Letters – a lifeline for historians

One of the reasons I stuck to 20th century history was because of the abundance of paper – in fact for some things there could be too much paper whilst for others finding the papers to open a window on the past is a real challenge. The thought of trying to compile history from a fragment or two of parchment was (and remains) incomprehensible. Now I wonder how historians of the future are going to cope. All these emails under password protection, that is if they haven’t been deleted, tweets on Twitter, Facebook… the options are almost endless – have you tried to find something on social media you saw some time ago and didn’t manage to download or save somehow? It’s almost impossible – but then perhaps I’m not looking properly… who knows…

But back to letters. The correspondence of Jan Smuts was published in 7 volumes by Keith Hancock and Jean van der Poel. These published letters are not everything as they selected what they felt was the most important – not much on the East Africa campaign. You’ll have to go into the unpublished letters for that info. And then there are the letters in other collections. One interesting collection I happened across was after reading about May Hobbs in volume 4 of the Smuts Papers. A quick internet search revealed this on May Hobbs by Liz Stanley. On inspection it suggests these letters are in the Smuts collection in Pretoria.

While there may not be anything ground breaking in them, they do shed some light on the social and cultural aspects of the day and show Smuts as a person rather than the politician or soldier one generally sees him as. A timely reminder that behind all great leaders, there is a person – a human one. And often through these snippets, we get to see some thinking behind the political decisions being made. Although reconciling them with the politics can be a challenge – take his correspondence with the Gilletts… I’ll leave you to read vol 4 to see for yourself.

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