RHW Shepherd Letters

RHW Shepherd Letters, Cory Library, Grahamstown

 Shepherd and Lovedale

Robert Henry Wishart Shepherd (1888-1971) was a Presbyterian Minister of the Church of Scotland and a missionary; he became Principal of Lovedale Institute from 1942 to 1955, having previously been its chaplain for 15 years, during which time he was on occasion the acting Principal for his predecessor, AW Wilkie (with Wilkie’s predecessor having been James Henderson, whose family letters are detailed elsewhere on WWW pages). Shepherd left office in 1955 to become Moderator of the Church of Scotland until 1960. Subsequently he returned to South Africa and became Minister of the Presbyterian church in Alice, in the Eastern Cape, until his death.

Lovedale started life as a mission station and educational institute founded by the Glasgow Mission Society in 1824. The Missionary Institute was founded by Edward Govan, who remained its principal until around 1870, being succeeded by James Stewart, then by Henderson followed by Wilkie then Shepherd. In 1868, the Lovedale Girls Institute was founded and headed by Jane Waterson. In addition to religious activities, the main purpose of the Institute was the education of black students. Instruction at a high-level was provided across the curriculum, although Greek and Latin were later discontinued; it also took pupils who were white as well as black and girls as well as boys and permitted no racial distinctions until the impact of changes occurring after the Union of South Africa. Eventually it included a primary school, high school, technical school, teacher training college, a theological college and hospital. During the period of World War II, at one point there were over 1500 people resident, including all staff as well as students. Missionary control ended in 1955, when it was taken over by the state under the 1952 Bantu Education Act, although the Bible School and the Lovedale Press continued as independent entities.

Shepherd’s period as Principal coincided with times of considerable unrest in South Africa generally, and also ‘troubles’ at Lovedale and then a riot in 1946 which led to closure of the Institute for a lengthy period. There was an independent committee of enquiry into this, and much negative publicity and criticism coming from both sides of what was in effect a race riot.  Shepherd’s role as Principal regarding these events is largely unmentioned in personal and family letters, although there are considerable numbers of both investigation documents and correspondence involving staff, parents and ‘sympathisers’ as well as Shepherd himself. The effect is one of near silence in family letters, but a cacophony in these organisational ones.

Shepherd became Moderator of the Church of Scotland in 1955, although his association with Southern Africa did not cease. He became a member of the Monckton Commission concerning the Federation of Rhodesia with Nyasaland, which reported in 1960. Its main recommendation was that the federation could not be sustained except by force or massive changes and the devolution of power. It advocated a majority of African members in the Nyasaland and Northern Rhodesian legislatures with the option of leaving the Federation after five years. As interpreted by the British government, the Report lead to majority rule in Nyasaland and Northern Rhodesia. Nyasaland achieved independence after 1961 elections and in 1964 became the state of Malawi.  The trajectory of change in Rhodesia was a less positive one.

The Letters

The separation between Shepherd as an organisational man and as a man also immersed in family and friendship relationships runs through the different sets of materials that are archived in the Cory Library collections. ‘Ordinary family’ rather than organisational letters and correspondences are the focus of WWW investigations and accordingly ITS Shepherd database has been constructed with regards to the collection PR 3683 ‘Correspondence with families 1888–1970’.

This consists of 19 folders, with the letters they contain being from family connections in Scotland, Canada, the USA as well as South Africa, as parts of the family were extremely mobile and from Scotland and the Blairgowrie / Dundee area, they relocated to different parts of the world. This is a multi-generational and multi-nodal set of exchanges and in ‘keeping in touch’ terms, these letters are illuminating as to the basis on which such family bonds were maintained.

The earliest of these letters was written in 1888 and the latest in 1970, with most concentrated in the period that Shepherd worked as chaplain and then Principal at Lovedale. It is therefore perhaps surprisingly that they contain very little about race matters, even from letter-writers who were resident in South Africa. It appears from how his correspondents replied that Shepherd himself did so on occasion, to lament that South Africa was misunderstood, but basically there is a prevailing silence even in letters written in those periods where comment would have been appropriate because of the wide International press coverage of race matters in South Africa. Alongside this, however, elsewhere in the Lovedale collections of materials there is considerable coverage of such momentous occurrences as the 1946 riots, ‘troubles’ at Fort Hare University College in 1955, the 1956 treason trial, and 1960 and Sharpeville and its aftermaths, preceded by the 1920 riots that had occurred during the Principalship of James Henderson.

‘Events’ have been seen (by historical sociologist William Sewell among others) as a motive force of change, indeed as the such force. In the South African context, the events associated with Soweto in 1976 and more recently Marikana in 2012 have been responded to (by sociologist Peter Alexander) in similar terms.  However, these events have precursors, although this analytic focus has tended to bracket these out of consideration perhaps because deemed more ‘local’ and also perhaps because the religious and mission context was not seen as sufficiently political character. However, the riot at Lovedale in 1920 was associated with many related ‘troubles’ occurring elsewhere and in particular in the Transvaal area; and also the 1946 riot at Lovedale was associated with a range of causes which were affecting many other groups and individuals in the black population and not by factors distinctive to Lovedale itself.

Because of this, a two-fold strategy has been adopted regarding WWW work on Shepherd’s letters.

The first part of the strategy is that the letters in PR 3683 ‘Correspondence with various families 1888-1970’ have been worked on and prepared as a WWW database, while also recognising the issues with how the content of this collection of letters is configured, in particular the prevailing silence on any race matters. This silence achieves the vanishing of the everyday world in which people such as Shepherd lived, and it is one of the important characteristics of whites writing whiteness in their letters in the South African context because it inscribes the privilege that comes with whiteness, of not noticing the presence of black people doing the tasks they do that makes their privilege possible. It is a characteristic that has also been noted regarding Robert White’s letters to Robert Godlonton and Jan Smuts’ letters to May Hobbs, among others.

The second part of the strategy is concerned with how to break the silence. Here letters in the Lovedale collections appearing under organisational and event-based headings have been worked on with specific regard to letters to and from Shepherd concerning the events noted above, the various ‘troubles’ that Lovedale experienced. The link here is provided by Shepherd, while the overall size of these collections and their production in and focus on organisational matters means it is not possible within the WWW framework to include them their entirety. Therefore the usual 1 in 5 sampling framework for WWW letters has been replaced by drawing a purposive sample and preparing a database composed of these items, also fully searchable within the WWW framework. The main criteria Poor selection is that the letters should be to all by Shepherd and that their contents should be concerned with one or more of the ‘troubles’ noted above.

With appropriate referencing to the collections in question, these selected letters appear as records in a single database concerned with Shepherd and the race troubles that Lovedale and its related institution of Fort Hare University College (also in the Eastern Cape and now Fort Hare University) experienced. The collections from which letters have been selected purposively for this second Shepherd-related database are:

  • PR 3682 ‘Correspondence regarding Shepherd’s work… 1921–1971’
  • MS 14,717 ‘Fort Hare’
  • MS 14,724 ‘Treason Trials’

Silence and troubles: the ways that whiteness is written

The prevailing silence in the general letters between Shepherd and various of his wider family members has been noted and is a key characteristic of ‘whites writing whiteness’ here.  To an extent, this may occur because many of the letter-writer are based in the UK, USA and other countries distance from South Africa. However, many of the events that are silence received coverage in the international as well as national press, and all the letter-writers knew that Shepherd was closely involved with a key institution concerned with black education, so ‘not knowing’ is probably a minor factor. Also involved, and perhaps of more significance, is that many of these letters are of a ‘staying in touch’ kind and have at times a rather formulaic feel to them, that they were being written for the sake of being written, rather than having a deeper communicative role, with a related sense that raising deeper matters would be in a sense inappropriate apart from in extreme situations such as family deaths.

While this silence is prevailing, it is not absolute. There are points when, in the ordinary course of things in the family letters, race matters are raised and indicate that such comments likely to be tip of an iceberg concerning ideas and views about race.  And this is not to mention that such comments have to do service for recognising that the fabric of the ordinary course of things in the South African context was achieved through black labour and therefore the omnipresence of black people in white people’s lives, albeit not acknowledged in this letter-writing.

As noted, such comments are in frequent and include the following kinds of topics:

For Shepherd, ‘RSA is a much misunderstood country’ and he was writing a book about this in the later 1960s, with this being the source of many of the typescripted copies of letters in various folders. His comments make his racial views apparent, that he does not understand the ‘troubles’ except in terms of ingratitude and thinks that ‘we do more for them’ and therefore not any riots but also other forms of political action were not called for.

In the middle 1960s and following his involvement in the Monckton Commission,  one of Shepherd’s correspondents comments that in an earlier letter he had ‘explained the position of the natives, how they are not ready for self government yet, [and] recent events in the Congo and elsewhere have proved that’, with this being characteristic of the general line of the report from the commission, and also the source of departure from its recommendations by the British government and local politicians in what became Malawi.

Shepherd’s views might be characterised as liberal, although of an old-fashioned and rather paternalistic kind. Although in some of his organisational correspondence he rejects the idea of any hierarchy that maps directly onto a white and black division, elsewhere his written statements imply precisely such a relationship. This is clearly pointed out by one of his correspondents, the former missionary and then-Governor of Nigeria, Sir Francis Ibiam, in a strongly worded and very public critique that received considerable press coverage. However, others of his correspondents in the late 1950s when congratulating him on having become Moderator do so in terms of him having ‘been fearless in stating the case against apartheid’.

The language Shepherd uses is invariably polite and careful and the views expressed do not use highly racial language. Some of the letter-writers are not nearly so careful in their in passing references, with his daughter Elizabeth providing an example in a letter to her father when she was at school in using the ‘N work’ in a casual aside.

Family deaths are ‘events’ of a major kind for the people most closely involved; and this raises the effect of events of a variety of kinds in bringing things previously unspoken or unwritten to the surface and thereby permitting or authorising the discussion of matters ordinarily bracketed or taken for granted or otherwise undiscussed. In an organisational sense, the events of the ‘troubles’ have this effect in the unmarked way, enabling people to raise and to discuss and also to make claims and counter-claims about the causes of such occurrences.

While it is difficult to make generalisations about race matters across a number of events separated in time, there are some broad commonalities existing as well as the differences. Perhaps the clearest and most obvious is that ‘they didn’t get it’. That is, by and large the ‘troubles’, which involved female as well as male students, were seen as products of agitation from outside and ringleaders within, and this is the framework in which the occurrence of such ‘troubles’ in many places in addition to Lovedale were understood. Another cause that was pinpointed concerns the dissatisfaction experienced by young men who had been in the army during war-time but when they returned to the Institute were treated as though children. The response here was not to change the regimen in the Institute, but to expect the young men concerned to ‘settle down’ and behave in what was viewed as more ‘appropriate’ ways. The related response, accepted by Shepherd himself, was that all ‘ringleaders’ should be expelled, not just at Lovedale but elsewhere too and that this should be done on a very wide basis.

While there is some mention that ‘the times’ have changed and African people in general were displaying signs of dissatisfaction, this is expressed against the grain of more general views, including those expressed by some African parents of Lovedale students. There is no sense that these letter-writers had any comprehension that what was underway amounted to revolution in the ideas and expectations of the majority population. In this connection, it is interesting to see the name of Govan Mbeki among the students involved in the 1946 ‘troubles’.

Last updated: 7 April 2017


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