The Imperial Historian as ‘Colonial Nationalist’: George McCall Theal and the Making of South African History

  • D. M. Schreuder


I am here concerned with just such a considered second thought. In particular, the very considered and complex imperial second-thoughts of George McCall Theal (1837–1919), critical pioneer historian of colonial Southern Africa.1 After an extended teaching, administrative and archival career, Theal came from the 1880s to draft a massive multi-volume History of this huge colonial region. Here he set out, in somewhat plain narrative form over the course of nearly 5000 pages, his interpretation of the cumulative European impact on Southern Africa.2 Taking the late 19th century as his personal vantage-point, he portrayed that colonial experience in terms of a unique, emerging ‘new society’ of white ‘civilising’ settlement. Claiming to offer an impartial and scientific account of the making of ‘South Africa’, he in fact developed a highly personal view of that history of imperial contact and conquest. And here his ‘doctrine of imperialism’ — as A. P. Thornton might characterise it3 — ultimately transpired to be a personalised doctrine of ‘colonial nationalism’.4 This particular vision of assertiveness of local identity, based on the white settler community, saw colonial ‘home rule’ as contingent political strategy — contingent upon the cultural unity of the colonists and their place within a wider system of Empire.5


European Archive Colonial Naturalist White Settler South African Society African History 
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  1. 1.
    I have relied on the following: A. J. Boeseken, entry on Theal in Dictionary of South African Biography, vol. IV (Pretoria, 1981) pp. 645–8,Google Scholar
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Copyright information

© Gordon Martel 1986

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  • D. M. Schreuder

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