George Theal - Encyclopedia




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"GEORGE McCALL THEAL (1837-1919), British historiographer, was born in Canada, where his family had long been settled. When 19 he went to Sierra Leone, removing two years later to Cape Colony, where he became a schoolmaster. He quickly developed an interest in the natives and in the history of the country. In 1877, on behalf of the Government he settled a dispute with the Gaika Kaffirs, and thereafter joined the Cape Civil Service, being attached to the Native Department. Shortly afterwards he was also appointed Keeper of the Archives, and in 1891 was made Colonial Historiographer, which position he held until 1905. Before joining the Civil Service he had published in one volume a History of South Africa and the first fruits of his Bantu studies were embodied in Kaffir Folk Lore (1882). From the time he obtained access to the Cape archives he devoted himself to research. In 1895 he was commissioned by Cecil Rhodes, then Prime Minister of Cape Colony, to go to Europe, where he stayed several years examining the Portuguese archives at Lisbon, the Dutch archives at The Hague and the British in London. He constantly enlarged and revised his History which in its final form was in eleven volumes, the first dealing with ethnography and conditions up to 1505, the others carrying on the story of S. Africa up to 1884. Theal also published official Records of the Cape Colony, 1793-1827, in 36 slim volumes, Records of South East Africa in nine volumes, and many other works, some in Dutch.

Theal's industry never flagged. He died at Wynberg, Cape Province, on April 17 1919, in the act of correcting the proofs of the last two volumes of his history. The founder of what may be called the Dominions school of historians, he was himself a chronicler rather than an historian. His passion for research brought to light a mass of unknown or forgotten documents of high value, but his narrative is overloaded with details, is essentially domestic, and not always impartial. He lacked the wider vision which sees events in their true perspective. Theal was given the honorary degree of Litt.D. by the Cape University in 1899; he had previously been made an hon. LL.D. of Queen's University, Kingston, Canada.

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