Shepstone’s dark secret

2008-07-01 00:00

The 19th-century colonial administrator Theophilus Shepstone was reputedly a cold fish. A contemporary summed him up as “shrewd, observant, silent, self-controlled and immobile” — much like his statue that stands in Langalibalele Street.

However, a letter Shepstone wrote to Henry Francis Fynn shows another side to the man; it also reveals his affair with a black woman. The letter features in Orb and Sceptre: Studies on British Imperialism and its Legacies, in Honour of Norman Etherington, edited by Peter Limb and published to mark Etherington’s retirement from the Chair of History at the University of Western Australia.

“Shepstone in Love”, a chapter co-authored by Etherington and Jennifer Weir, focuses on the letter the 19-year-old Shepstone wrote to the 33-year-old Fynn in 1836. According to Etherington and Weir, the letter “opens a window on a very different Shepstone — impetuous, voluble and passionate”.

Born in England in 1817, the three-year-old Shepstone and his missionary parents came to the eastern Cape with the 1820 settlers. Shepstone’s fluency in Xhosa smoothed his path into the colonial civil service and in 1835 he became a clerk to the agent dealing with African diplomacy on the frontier which was how he met Fynn, who had been a hunter-trader at Port Natal at the time of King Shaka kaSenzangakhona. “[Fynn] dealt in guns and liquor, and may have been involved in the slave trade,” say Etherington and Weir. “He is known to have had numerous liaisons with African women, including four recognised as wives, with whom he fathered several children.”

Much of Shepstone’s letter to Fynn deals with “the minutiae of everyday life, such as the care of horses and the antics of comrades”. It is the references to women that are the most revealing: “Tell old Christina I should be happy to see her fat backside again … As to Meeta, I am glad to hear she is getting on so well. I can assure you I have been as virtuous as the newborn babe ever since I have been in this horrible Town. I should be delighted to see her again, but am afraid of the burden you speak of. I shall send her something by the first conveyance of wagons I meet with and shall direct it to you. Please tell her and let her kiss the seal three times — as I have done. Oh what a foolish fellow I am, this is my weak point, pray excuse me. I know you will — tell me if she does — destroy this letter.”

Etherington and Weir point out that Meeta and Christina are not given honorifics. “Because they are not Miss or Mrs and are spoken of in familiar tones, we know they are black.”

But who were they? “Because Christina of the fat backside is spoken of as old, it can reasonably be inferred she is a servant of mature years, not an object of desire. Meeta, on the other hand, who is the love interest of the text, holds an indeterminate position. The name could, if rendered as Mitha, indicate a Bantu-speaking background; however, as we know that Fynn’s previous domestic circles had included both mixed-race people from the Cape as well as Nguni women, we cannot be sure. She must have occupied some position in Fynn’s household, else he could not have been so familiar with her personal situation.”

As to the nature of her relations with Shepstone there is little doubt. “Clearly Shepstone had not been virtuous in Meeta’s company,” says Etherington and Weir. “The choice of the phrase ‘newborn babe’, while probably not consciously selected by the passionate adolescent, suggests another train of thought, which is carried into the next sentence: ‘I should be delighted to see her again, but am afraid of the burden you speak of’. Heavy with child springs to mind, as does the implication that Shepstone feels responsible for her condition, because he offers to ‘send her something by the first conveyance of wagons’.”

“That something — presumably money or some other valuable present — is to be directed to Fynn, rather than to Meeta herself, is further evidence that she lies across a racial divide that would not permit Shepstone to openly address a parcel or letter to her. Yet he does not hesitate to express his love: ‘let her kiss the seal three times — as I have done’. He is both passionately devoted and ashamed: ‘Oh what a foolish fellow I am, this is my weak point’. And by that, it may be inferred, the missionary’s son does not mean a tendency to fall in love, but sexual desire itself.”

Shepstone ends by asking Fynn to destroy the letter. He didn’t and it resides in the Pietermaritzburg Archives Repository.

Of Meeta and her unborn burden we hear no more. Shepstone went on to become Natal’s Secretary for Native Affairs from 1856 to 1876 and, with his wife Maria, fathered three daughters and six sons, several of whom helped carry on his legacy in African administration in Natal, Zululand and Swaziland. He died in 1893.

As Secretary for Native Affairs, Shepstone governed the black population of Natal in a manner that served the white settler community’s need for cheap labour and ensured their safety and security. To this end he created what became known as the “Shepstone system”, a system of administering the African populations of Natal via resettlement in reserves where they were subject to Native Law. A system in which can be found the origins of the segregationist policies that culminated in “separate development” — apartheid.

Fynn’s later career was unremarkable. He was appointed as a magistrate by Shepstone in 1859, a couple of years before his death in 1861, but relations between Shepstone and Fynn were reportedly frosty. Etherington and Weir speculate that this might have been because Fynn did not destroy the letter as requested. “The fact that this letter alone of their early correspondence survives ... drives us toward the conclusion that Fynn preserved it because of the hold it gave him over the mature, respectable patriarch. This does not establish that Fynn practised outright blackmail; only that he might well have let Shepstone know he carried a secret, which, even if whispered into his wife Maria’s ear, or into Natal’s rumour mill, had the potential to stall the younger man’s career.”

One consequence of Shepstone’s youthful romance may have been his resistance to any attempts to outlaw sexual relations across the colour line. For example, in 1861, when it was suggested cohabitation between whites and blacks be made a crime under Native Law, “Shepstone expressed the opinion that however desirable it might be as a means of ‘preserving the prestige’ of the white race, the whole question was ‘a delicate matter to interfere with’.”

“Whatever his role in laying the foundations of segregation in South Africa and indirect rule elsewhere, he played no part in moving the law toward the Immorality Acts of the 20th century,” say Etherington and Weir. “It is tempting to attribute his stance to a memory that time could never have erased: that he had once loved Meeta and she may have carried his child.”

• Orb and Sceptre: Studies on British Imperialism and its Legacies, in Honour of Norman Etherington is available in an electronic version published by Monash University ePress www., aand a paperback version from Sydney University Press,

Norman Etherington

Despite being born in the United States, historian Norman Etherington (pictured) is probably best known for his work on South African history and particularly that of this province.

Etherington was educated at Yale University where his initial research interest was 19th-century missionaries. “When I was trying to decide where to study missionaries in the British Empire, my final choice came down to New Zealand and KwaZulu-Natal,” he says. “There seemed to be more missionaries from more denominations and national backgrounds in Natal, so that was my choice.”

During his research, Etherington was offered a lectureship at the University of Adelaide in Australia. “Thinking I would only stay three years, but I found the Australian lifestyle so congenial that I never applied for another job, until the Chair of History came up at the University of Western Australia in 1989.

“Meanwhile, my interest in KwaZulu-Natal had expanded to include much more than missionaries and African converts. I was hooked. However, I have also worked on quite a lot of other British imperial subjects.”

Among Etherington’s publications are: The Great Treks: the Transformation of Southern Africa, 1815-1854; Theories of Imperialism: War, Conquest and Capital; Rider Haggard; and Preachers, Peasants and Politics in Southeast Africa 1835-1880.

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