The Department was deeply saddened by news of the death of Robert Shell, one of its most notable alumni. Robert towered above us in many ways – literally, since he was one of the tallest students the Department has ever known – but also in the pioneering nature of his historical scholarship.
As an Honours student in the Department in the early 1970s, Robert identified the importance of Islam in the early colonial Cape Colony under Dutch East India Company rule and the role that Asian slaves played in its growth. This became the main theme of his life’s work. He completed his doctorate at Rochester in the US under the supervision of leading historians of slavery in the Americas and subsequently obtained a post at Princeton. In the 1970s the study of slavery in the Americas was being revolutionized by the application of statistical and quantitative methods, and Robert became fully conversant with what then were new techniques of computer analysis.
The book that resulted from this, Children of Bondage, was a landmark study of Cape slavery. It is brimming with data that took years to collect and analyse at a time when computer technology was much less developed than it is today. But it is no dull compendium of statistics. It also reflects Robert’s deep immersion in the archives and his eye for telling stories and details. Even the graphs and diagrams are enlivened by images and visual guidelines. Robert’s conclusions that Cape slaves played a central role in the development of the colony, deeply influencing not only its economy but also settler family structures, urban and rural architecture, language and culture made a major impact on both Cape history and slave studies more widely, and the book remains a standard work for students and scholars.
Robert returned to South Africa in the late 1980s and used his demographic and quantitative expertise to set up a research project at Rhodes University examining the nature and causes of the spread of HIV/AIDS that was beginning to ravage the country and about which very little was known. His findings were not welcomed by the authorities who were in a state of denial about the epidemic. Unafraid of speaking his mind, his criticism of the way in which his research was handled led to his departure from Grahamstown and he moved to a specially created Chair of Historical Demography in the Statistics Department at the University of the Western Cape.
Back in Cape Town, Robert continued to be an active historian and teacher. He was particularly committed to digital technology and worked tirelessly to assemble resources on the Company Slave Lodge in CD-ROM format for wide availability. He lived to see his lifelong work on Cape slavery have a major impact not only on scholars and students but also on the general public.
Robert was diagnosed with cancer late last year. We will miss him greatly and send our condolences and sympathies to his wife, Sandy, well known to us in the Department as the previous Head of the African Studies Library at UCT and a notable historian who recently completed a doctorate with us.