Please Sir: from the Emagusheni trading station

Please Sir: from the Emagusheni trading station


Please Sir

to give that Boy 1 lb of Sugar
I will pay you Sir on Monday
you must wait for me till I have
change Because I send it ?one ?pun[d]
to this Morning at ?Magushen to
Mr Oakes to get change for him.
I am your obt. Servant
Mrs ?Nubilangaso


17 Novbr 1883 [Gallagher 7, 9308]

The document shown here is on a scrap of paper. The original is too fragile to be photographed, so the supplied archive photocopy has been used. It is on one level entirely inconsequential, one of the hundreds of such documents that are the remaining papers of the Emagusheni trading station, located in the then-Pondoland. Someone wants some sugar, they have a pound note, but it cost much less, therefore they are arranging to get some change from Mr Oakes so they can send the money to settle the account.

It is an order for goods and a promise to pay, and it is also a letter. It is addressed to a particular person, and in the politest of terms, ‘Pease Sir’, that is, the person running the trading station, which acted as a general store for people in the area, both white and black. It ends with an equally polite sign off and signature, and concludes with the address it was sent from and the date. The signature is itself formal in an interesting way. It is a model letter of its kind, and at the same time it sits on the border of being a letter and being an order for goods. Ontologically speaking, then, it is already interesting.

Thinking about it a little more deeply it becomes even more interesting. How did it travel from the person writing the letter and signing it, and arrive with the storeman? This is implicit, completely taken for granted by both the addressee and the signatory. Mrs ?Nubilangaso did not run her own messages, someone would have done this for her, someone in a lower social position. This was probably a boy, the same boy who is referred to in her letter when she asks that the sugar should be sent by him, and he could have been of any age up to puberty or thereabouts. On other occasions the in passing references suggest that she is sometimes sent an adult man who was working for her. In fact Mrs ?Nubilangaso was a relative of the Pondo King and kept an eye on his property in the area, which included the land the Emagusheni trading station was on, so the messenger might well have been directly working for her but indirectly working for the King.

In terms of its content, it is inconsequential on one level, but extraordinary and fascinating on another. Sugar in 1883 South Africa was a scarce commodity and highly desirable as a kind of passion for the sweet. Very large numbers of orders sent to the store include requests for sugar and often in much larger quantities than here. The currency that is indicated is the British pound, with a pound note worth a considerable amount of money in 1883 local terms. More like say a hundred pounds in today’s values [more precisely, £109] and nearly two thousand South African Rand.

The letter-writer is a woman, a married woman, Mrs ?Nubilangaso, and she is fully literate. She also insists on her title. No familiarity is possible, she has to be addressed by title as well as family or other name. In this respect, it is important to recognise that a very high proportion of the documents in the trading station collection were written by local literate black people in full command of their pens, the idiom of the letter, polite forms, and how to get the business done of obtaining the goods they wanted and making payments for these. Specifically, there was a large mission-educated black elite that in large part mapped onto status hierarchies among the Mpondo people. This heyday of the mission-taught black bourgeoisie in some areas is often forgotten, but really should not be. And in addition, Mrs ?Nubilangaso, it should also not be forgotten, was a high ranking woman who was working for the King.

These factors are interestingly compared with the white people in and around the trading station. They were mainly barely literate, they were of uncertain social standing, many were ne’er-do-wells, and a good few lived outside of the boundaries of white society and also the law, which the trading operations often multiply breached (gun theft and gun-running was the least of it). The storeman might have been white, but Mrs ?Nubilangaso was well-connected with the power in the land, at that point not yet usurped in Pondoland.

And for a more detailed discussion, please see the Trace of the ‘Give that Boy’ title and the same date.

Last updated:  5 August 2021; 11 August 2021.