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  • Jeff Guy’s Theophilus Shepstone:a study in character
  • Norman Etherington (bio)

This essay originated in a request for review of a substantial new book by a great South African historian with whom I have enjoyed a very long and more than congenial association. Jeff Guy writes flawless, sparkling prose (Guy 2013, Theophilus Shepstone and the Forging of Natal). His account of personages, places and episodes in the history of Victorian KwaZulu-Natal is characteristically knowledgeable and insightful. Though the book is long, no one will find it tedious. In addition it makes available to a wider audience the core content of a number of important unpublished seminar papers. My project expanded beyond the bounds of a conventional review when I found my writings specifically mentioned among works that Guy believes to have fundamentally misunderstood and misrepresented the government of colonised Africans during the long tenure of Theophilus Shepstone as Secretary for Native Affairs. Here is a challenge that cannot be left unanswered, lest it be thought silence signifies assent. The unavoidable consequence is that criticism outweighs appreciation in the pages that follow to a much greater extent than I would wish. Because so much hinges on archival evidence and the interpretation of documents it will be necessary to back up my case with convincing quotations and references.

The large lettering devoted to Theophilus Shepstone on the cover will lead many prospective readers to expect a biography. However, almost everything that might be expected in a full-blown biography is missing. Shepstone’s life from birth in 1817 to his arrival in Natal in 1846 is treated in a few paragraphs and scant attention is paid to his experiences after he relinquished his post of Secretary for Native Affairs in 1876. His missionary father rates a mention but his mother Elizabeth Brooks is not named. His large [End Page 51] brood of children, who were to play such significant roles in colonial administration in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century is neglected or sidelined. More remarkable still is the cursory treatment of his 20-year friendship with Bishop JW Colenso, the subject of Guy’s earlier book, The Heretic. The Shepstones dined with the Colensos on a weekly basis. Theophilus was the leading layman in Colenso’s synod, a steadfast supporter of his biblical criticism and a partner in ventures ranging from mission education and diamond mining to succession planning in the Zulu kingdom. Yet Guy has nothing to say on Shepstone’s spirituality, his role in church affairs or his views on any of the great intellectual, social or political issues of the day. His central focus is the official correspondence and public statements composed in the course of Shepstone’s official duties, first as Diplomatic Agent and later as Secretary for Native Affairs in the colony of Natal. Hence the words in smaller type following Theophilus Shepstone: ‘and the Forging of Natal’.

That key word ‘forging’ signals Guy’s further narrowing of the topic to the early period in which the basic governing structures of the colony were laid down. This shows up dramatically in the chronological weighting of the book. On my count about 70 pages are devoted to the years 1842-47 and 118 pages to 1848-56. From here the narrative breaks into a canter (140 pages for the years 1858-72; 98 pages for 1873-75), and then a sprint to the finish with just 57 pages covering events from 1876 to 1893. Put another way, about half the book (260 pages) is taken up with events between 1845 and 1865.

The distribution of archival evidence evinces a comparable imbalance. Guy employs a lavish array of sources in his chapters from the 1840s and much of the 1850s. Although references to British Parliamentary Papers and other published compendia predominate, there are numerous citations of original Colonial Office correspondence in London and the Secretary for Native Affairs Papers in the KwaZulu-Natal Archives in Pietermaritzburg. By the time he reaches the 1860s, references to the Natal archives shrink to almost nothing (apart from those cited in chapter 23 which analyses two maps produced in 1864). The bulk of references are to a single newspaper...


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pp. 51-80
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