George McCall Theal

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George McCall Theal (11 April 1837 Saint John, New Brunswick - 17 April 1919 Wynberg, Cape Town), was the most prolific and influential South African historian, archivist and genealogist of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

Life history[edit]

George McCall Theal

The son of Canadian physician, William Young Theal, who wanted him to become an Episcopalian minister, Theal left home early, sailing with his uncle, Captain Francis Peabody Leavitt, and lived briefly in the United States and Sierra Leone before emigrating to South Africa. There he became a teacher but soon moved to journalism, publishing, and an unsuccessful stint as an amateur diamond miner, all in South African frontier communities. His career as a historian began with the publication of his Compendium of South African History and Geography in 1873 following his return to teaching.

Theal spent five years at the Lovedale Seminary outside Alice in the Eastern Cape, working amongst missionaries and Africans. Lovedale was an important institution in the early 1870s, being a non-sectarian and non-denominational theological seminary and Christian school, founded by Presbyterian missionaries in 1841. Lovedale's principal, Dr. James Stewart, attached great importance to the teaching of printing and bookbinding. In 1872 Stewart needed someone who could teach and manage the printing works – Theal was the man. He had taught first at an elementary school in Knysna and from 1867 at a public school in King William's Town, later to become Dale College. He had also been editor of three minor British Kaffrarian newspapers between 1862 and 1865, and later worked for the Kaffrarian Watchman in King William's Town, where he printed his first contribution South Africa As It Is in 1871. From King William's Town he had travelled to Du Toit's Pan, then seen as the richest diamond mine in the world, and was present when Britain raised the Union Jack over the area. Theal wrote some articles for the "Diamond News" and called the takeover "a most disastrous change". Having failed to make his fortune on the diamond fields, he returned to the Eastern Cape. Theal was a religious man, and thus believed that it was the civilised white man's duty to rescue the black man from ignorance and barbarism (in common with others of that period, he saw it in racial terms as well) This made him ready to accept the Lovedale post.

While living in King William's Town, he had read everything available on the history of South Africa and had started on an outline of his own rendition which was a synthesis of all he had read.

By 1875 at Lovedale he was teaching history, geography, English grammar and history of the Bible, and also being in charge of the printing department. He was responsible for the monthly publication of the Kaffir Express (later the Christian Express) and for the Xhosa version. The press published mainly religious and educational works. Between 1879 and 1882 Theal wrote a large number of articles for various periodicals on South African history. His knowledge of the Bantu was so extensive that in 1877 he was requested by Sir Bartle Frere to persuade some belligerent Bantu chiefs to moderate their attitude. Theal's success in this role led to his being offered a post in the Treasury. He accepted this position, aware that he would then have access to the State archives which were housed in the Surveyor-General's office.

Publications[edit]

  • South Africa As It Is (pamphlet, 1871 King William's Town)
  • Compendium of South African History and Geography (2 vols. 1873, Lovedale)
  • Kaffir Folk-Lore (1882, London)
  • Chronicles of Cape Commanders (1882, Cape Town)
  • Basutoland Records (3 vols. 1883 Cape Town)
  • Boers and Bantu (1886)
  • A Fragment of Basuto History (1886)
  • The Republic of Natal (1886)
  • History of the Boers in South Africa (1887)
  • History of South Africa (5 vols. 1889-1900)
  • Geslacht-register der Oude Kaapsche Familien with C.C. de Villiers (3 vols. 1893-94)
  • The Portuguese in South Africa (1896)
  • Belangrijke Historische Documenten (3 vols. 1896-1911, Cape Town)
  • Large number of documentary publications (1897-1905, London)
  • Records of the Cape Colony (36 vols.)
  • Records of South-Eastern Africa (9 vols. 1898-1903)
  • History and Ethnography of Africa south of the Zambesi (1907-10)
  • The Yellow- and Dark-skinned People of Africa south of the Zambesi (1910)
  • Willem Adriaan van der Stel and other Historical Sketches (1912)
  • Documents relating to the Kaffir War of 1835 (1912)
  • Catalogue of Books and Pamphlets relating to Africa south of the Zambesi in the Collection of George McCall Theal (1912)
  • South Africa - Story of the Nations Series (1917, first edition in 1894)
  • Ethnography and Condition of South Africa before AD 1505 (1st of 11 vols. 1919)
  • History of South Africa from 1873 to 1884: Twelve eventful Years (vols. 10 & 11, 1919)

External links[edit]