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  • A response to Norman Etherington’s ‘Jeff Guy’s Theophilus Shepstone:a study in character’
  • August 29, 2014

Fifty years ago it was unusual for researchers in the humanities to use typewriters. The British Museum Reading Room allowed them in but they were directed to a small, windowless, claustrophobic annex in the library’s bowels. It was here I met Norman Etherington, both of us to our astonishment searching for the same unusual sources on South African history. We later met in South Africa to continue our research – spoke with people who bridged a great span of South African history – Selby Msimang, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, Anthony Barker – and explored what was then still Zululand in an old, yellow Ford Anglia on roads so vulnerable to the weather that on one occasion Norman, delayed by the mud, missed not only an appointment with Edgar Brookes but playing the bassoon in the Pietermaritzburg Philharmonic’s performance of Beethoven’s Seventh. Except for the past few years, we kept in contact and I have been the recipient of his exceptional generosity, personal and academic. I must admit therefore to be taken aback not by a critical review of my book on Theophilus Shepstone and colonial Natal but by a hostile one. I also believe that it is a misreading of my book and I must respond to it, for the same reason that he gives for his review: ‘Here is a challenge that cannot be left unanswered, lest it be thought silence signifies assent’ (p51).1 I have tried not to give the impression, not only uninteresting but unedifying, of two grumpy old men slugging it out. I’m not sure if I have succeeded.

Etherington’s review of my book Theophilus Shepstone and the Forging of Natal: African autonomy and settler colonialism in the making of traditional authority is long, ranges back and forth, selecting different [End Page 81] targets for a range of the historical weapons he has collected in a lifetime of research, some of them to mount major attacks with the intent of inflicting major damage, others minor, made in passing. I have ignored the latter and concentrated my defence on the former and built it around the title of the book: a rather clumsy title I admit but passable as a succinct summary of the book’s dominant themes and quite able I feel to fend off the assaults made on it.

The review begins at the very beginning with Theophilus Shepstone, the opening two words of the title as they appear on the cover. These are larger than the rest of the title and this will lead, the reviewer maintains, to ‘prospective readers’ expecting a biography. And not only prospective readers but the reviewer himself for he follows this up with the assertion that ‘almost everything that might be expected in a full-blown biography is missing’.

This absent biography is targeted throughout the review. The problem is that while Shepstone is certainly central to the book, it is not and was not intended to be a ‘full blown biography’. This should be apparent from the wording of the title as a whole for which I take full responsibility, and not from its visual appearance for which I do not. It should also be apparent from the words that head the first sub-section of the ‘Introduction’, ‘Historical biography/biographical history’, in which I explain why I felt it necessary to shift ‘away from historical biography towards biographical history’ (page 2). No matter: Etherington wanted a full blown biography and didn’t get it, and criticises the book not for what it is but what he wants it to be: a comprehensive biography, structured around an evenly paced narrative, dealing with those topics that Etherington holds to be significant for a life of Shepstone.

But even if I could, if anyone could, write the comprehensive biography that he insists upon, I chose not to do so. Of course I read the sources as widely as possible, but I knowingly selected certain themes and then developed them as broader issues, within a context which Etherington ignores or dismisses in this review. I regret leaving out certain important aspects of...


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pp. 81-96
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