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Shepstone in love: The other Victorian in an African colonial administrator

Weir, J. and Etherington, N. (2008) Shepstone in love: The other Victorian in an African colonial administrator. In: Limb, P., (ed.) Orb and Sceptre: Studies in British Imperialism and Its Legacies, in Honour of Norman Etherington. Monash University ePress, Melbourne, Vic., 05.1-05.17.

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Over the last 40 years the reputation of Theophilus Shepstone has grown and grown. In his own time, most white settlers in Natal denounced him as the man who had locked up the land and the African labour they coveted. Most, though not all, missionaries opposed his toleration of African customs such as polygyny, bride wealth and beer brewing. After his death, historians tended to endorse the opinion of the Colonial Office that having served as a gifted colonial administrator in Natal, he brought about his own downfall after being promoted beyond his competence as the first Administrator of the British Transvaal in South Africa following its annexation in 1877.

Others took a more sinister view. C J Uys, an Afrikaner nationalist, blamed Shepstone for subjecting a pioneering Boer republic to imperialist oppression. The crusading daughters (Frances, Harriette and Agnes) of Bishop J W Colenso blamed him and his sons for extinguishing the Zulu monarchy and running an unjust system of African administration. Shepstone’s handling of the Langalibalele affair, and particularly the chief’s trial in 1874, angered Colenso and caused a breakdown in a long friendship between him, his family and Shepstone. In a letter to her brother Charles in 1874, Frances Colenso wrote, ‘as to Mr Shepstone, as soon as John found the line he was taking, he says in this case “it must be war to the knife between us”, and he has not been to his house since, though of course they salute in public’.1

With the publication of David Welsh’s Origins of Segregation in 1968 different views began to surface. Welsh suggested that Shepstone deserved whatever credit or opprobrium might be due for laying the foundations of segregation based on culture, which underpinned the development of the twentieth-century apartheidregime. By the 1970s, he had been even more widely recognised as an architect of the British imperial policy known as indirect rule, which left day-to-day administration and judicial functions in the hands of hereditary rulers, provided they kept the peace and saw to the collection of taxes – a system that spread from Africa (and India) to colonies across the globe.2 By the 1990s Shepstone acquired further credit for innovation through the work of Carolyn Hamilton, who argued that he had been highly effective in working with African chiefs to forge conceptions of rulership and Zulu ethnic identity.3

In view of these reassessments, it may seem surprising that Shepstone has yet to attract a biographer.4 The reason appears to be that he gave away too little of his own personality, opinions and philosophy. As he left only fragmentary private papers, we are left to guess at his motivations through the official letters, speeches and memoranda that survive in archival deposits.5 His reputation for sphinx-like silence can be traced back to the man under whom he served in the late 1870s, Sir Bartle Frere, High Commissioner for Southern Africa 1877–80. He called Shepstone ‘a singular type of an Africander Talleyrand, shrewd, observant, silent, self-controlled, immobile’.6 This chapter opens a window on a very different Shepstone – impetuous, voluble and passionate. Although it is rare that a single document can totally alter our picture of an individual, surely the letter printed here provides grounds for a major revision.

Item Type: Book Chapter
Publisher: Monash University ePress
Copyright: (c) Monash University ePress
Notes: "This material has been published by Monash University ePress in Orb and Sceptre: Studies on British Imperialism and Its Legacies, in Honour of Norman Etherington (Monash University ePress, 2008). Monash University ePress is the definitive repository of this material. DOI: 10.2104/os080002".
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