions, saying that Le Sueur was to be found ‘a billet’ (that is, a job), is unexpected in the circumstances. There is nothing in Stevens’s letter, or Le Sueur’s note, to explain it. However, the strength, or force, of Rhodes’s continued patronage is clear, so it is unlikely there had been a breach.

2.4         Why Stevens sent his letter to Jourdan is clear on two levels. Firstly and as he states at its start, this was so that Jourdan, still Rhodes secretary and privy to all his activities, would pass on information about what he had done to Rhodes. That is, it was an accountability matter, but not one important enough for Stevens to communicate directly with Rhodes. And secondly and elliptically, Jourdan was in a sense also a patron to Le Sueur and clearly they knew each other well enough for Jourdan to send or give the physical text of a private letter to Le Sueur. Jourdan and Stevens too would have known each other well enough for this sense of involvement to have been part of the frame that Stevens was operating within.

2.5         It is also clear that Stevens – not working directly for Rhodes but for the BSAC – nonetheless does as instructed by Rhodes. Indeed, Stevens was doing so even though he was provoked, which his letter hints he was by Le Sueur’s pickiness about jobs and general arrogance. This was because, regarding various of the opportunities Stevens had proffered, Le Sueur “did not consider the position good enough”. Another possibility Stevens had explored was a railways position for him, at that time still expanding and the source of many white sinecure positions, but which Le Sueur would not accept because he “does not relish figures and books”. This latter throws interesting light Le Sueur’s prowess as a secretary to a man supremely concerned with these core aspects of his financial dealings.

2.6         In addition, although he had no legal qualifications or experience, it also comes across that what Le Sueur wanted was an Assistant Magistracy in one of the Rhodesias. However, as Stevens’s comments are general ones about hints about pickiness and comments that these posts were already filled, this conveys the sense that these positions were also white male sinecures and subject to patronage rather than qualification and this was par for the course. The various possibilities rehearsed also convey that Rhodes’s patronage and the ordinary workings of Stevens’ jon operated across supposed organisational separations.

3.  Le Sueur’s note

Image 31-01-2016 at 15.043.1       A pencilled note is inserted at the top left of Stevens’s letter, written on it by Le Sueur as a response after Jourdan had passed the letter to him (with it having been passed on implicit rather than explicit). It is this added note that contains the ‘n word’. It is transcribed in full below in section 5 following the extracts from Stevens’s letter, and is also shown in an accompanying jpeg here.

3.2         Le Sueur’s note does not in fact actually explain why he had turned down the job offered by Quinan – writing that he had “asked me to take charge of a gang of niggers & billet with the Overseers!” is in context treated as a sufficient explanation. Not only is disparagement of the job offered by Quinan expressed in racial terms, it is reduced to this. Indeed, the general and somewhat negative term “a gang” thereby takes on more negativity, so that ‘gang’ and the ‘n word’ reinforce each other.

3.3         What this first sentence in the note also conveys is that the proposal was that Le Sueur was expected to “take charge” of “a gang” and thus would be an overseer. However, his sentence construction draws a distance between him and them – he would “billet with the Overseers” rather than become one of them. In context, the overseers would have been white, but even so that this is beyond the realms of acceptability for Le Sueur is indicated by the exclamation mark at the end of this sentence.

3.4         The second sentence of the note confirms Le Sueur’s pickiness and arrogance. “Stevens has nothing” in fact covers that what Stevens offered was seen as unacceptable by him. The note’s “I could not work under him” in effect ruled out BSAC employment in much of the Cape, and also hints that Stevens was not an admirer of Le Sueur and had let this show. Stevens’s compliance with Rhodes’ instruction was it seems just that, compliance rather than anything more positive. And the concluding statement that “they are bound to appoint me” seems to fly in the face of Stevens’s “the Assistant Magistrates have been appointed”, and is also very arrogant.

3.5         Le Sueur’s biography of Rhodes contains quite a lot of information about his own activities, and it mentions Rhodes offering him a magistracy, and him visiting Bulawayo as such in 1899. However, there is no sign Le Sueur took up any actual post in the Rhodesias: he continued as a Rhodes factotum and hanger-on, met Rhodes in Europe in 1901/02, and was one of the group of supporters at Groot Schuur (Rhodes’s house and estate just outside Cape Town) when Rhodes’s body was taken there after his March 1902 death.

3.6         Standing back from the detail of Le Sueur’s note, his use of the ‘n word’ is both a part of his general arrogance and unpleasantness, and also apart from them in the sense of being gratuitously additional. That is, there was no necessity to respond about Quinan’s offer in the terms he did, for demonstrably (that second sentence) he could be sufficiently unpleasant without using racisms. He could have written, for instance, in terms that this was an unskilled manual job and beneath him as an experienced administrator, so the racism was a minded choice.

3.7         Le Sueur was not a mining prospector or otherwise part of mining circles. However, he certainly rubbed shoulders long term with the motley bunch of adventurers, rogues, mercenaries and ‘pioneers’ whose ranks were highly influenced by the ‘minerals, land, labour’ ethos underpinning both the conquest and the subsequent rule of the Rhodesias. He was also from a young age deeply embedded in the less than sensitive circles around Rhodes. His use of the ‘n words’, then, was one licensed within context, and certainly WWW’s research on the Rhodes Paper shows he was by no means alone in using it. However, it was used by a particular kind of presence in these almost entirely male circles – the hangers-on, the less educated and those for whom a coarseness of expression and deportment seems to have been part of their version of manliness.

3.8         What does Le Sueur’s note mean, what does it add up to in terms of whiteness, its configurations and its Others? Of course, it is just one short note and not too much weight should be placed on it. But some small weight can: it emanates from a ‘Rhodes’s lamb’ who was living and working at the heart of the Rhodes empire, and its existence and contents are consonant with letters and other papers by various other men involved in these circles.

3.9         The use in Le Sueur’s note of a racial and racist expression was a choice, and it provided a dismissal of something thereby treated as not requiring further elucidation. Its mode of expression was located within particular cultures and sub-cultures, and these gave rise to a specificity of racism in this instance. It was used in a particular context of articulation and expression. And its effect was not only to foreclose or replace explanation but also to do so by expressing contempt.

4.  An addendum, also on the ‘n word’

4.1         Le Sueur’s note and its content was not a one-off, but part of a broader pattern of how he represented himself and others, as shown by descriptions, comments and discussions in his previously mentioned biography of Rhodes. Two more uses of the ‘n word’ stand out in this.

4.2         The first concerns Anthony de la Cruz, in South African terms a ‘coloured’ man, who worked for Rhodes as a valet and personal servant. While travelling with Rhodes, and with De la Cruz hovering behind them, Le Sueur referred to a man approaching by using the ‘n word’, as “an off-coloured Cape boy… as much a nigger as the aboriginal native” (p.43). He continued in this vein and repeated the word in another such comment, although Rhodes protested and also afterwards said to him, ‘Didn’t you see Tony standing by?”. Rhodes might not have wanted to offend someone who was relied upon, but Le Sueur had no such qualms.

4.3         The second has been in part discussed in another Trace and concerns Njube Lobengula (see Letters by Njube son of Lobengula, paragraphs 5 to 7), de facto heir to Lobengula of the Ndebele and so, for the Ndebele and in Matabeleland, de jure if not de facto the reigning king. In 1898 when Njube and his younger brothers were often at Groot Schuur, the Zulu and Matabele working there showed their respect for them. Le Sueur was asked to show a visiting Sultan around the estate, and he comments that “It was the first time I had ever been asked to act as cicerone to one I looked on as a nigger, and very much resented it” (p.261), so he dumped the Sultan on the Ndebele royals as inferior coevals and absented himself.

4.4         In both examples, as with his note written onto Stevens’s letter to Jourdan, Le Sueur goes out of his way to diminish the people concerned and does so in ‘no more needs to be said’ racist terms. Regarding the first, as he represents it in the biography (and recognising the slippery relationship with how he might have actually behaved), he made a racist offensive comment, and then repeated this even when Rhodes made his reservation clear; and although he writes about Rhodes wishing not to hurt De la Cruz, it is clear he does not accept this. Regarding the second example, royal though Njube and the others all were, Le Sueur’s resentment is made very apparent, as is that he looked on them as ‘just ns’ and would in no way aid or serve any of them.

4.5 It is not just that Le Sueur comes across – in all three examples, but also in too many other passages in his biography of Rhodes (Gordon Le Sueur (1913) Cecil Rhodes: The Man and his Work London: John Murray) to detail – as a deeply unpleasant, arrogant and jumpy person, although he does. It is that when he wants to convey particular contempt, this involves him making dismissive racist comments against ordinary occurrences of black people in his life – being overseer to a group of men, not offending someone he knew, being polite to a visitor – but which he is unable to tolerate. These situations seem to involve some possible diminution or reversal of hierarchies he perceives himself being at the top of.

5.  Stevens’ letter and Le Sueur’s note

[NB … indicates omissions, while ^and^ indicates the start and end of insertions]

British South Africa Company

Cape Town

18 Sept 1901

…Le Sueur has brought me Mr Rhodes’ letter and I have also received the following cable “Referring to my cable to you re Le Sueur – You must find him a billet – C. J. Rhodes.”

Kindly tell Mr Rhodes that I saw Quinan, who offered employment, but that Le Sueur did not consider the position good enough.

I have tried De Beers Kimberley and the Cold Storage…

As regards the Charter office here it is really over-manned and the question is what to do with one or two of them. I am, however, in communication with Milton…

Should everything else fail I will see what can be done re Railway but Le Sueur does not relish figures and books.

He seems more desirous of getting to Bulawayo or Salisbury, but… the Assistant Magistrates have been appointed.

Yours sincerely

JA Stevens


^Dear Philip

Thanks for this. Quinan asked me to take charge of a gang of niggers & billet with the Overseers!

Stevens has nothing & I could not work under him so Rhodesia is the only thing left & there they are bound to appoint me.



From J. A. Stevens [secretary, BSAC Cape Town], to Philip Jourdan [Rhodes secretary], Rhodes Papers s228 Box 4 Charter Home Board 4/36

Last updated: 29 December 2017