A pass and a letter, 18 June 1864

A pass and a letter, 18 June 1864

Please reference as: Liz Stanley (2020) ‘A pass and a letter, 18 June 1864’ Whites Writing Whiteness www.whiteswritingwhiteness.ed.ac.uk/curiosities/pass-and-letter/ and also provide the paragraph number as appropriate if quoting.

Govt Agent’s Office
18th June 1864

Pass for native named
in the Service of
Alex Forbes
Licensed Trader

J Walmsley
Govt Agent


^J Walmsly
of this pass was taken sick ^^The caffer (Feaver)^^ & did not get the Ivory down from the Tugalea. I sent him back for it.
Your most obedt sevt Alex Forbes^

(Forbes 38, 5891)

1. This document – on the surface, at least – looks quite straightforward. Immediately following the address it was written from, and the date, it specifies its purpose and ontology as a pass for a man called Wilhelno, and it is officially signed by a Government Agent called Walmsley. As a pass, it is a one-way kind of communication, as a document of certification. Its existence does the business – it was written on 18 June 1864, it will have been later read, and it certifies what is needful.

2. But quickly it becomes more complicated.

3. Following the original pass aspect of the document, it then turns into a letter, or perhaps more accurately a kind of letter in having a two-way dialogical aspect, through a later response having been written onto it in a different handwriting, explaining circumstances necessary to adding a further layer of legitimation for Wilhelno. However, this addition is undated and there is no place it was written from provided either. But it is signed off by Alex Forbes, who in the pass is specified as the employer of Wilhelno, said to be his servant, and it is addressed to J. Walmsley, with these both clearly aspects of letterness. However, overall it appears to be less a letter and more a kind of extension to the pass, explaining why Wilhelno did not fulfil the original purpose of the pass (that is, because of an illness caused by fever), and legitimating his present activities.

4. Therefore although the letter-like component has been addressed to Walmsley, the possessor of the document is Wilhelno and presumably he was carrying it to legitimate his presence in returning to the Tugela for the ivory he had not fetched earlier, and therefore it retains its pass aspect. So does this mean that the possessor of the pass would go through a border post of some kind and that Walmsley would see it, which is the implication of putting Walmsley’s name at the start of the additional text by Alex Forbes?

5. The pass is an official document but, given the time-period, it is handwritten. It is in fact rather carelessly written, probably by someone who did his own paperwork, although it bears an official seal. Walmsley was based in the Government Agent’s office, location unspecified, and he signs himself as being this official. But where was he Government Agent?

6. Reading an inventory from the Killie Campbell Library and following up leads indicated that Capt Joshua Walmsley was Government Agent on the Zulu frontier in Natal (his father was Sir Joshua Walmsley MP and a Lord Mayor of Liverpool). With a unit of Zulu policemen, it was his task to monitor traffic crossing the Tugela river to and from Zululand, which explains Alex Forbes’ mention of the Tugela river and ivory. So yes, there was a border post and Walmsley would have seen the amended pass; and yes, the amended pass did become a kind of letter. Other questions remain.

7. Who was Alex Forbes? Alexander by birth but known as Alex, he was the eldest of the Forbes brothers; he died of a liver abscess in 1866. Both he and David Forbes started their life in South Africa in Natal, arriving in 1850, and after briefly labouring on the Durban docks they became traders and hunters. David Forbes turned to farming a year or two before his marriage in 1860, although with occasional trading trips with his brother and also individually. Alex Forbes continued rather footloose and combined trading, hunting and droving, although having a base at his brother’s farm at Doorn Kloof.

8. The pass from Walmsley specifies that Forbes is a licensed trader, and this has the effect of also legitimating Forbes’ activities. He is someone who has paid the required dues and has been officially certified as having legitimate presence – he is licensed.

9. Why the quotation marks around the name of Wilhelno? One explanation is that doing this has the effect of picking out his name and emphasising it. The presumption would have been that Wilhelno would not be able to read and therefore this could authenticate his identity by the reader asking the bearer of the pass what his name was. Another explanation is that it problematises his name, by putting a question mark over a name that was not European-sounding and was a ‘native’ one. A sign, even though low key, of racial categorisation.

10. Altogether, in this document Wilhelno is acted upon rather than appearing as an agent. Walmsley authorises the pass, which is directed to other whites; and what Forbes later added is directed to Walmsley and/or to other whites.

11. What kind of document is it? It is a pass; it may also be a letter, though this latter is more problematic; and it may be a pass and an extension of a pass. But whichever, it’s curiously hybridic.

Last updated: 10 February 2020