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Robert Provo Norris Collection

Call Number: MSS 11

Scope and Contents

The collection comprises personal diaries, watercolors, and drawings by Robert Provo Norris, most of which were created while he was a soldier stationed on the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa during the Frontier ("Kaffir") Wars of the 1840s and 1850s. It also includes letters written by other correspondents and miscellaneous manuscripts about his life and death. The bulk of the collection represents the years 1846-1851.


  • 1846-1854


Conditions Governing Access

The materials are open for research.

Conditions Governing Use

The collection is the physical property of the Yale Center for British Art. Literary rights, including copyright, belong to the authors or their legal heirs and assigns. For further information, consult the Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Acquired 1995, Paul Mellon Fund.


The collection is arranged into four series: I. Diaries; II. Correspondence and Writings; III. Sketchbook; IV. Watercolors and Drawings.


2 Linear Feet (1 box)

Language of Materials


Catalog Record

A record for this collection is available in Orbis, the Yale University Library catalog

Persistent URL


The collection comprises personal diaries, watercolors, and drawings by Robert Provo Norris, most of which were created while he was a soldier stationed on the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa during the Frontier ("Kaffir") Wars of the 1840s and 1850s.

Biographical / Historical

Robert Provo Norris was born ca. 1825 at Broome in Norfolk, England, the eldest son of Reverend D.G. (Dennis George) Norris, a Church of England parson who was Vicar of St. Edmund Church, Kessingland, Suffolk for 35 years. Robert was the first of eight children born to Reverend Norris and his wife, Mary Pellew (born ca. 1800 in Halifax, Nova Scotia). Only three of the Norris children would survive childhood and live past the age of twenty-five. An illness seems to have swept the Norris household in 1844, for Mary Pellew and three of her children--Henry (1828-1844), Ellen (1840-1844),and Elizabeth (b/d 1844)--all died in this year. Reverend Norris lived on until 1865. Surviving daughters Mary (1830-1906), Christiana (1831-1895) and Rose Gernton (b. 1833, married 1863) remained in the Suffolk area for the rest of their lives.

On 9 June 1846, Norris joined the 6th Regiment in Kessingland and was stationed there for approximately two months. By 30 July 1846, he had left Kessingland and travelled to Cork, Ireland, where he remained for over one month. In early September 1846, Norris and the rest of his regiment were sent to the Cape of Good Hope. During the Napoleonic Wars, Britain took possession of the Cape of Good Hope, which was previously a Dutch colony. The Cape area was an ideal resting point for European traders en route to India. However, the original Dutch colonists in the area, many of whom were farmers, became engaged in the wars between different aboriginal African tribes, including the Xhosa. Britain became involved in the wars primarily for political reasons and to protect British trade interests. As early as 1795, British troops were sent to the Cape of Good Hope in order to keep the peace. Until 1895, the British were engaged in many frontier wars in South Africa, including but not limited to the Seventh Frontier War or the War of the Axe (1846-1847), the Xhosa/"Kaffir" Wars (1850-1853 and 1877-1878), and the Anglo-Zulu War (1879).

Although he spent over five years in South Africa, Norris was not involved in all of the Cape's numerous frontier wars. When sent to South Africa in 1846, he was first stationed at Fort Peddie, a camp situated between the Fish and Keiskamma Rivers, approximately 20 miles from the Indian Ocean. Norris and other members of the 6th Regiment were subsequently sent to Cape Town, thereby avoiding the skirmishes of the War of the Axe from 1846 to 1847. In addition, Norris spent some time at Fort Cox and approximately seven months at Fort White, where, in 1848, he was promoted to Lieutenant in the 6th Regiment.

While in Cape Town, however, Norris prepared for the forthcoming military campaigns and enjoyed weekly socializing with fellow soldiers and other British citizens living on the Cape of Good Hope. He also occupied his time by concentrating on his artwork, making watercolors and drawings of local scenes and people. Norris' diaries and art reflect his observations of life in South Africa, and his writings trace the development of a friendship and romantic relationship with a young woman named Annie de Smidt. Annie was a member of the well-established de Smidt family, of Dutch origin, who had settled in Cape Town in the early years of the nineteenth century. On May 9, 1850, just before Norris was to be thrown into battle on the eastern frontier, he wrote the following passage regarding his nearly two-year relationship with Annie: "Spent naturally a very pleasant evening, but the more I know the more difficult will it be to leave her. Such is life. We no sooner know and make friends than we are doomed to part” (Diary 1). In June, 1850, Norris' regiment was moved to the eastern frontier and involved in skirmishes during the early days of the Xhosa ("Kaffir") War.

In October 1851, members of the South African Xhosa people, then known to Britons as "Kaffirs," were gathering in great numbers near the Amatola Mountains and the town of Waterkloof, close to the Kroomie Mountains. Norris’s 6th Regiment, consisting of approximately 611 soldiers and under the command of Lieutenant Colonel John Michell, was ordered to march toward the Kroomie Mountains and attack the stronghold of the Xhosa chief, Maqomo. During the early morning of October 14, 1851, while pursuing the Xhosa into the depths of the Kroomie mountain range, Norris was shot trough the abdomen as he lead his men into battle near the edge of a deep ravine; he died in his sleep later that same day. His body was taken to a nearby military post and buried by a clergyman of the English Church, Reverend J. Wilson.

There are two memorial tablets erected in memory of Norris, both of which are at St. Edmund Church, Kessingland, Suffolk. The first seems likely to have been installed by his family; it notes that he died at just 25 years of age, while leading his men in battle. The inscription on a second plaque declares it to have been "erected as a mark of esteem by his brother officers."


  • Brinton, Wilfred. History of the British Regiments in South Africa, 1795-1895. Cape Town: University of Cape Town, 1977.
  • Bull, Marjorie. Abraham de Smidt 1829-1908: Artist and Surveyor-General of the Cape Colony. Cape Town: Printpak, 1981.
  • Godlonton, Robert. A Narrative of the Kaffir War. Cape Town: C. Struik, 1962.
  • King, William Ross. Campaigning in Kaffirland, or, Scenes and adventures in the Kaffir war of 1851-2. London : Saunders and Otley, 1853.
  • Le Cordeur, Basil. The War of the Axe, 1847. Johannesburg : Brenthurst, 1981.
  • Lister, Georgina. Reminiscences. Johannesburg: Africana Museum/Cape Times Limited, 1960.
  • Robert Provo Norris Memorial Tablets, St. Edmund Church, Kessingland, Suffolk.
  • Suckling, Alfred. The History and Antiquities of the County of Suffolk. London: John Weale, 1846.
  • Wellesley, Edward. Letters of a Victorian Army Officer, Edward Wellesley. Stroud: Alan Sutton Publishing for the Army Records Society, 1995.
Guide to the Robert Provo Norris Collection
compiled by Heidi N. Abbey and Fiona Robinson; edited by Francis Lapka
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description note
Finding aid written in English.

Part of the Yale Center for British Art, Rare Books and Manuscripts Repository

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