W Gilfillan to WD Pringle, 23 Jan 1851

William Gilfillan to W. Dods Pringle, 23 January 1851

Please reference as: Liz Stanley (2017) ‘W Gilfillan to WD Pringle, 23 Jan 1851’ http://www.whiteswritingwhiteness.ed.ac.uk/Traces/WGilfillan-WDPringle and provide the paragraph number as appropriate when quoting.

1. The letter discussed here was written on 23 January 1851 during what is known as the Eighth Frontier War 1851-1853, also as the War of Mlanjeni, who was a Xhosa prophet. Its writer was a local civil administrator, William Gilfillan, and its addresse was a well-off farmer and landowner, (William) Dods Pringle. It is one very small element in the very large I’m classified Pringle Collection, Cory Library, Grahamstown, South Africa (Cory Pringle, PUn9, 6279-81). The matters discussed are all Eastern Cape located.

2. Although aspects of its content are quite dramatic, this is an ‘ordinary letter’ in structural-genre terms. It was written and sent between people who knew each other, so as to expedite some important activities; it has some elliptical aspects; and it has some clear performative features, in the JL Austin sense of the term. Among other things, it raises in an interesting way how and to what extent notions of ‘race’ and the racial order are represented in epistolary exchanges, and some of the complications in teasing these out are also discussed.

Cradock 23rd January 1851

My dear Sir

A party of volunteers have [left] this to night for your camp, but I doubt much whether they can be of any material assistance as they can not remain with you, their services being required for various duties here they constitute our principal defence, as we have already sent most of our fighting men to the front, nearly 200 men.

I should recommend strongly that you unite your camps and not allow yourselves to be cut off in detail– Captain Wilson has discretionary powers to act as he sees best for the general interest.-

By the latest accounts we hear that 1000 men have been landed at East London – with a quantity of stores, and that more are daily expected 3000 Zoola’s are also on foot.-

I hear that the rebels at Blinkwater amount to from 700 to 1000 men with 2 Field pieces taken from Gilberts with which they are daily practicing an attack will shortly be made upon them- preparations are being made for that purpose god grant that it may be successful or our situation will be indeed a parlous one

Do you think that it would be advisable to send your families and stock to the rear our people could be of great assistance should you make up your mind to do so whatever you do – do quickly – decide at once – as it appears to me that you are standing with ourselves on the brink of a crater – That god may help and preserve you all is the sincere prayer of

Yours faithfully
W Gilfillan

C[sic] Pringle Esq
Glen Lyden

3. The place and date of the letter being written is provided right at the outset, while the names of its writer and addressee do not appear until the end. Place and date were indeed crucial. Gilfillan was the local area Civil Commissioner based in Cradock, and he was responsible for the administration of the apparatus of civil government, including the magistracy and also in times of need calling out the local commando or civilian army, a compulsory requirement for all males aged over about 12 or 13. Dods Pringle, a landowner and farmer in the Baviaans River area near the small town of Bedford and somewhat further from Cradock, had become Commandant of a local commando group at request of the British military commander.

4. The general circumstance for this was, as already noted, the Eighth Frontier War, which actually started around 24 December 1850. Although conventionally referred to as ‘war’, and certainly with some sharp conflicts and continued fighting in key areas, for many frontier people it was ‘business as usual’ in the form of successive cattle-raids, as well as attacks on kraals and fort and town invasions. The specific date of the letter, 23 January, is indicated as important by the attention drawn to it through being underlined: Pringle needed to know when it was written in order to make decisions about and carry out actions regarding various of its contents. It is also highly likely that both men would have known that there had been an unsuccessful 7 January attack on the neighbouring Fort Beaufort (there were a number of such forts along the frontier, including Forts Armstrong, Cox, Fordyce, Hare, and White as well as Beaufort), and that many Xhosa forces were carrying out attacks elsewhere.

5. Gilfillan’s writing in the letter is neat and regular. However, a word missing, the use of dashes, the absence of full stops etc, are indicative of haste. Also, content with its dire warning – a parlous situation and the brink of a crater – suggests something close to panic, as does in a different way one of its opening comments, regarding the volunteers that Gilfillan had sent.

6. The volunteers appear in the letter’s first sentence, an elliptical reference, with who who they are and why they were sent not indicated. This may have happened in response to a request from Pringle, given that Gilfillan indicates that their in effect immediate withdrawal will follow. These men were not members of another commando, but volunteers acting in addition to the commandos (which was a permanent structure of local call-out in times of need) and British military forces. ‘The front’ is invoked but its specific location is not named at the end of this first paragraph, while a later elliptical comment in the fourth paragraph invokes Blinkwater as a locus.

7. The second paragraph has Gilfillin ‘Strongly recommend’ that Pringle should unite his camps (small groups of his commando, implicitly scattered). It is clear that this is indeed ‘strongly’ and more than a simple recommendation, because followed by stating that Captain Wilson (that is, a British army officer and out-ranking Pringle as the commando Commandant) had discretionary powers to act in the general (underlined for emphasis) interest, which has to take precedence over the local.

8. The sense of urgency is added to by the third paragraph being short and about just one thing: the ‘latest accounts’, the contents of which are implied as fact and not rumour. Many men (implicitly, Xhosa) are landing with stores (and so for the long haul), added to by many more ‘Zoola’s’, a Zulu impi on the march. No racial term is used in describing them, but instead the very general ‘men’ and an ethnic term, Zulu. However, these ‘latest accounts’ also implicitly see these Xhosa and Zulu groups – historically at odds – combining against the unnamed but implicit group of Settlers, that is, white settlers.

9. The fourth paragraph draws in a third group, of ‘rebels’ from Blinkwater. Blinkwater was very close, near Bedford and it was a small settlement of Christianised Griqua and Xhosa people. However, some (but not all) of these people had, with members of the near-by larger Kat River settlement, joined the fighting against the settler groups. The sense Gillfillan conveys of hostile groups attacking from a number of directions is then added to, although given the small size of Blinkwater, the ‘700 to 1000’ he mentions presumably means ‘rebels’ in total. However, the sense that the different groups were combining and also using the captured weapons (the field guns) of whites against them adds up to the ‘parlous situation’ that propels Gilfillan’s urgency.

10. The fifth paragraph comments about sending not only families but also livestock to the rear. Where Pringle was when the letter was sent is not make explicit and does not appear in an address at the start; but wherever it was, for Gilfillan it was not the front, but potentially becoming it. Stock and stock-raiding was in fact to a significant extent what this prolonged period of internecine conflict was about, as it had been in earlier and later conflicts in the Eastern Cape frontier region. The paragraph ends on a note of crescendo: they are all on the edge of a crater, and Gilfillan’s prayer is for divine help in their preservation. In doing so, both here and at the end of the fourth paragraph ‘god’ is invoked earnestly but without any capital letter. This seems deliberate on his part, although curious.

11. Albeit ‘ordinary’ in many respects, this letter is also a full and resonant one. The references and meaning of some content remains elusive, other aspects can be unpacked by iteratively inter-relating content and context, or by being inferentially worked on in connection with other letters of the time and place. However, wherein are whiteness and its ‘Other’, blackness? How can such things be read in relation to this letter?

12. Gilfillan’s letter to Dods Pringle is certainly an example of white people writing and reading letters, and it is concerned with events that involved whites and various groups of black people. But are Gilfillan and Pringle writing and reading whiteness in this letter, and if so then in what ways and to what extent? And what else might this letter be about as well?

13. The privilege of superordinacy (‘the established’ in Norbert Elias’s terminology) in any hierarchy is not to see the position and worldview that those who are superordinate operate from as precisely a position and a partial view, but instead to see its own partial perspective as ‘how things really are’ (and for this in relation to white writing, see JM Coetzee’s (1988) White Writing). This is the case with Gilfillan’s letter, which homogenises both the ‘we’ who are beleaguered and those who compose the opposition to us. This opposition is generalised as rebels, that is, those in rebellion against an assumed to be legitimate authority. ‘Us’ and ‘we’ are inscribed in more detail and include volunteers, fighting men, small camps, families and stock, ‘our’ fighting men who serve the general interest, and the god who can be called on to help and preserve us.

14. The silence about whiteness in Gilfillan’s letter is partial, because broken with such indirect and unmarked references, then. In addition, the signs of blackness if not of ‘Others’ in the presumed natural scheme of things are also partial and broken. There is a mirror-image effect here. Neither African nor any other generalising term for black people appears. Instead Gilfillan uses a variety of ways of characterising these people: the generic and unmarked but implicitly Xhosa ‘men’, the ethnic descriptor ‘Zoola’, and the political term ‘rebel’. There is however a clear sense of combination, of the Xhosa, Zoolas and rebels amassing at particular places, thereby putting ‘us’ in a parlous situation on the brink of a crater.

15. By 1851, there were homogenising racialised terms, including Kaffir, black, African, European and white, which were being used (in less or more disparaging ways) elsewhere in South Africa – and indeed by different people from Gilfillan and Pringle in this same area of the Eastern Cape. However, despite the fraught circumstances, it is interesting that Gilfillan does not use such terms (nor does he in others of his letters in the same collection). There is certainly a moral universe or hierarchy inscribed in his letter, for there is a clear sense of us versus linked groups of them, and the taken for grantedness of ‘we’ being in the right comes through. What does not appear is whiteness in the stronger sense of inscribing a racial order in which blackness is homogenised and by definition inferior. Gilfillan’s worry was about potential superiority.

16. Who ‘the established’ and who ‘the outsiders’ (the companion Elias term for subordinacy) were was it seems still up for grabs, at least on 23 January 1851 in Cradock.

Last updated: 29 December 2017