Tribute to Professor Patrick Harries

13 Jun 2016 - 14:00

A few days after Patrick died I had a dream. I dreamt I was giving a very bad lecture on missionaries to a group of students, making it up, as usual, as I went along. Suddenly Patrick appeared and placed himself in the midst of them, smiling at me with delighted and tolerant indulgence, enjoying what I had to say without in any way taking it seriously. It struck me, when I woke up, that this is what friends are – they good-naturedly tolerate the composite virtues and imperfections of the person that one is. It also struck me that that playful look, that humorous gaze, that ready laugh, is how I will remember Patrick.


I was a friend and colleague of Patrick’s for over thirty years. The fact that we became friends had less to do with our intellectual affinities and more to do with that mysterious alchemy of the schoolyard, when two boys instinctively decide that they are best friends. As the years went by outsiders remarked that we looked a bit like Tintin and Captain Haddock. I will leave it to you to judge which was which. But Patrick certainly had a youthful, intrepid quality to him that I lacked but made up for in a somewhat cynical disposition and an appreciation of whiskey.


Despite his youthfulness Patrick was always my senior, my mentor and a patron – as he was to so many other would-be-historians. He was always an inspiring and enthusiastic teacher who encouraged generations of students, both at UCT and Basel, to study those topics that he himself was interested in at that moment, topics that were, nearly always, at the cutting edge of historical research. Thus Patrick was a pioneering presence in the teaching and research of African history at UCT in the ‘70s and was in the front ranks of those radical or Marxist post-graduates who obtained PhDs from SOAS in the 1980s. Typically, for Patrick, but unusually, compared to other South African, his focus of study was the trans-national, the movement of peoples across the borderlands of South Africa and Mozambique. Patrick’s abiding interest in this field found its mature expression in his first major book, published after meticulous and exhaustive research in 1994, called Work, Culture and Identity: Migrant Labour in Mozambique and South Africa, c. 1860- 1910 (Heinemann, Portsmouth, NH, 1994). The book’s title suggests various ways in which Patrick was at the frontiers of history in the 1990s and one of South Africa’s foremost historians.


“Nowadays”, as Patrick once said to me, “we are all cultural historians”, meaning that any historian worth his or her salt must pay attention to the traditions, value systems, ideas and institutions of the people he or she is studying. But in the 1980s and 90s not everyone was a cultural historian. Patrick’s cultural sensitivity was shaped not only by his understanding of how English Marxist historians, such as E.P. Thompson, had introduced an awareness of cultural practices into their analysis of class consciousness, but also by his conviction that historians of African history needed to absorb the knowledge of anthropologists. Throughout his academic life Patrick fostered close relationships with anthropologists and found an intellectual stimulation in their theorizations and practices.[1] Thus an anthropological understanding of African societies complemented his appreciation of the Marxist techniques of writing history from below. If work and culture were highlighted in his book title, so was identity. What did this mean?


Thanks to the opportunity to undertake research in the mission archives of the Swiss Mission in Africa, housed in Lausanne and Neuchatel, Patrick discovered two things.[2] Firstly he discovered the subject for his next book, the missionary anthropologist Henri Junod; and secondly he discovered Isabelle Vauthier, the woman who became his wife. The combined force of these two personalities would, eventually, lead to Patrick becoming partially Swiss. His identity, in other words, changed. Patrick’s perception that identity is a cultural and a class construction was already evident in his work on Mozambican miners in South Africa, placing him alongside many of his colleagues, who were also challenging the verities of race and ethnicity in Apartheid South Africa. But it was, I believe, his own adoption of a foreign culture that made him especially sensitive to the question of identity and sympathetic to the situation of African students who wished to pursue university careers in institutions that were not necessarily sympathetic to them and in languages that were not necessarily their own.


Quite how Patrick acquired fluency in French and proficiency in Portuguese remains a bit of a mystery to me but his own accounts of these processes involved epic tales involving post-matric hitch-hikes via Mozambique to Timbuctu and a season working on a building site in France whilst playing on the wing for the local ruby club. By the time Patrick was ready to commence his studies at UCT he was broke and obliged to work as a night-manager at a Cape Hotel. He was so tired during the day that he would fall asleep during lectures. He was only saved from an inevitable slide into academic oblivion by the intervention of Sir Richard Luyt, UCT’s vice-chancellor, who encouraged Patrick to apply for a bursary – which Patrick duly obtained – and which freed him from the demands of non-academic labour. Only a few weeks ago Patrick re-told me this story, emphasizing that it was vitally important to find financial support for students in order for them to excel academically. Indeed, throughout his own academic career, Patrick expended vast amounts of energy in organizing bursaries for students and raising funding through initiating research projects. Somehow he found the time to fill in the reams of forms required and was not only able to encourage students to undertake exciting research but to obtain the financial support that they required to do so. One of the main tasks which he has set himself, post-retirement, as an Emeritus Professor in the History Department at UCT, was the encouragement and financing of post-graduate students.


Patrick worked hard in the UCT History Department, with various spells as visiting professor at prestigious foreign universities, until he took up the newly appointed professorship in African History at Basel University in 2001. It is no secret that, at that time, he would have preferred to have been appointed to the post of Head of African Studies at UCT. But UCT, in its wisdom, decided that, in the post Mahmood Mamdani era, Patrick did not measure up to its requirements for such a head.[3] Truly a prophet is without honour in his own country. In hindsight, of course, this was a terrible lack of judgment by UCT for Patrick went on to become internationally renowned in the field of African studies with a reputation in Europe, America and Africa. Becoming Professor of History at Basel was, in itself, no small thing. I always liked to console Patrick with Nietzsche’s judgment. Nietzsche, who had himself been on the staff at Basel University, wrote to his friend, the historian Jacob Burkhardt on the latter’s appointment to the position of Professor of History at Basel. “I would rather be a Professor at Basel”, declared Nietzsche, “than the Lord God Almighty”.[4] It may well be that Nietzsche was insane at the time but the point is, that Patrick who was deemed unworthy to be a UCT professor, was acknowledged as being worthy by an ancient and renowned institution in a country famous for being both “a refuge and sometimes the cradle of intellectual heresy”.[5] He did not let them down.


Between 2001 and his retirement in 2015 Patrick served as Professor of African History at Basel and was also part of the steering group of the Centre for African Studies at Basel. He also had very close ties with the Carl Schlettwein Stiiftung and its wonderful Basler Afrika Bibliographien. During this time Patrick worked incredibly hard, as I and other scholars were able to witness as he generously used the resources of these and other Swiss institutions to bring visiting Africanisits to Basel and to send Swiss students to Africa. A steady stream of publications flowed from his pen whilst he supervised more than 30 MAs and 15 PhDs. He succeeded in placing Basel at the centre of a vibrant network of African studies. Unfortunately the stress of relocation and the demands of teaching three to four new courses a semester took its toll and, not long after Patrick arrive in Basel, he suffered a serious heart attack. It is possible that his love of Swiss and French cheeses may have contributed to his condition but whatever the reason, fortunately, Patrick, for the time being survived. He survived to become not just a pre-eminent African historian but, as his book Butterflies and Barbarians: Swiss Missionaries and Systems of Knowledge in South-East Africa (2007) reveals, an historian of Switzerland. Butterflies and Barbarians is a study of how Swiss missionaries constructed knowledge about Africa, but it is also a book about how knowledge of Africa impacted upon Swiss identity. Whilst working on Butterflies & Barbarians, Patrick became more and more interested in the cultural history of knowledge production and the history of science, an interest that saw his writing and research branch into many creative fields and fruitful collaborations with both scholars and students. A lot of this work was published in the form of chapters, articles and edited books, and still more is in press, to be published posthumously.[6]


In the course of becoming a Swiss Africanist Patrick grew to love the black streets of Basel, the green valleys of the Jura and the blue shores of Lac Leman.[7] He walked a lot, everyday. He read widely and enthusiastically. He listened to music. Together with Isabelle he brought up a beautiful, tri-lingual daughter, Emily. He wrote. He ate more cheese. Always he was positive, optimistic, energetic, planning new projects. But always, he wanted, some day, to return to Cape Town.


When the day of his retirement finally arrived Patrick was able to take up a fellowship at the Institute d’Etudes Avancees in Nantes for six months in 205. After the rigours of teaching at Basel he found these months of pure research to be heavenly, and flung himself into a new project, which, after all, had grown from an older one: the fate of Mozambican slaves, or Maasbikers, in the Cape. He now expanded this interest to look at the volume and nature of the Indian ocean slave trade to, and beyond, the Cape.[8] This was the project that he hoped to pursue in his years of Cape retirement. He arrived back in the Cape in December 2015 and celebrated Christmas with us, and his family, in the fishing village of Arniston. He re-discovered the vibrancy of Long Street. He breakfasted in the Company Gardens. He saw three films a week at the Labia Cinema. He caught up with old friends, delighting, once more, to be in his beloved Cape Town. He celebrated his sixty-sixth birthday on 31 May 2016 and died, suddenly, on 2 June 2016.


His death brought to my mind a poem by Jorge Luis Borges, which I have tweaked slightly. It is called “Limit (Or Good-Byes)”.


There’s a line of Verlaine’s that I’m not going to remember again.

There’s a nearby street that’s forbidden to my footsteps.

There’s a mirror that has seen me for the last time.

There’s a door I’ve closed until the end of the world.

Among the books in my library (I’m looking at them)

There are some I’ll never open again.

This autumn I’ll be sixty-six years old.

Death invades me, constantly.[9]


Characteristically, Patrick was in full stride at the time of his death, walking a familiar Cape Town street, soon to catch an inter-continental plane. Sadly, a bit slower than when he last played wing three-quarter for Rondebosch Boy’s High School Rugby Team, Patrick was unable to side-step Death’s low tackle and fell headlong, short of that now forever unreachable try line. Happily, however, very happily, he did not die with the ball but passed it on – to me, to you, to all his students and his future readers.


Nigel Penn.


[1] Fittingly, Patrick’s farewell lecture in Basel was entitled “History and Anthropology: A Dance to the Music of Time”. 11 December, 2014. See Jurg Schneider, “Photography and the Demise of Anthropology”, in Veit Arlt, Stephanie Bishop and Pascal Schmid (eds.), Explorations in African History: Reading Patrick Harries (Basler Afrika Bibliographien, Basel, 2015), pp.29-33.

[2] Patrick visited Switzerland several times before he settled there in 2001. He undertook post-doctoral research in Lausanne in 1984-1985 and was a visiting professor at the University of Lausanne in 1991-1992. It was during the first of these visits that he met Isabelle. See Eric Morier-Genoud, “The Making of a Transnational Historian: Patrick Harries in Lausanne”, in Veit Arlt, Stephanie Bishop and Pascal Schmid (eds.), Explorations in African History: Reading Patrick Harries (Basler Afrika Bibliographien, Basel, 2015), pp. 11-13.

[3] Mamdani had been Head of African Studies at UCT, from which position he launched a scathing criticism of the teaching of African History at UCT before leaving for Columbia University.

[4] “Actually I would much rather be a Basel professor than God, but I have not ventured to carry my private egoism so far as to desist from creating the world on his account.” Quoted by Ronald Hayman, Nietzsche: A Critical Life (Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1984), p. 335.

[5] The phrase is H.R. Trevor-Roper’s from his introduction to Jacob Burckhardt: Judgements on History and Historians (Routledge Classics, Oxford, 2007), p. xv. Trevor-Roper, though an admirer of Burckhardt, was notoriously no admirer of African history, maintaining, in fact, that it did not exist.

[6] See for example Patrick Harries and David Maxwell (eds.), The Spiritual in the Secular: Missionaries and Knowledge About Africa (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, Grand Rapids, MI, 2012). Forthcoming is Patrick Harries and Martin Lengwiler (eds.), Science, Africa and Europe: Processing Information and Creating Knowledge.

[7] A book that helped Patrick to fall in love with his adopted city was Lionel Gossman’s magnificent Basel In The Age Of Burckhardt: A Study in Unreasonable Ideas (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 200).

[8] The latest issue of the Journal Of Southern African Studies contains his article Patrick Harries, “Mozambique Island, Cape Town and the Organisation of the Slave Trade in the South-West Indian Ocean, c. 1797-1807”, Journal of Southern African Studies, Vol. 42, Issue 3, 2016: Special Issue: Durban and Cape Town as Port Cities: Reconsidering Southern African Studies from the Indian Ocean, pp. 409-427.

[9] Jorge Luis Borges, Selected Poems 1923-1967 (Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1972), p. 257. The original has the lines “This summer I’ll be fifty years old” instead of “This autumn I’ll be sixty-six years old”. An extended version of the poem, called “Limits”, appear on pp. 115-117 of this edition.