‘I tak up my pen’, 8 December 1830

‘I tak up my pen’, 8 December 1830

Please reference as: Liz Stanley (2019) ‘I tak up my pen′ www.whiteswritingwhiteness.ed.ac.uk/Traces/Pen/ and provide the paragraph number as appropriate when quoting.

1. What is it?

1.1 Shown in the photograph here is the first page of a letter dated 8 December 1830, sent by Joseph Hemming to his older brother John Hemming. John Hemming was a Bombardier in the 5th Battalion of the Royal Artillery, at that point stationed in Limerick, Ireland, moving there from Dublin. Later he was promoted around the time that his regiment was sent first to India and then the Cape Colony. Around John Hemming being demobbed, he was offered a prestigious position as a tax collector working for the newly-created Colonial Secretary position in Cape Town. He became the patriarch of the Hemming family in South Africa, with later his son Robert Hemming marrying Alice Schreiner, an elder sister of the writer and social commentator Olive Schreiner.

1.2 The transcription of the first page of the letter from Joseph to John now follows and is discussed below. A ?word indicates a doubtful reading and ^this^ an insertion. Crossing out, mistakes etc are in the original.

Dearham Forge
Uper Cannady
December 8

Dear Brother after A longe unreadable delay I tak up my pen to anser your kind letter hopeing it finds you well as it leaves me at this time thank god for it you stated you was still in Ireland and doing well wich I was verey glad to here and likewise that probably you should be removed to North America if you do you must let me now and I will come and see you likewise intimated to me that you ad sum Doutes of my Honesty concerning the forty pounds but it certainly is withoute a Cause but no more Aboute that now for A little news concerning our relaitions Edward Matthews came to Cannady last Septem with is Wife and too children is Father and Mother in Law and their Fammely are all in good helth and likely to do very well Hunkle John Stephens & Haunt & three Cosens Johen James and Richard are all in good helth and doing very well the ad no childe since they came to cannady Huncle Richard I have not horde of since I have been in ?N America aney more than he left westminster for Montreeall About 2 years ago… [A2.1.1/1.9026]


1.3 When going through material in the Schreiner-Hemming collection and then reading this letter’s first page, five interesting features come to sight.

1.4 Firstly, the extracts from Joseph Hemming’s letter that what earlier transcribed and appear in the WWW database in fact contain a number of incorrectly transcribed words that will be need to be corrected using the full transcription Here. This has not been the result of carelessness, but of the practical circumstances of the research. This involves dealing with many sometimes wildly different handwritings in one day’s work and working at speed to record the basics of as many letters as possible. Inevitably some mistakes will have been made although hopefully, as in this case, they will be minor ones and corrected at a later stage.

1.5 Secondly, it is very striking how beautifully written his letter is and also how well preserved it is too. It is now around 190 years since it was written, yet it looks as though it could have been penned yesterday, for much of the ink is still sharp, the individual letters are well formed, the lines are evenly spaced and the paper is clean and undamaged although creased. The carefulness suggests it was probably written with considerable attention by someone fairly unused to letter-writing. Not visible to the eye is that it must also have been kept very carefully by a succession of family members, and this is something that its presence in the large number of surviving Hemming letters dating from the 1830s through to the 1930s confirms. But just who were these family archivists and what kind of role did they play? Some of them are known and are commented on elsewhere on the WWW website, in the discussions of the Schreiner-Hemming and Findlay Collections.

1.6 Thirdly, Joseph Hemming was clearly adept at conveying things. For instance, he conveys with nuance and subtlety some responses to his brother and things he has heard, including that he was glad to know his brother was well, and he rejects John’s doubts, passed on by another relative, as to his honesty about the £40 sum mentioned (an enormous amount of money at that time). At the same time as this proficiency, it is also clear that Joseph is just ‘functionally literate’, a rather disparaging term that means he can convey sense with accuracy and put across what he wanted to, but without knowing or using the prevailing rules of grammar, spelling and punctuation, including capitalisation.

1.7 Fourthly, what is also striking about Joseph’s letter is the mobility of members of his family and kin. He is in ‘Uper Cannady’. They have an uncle, aunt and cousins in America (perhaps in an area that became part of Canada), another uncle who has been in London then Montreal. And while his brother John is a Bombadier in Limerick, and Ireland is where the brothers were born, Joseph thinks that John may be coming to North America (although in fact John was soon to leave for India and then the Cape, married and raised children in Cape Town, and post-army lived the rest of his life there).

1.8 Fifthly, Joseph’s letter was written in the year 1830. These migrations are not those of the 1840s and after, which were propelled by starvation and destitution in Ireland. They are the movements of adventurous go-getting types seeking better opportunities for themselves. And as with the Hemmings, so also with many of the English-speaking migrants to America, Canada, South Australia and South Africa of this earlier period. The Findlay family, for instance, arrived in South Africa through an involvement in merchant shipping and also had kin in North America; and the Forbes family migrated from Scotland to Natal and Transvaal and had family members in North America, South Australia and also the Cape Colony.

2. Why was it written?

2.1 A full transcription of page 2 of Joseph Hemming’s letter follows and is then discussed. Again, it is as close to the original as possible with regards to spelling, punctuation and layout.

I must ^say^ A little concerning my hown Affairs I am living at Dearham forge in the County of Oxford Uper Cannady carrying on my Trade as Waggon maker and are doing much better than I could in England the Province of Uper Cannady is the best Settlement in the world for A man to live in that as to get is living by is own labourin for the Land is very fertile and little or no tax to pay and Market for Game Beef and Pork is good in fact ?traders cannot help getting Rich if the will only work there is not A Settlement in the United States that is so good to live in as Uper Cannady the Ammericans are continualy coming to settle in Cannady on event of the goodness of the Land and the Liberty man enjoys here the best of there Liberty but the ?bare the the name and ?can enjoy the Liberty there is no person that nows the Contery but will allow it to be the freest Contery in the world I must now state A bit concerning my Travels in Ammerica I Landed in New York on 4 of September 1828 stay there 2 weeks from thence to Pillidelphia

2.2 Joseph Hemming writes here that he will ‘say a little’ about his own affairs. However, as often with such phrases, what follows is actually ‘quite a lot’ and this goes on to the next page of his letter as well. Page 2 starts with a new topic from how page 1 ends, and it is written in a very matter-of-fact way. It details where Joseph is living, at Dearham in Oxford County in Upper Canada, and that he is carrying out his trade as a waggon maker. This would have stood him in very good economic stead in a farming area opening up to trade, and he comments on the availability of land, some aspects of farming, and that there is a ready market for meat.

2.3 The tone of Joseph’s page 2 comments in writing about Upper Canada repeatedly extol local circumstances, such as that traders “cannot help but get rich” if they just work. Also, he emphasises Liberty with a capital L and has much on this but in a rather superficial way. That is, the repetitions are there about the “freest Contery in the world”, and that the Liberty is an attraction for people presently in America, but exactly what is involved in this is not specified. And so although enthusiasm comes across, the result reads like a kind of advertisement, as though he is writing these things to persuade, to sell Upper Canada and its liberty.

2.4 Might Joseph Hemming have had an emigration agency or colony administration connection of some kind, or was he aiming for family reasons to persuade brother John to go there, or what? There are no clues about this. But as well as the likelihood that he was trying to persuade his brother John, perhaps he was also presenting things in glamorous terms for his own sake, that is, to describe things in a way that shows he has come good, rather than writing anything that would give a more factual and less upbeat impression.

2.5 Remembering the December 1830 date of Joseph’s letter, the hazy sense of boundaries in his comments between the United States, Canada and Upper Canada in fact reflects hazy borders on the ground. Upper and Lower Canada were at the time British colonies along the Great Lakes area, and later more complexly became French-speaking Quebec and English-speaking Toronto and Ontario. It is now said that most of the 1830s migrants arriving there were destitute or at least on their uppers. In 1837, there was an insurrection against oligarchical British control over the colony, with its centre described as being Dearham, from where Joseph was writing.

2.6 Joseph Hemming locates himself as in Upper Canada, but when he writes that “I must state A bit concerning my Travels”, this starts “in Ammerica”, and at points elsewhere in his letter what is America and what is Canada is by no means sharply differentiated. However, he first landed in New York and therefore America in September 1828, over two years before the date of his letter, and stayed two weeks there. He then went “thence” to Philadelphia, and on the next page of his letter Pittsburgh and Ohio are also mentioned. These are long distances, particularly in the later 1820s, and it is nowhere spelled out whether he was moving around to look for a likely place to settle, or whether he already had a destination in Upper Canada in mind.

3. What of whiteness and South Africa?

3.1 As the end of page 2 of his letter is reached, Joseph Hemming is in Philadelphia. Some general observations are in order at this point, regarding what a letter from one man in Upper Canada to another in Limerick in Ireland has to do with South Africa and whiteness.

3.2 Hemming’s letter was written in 1830 and therefore near the start of the cataclysmic European mass migrations that came to characterise the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Insofar as him extolling his circumstances in Upper Canada reflected real improved life chances on the ground, what propelled Joseph’s own movement was the opportunity to do “much better than I could in England” and he was able to succeed in this.

3.3 Not only for the Hemmings, but also regarding other white settler families who arrived in South Africa between the start of the nineteenth century and the 1850s, there is a similarly strong sense of an entrepreneurial or otherwise outward-going spirit wanting to find new opportunities for betterment and an equally strong conviction of their ability to do so. The Pringles, Hocklys and Townsends and other 1820 settler families, the Findlays, the Forbes in the Natal emigrations of 1850, and the Hemmings, all come under this heading. The idea that people ‘back then’ lived lives characterised by localism needs to be taken with a large pinch of salt, because for many of them their collective eye was on the main chance and the perception was that this existed in places far away.

3.4 The brother that Joseph Hemming wrote his letter to, John, was presently in Ireland, and Joseph surely hoped that John might migrate to Upper Canada. However, John too was a man on the move. In 1830 he was in a regiment which was about to be posted to India and then South Africa, and he eventually settled in the Cape. Other members of the Hemming family, like other members of the families mentioned above, went to other colonial destinations and sometimes more than one in turn, so that the Cape could be followed by Canada followed by South Australia. In this early period, the favourite destinations of these families of predominantly Scots and Irish extraction were particularly Canada, South Australia and, for a period of time and attracted by emigration schemes, the Cape and Natal. In this sense, Joseph Hemming’s letter was written and sent in the slowly opening eye of the tiger that became what James Belich refers to as the ‘settler revolution’.

3.5 In many places, and to change the metaphor, because of sheer weight of numbers this later became something like the arrival of a plague of locusts. In the case of the Cape and Natal, the numbers were much smaller than Canada, America and Australia, but the locust effect was still felt.

4. Why the travels?

4.1 Pages 1 and 2 of Joseph Hemming’s letter a to his brother John are the front and back of a single sheet of paper. Page 3 is the inside of sheet which was folded around the others and has the address, and the other side marks of a seal on it. As a consequence of its function, this page bears the signs of wear and tear from it travelling oceans and continents, with a number of words unclear and at some points missing slithers of paper and so of words.

4.2 A full transcription of page 3 of the letter is as follows.

 [I Landed in New York on 4 of September 1828 stay there 2 weeks from thence to Pilladelphia] in Pennsilvania and worked there 6 weeks Pilladelphia is supposed to be one of the ansomist places in the world but no more about that now I unditake A jorney of three hundred miles I pasd over the Allegany mounten from Pillidelphia unreadable Pitsburg the citey of Pitsburg is situated on the point betwen too Rivers the ?Monagaala and the Allegany were joined together ?to ?form the Oiho the value of the merchandice wich passes through Pitsburg annualy is estimated at 20..000.000 Dolers it is situated 230 miles ?WNW of Baltimore 290 miles ?N by ?Philada and about ?2000 by the course of the Oiho and Mississipi above New Orleans situated 40o ?81’44 N Longgitude ?by 80o ?87’ I Travelled wordmissing the Route in 10 days I worked in Pitsburg 3 months and then went as Carpenter on A steam Boat wich run to from Pitsburg to Lewisville in the state of Kentuckey wich is 700 miles we made one trip to Nashville in Tennesee wich is unreadable ?frorom ^from^ Pitsburg from thence to cannady in may of 1829 and now wordsmissing Deareham Forge so for the want of rom must conclude with wishing you well I remain your Affectionate Brother Joseph Hemming

Directors Colony Joseph Hemming

Deareham Forge County Oxford Uper Cannady North Ammerica

4.3 This page of Hemming’s letter is concerned with his extensive travels in the fairly short time from him arriving in New York in September 1828, then in Upper Canada in May 1829, and writing his letter of 8 December1830. It provides some precise distances and also and rather oddly two compass directions. It is also oddly precise in other ways too. For example, regarding his comment that “the value of the merchandice wich passes through Pitsburg annualy is estimated at 20..000..000 Dolers”, this is both very precise and also raises the question of how he could he know such things.

4.4 It is possible that this came from something published in a newspaper, but also possibly from information given him formally by authority figures in Upper Canada. Other similar comments concern him having travelled a route in 10 days as well as providing the amount of time he worked in some places. These are his travels, and then he mentions arrival at Dearham in May 1829, but this is undetailed apart from the very positive statements (also undetailed) about liberty and markets given on page 2.

4.5 But why should Joseph Hemming’s letter to his distant brother give the details of his various travels, rather than provides detailed information of what he was doing after his arrival at Dearham Forge? The result is certainly a kind of travelogue, but why it should be so remains rather mysterious.

4.6 The letter also has a very conventionalised formal ending in the form of a reason or excuse for why it stops when it does, that this is a kind of necessity. However, in fact this comes at a point on the paper when there is actually a fair amount of room left in which at least one further comment could have been written. The explanation is provided by the lengthy direction that is then given about how to send letters to him, which is via the colony directors and with full details provided.

4.7 Another question immediately comes to mind because of this. Why imply that his brother should address any future letter to Joseph via the directors (acting as a kind of postbox) of the Upper Canada Colony? Did he perhaps at that point still have no fixed abode? Or what? It seems to indicate that he had a fairly close or at least compliant relationship with authority in the colony. Along with the travelogue detail of places and journeys and the earlier written inducements of Liberty and good fortune, this again raises the possibility that the letter might have been written at request for recruitment purposes, for some of the details are such that it is difficult to imagine how and why he might otherwise have gained such knowledge to pass on, if he had not been provided with it. But this is merely surmise and there is no certain evidence to back it.

5. To Bombardier John I Hemming

5.1 Page 4 is the outside sheet of Joseph Hemming’s letter. It was folded and sealed round the others, and it is fascinating in its own right.

5.2 Page 4 was folded around the others, to provide both a cover and a kind of envelope. As the photograph shows, it has John Hemming’s name and address and the marks of a seal on it. As a consequence of its function, it also bears the signs of wear and tear produced as it travelled.

5.3 The splits in the writing paper and the missing slithers which make parts of the content of page 3 difficult to read are of course also visible on the address side. They show clearly how the paper has been folded. While the letter was en route to its destination, what would have been visible are the middle panels shown in the photograph, with the two outside ones overlapping each other after folding. They are noticeably dirtier than the inside sheets. They also bear a seal and the middle panel has on it the name and address.

5.4 The remains of the seal are shown in the cracked and splintered red wax; close examination suggests it was nothing very fancy, just a plain piece of sealing-wax to prevent the pages coming undone and prying eyes reading the content. There is also in red ink a ‘Paid’ stamp to show that the cost of postage had been already paid. Also there is a written ‘Paid’ and what looks like ‘3N’ associated with it. In the 1830s, the prevailing currency would have been dollars in North America and pounds and shillings in Ireland, so what the ‘N’ refers to is unclear.

5.5 This sheet of the letter when folded would have been dominated by the name and address on it. It is addressed to ‘Bombardier John I Hemming 5 Batt Royal Artillery’ in what is definitely Joseph Hemming’s writing. It is also notable that, by comparison with his functionally literate letter-contents, the envelope is precisely written with ‘proper’ spelling.

5.6 Artillery regiments were concerned with the heavy weaponry of an army, such as cannons and ‘field guns’ pulled by horse. ‘Bombardier’ is a promoted rank specific to the artillery, and it is the equivalent of corporal. The address was originally written as ‘Island Bridge Dublin’, which was presumably where John Hemming’s 5th Battalion was stationed before it was dispatched to Limerick, while the Dublin line has been crossed through and Limerick inserted in a different handwriting.

5.7 There are a number of postmarks representing different points on the letter’s journey, although not all of them are now readable. The letter is internally dated as 8 December 1830. One of the postmarks is illegible, while another is partly handwritten and difficult to read but is likely to be ‘14 Mar 1831’, while a third is probably ’29 Mar 1831’, and two more are dated ‘9 My 1831’. Other information on the stamps is too faint to read but is likely to have indicated postal offices. It seems likely that John Hemming received his letter soon after 9 May 1831, around four months and one week after it was posted – and remembering that this is still the time of sail rather than steam in crossing the oceans.

5.8 What can be gleaned from the postal information, then, is quite limited, although it adds to the sense of a long and difficult journeying for the letter and the care that was taken in its writing and its direction. It also quite literally shows that John Hemming as well as his brother was on the move.

6. PS

6.1 There is no PS to Joseph Hemming’s letter to brother John, but there is to this Trace discussion of it.

6.2 It starts with what conclusions can be drawn about it, for at first sight, this letter might appear to have little or nothing to do either with South Africa or with whiteness. But this immediately gives way to the realisation that it is in fact connected with the very essence, of whiteness, being written at a pivotal point near the start of those extraordinary movements of people that were the mass migrations of the middle and later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, predominantly but not exclusively of white people of European origins, and which transmuted imperialism into settler colonialism.

6.3 For those like the Hemming brothers, things were a-changing and if they weren’t then they soon would be. Should they stay or leave? If leave, then where to go, and how? They were after a different kind of life, one which could provide them with opportunities that they probably wouldn’t have if they stayed, and which previous generations had certainly not had.

6.4 And there the tale told by the letter that Joseph Hemming wrote to his brother John ends. However, there is a little more to add, gained from other letters and documents that are part of the archival record.

6.5 John Hemming arrived in South Africa as part of the British imperial presence, while he stayed there as a settler colonialist. His army career blossomed and he was promoted to sergeant. In 1844, he was released from the army with the special agreement of its commander, Sir George Napier, who was also at the time Governor of the Cape. This was to allow him to be appointed to a new post, working for the then newly instituted post of Colonial Secretary, held by John Montagu, as a Cape Town tax collector [see http://www.whiteswritingwhiteness.ed.ac.uk/traces/from-john-montagu/]. And what then?

6.6 John Hemming appears in brief mentions in later reports, described as a stalwart of Cape Town white public life. His children were perhaps born and were certainly largely raised in Cape Town and were South Africans through and through with no sign of any remaining allegiance to either Ireland or Britain. His son Robert, later a key figure in founding the Johannesburg Public Library, married Alice Schreiner, the second daughter and third child of Gottlob and Rebecca Schreiner. Alice’s youngest sister was the writer and social theorist Olive Schreiner.

6.7 Alice inherited the Schreiner family heart valve problem and many of her children survived only for short time, while she herself died suddenly when still a young woman. After her death, the surviving children – Effie, Wynnie, Guy, Elbert – were adopted and raised by Alice’s younger sister Ettie and also by the woman who worked as their Nannie. She gained public fame as Sister Nannie, with Ettie’s support running a series of homes for vulnerable black and coloured young women. Her formal name was Anna Tempo, the daughter of freed Mozambique slaves [see http://www.whiteswritingwhiteness.ed.ac.uk/traces/whiteness-now-you-see-it-now/].

6.8 Ettie Hemming later married Arthur Brown, whose father John was a white LMS missionary, and whose mother Eliza was part Khoisan with a family lineage including two of the most famous and radical LMS missionaries of their day, the father and son James Reads.

Last updated: 28 November 2019


Recent Posts