Mrs McCorkindale, Muslatinzan, Couzan and an 1876 pass

Mrs McCorkindale, Muslatinzan, Couzan and an 1876 pass

Please reference as: Liz Stanley (2020) ‘Mrs McCorkindale, Muslatinzan, Couzan and an 1876 pass’ and provide the paragraph number as appropriate when quoting.

1. The documents in the case

Pass for 2 Kaffirs written in English – by Mrs McCorkindale
of Pretoria

Please pass the bearers 2 Kaffirs with parcels to Mr Forbes at
New Scotland – from
Mrs McCorkindale

Pretoria Novr 13th 1876
they have a pass in Dutch

(Forbes 38,18, 5879, 5880)

Pass voor Twee
[Pass for Two

Leat Passeren deze twee Kafirs Muslatinzan en Couzan met briefen en paketten van Meferrow McCorkindale aan den herr David Forbes neeuw–scotland
[Let pass these two Kafirs Muslatinzan and Couzan with letters and parcels from Mrs McCorkindale to Mr David Forbes New Scotland]

?Jas Brooks
13th Nov 1876

(Forbes 38,18, 5882, 5887)

1.1 What appears in the photographs and two transcriptions above is quite complicated. It might be seen firstly as showing a note and a pass; or secondly as a note covering – in the sense of explaining by an authorised person – a pass; or thirdly as a pass from an official that covers – in the sense of legitimating – the note; or fourthly as two closely linked passes. A ‘note’ as a genre or sub-genre of writing is as complicated as the letter, to which it is intimately connected, is. A note presumes an addressee and has a kind of truncated version of some aspects of letterness. And because it is a more schematic form, it can shade into other kinds of writing and communication with ease, of which the complications of the documents transcribed here are an example.

1.2 But first things first. Who were these people, and why a pass?

2. The people and the pass

2.1 The Mrs McCorkindale whose name appears at the start of her note was the maternal aunt of Kate Forbes. Mary McCorkindale was born a Dingley and married the wheeler-dealer and businessman Alexander McCorkindale. He was responsible for significant Scottish migration to Natal in the 1850s and 60s and then the purchase of farming lands in Transvaal. Compared with others in her family, she was an educated, wealthy and cosmopolitan person who was not afraid to express her opinions. She was the sister of Anne Purcocks nee Dingley and acted as something of a mentor for the Purcocks children, as her sister had uncertain health and was functionally literate only, while Anne’s husband David was something of a failure in farming terms.

2.2 After the early death of Alexander McCorkindale in 1872, while Mary McCorkindale inherited the problems of his estate (as the sale of the farming land referred to was disputed by the Transvaal Volksraad), she also inherited its residue as well, and her important mainstay role within the wider family continued. David Forbes became one of the executors of Mrs McCorkindale’s own estate and was also a considerable help to her in dealing with the problems with the Raad, which reflected on his own land holdings too. The McCorkindale case problems continued even after settlement by the Transvaal Raad and were at times preoccupying for the leading figures, particularly Mary McCorkindale and David Forbes. Mary McCorkindale died in 1879, and as a principal beneficiary of her Will, he inherited legal problems even though the monetary value was fairly low by that point.

2.3 The Forbes appear multiply across the WWW website as the generators of a large and rich collection now in the national archives in Pretoria. David and Alexander Forbes followed by brother James were 1850s migrants from Scotland to Natal. David married Kate Purcocks in 1860. As the eldest of the Purcocks siblings, Kate’s aunt McCorkindale played an active role in guiding her conduct including as a new wife and making sure Kate got out and about with her husband rather than remaining within the domestic sphere. At the point that the 1876 documents were written, the Forbes had moved from a farm near the Natal border to Athole, a farming-estate that David Forbes had bought via the McCorkindale initiative in purchasing Transvaal farmland.

2.4 The relationship between the Forbes, Purcocks, Dingley, and McCorkindale households was a close and complicated one in which frequent cohabitation overlapped with family connection overlapped with economic activity. There is no prising apart the economic and other aspects of life for the people concerned, and which occurred not just for the people already mentioned, but also the Forbes children, the other Purcocks’ siblings and in turn their children, and the Dingley siblings and in turn their children too. Some relevant examples concerning this group of families/households/persons are as follows and demonstrate the significant extent of transfers and exchanges between them, with all of these expedited by letters sent ‘per Kaffir’. Thus on occasion Alexander McCorkindale wrote to David Forbes asking for him to ‘lend’ farm staples that were fed to stock and David Forbes responded by requesting other items in scarce supply; Mrs Purcocks sent her daughter Kate ham, pork lard and other items by one of David Forbes’s workers who was present for another purpose, which was to deliver building materials as requested by her husband; and individual workers were sent between the households to carry out particular tasks, with the workers concerned used as just ‘engines of labour’ and raising questions about transfers of payments and as well as of labour.

2.5 Particularly close interrelationships existed between the Forbes, Purcocks and the (childless) McCorkindales. This included flows of labour, money, information-giving and -receiving, goods and services, and often, indeed usually, encompassed the black people who worked for these white people, as well as the related white people themselves. While these households existed independently, they were also closely interconnected in economic terms so that ‘household’, with its sense of always sharing a common roof, is not really appropriate to the interlaced way in which the relationships and activities occurred and people came and went, even though initially they were living at some hours travel from each other in different places in Natal. The Forbes, Purcocks and most of the Dingleys then moved to New Scotland, initially the McCorkindales remained in Natal, then moved to Lake Chrissie, still some hours travel distance; but the interconnections continued, of which some small sign is to be glimpsed in the documents shown earlier.

2.6 The now offensive ‘K word’ is used in both of the documents shown, although it should be noted that at the time it had a largely descriptive meaning, as in these documents, although sometimes it could be used in a way that indicated something much more negative. However, even in its more descriptive usage it could still imply racial categorisation and hierarchy, by reducing people to just the category. The purpose of the pass,The purpose of the pass, and the use of racial categorisation, come together in these documents although in a different way in each, as discussed on what follows.

2.7 there is also a related background point that it is important to raise. The reliable rapid transport of its day is often noted on letters as ‘per K’, meaning that they were delivered by hand by a black worker dispatched for this purpose by the white letter-writer. In this particular example, these workers are the two people, presumptively men, unnamed in Mrs McCorkindale’s note and named in Mr Brooks’s pass as Muslatinzan and Couzan. When acting as messengers, people would walk, cadge lifts and perhaps on occasion be paid to take a passing cart. In this instance Muslatinzan and Couzan were travelling a distance of about 300 km bearing letters and parcels. The letters would have been family letters and also possibly concerning ‘the McCorkindale case’, and there was a regular traffic in letters though none sent to Mrs McCorkindale from her relations have survived. The parcels were sometimes gifts for family members, but more often items they had requested being purchased in Pretoria were sent, while both ends dispatched foodstuffs of various kinds.

3. A note and the pass

3.1 The first document shown earlier is written by Mary McCorkindale. It is a covering note that is both a pass and not a pass. It is on the border of a letter and note, having a presumptive addressee, who is any white person in a position of authority and could hold the bearers to account. It is on the border of being a pass and not a pass. Strictly speaking the pass was what was issued in Dutch by Brooks, but the wealthy, educated and commanding Mrs McCorkindale would certainly come under the heading of the authority figures who were seen as legitimately able to provide routine ‘getting about’ kinds of pass. Pretoria was the capital of the Transvaal, with the use of Dutch predominating in official documentation.

3.2 The Dutch in which the pass is written by Mr Brooks is not of a ‘proper’ kind and has phonetic aspects. People might have been fluent in Dutch, although generally it was the polyglot language that became Afrikaans and known at the time as taal that they used in ordinary discourse, with Dutch mainly reserved for official circumstances. Not surprisingly, the written form was often only sparely grasped, while efficiency in the spoken word was more common.

3.3 While the note/pass written by Mrs McCorkindale and the pass issued by Mr Brooks both do the business (that is, they enable the two men concerned to pass from Pretoria to New Scotland with the letters and parcels), they do it differently. His is more official than hers. It is ‘the pass’, although it lacks any official seals and stamps. But her note in English covers his pass in Dutch in a way that assumes her ability to do this legitimately and for it to be seen as requiring action from those who would read it in a different local English-speaking context in a way that the pass in Dutch might not. There are other differences worth noting as well.

3.4 Mr Brooks names the two men concerned while Mrs McCorkindale does not. They are Muslatinzan and Couzan. Is this because she is dismissive and does not see their personal names as important, or because her note is subsidiary to and assumes the reader will have access to his pass? Given her punctiliousness with regard to race matters elsewhere in extant letters, it is more likely to be the latter. But of course there is still the matter of race attributions and hierarchy, which always has to be reckoned with. The names of the men are the only information provided about them other than that there are two people involved who are the bearers of the letters and parcels. This is because it is not the personhood of Muslatinzan and Couzan which is being certificated, but the legitimacy of their presence. This is what the pass at the time was all about, remembering that at least in theory any white person could stop any black person and demand to see this authorisation of their presence.

3.5 The use of ‘the K word’ in both documents is related. Mrs McCorkindale’s note reduces the two men to this racial category; Mr Brooks’s equally brief pass both provides them with names and associates them with racial category. But in both it is the link between the pass and the racial category that is important because both the basis and the purpose of regulation.

4. The pass and its purposes

4.1 The wider question is why a pass was deemed necessary, for whom and by whom. There were different factors involved at different times and in different places, both in the four settler states (the Cape, Natal, Transvaal and Free State), but also in the specific circumstances, including what language was spoken locally and if people were literate. Much of the academic literature makes claims about points of origin for passes; this is akin to counting the number of angels on a pinhead, for passes were used across all the settler colonies from very early on and took slightly different forms including changing over time. So trying to determine just one point of origin is not sensible, not least because it misses the messy happenstance way that passes originated and the complicated forms they might take.

4.2 From the 1820s, there was more of a bureaucratic infrastructure in the Cape concerning movements for labour purposes attached to the issuing of contracts. And from approximately the same point in time there was wider use of passes for simply registering the to-ing and fro-ing of people for mundane everyday activities in the Transvaal and Free State. There had been a fairly stringent pass system introduced in the Transvaal in 1867; following British annexation in 1877, this was reduced; and then in 1880 the British administration introduced a past system with three levels, discussed in a related Trace.

4.3 ‘The pass’ as a means of regulating and constraining the presence and absence of black people has become synonymous with segregation and apartheid and with the period from the 1948 National Party election victory up to the ending of pass legislation in 1986. However, this is to fetter its existence to a particular time-period and thereby to limit its meaning. In fact the existence of passes, indeed the existence of a pass system, exceeds this at both ends of the temporal order. Passes have a long history from well before the later 1940s, and in the shape of identity documents and associated regulatory categorisations of people have a postmortem existence too.

4.4 Passes are important in their own right because they were so instrumental in governance, regulation, constraint and also punishment. In the form of the pass system, the pass was one of the foundational features of racialisation and its regulation over time, together with the contract, the location, the sign. People, land, labour, material existence, were all conscripted. People, that is, of a particular kind, land of a particular quality, labour of a particular hue, material existence for some. But in the earlier period, things were different although beginning to take shape. Systems existed, but were patchy, deferred in the different colonial states, changed over time, happenstance brought variations, infringements were frequent on both sides. They did things differently, and what happened around 1876 when Muslatinzan and Couzan took letters and parcels from Pretoria to New Scotland is not the same as things that happened between 1948 and 1986.

4.5 There is something lurking at the back of these considerations and which is related to the ‘per K’ comments made earlier, that rapid reliable communications for a lengthy period of time involved the use of black labour as a material embodied postal service in delivering a message, collecting the reply, and delivering it back. The majority, even the large majority, of the earlier letters considered within the framework the WWW project have this aspect to them and this needs to be remembered. In addition, using people as a form of ‘new technology’ was not limited to the exchange of letters and related writings, for more widely the early settler embrace of cheap black labour enable the construction and perpetuation of a way of life otherwise outmoded.

4.6 In response to the ontological issues raised at the opening of this discussion as to whether the transcriptions concern a note and a pass, or a note covering a pass, or a pass that covers the note, or as two closely linked passes, they are a little – or a lot – of each of these. While later the pass became a blunt and often brutal Instrument of regulation, with regard to Mrs McCorkindale, Mr Brooks, Muslatinzan and Couzan in late 1876, its ontology was more complex and diffuse.

5. Useful reading

Breckenridge, K., 2008. Power without knowledge: Three nineteenth century colonialisms in South Africa. Journal of Natal and Zulu History26(1), pp.3-30.

Denoon, D., 1980. Capital and Capitalists in the Transvaal in the 1890s and 1900s.  Historical Journal23(1), pp.111-132.

Frankel, P. (1979). The Politics of Passes: Control and Change in South Africa.  Journal of Modern African Studies, 17(2), 199-217.

Levy, N., 1981. The state, mineowners and labour regulation in the Transvaal, 1887-1906. In Collected Seminar Papers. Institute of Commonwealth Studies (Vol. 27, pp. 24-35). Institute of Commonwealth Studies.

Posel, D., 2001. Race as common sense: Racial classification in twentieth-century South Africa. African Studies Review44(2), pp.87-114.

Smalberger, J.M., 1976. The role of the diamond-mining industry in the development of the pass-law system in South Africa.  International Journal of African Historical Studies9(3), pp.419-434.

Suzman, A., 1960. Race classification and definition in the legislation of the Union of South Africa-1910-1960. Acta Juridica, p.339.

Swanson, M.W., 1976. “The Durban System”: roots of urban apartheid in colonial Natal. African Studies35(3-4), pp.159-176.

Van Der Merwe, D., 1989. Not slavery but a gentle stimulus: Labour-inducing legislation in the South African Republic. Journal of Southern African Law, p.353.

Van Sittert, L., 2014. Writing on skin: The entangled embodied histories of black labour and livestock registration in the Cape Colony, C. 1860-1909. Kronos40(1), pp.74-98.

Watson, R.L., 1980. The Subjection of a South African State: Thaba Nchu, 1880–1884.  Journal of African History21(3), pp.357-373.


Last updated: 30 January 2020