Long Read | Diaries: a history from below

The diaries of ordinary people during a time of crisis can become a useful tool to understand seismic historical events like the current Covid-19 pandemic that’s stalking the globe.

There can be no better motivation for getting people to keep diaries than a time of crisis – just like the present moment as the coronavirus pandemic sweeps through the globe with horrifying results. Millions have been infected and hundreds of thousands died. Enforced lockdowns around the world have become the norm. It would be no surprise if many of those hunkered down at home take up diary writing to leave a record of these tumultuous times. With no set rules of what to write, diaries can reveal much about the world as the inner worlds of their writers. 

Some of the world’s most profound diaries have been kept during war and imprisonment, or as a cathartic way to overcome loss. They’ve gone on to become a valuable historical archive, even assailing orthodoxy. So, if the Covid-19 menace inspires a flood of diary writing, it will continue a long historical trend of ordinary people writing history from below, a boon for future historians and other scholars.

Indeed, history is full of examples of stirring diaries written by ordinary citizens that open vistas of understanding about the past. When an epidemic of bubonic plague, known as the Great Plague of London or the Black Death, struck England’s capital between 1665 and 1666, killing 100 000 people, about a quarter of the city’s population, in a mere 18 months, one Samuel Pepys was there to record the trauma in his famous diary. Of humble parentage – his father was a tailor and his mother the sister of a butcher – Pepys would, in late life, become a revered naval administrator, a confidant of Charles II and James II and a friend and equal of notables such as Sir Isaac Newton. But during the Great Plague, Pepys was still an Everyman.

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The contagion was spread when hungry fleas that had feasted on infected, dead black rats turned on humans. Death came agonisingly: the victim’s lymph nodes – around the groin, armpit or neck – would swell to form a painful bubo, the skin would turn black in patches and victims, now suffering from vomiting, nausea and fever, died within days. Although Europe had seen similar outbreaks of bubonic plagues in the past, nothing had prepared London for the mayhem of the Great Plague. 

As victims fell like flies, many fearful Londoners escaped the city. For those who remained, self-preservation bordering on callousness became the norm. People shunned sick family members and friends. Afflicted servants were thrown out on the streets. A moved Pepys wrote in his diary: “The plague [is] making us cruel as dogs to one another.” 

Panic in the streets of London

A year later, in 1666, yet another disaster befell London when a catastrophic fire, whose source was at the house of the king’s baker, gutted large sections of the city. Again, Pepys witnessed everything and recorded it in his ever-expanding diary. It all began when he was roused from sleep in the early hours by a maid who saw the flames in the distance. Pepys shrugged off the incident and went back to bed. But a few hours later, realising the magnitude of the disaster, he personally went to the Palace of Whitehall to alert Charles II. 

The fire raged for four days and four nights. Pepys’s description of the destruction and his panicked efforts to ensure the safety of his family, wife, friends and valuables – including his diary – as the hungry flames approached his home is engrossing, heartfelt and uniquely human. Back then, the city was made of closely packed wooden houses, a dangerous setup for conflagrations. Among his many evocative descriptions, Pepys told of seeing pigeons fall from the sky, a singed cat being pulled alive from a chimney and the ground being as hot as coals. About the destruction of his beloved city, he wrote: “It made me weep to see it.” But he had absolute faith that London would be restored.

His famous Diary, whose entries ran between 1660 and 1669, was first published in 1825 to great acclaim. Apparently, he stopped writing the diary because he erroneously feared he was going blind. 

The Siege of Mafeking

Sol Plaatje is another personage who wrote a fascinating diary, the contents of which still reverberate in the present. Today he may be famous for being an eminent politician and literary figure in South Africa, but once upon a time Plaatje was an enterprising 23-year-old who earned a living as a court interpreter in Mafeking (as the city was then known) when he suddenly found himself trapped in a traumatic siege during the opening stages of the South African War. The war, which raged between 1899 and 1902, was fought between the English and Boers over the dominion of colonial South Africa. The English were led by Colonel Robert Baden-Powell and the Boers by General Piet Cronjé. 

As the city endured sporadic shelling, Plaatje kept a diary on daily life, particularly the war’s effects on black residents. Ostensibly, the war was between “white” foes, but in reality this was far from the truth. Before the war broke out, both warring sides resented the idea of arming Africans, fearing the notion of white supremacy would be dealt a blow if blacks suddenly started shooting at their white colonisers. 

“The European inhabitants of the besieged town had a repugnance to the idea of armed Natives shooting at a white enemy,” Plaatje wrote in his diary, but they soon changed their minds due to the “business-like method of General Cronjé in effecting the investment”. In the end, armed units of the Barolong, Mfengu and South Africans of mixed heritage fought on the British side as combatants. Other Africans fell in with Boer forces. Clearly, everyone used the war to advance their interests in the region. 

Plaatje wrote about losing many of those he knew during the siege. He also recorded chronic food shortages in a city the Brits kept racially segregated, where Africans were subjected to a curfew and denied the same food rations as their fellow white residents. Starvation set in. Africans were fed horse meat, something that horrified Plaatje. 

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Already proficient in a variety of languages, Plaatje used the diary to polish his English, the language of the crown. In places the diary is introspective, showing a young man who yearns for self-improvement, such as his desire to cure his chronic habit of coming late at work. “This lateness appears to be a disease with which I am infected and I will see to it that it does not occur again as I feel very uncomfortable in consequence,” he wrote.

The siege lasted from 13 October 1899 to 17 May 1900, when Mafeking was eventually liberated to wild jubilations throughout the Commonwealth, giving English a new word: mafficking. While he was no doubt relieved to be free again, like everyone else, Plaatje didn’t record the end of the blockage. His last diary entry was on 30 March, a month-and-a-half before the city’s liberation. 

As his biographer Brian Willan notes, Plaatje never intended his diary to be published. Perhaps he merely wanted to keep a record of his wartime experiences so that he could share them later when he was reunited with his wife, Elizabeth, who was ensconced in the safety of her parental home in Burgersdorp. Or maybe he just wanted to leave behind a memento for his family should he not survive the war. Besides, even during the siege, Plaatje was selective about the events that made it into his diary. 

Discovered by chance in a leather scrapbook in the late 1960s, the diary was first published in 1973 as Mafeking Diary: A Black Man’s View of a White Man’s War. Later, the title changed to simply The Mafeking Diary of Sol T Plaatje. Plaatje died in 1932. His major literary works include Native Live in South Africa, a polemic against the 1913 Native Land Act, whose disastrous effects are still being felt in South Africa today, as well as Mhudi, the first full-length English novel by a black South African.

Accounts of injustice and subjugation

Another engrossing diary was also written by a 23-year-old: Ernesto “Che” Guevara. Back then, the future Argentinian revolutionary and left-wing icon was a medical student in Buenos Aires when he embarked on an epic trip across Latin America with his friend Alberto Granado, a 29-year-old biochemist, between 1951 and 1952. They left Argentina on a motorcycle that Granado owned. When the bike broke down in Chile, they abandoned it in Santiago and hitched rides, rode buses, walked, rode horses and even stowed on a ship. Nothing could deter them from seeing the vast continent laying before them to the north. Losing their bike gave them an opportunity to mingle with ordinary people and see the reality of Latin American life up close. 

The two young men visited Chile, Peru, Colombia and Venezuela. The adventurous trip may have started off as a fulfilment of youthful wanderlust, but it ended up being a profound journey of self-discovery and growth. The abject poverty, inequality and injustice they witnessed appalled them, hardening Guevara’s belief in Marxism as a tool of social redress. His stirring diary from this trip became a hit film, The Motorcycle Diaries (2004)

In Chile, Guevara saw workers being exploited in an American-run mine, prompting him to write in his diary: “The biggest effort Chile should make is to shake its uncomfortable Yankee friend from its back, a task that for the moment at least is Herculean.” He was also deeply moved by the wretched poverty among indigenous Peruvians, who were treated as second-class citizens. “These people who watch us walk through the streets of the town are a defeated race. Their stares are tame, almost fearful, and completely indifferent to the outside world. Some give the impression they go on living only because it’s a habit they cannot shake.”

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The two friends separated in Caracas, Venezuela, with Granado taking a local job while Guevara flew on to Miami, where he stayed for three weeks, before returning home to Buenos Aires after an eight-month absence. The Che who left on the back of a motorcycle is not the same Che who returned home. He was forever changed. By now he realised the common destiny of Latin America and that imperialism, subjugation and artificial, colonial divisions were holding his beloved continent back. Small wonder then that he was part of a band of revolutionaries that launched the Cuban Revolution in 1959 to usher in a fairer society. Small wonder, too, that his tragic end came in the jungles of Bolivia in 1967, when he tried to repeat the feat of the Cuban Revolution. Even on this ill-fated adventure, Guevara kept yet another diary.

Schoolgirls’ chronicles of World War II

There are also two harrowing diaries written by then-unknown teenage schoolgirls during the cataclysm of World War II. The first one is by none other than Anne Frank, whose diary, written between 1942 and 1944 while she and her family hid in a secret annexe in Amsterdam to avoid Nazi persecution, has come to symbolise the horrors of the Holocaust. Anne began her diary when she was 13. Addressing it to an imaginary friend called Kitty, she detailed her daily life in hiding and her dreams and frustrations. Betrayed to the Gestapo, her family was shipped off to the concentration camps. Only her father, Otto, survived. The Diary of a Young Girl is still as powerful today as when it first came out in 1947. 

The other teen diary is by Lena Mukhina, whose circumstances were eerily similar to Anne’s. Her diary is about the siege of Leningrad, her city, during World War II. After first bombing Leningrad, the Germans, helped by Finland, laid siege to the city, trapping some three million inhabitants. The assault was part of Germany’s surprise invasion of Russia, shattering a non-aggression pact the two countries had signed in 1939. Running between 8 September 1941 and 27 January 1944, the blockade was the longest in modern warfare, killing roughly 1.5 million militiamen and civilians. 

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Lena began her diary earlier in 1941, when she was 16, many months before her world was turned upside down. At first her entries were breezy – mentioning her hopes and dreams and all kinds of teenage angst – but when the city was attacked the contents became sombre and harrowing. 

During the siege, Lena and her extended family were holed up in a frigid communal apartment in a bombed-out Leningrad (since renamed St Petersburg). Her family took part in the digging of trenches to slow down the German army’s advance. All too soon life in the besieged city became a living hell. Artillery shelling, diseases, severe cold and starvation killed hundreds of thousands of Leningraders. Cases of cannibalism were reported. Lena’s starving family was compelled to eat their beloved cat. By this time, it was common for cats and dogs to find their way into the pot. “Today we had delicious soup with meat and macaroni. The cat meat will be enough for two more meals. It would be good to get hold of another cat somewhere. I never thought cat meat would be so good and tender,” she wrote. 

Precious records for posterity

Eventually, her mother died of hunger. The diary also showed her growing up in the midst of all her privations and misery: “Today I turned 17. I’m lying in bed with a temperature and writing … Aka [a family friend] this morning brought my 125 grams of bread and 200 grams of sweets. I’ve already eaten almost all the bread and the sweets have to last for 10 days.”

The diary abruptly ended on 25 May 1942. Many assumed Lena had died, but it turned out that she was evacuated in 1942 via Lake Ladoga, the city’s only link with the outside world. Her diary was published in 2014 as The Diary of Lena Mukhina: A Girl’s Life In The Siege of Leningrad. Lena has been rightly called the Anne Frank of Leningrad.

While Anne succumbed to typhus at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany, early in 1945, Lena died in 1991 in Moscow. Like many other diarists before them and since, the two teenagers live on in our collective memory because, when the outside world didn’t know them, when all hope seemed lost, they courageously bore witness to seismic events around them. Hopefully, prospective coronavirus-inspired diaries will turn ordinary human voices into memorable historical records for posterity. 

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