Foremost historian of Cape slavery, Nelson Mandela Chair of African Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi 2003, author of acclaimed book on Cape slavery, Children of Bondage, husband of Dr Sandra Rowoldt-Shell and father of Elisabeth Rozalette Shell.
Robert Shell was born in Cape Town, South Africa on 13 February 1949, the only child of a German father, Heinrich (Heinz) Schelowsky (later changed to Shell) and South African-born mother, Louie Shell née Bosman. Robert, who grew up near Stellenbosch, then Tamboerskloof and later in Kommetjie, attended the South African College High School (SACS). [i]
Robert completed his undergraduate and Honours degrees at the University of Cape Town in 1973 and 1974 respectively, his Honours degree focusing on Islam at the Cape. In 1975, drawn by the scholarship of Professor Stanley Engerman, the leading proponent of the application of quantitative historical methodology (cliometrics); Robert enrolled in a Master’s programme at the University of Rochester, NY. In 1976, Rochester awarded him his Master’s degree, the focus of which was American colonial and revolutionary history and comparative slavery. On his return to South Africa, he worked as a research officer in what was then the South African Cultural History Museum (now the Iziko Slave Lodge Museum) charged with the development of the Bo-Kaap Museum. After the successful opening of this museum in May 1978, he resigned from his position to read for his doctorate at Yale University. He was awarded his PhD in1986 with a thesis entitled “Slavery at the Cape of Good Hope: 1680-1731.” [ii]
While completing the final chapter of his thesis, Robert accepted the post of visiting Professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara for a period of two years. In 1988 he was appointed Assistant Professor of Pre-colonial African History at Princeton University, a position he held for eight years. During these years Robert also penned his much-acclaimed Children of Bondage: A Social History of the Slave Society at the Cape of Good Hope, 1652-1838. [iii]
In 1996, following the liberation of South Africa and the establishment of the new democracy, Robert returned home, taking up a post as Senior Lecturer-in-charge of the History Department at the East London campus of Rhodes University. At the same time, the National Research Foundation (NRF) awarded him one of only three South African Population Research Units (PRU). He directed the PRU throughout his time at Rhodes.
Whilst on sabbatical at Princeton University in 2000, Robert was invited to appear on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC where he addressed the US House Committee on International Relations (now Foreign Relations) and the Sub-Committee on African Affairs on the global AIDS pandemic, specifically the spread and impact of the disease throughout Africa. [iv] While in Washington, he also had an extended and valuable one-on-one interview and discussion with President Bill Clinton’s “AIDS Tsar,” Sandra Thurman.
However, at Rhodes University, Robert Shell, an “ivy league” scholar and internationally published academic, faced the wrath of the university administrators, when he accused the university of “nepotism and cronyism” in a report commissioned by the then Vice-Chancellor. [v] Robert’s stand against injustice was something that was deeply ingrained in his psyche, but this came at huge personal cost, including the loss of his position at the university in 2001.
Kenneth R. Hughes of the University of Cape Town describes this debacle as follows:
The savage and totally disproportionate revenge to which he was subjected by the Rhodes management was a dark day in the history of Academic Freedom in South Africa—his protests about academic harassment themselves led to intensified persecution, and so virulent was the hatred with which he was pursued that he was prevented from landing an alternative appointment at Stellenbosch. [vi]
Within weeks, the University of the Western Cape (UWC) interviewed Robert for the position of Associate Professor in the Department of Statistics for a period of five years. His application was successful and he held this position from September 2001 until the end of December 2006. In 2007, UWC appointed him Extraordinary Professor of African Historical Demography in the same department, a position he held until his death. During this period, he also served as Councillor, and later as Vice-President, of the Demographic Association of South Africa (DEMSA) 1997-2004. [vii]
In July 2003 Robert was awarded the Nelson Mandela Chair of African Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi where he worked on AIDS in India for a period of six months. While in India, Robert gave many presentations at JNU and Delhi University as well as a paper entitled “HIV/AIDS in Southern African and India” during the seminar “Recasting the discourse on AIDS: Lessons for Public Health from Africa, Brazil and India” at the World Social Forum in Mumbai, 16-21 January 2004.
Robert was widely published, including two further books: The Island of Research: A Practical Guide and E-toolkit for the Information Age (two volumes & CD, 2011) and Bibliographies of Bondage: Selected Bibliographies of South African Slavery and Abolition (2007), twelve chapters in books and twenty articles in accredited scholarly journals. In his efforts to disseminate information on the AIDS pandemic to a wider readership, he published an article in the July 2000 edition of the Reader’s Digest under the title “AIDS: we must go to war.”
During his career, Robert also wrote several book reviews and some 55 newspaper editorials. He also featured on many television and radio programmes and in several films including “The Overflowing Graveyards of Port Elizabeth” (Special Assignment, SATV 3, 1998), “Three Worlds Meet—Origins to 1620” and “Slavery and Freedom,” (volumes 1& 3 of United States History, Schlessinger Video Productions, 1997). Robert attended more than 41 international workshops where he delivered papers on a range of topics, most notably on slavery, Islam, HIV/AIDS and research methodology.
Following his return to Cape Town with his wife, Dr Sandra Rowoldt Shell, Robert continued to make a huge impact on the lives of his students and on descendants of Cape slavery. From his home in Gardens, Cape Town, Robert continued his scholarly research compiling, inter alia, several valuable e-books on CD, about slavery at the Cape, such as From Diaspora to Diorama and Cape Omnibus, with the primary intention of making the history of the Cape accessible to all.
In 2001 Robert wrote:
For too long history has been written by trained historians employed by universities and funded by large granting institutions. Such history is often of such a demanding and esoteric nature that the subjects of the history do not recognise themselves. Consequently, such books are neither read nor sold in the subject communities. Such books are also expensive. The people are therefore cheated of their own past and, ultimately, of their identity. [viii]
Robert understood Cape slavery not only because he was born and raised at the Cape, but because he reached beyond the borders of a “privileged” background in a way that many of his peers did not seem able to do. In her article in the Cape Argus in February 2015, Jackie Loos wrote of how Robert’s interest in Islam was nurtured by his father who took the young Robert on visits to the Sheikh Yusuf Kramat in Faure. [ix] This would set the course of his future studies on the history of Islam at the Cape.
Robert’s major contribution to the historiography of slavery and Islam at the Cape was highly valued by scholars and local communities. The Turkish scholar, Halim Gencoglu, who did groundbreaking research on Abu Bakr Effendi, had high praise for Robert’s “fatherly support, inspiration and advice” during the course of his studies. [x] Robert had a wealth of knowledge which he shared freely, always happy to help scholars and researchers and his oft-stated advice to scholars was to use primary archival sources, saying that “secondary sources are fool’s gold.” [xi]
In September 2014 Robert was diagnosed with lung cancer. He faced his final months with great bravery and dignity. One of the highlights of this traumatic time for Robert was the reunion with his beautiful daughter Elisabeth, who had grown up in America with her mother.
Robert Shell died on 3 February 2015 at his home in Gardens where he was nursed by his soulmate and wife, Sandy Shell.
[i] Sandy Shell (née Rowoldt), “Memories of a Soulmate: A Tribute to Robert Shell, 13 February 1949-03 February 2015”New Contree 72 (July 2015): 127-128. ↵
[ii] Kenneth R Hughes, “Robert Carl-Heinz Shell (1949-2015) A tribute” New Contree, 72 (July 2015): 125; Sandy Shell, “Memories of a Soulmate,”128-129. ↵
[iii] See Robert Shell, Children of Bondage:A Social History of the Slave Society at the Cape of Good Hope, 1652-1838 (Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press, 1994); Sandy Shell, “Memories of a Soulmate,”128-129. ↵
[iv] Shell, Unpublished private correspondence, 19.08.2005. ↵
[v] Roger Southall and Julian Cobbing, “From Racial Liberalism to Corporate Authoritarianism: The Shell Affair and the Assault on Academic Freedom in South Africa” Social Dynamics 27, 2 (2001): 28 passim. ↵
[vi] Hughes, “Robert Carl-Heinz Shell,”125. ↵
[vii] Robert Shell, Unpublished private correspondence, 19.08.2005. ↵
[viii] Robert C-H Shell, From Diaspora to Diorama:The Old Slave Lodge in Cape Town, (Cape Town: Ancestry24, 2003), 4. ↵
[ix] Jackie Loos, “Tribute to Man who Wrote Thesis on slavery in Cape” Cape Argus (12 February 2015). ↵
[x] Halim Gencoglu, “The Forgotten Effendi: Ottoman Muslim Theologian, Mahmud Fakih Emin Effendi, and the real story of the Bo-Kaap Museum, c.1894-1978”New Contree73(Special edition, November 2015): 163. ↵
[xi] Personal conversation with Robert Shell, 2009. ↵
• Hughes, Kenneth, R. “Robert Carl-Heinz Shell (1949-2015) A tribute” New Contree, 72 (July 2015).
• Loos, Jackie, “Tribute to Man who Wrote Thesis on slavery in Cape” Cape Argus (12 February 2015.
• Robert Shell, Children of Bondage: A Social History of the Slave Society at the Cape of Good Hope, 1652-1838 (Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press, 1994).
• Sandy Shell (née Rowoldt), “Memories of a Soulmate: A Tribute to Robert Shell, 13 February 1949-03 February 2015”New Contree 72 (July 2015).
• Roger Southall and Julian Cobbing, “From Racial Liberalism to Corporate Authoritarianism: The Shell Affair and the Assault on Academic Freedom in South Africa” Social Dynamics 27, 2 (2001).