Biographies that encompass an ancestral to posthumous survey of both life and work, especially ones like Keith Snedegar’s comprehensive and sympathetic account of Alexander William Roberts, Mission, Science, and Race in South Africa: A. W. Roberts of Lovedale, 1883–1938, can at their best convey something of the occasional majesty of daily life: the mundane becomes ethereal. On occasion, such moments pulsate out from Snedegar’s text like light from the variable stars that formed the basis of the amateur yet extremely prolific and well-connected astronomer’s extraordinary nightly devotions. Here is Roberts on Halley’s Comet: “If my own view be worth anything, it is this, that the comet had not changed within the short period of years that men have viewed it with intelligent eyes and understanding minds. I could not conceive it more wonderful than I saw it on the morning of 19th May, when it rose a perfect shaft of silver from out of the shadowy, distant hills” (71). Lovely. During the day, Roberts was merely devoted to his career as a schoolteacher and administrator at the Lovedale Missionary Institution, which educated a fair share of the intellectual and political African elite at the time, and later to his bureaucratic work for the South African government; at mealtimes, one must assume, he found the time and energy to sustain a deep connection to his family. All of this makes one wonder when he conducted the relationships with his domestic workers that led his missionary colleagues to accuse him of “informality” (72). From his early years of schooling, Roberts worked his way out of poverty, and he kept working. One leaves the text floored by sheer industry and sense of duty. With a nod to Aldo Leopold, Snedegar slices through Roberts’s life like a saw cutting through an oak tree: each year, or growth ring, gets exposed, and then the saw moves relentlessly on. Fortunately, though, the years of Roberts’s life accreted in compelling places. His South Africa was a “haunting land of far distances” (65). As important as this trope was to Roberts, and it was one to which he returned often (e.g., 3), it is also critical to understanding the affective charge that drove the imaginative claim to a unified “white” South Africa of which Roberts is a key exemplar. Roberts spent over fifty years at the Lovedale in Alice in the remote eastern Cape, where he bore witness to the increasing imposition of colonial control on local African farmers and sharecroppers. The immediate region was also one of the centers of African intellectual and political engagement, where local African-language newspapers, political and governmental structures, and educational institutions such as the eventual University of Fort Hare waxed and waned. Importantly, Roberts also engaged significantly with both South African and imperial metropoles, such as Edinburgh and London. This geographical reach coincides with a particularly compelling (and under-studied in its earlier years) period in South African history, from the 1880s to the 1930s, one that bore witness to the mineral revolution, the South African war, the unification and creation of South Africa itself, and the era of increasing informal and legal restrictions on those not designated as white or European, the segregation era. Rarely do we see a life or study that traces these changes from one era to another, modernity arriving in its imperial form. Roberts lived in a rural region but visited and corresponded with residents of the metropoles; he taught basic skills, but participated in the theoretical and mechanical revolutions in astronomy; he dealt with the minutiae of academic politics while later in life participating in the South African parliament and bureaucracy at its highest levels. All this enables the reader to gain a slice, a sliver, but a significant one at that, of the zeitgeist of the period, albeit one embodied and brought to life by a particularly white South African type: an expat yearning for home, an idealist brought down by local contexts. One salient aspect of the atmosphere was the changing status of science and society during the period. As an amateur astronomer yearning for contact and comradeship from scientists of all types and professionals in his own field, Roberts participated in the founding and establishment of the South African Association for the Advancement of Science. He bore witness to the increasing specialization within the sciences as well as to their bureaucratization, which in turn led to cases (including his own foray into demography) that twisted science to reach particular ideological conclusions. One wishes that Snedegar had devoted more time and analysis to issues of domesticity, intimacy, and personal politics. He provides some tantalizing hints, but is not willing to indulge his historical imagination in this realm. He does see fit to do so with regard to Roberts’s struggles in astronomy. The reader also hopes for a more sustained historiographical engagement with the many historical problems and debates upon which Roberts’s life intersects, in particular the history of astronomy, as well as of race and segregation. Lastly, readers of a certain persuasion might wish for, while those of another might resent, more of the first-person confessional writing that some historians have employed in biographical studies. After all, biography results from psychic, energetic, and financial investment and sacrifices quite unlike those that support other historical projects. Snedegar gracefully provides us with a sense of what drove Roberts’s admirable productivity in his day-to-day life, as well as of what inspired him to his life’s passion. Insight into the passion of the author that sustained a similar level of commitment to exhaustive archival research and writing would benefit students of the making of history itself. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
It’s your single place to instantly
discover and read the research
that matters to you.
Enjoy affordable access to
over 12 million articles from more than
10,000 peer-reviewed journals.
All for just $49/month
Read as many articles as you need. Full articles with original layout, charts and figures. Read online, from anywhere.
Keep up with your field with Personalized Recommendations and Follow Journals to get automatic updates.
It’s easy to organize your research with our built-in tools.
Read from thousands of the leading scholarly journals from SpringerNature, Elsevier, Wiley-Blackwell, Oxford University Press and more.
All the latest content is available, no embargo periods.
“Hi guys, I cannot tell you how much I love this resource. Incredible. I really believe you've hit the nail on the head with this site in regards to solving the research-purchase issue.”Daniel C.
“Whoa! It’s like Spotify but for academic articles.”@Phil_Robichaud
“I must say, @deepdyve is a fabulous solution to the independent researcher's problem of #access to #information.”@deepthiw
“My last article couldn't be possible without the platform @deepdyve that makes journal papers cheaper.”@JoseServera