Robert Barbour to Robert Fowler, 14 May 1880, C125/95

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Barbour, Robert






East London


Cape Colony

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MSS. Brit. Emp. S. 18 / C125-95


E. London, S. Africa
May 14 1880

Dear Papa,

From a reference in a colonial paper which I saw y’day I gather that some letter of mine sent to England, touching on the native question, has appeared in the Aborigines’ Friend. I imagine it is one addressed to you (of date Feb 10); if so, I shall be glad that any words of mine have helped to draw attention to Morosi’s affair. The only answer volunteered by parties challenged with the misconduct is an admission by an army surgeon that he possessed himself of the head of the chief ‘for scientific purposes.’ A vague denial was at the same time offered by the officer in command; which is contradiction in terms by the above admission. I have heard from several parties that during the late war a trade was carried on in kafir skulls, 15… being the current price for them.

It is well in this matter of the native question to distinguish between the feeling of individual colonists, and even the feeling of the colony as a whole, and the measures and acts of the Cape Government. As farmlabourers, I believe the natives are in many cases better off than a similar class at home; as house-servants, they meet with as good treatment in most houses as those of the same station in the old country. Hence anything urged against the method in which the government deals with natives as a whole is apt to be construed into an aspersion cast upon the personal character of people in the colony. The two things may very well be, for the present purpose, ought to be kept quite apart. There are many here I believe who are dissatisfied with the action of government in the matter, and who yet do not see any way in which to exert their influence in order to secure a better state of things, except the personal way. The political way is neither so accessible nor so effectual as it seems to one accustomed to the course of politics in England; there is no regularly constituted opposition in parliament; and, again, individual members are less elected upon broad issues than to represent local interests. There are many more who agree with the government in power but whose personal attitude to the natives is both more just and gentle than the policy pursued by the ministers. The enclosed article speaks for itself; I can vouch for the accuracy of the facts referred to, as they have come under my personal observation. This law limiting the time of natives carrying passes and requiring their revision at every point of the journey; this Disarmament Act, which abolishes the distinction between good and bad, loyal and disloyal, right and wrong, putting a premium upon past misconduct and upon present disobedience (Fingoes, who fought for us in 3 wars losing arms given as rewards by the authorities, while disorderly Tambookies refuse to surrender them); the Branding Act which proposes to stamp the cattle of each kraal – sage and practicable a device as marking sovereigns would be at home, since they are the chief article of exchange; – all those taken together seem to me to be a best thing we can do to shake the last foundation of the idea of British justice in the minds of the natives; to open the way for endless irritation on the part of those illdisposed towards them; to foster the bitter feelings left by war; and to write Fingoes and Kaffirs, all natives, good and bad and indifferent, in a common bond of distrust, discontentment and disaffection.

I trust and believe that the late change of affairs in England will not occasion any hasty alteration of our policy towards South Africa, such as has in the past only too often awakened in the minds of colonists a sense of interference and grievance on their part and in the minds of natives a sense of instability on ours. There is room enough for the wholesome and effective influence of English opinion, both indirectly and by means of Her Majesty’s representative at the Cape, without prejudice to the Responsible Government of the colony, in securing the ends of equity and peace. One may agree with the farmers as to the injury done by the permission of indiscriminate vagrancy, and sympathise with the general community in its fear of the effects of a promiscuous armament among natives, without proceeding to such extremes as the transgression of justice and of friendliness between man and man in order to avert these dangers. If the old system of passes were retained and a heavy license laid upon arms, the requirements of necessity would be provided for, while a check was put upon excess. A native would not long care to possess so costly an article as a firearm would them become, unless the security of his stock depended upon the possession of it. As for the Branding Act, I cannot see any substitute for so inimitable a piece of closet-legislation; it should be consigned to what the Greeks called ‘inextin

We have been delayed here for a week by the detention of our steamer at Port Elizabeth, but we do not think it is lost time as I am gaining strength.

Your …
R.W. Barbour

Charlotte is very well and sends her dearest love.