Robert Shell: my friend
Today I learnt the news I had been expecting and dreading for some months: that Rob Shell had died.
Sandy, his lovely wife, broke the news in an email. All day I have had him in the corner of my mind, for Rob was truly a lovely man.
For those who didn't know him Robert Shell was the foremost scholar of slavery in the Cape. His list of books and papers was impressive, to say the least.
But what his entry in Wikipedia didn't make clear was what a hell of a nice person he was: funny, affectionate and generous.
Generous not just with his time and his hospitality but with his spirit. Rob lit up a room - sprawling across it, with a cigarette in his hand and a cheeky grin on his face. A really lekker guy.
Which is not to suggest that he lacked intellectual rigour. Far from it. Or that he was always easy to get on with.
Rob was that kind of uncompromising intellectual who will follow his vision to the end. On the subject of slavery I remember him collecting facts about the slave trade on tatty cards he kept in a shoe box from the moment I first met him at the University of Cape Town. We were together at the ‘sit-in' in 1968, protesting against UCT's refusal to appointArchie Mafeje. In a way Rob never stopped protesting.
Slavery was an interest that became his consuming passion and he wrote - prolifically - about it for the rest of his days. His scholarship should have earned him a full professorship and a tenured post at Princeton, Yale or one of the other great American universities.
But Rob had two drawbacks. In a discipline that was (unofficially) ring-fenced for African Americans and he was the wrong colour. His South African background probably did him no favours either. His second drawback was his lack of diplomacy. Rob was a good South African oke and he could be as direct as any of the rest of our tribe. He lacked the smooth, oleaginous skills so necessary for a truly successful academic career.
Throughout Rob's long career he had a habit of rubbing the authorities up the wrong way. Nowhere more so than at Rhodes, where he stood up for academic integrity and paid a heavy price.
Rob was, however, blessed with a truly wonderful wife in Sandy: his intellectual equal and loving companion to the end. He was also finally able to reach a resolution and be re-united with his daughter, something he had longed for for many years.
So go well, Rob: you shone a light in the darkest corners of our world.
This article first appeared on Martin Plaut's website.
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