Anne Barnard to Henry Dundas

Anne Barnard to Henry Dundas

To do anything other than hover in a stressed way over the dreadful coronavirus news from different parts of the world, and to read and write about times and people now past, seems at times rather like fiddling while Rome burns. But to maintain the semblance of ordinary life, if not its usual taken-for-grantedness, is also important. And so, and in this spirit and in self-isolation for 12 weeks, I have embarked on setting up a WWW database of Lady Anne Barnard’s letters from the 1790s and early 1800s. The letters this is starting with are those she wrote to a former suitor, Henry Dundas. At the time she wrote them he was Britain’s Secretary for War and the Colonies, while she had married Andrew Barnard, who had become Secretary to the Cape civilian administration which took over its governance from the Netherlands during the war with France, under the governorship of Lord Macartney. Unusually, she went to the Cape with her husband rather than staying in Britain.

Anne Barnard’s letters to Dundas are friendly, informal, and act a kind of report or dispatch giving him intelligence about people and places and developments in the new colony. They tread the borders between friendly information-giving, and careful commentary and selective point-of-view sent to someone who was powerful in terms of patronage and jobs. Indeed, he had given the job of Cape Secretary to Andrew Barnard. Her letters are also quite difficult to interpret. She is immensely open to new experiences and people and surprisingly non-judgemental on matters of race. She clearly prefers the appearance and conduct of the ‘Hottentot’ and ‘Kaffir’ people she meets to most of the ‘Dutch’ in Cape Town and ‘the boors’ in farming areas; while at the same time she finds unacceptable the prejudice against the Dutch and the boers held by members of the British garrison. She feels sorrow about slavery, though becomes quickly accustomed to its omnipresence among the Dutch and the boers. Ethnicity becomes entangled with matters of race becomes entangled with personal attributes becomes entangled with ideas about equal human worth becomes entangled with a privileged way of life. She might have been guilty of a level of prejudice against the Dutch and the boers herself, but on the other hand she invited most of them to stay with her in the Cape Town Castle, where she acted as the official hostess for governor Macartney, and tried hard to think the best of people she met. And she had complicated ways of thinking about race matters.

A Trace discusses Anne Barnard’s letter to Henry Dundas of 11 June 1798.

An interesting woman whose letters are a pleasure to read, and there is an excellent biography of her called Defiance by Stephen Taylor.

Last updated: 2 April 2020


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