Shelagh Spencer began her research into the biographies of British settlers in Natal in 1963 and the first volume reflecting her work was published in 1981. Twenty years later in 2001 a further six volumes had been published, arranged in alphabetical order up to the letter G, together with photographs, maps, appendices and the careful notation and detailed guide to the whereabouts of the source materials, some 1,700 pages in all.
British Settlers in Natal. A Biographical Register in Natal, 1824-1857 (University of Natal Press) makes up an invaluable contribution to the historiography of colonial Natal. For the historical researcher they are an indispensable guide.
They are essential aids to the study of the region and for the more general reader they reveal vividly not only the few successes, but the many trials and despair of those trying to make their way through what Professor Colin Webb in his introduction to Vol 1 described as a process which “shackled Natal and its hinterland to the north Atlantic world of commercial and industrial capitalism, and initiated revolutionary social and economic change amongst the people of south east Africa”.
And although the Biographical Register concentrates on a particular group, it nonetheless involves the total population, and without a richer knowledge of the British settlers our understanding of the colonial process as a whole is necessarily limited.
The enormous amount of work involved in the production of these volumes is immediately striking. As we move through the modern world we leave our traces behind and Shelagh Spencer has chosen to search these traces out for the middle decades of the nineteenth century.
She has done this with a commitment and a doggedness rare even in the world of professional historical scholarship. And this is not just the work of a genealogist. The concentration on detail, the extraordinary range of documentary material, the cross-checking of references, not only confirm biographical facts already advanced, but uncover information hitherto not known. While much of this increases our knowledge of those who were significant, the statesmen, bureaucrats, lawyers, businessmen, the Biographical Register is also rich in information about those whom history usually ignores: the poor, the unsuccessful, those who failed the demands imposed on them by the hard nineteenth-century world. As a result the Biographical Register is much more than a source of information. It is also an often poignant record of the past.
The enormous amount of work that this involved is indicated by the variety of citations in the Source Lists of the Biographical Register. To take Volume 7 as the example. There are 755 sources cited. Four hundred of these are what historians call ‘primary sources’ – sources created in the process of history itself. They have been found in the archives and libraries of Natal – the Don Africana Library, the University’s Killie Campbell library and government archives in Pietermaritzburg are amongst the most important. Not only Church registers , but plaques and cemeteries have been searched, and official records all over south Africa and the Public Record Office in London together with contemporary private papers, published accounts. These make up about 410 of the primary items – there remains the 345 contemporary or ‘secondary’ sources used by the author/compiler.
The volumes have made Shelagh Spencer internationally known as the foremost researcher and genealogist of colonial Natal and as a result she has to deal continually with requests for assistance, and her generosity in the sharing of information is well known. She has also worked on a number of projects whose object is to preserve historical heritage – for example the Richmond Museum, Macrorie House in Pietermaritzburg and Archives of the Diocese of Natal. Together with a range of donors, both private and public, the University of Natal, especially through the University Press, has done much to facilitate the publication of Shelagh Spencer’s research material. The project is a vast one and many changes have taken place since it began. Some of these can be traced in the volumes themselves – the widespread interest which while it must have been pleasing, also demanded that the author attend to new sources and fresh demands.
During the time the volumes were published the transition had also to made from the mechanical to the digital storing of records and the printing of text. Audience and their interests have changed as well and this is one reason why it is important that the University as an academic institution recognize Shelagh Spencer’s achievement as a published researcher. The seven volumes of the Biographical Register are a monument to dedicated research, but it is the objective of this motivation that the University of KwaZulu-Natal recognise not just Shelagh Spencer’s published work, but her continued efforts to research and make public Natal’s past. Nearly half a century of historical work deserves wider acknowledgement. It is understood that a further volume is ready for publication.
The award of an honorary degree would not only recognise these achievements but would also be a source of encourage Shelagh Spencer to continue to pursue and complete a project of great importance to our understanding of the this province’s past and its heritage, and in so doing work towards creating a legacy of committed research which could assist those who in the future take up the task of looking back into our history.