On the other side: ‘the migrant letter’, its other and not/correspondence

On the other side: ‘the migrant letter’, its other and not/correspondence

Please reference as: Liz Stanley (2018) ‘On the other side: the migrant letter’ Whites Writing Whiteness www.whiteswritingwhiteness.ed.ac.uk/curiosities/On-the-other-side and also provide the paragraph number as appropriate if quoting.

1  The relevant academic literature sets out that a ‘migrant letter’ is a letter by a migrant and is about their experiences after migration on the one hand, and on the other their endeavour to maintain relationships with connected people in their country of origin, written in a context of separation and what was taken to be permanent absence. There is a curious kind of focus here, akin to saying what a coin is by describing what is on just one of its faces, because of course migrant letters have an addressee like any other letter, and many of those addressees wrote back to the person who had emigrated, with exchanges of letters between them sometimes persisting over decades. But, while what migrant letters in the English language written by people migrating to the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, consist in have been well explored, what ‘the other side’ wrote about and what their letters are like remains in the shadows, rarely discussed.

2  An example of the ‘other side’ will be discussed in what follows, one of many letters by the same person to her addressee, David Forbes (for an earlier and related but different discussion of migrant letters and settler colonialism, see ‘What is a migrant letter?’ at http://www.whiteswritingwhiteness.ed.ac.uk/blog/migrant-letter/.

3  David Forbes and his brothers Alexander and James, originally from Scotland, worked in Ireland and Liverpool and then became migrants to Natal, on the eastern coast of what is now South Africa but then an independent British colony. After David’s marriage to Kate Purcocks in 1860 and move to a farm first in western Natal and then in the Transvaal, the Forbes engaged in various correspondences with people elsewhere, primarily but not exclusively relatives. These other people lived in a range of places and certainly there was a separation of distance and time between them and the Forbes. But even when they were living continents apart, both sides wrote with a presumption, not of absolute separation but of interrupted presence, that at some point they would possibly or even probably meet again.

4  Correspondences of this kind occurred between one or both of the Forbes and people who were living in (a) Natal and the Cape, with the Transvaal, Natal and the Cape being different countries at that time, along with the Orange Free State, and later combining to form what is now South Africa; (b) in South Australia, where other relatives on both sides had emigrated; and (c) in Britain in a correspondence over many decades with David’s sister Lizzie, to a lesser extent his younger sister Jemima Condie who died in the mid 1880s, and also when they were of an age Nelly, Susie, Lizzie and John, the children of Jemima and her husband David Condie, a small-time Edinburgh builder.

5  The letter for discussion was written by Lizzie Forbes in Edinburgh to her brother David Forbes; it is dated 23 January 1871. He was at that point still at home on his farm-estate of Athole, near present-day Amsterdam and Ermelo, although in April he would leave to prospect at the Diamond Fields in the area in and around present-day Kimberley. Lizzie Forbes was at that point ‘between situations’. A shrewd, careful woman with savings, at the time of writing she was applying for other situations. She was well-qualified as a housekeeper, having worked in some quite grand households, while most domestic jobs were for people lower down the hierarchy.

6  A transcription of her letter is provided in full and now follows.

23d January

My dear Brother

I received Kates letter also yours of September I was glad to hear that you were all well I get letters so seldom now that I got very anxious about you all between the times

I am calculating that I will hear by next mail of Mr & Mrs McCorkindale’s arrival with you I sincerely hope your local post will then be so arranged that I may hear oftener from you I have not yet heard from Jamie nor have I seen nor heard anything of the box you have so often written me about if it ever should come to hand (which I very much doubt) I will be sure to send you a report of the compositions of the stones we have glowing accounts from time to time in the papers about the great fortunes realized at the diamond fields in a very short time I suppose they are not all true but in the end it must surely increase the value of your land I think that stands to reason times are very bad here this winter trade in general is bad on account of this dreadful war on the Continent and provisions rising in the market daily but the building trade is particularly dull Edinb seems to be over built and it is soon at a standstill Condie is one of the fortunate ones who has work to go to but this winter has been the most severe we have had for many years so with rain frost & snow he has not been able to work one week since november had I not been here to keep them I dont know what they would have done I hope the weather will soon get better for their sakes the little Nelly is a dear little child I am fond of her one good thing she is strong & healthy and gives very little trouble I have not yet heard of a situation to suit me although I am daily on the outlook I think my character is too good or else too long to get readily into any other place

I sent you some papers by last mail but no letter I hope you get the papers as they are very interesting just now with the news of the war I send 3 with this mail so that you may know if you them all you would see John Macnees marriage in one of them Miss Macnee has taken a small house in Blairgowrie and is living there with one servant Although she behaved very bad to me still I am very sorry for her for she has now no home in Edinb and they are a family who do not care one bit for each other which is a dreadful thing You will be thinking that I have given you a very melancholy letter but realy I have nothing bright to write about just now perhaps I may have better news soon I hope this may find you all well and that I will have a letter next mail and with love to all believe me your affectionate Sister

Lizzie Forbes

[Forbes Family A602, 7/118; Date: 23 January 1871; Lizzie Forbes to David Forbes snr]

7  Letters from the Transvaal had just arrived with Lizzie in Edinburgh, but she writes that they did so infrequently – ‘I get letters so seldom now’. Clearly, both Kate and David wrote separately and each had an independent relationship with Lizzie; but David had already been away from home for an extended period in 1870 on a lengthy trading trip, and Kate had had to take up more responsibilities including for their farm as a result. So they both had reduced time for writing non-essential letters, something Lizzie was perhaps aware of, although probably she would have been hazy about the precise details of what a ‘trading trip’ and ‘running a Transvaal farm’ might consist in.

8  Although the opening sentence indicates that Lizzie had just received two letters, and although many letters were exchanged between her and David and her and Kate over the years, there was not exactly a correspondence between them, but also not exactly not correspondence either. Each ‘side’ wrote letters and exchanges of letters happened; but because of the lengthy time period between sending and receiving a letter from Edinburgh to Transvaal, and the even lengthier time-period between writing a letter and then sending it when in the Transvaal or on a trading trip, these were not ‘correspondence’ in the meaning customarily given to this word now, as one person directly responding to a letter from another. These were ‘not/correspondences’, a curious and interesting hybrid. Indeed, very many letters included within the WWW research have this characteristic of being part of exchanges which are not direct correspondences but indirect ones.

9  Separated by distance and time they might have been, but by 1871 there were developments both in the finances of many former migrants in their new countries, and in transportation with faster ship travel and even faster-travelling packet boats carrying post. These factors made a reality for many people of what had always been Lizzie’s expectation, that her brothers would return to Scotland for lengthy periods even if not permanently. One sign of this is the comment she makes about ‘Mr & Mrs McCorkindale’s arrival with you’.

10  Mrs McCorkindale was the maternal aunt of Kate, she and her entrepreneurially-minded wheeler and dealer Scottish husband had paid an extended visit to London and Edinburgh, and had been travelling back to their home near Lake Chrissy, close to where the Forbes lived. On this visit, Lizzie and McCorkindale had become good friends and Mrs McCorkindale later tried hard to persuade Lizzie to migrate to the Transvaal herself.

11  This journeying involved more than people. Another sign in Lizzie’s letter is the anticipated but delayed arrival of a box: ‘nor have I seen nor heard anything of the box you have so often written me about’. As the sentence following indicates, the box contained some ‘stones’ and Lizzie contracted to ‘send you a report of the compositions of the stones’. That is, she was acting as an agent for David Forbes in obtaining a technical report on them with regards to their mineral composition and whether they might be diamonds or other valuable jewels. Two things are noteworthy here.

12  One is that Lizzie often received such commissions or was requested to obtain items and have them boxed and sent by ship to the Forbes. The other is that this included financially important matters such as assays of stones and later on involved her attending shareholder meetings as a proxy on behalf of her brother, suggesting that David Forbes found his sister shrewd and capable to the extent that she could deal with these important financial concerns.

13  The reference to reading newspapers about diamonds discoveries is the tip of an iceberg of Lizzie keeping herself well-informed about South Africa news, often knowing about things in advance of her brother and sister-in-law on the spot. However, she perhaps did not have access to detailed maps, as her comment ‘great fortunes realized at the diamond fields in a very short time… in the end it must surely increase the value of your land’ suggests she thought that the Eastern Transvaal was considerably closer to the Kimberley and Hebron area in the Cape than is actually the case.

14  A significant part of this letter is on the theme of ‘times are bad’. This is with reference to the Franco-Prussian war and its economic effects, and also the negative effects of the bad weather in the Edinburgh area on the building trade. This had had family reverberations as well as more general ones, for although ‘Condie is one of the fortunate ones who has work to go… he has not been able to work one week since november had I not been here to keep them I dont know what they would have done’. David Condie later had a severe nervous breakdown and entered a mental hospital, while Jemima died in the 1880s. Lizzie then took over the upbringing of, and David took on the financial responsibility for, their children.

15  As noted earlier, at the time of writing her letter Lizzie was in search of a ‘situation’. She had previously worked, not entirely happily, for a family called the Macnees as a housekeeper and in charge of other staff. She had been quite close to the Macnee parents, but found their daughter prickly and difficult. When Mrs Macnee died, she left. As she comments, ‘I think my character [her experience and references] is too good or else too long to get readily into any other place’. Later she obtained a similar but more congenial situation in charge of the Baillie household in south Edinburgh.

16  Another aspect of keeping in touch is that Lizzie and Kate Forbes regularly sent each other newspapers and magazines: ‘I sent you some papers by last mail but no letter I hope you get the papers as they are very interesting just now with the news of the war I send 3 with this mail’. Lizzie Forbes might have had no formal education, but her writing skills improved dramatically over the years of sending letters to her brothers and Kate in South Africa and she was well read. As this letter indicates, she was interested in current affairs including the war in Europe as well as diamonds in South Africa and the effects on share-prices.

17  There were when this letter was written, as there are now, normative expectations of what a letter ‘ought to be like’. Lizzie laments that ‘I have given you a very melancholy letter but realy I have nothing bright to write about just now perhaps I may have better news soon’. Letters it seems should have something ‘bright’ in them; and also giving good news to one set of people requires receiving it from others and so there is a kind of dynamic or economy of news-giving or news-trafficking at work.

18  Lizzie Forbes’ letter concludes with another stock or conventionalized matter, in the form of a prompt to her addressee, that ‘I hope this may find you all well and that I will have a letter next mail’. This is in fact a frequently comment addressed to David, but one even more frequently addressed to the youngest brother James, who was by a long chalk the most unreliable of the family letter-writers.

19  So what does the other side of ‘the migrant letter’ look like? It will be shaped by the particular letter-writer and the particular addressee, the particular migrant context, and the particular context of origin. And with regards to this example, there are features which are replicated across some hundreds of Lizzie Forbes letters in the Forbes collection, and these bring South Africa firmly into frame.

20  The letters to David and to Kate Forbes provide her addressee with news of people and relatives known in common, about Edinburgh and Northwest Scotland, concerning economic matters with regards to Britain and South Africa, including current affairs of a wide range of kinds. They make determined efforts to stay in touch including chivvying people who are tardy letter-writers, also including handling and traversing the non/correspondence aspects of the letter-exchanges. South Africa appears in them also with regard to any and everything of relevance and importance to family members in the Transvaal, including its politics and economy and the share prices of companies with South African interests. South Africa is also a presence because of the to-ing and fro-ing of people, news and information, boxes of goods, newspapers and magazines, and of course letters.

21  As this letter indicates, Lizzie Forbes took on, rather than was assigned, a factotum role in relation to David and Kate Forbes, in acting as an agent for them with regards to family business, later looking after their daughters when they were at school in Edinburgh, also taking on responsibility for the Condie children, as well as arranging some business interests and keeping an eye on shares and other financial matters. During 1871, David Forbes went on an extended trip to the diamond fields, repeated in 1872 and 1873 but taking his whole family; later he and his brother James made significant finds of gold on their concessionary land holdings in Swaziland. Through this, a mining company was floated on the British stock exchange and for an extended period was very successful . The Forbes business enterprise paid Lizzy Forbes an annuity, which meant that she could take on these responsibilities and not have to worry too much about her own finances. This was continued after David’s death in 1905 up until she died in 1916. Kate Forbes died in 1922.

22  The not/correspondence of the other side of ‘the migrant letter’, letters written by the people who corresponded those who had migrated, show an interesting combination of the ordinary and quotidian with the out of the ordinary. There are many curious aspects of this, about the letter-writing and its hybridic nature, and also about the people who wrote and received these letters. This includes that Lizzie Forbes, in many ways a very ordinary working-class woman of her time, the 1870s, was tracking share prices, investigating the rising and falling fortunes of international companies, arranging for the assaying of diamonds and gold, attending shareholder meetings, and other activities which do not exactly fit with the often stereotypical view of the appropriately ‘feminine’ women of the Victorian period.


Marcelo Borges and Sonia Cancian (eds, 2018) Migrant Letters: Emotional Language, Mobile Identities, and Writing Practices in Historical Perspective London: Routledge.

Bruce Elliott, David A. Gerber and Suzanne Sinke (eds, 2006) Letters Across Borders: The Epistolary Practices of International Migrants Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan.

David A. Gerber (2006) Authors of Their Lives New York: New York University Press.

Liz Stanley (2016a) What is a migrant letter?’ http://www.whiteswritingwhiteness.ed.ac.uk/blog/migrant-letter/.

Liz Stanley (2016b) “Settler colonialism and migrant letters: The Forbes family and letter-writing in South Africa 1850-1922” History of the Family 3, 1, 398-428.


Last updated:  3 August 2018


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