I could speak about all the things that you already know about Robert: That he was a brilliant man, that his was the biggest contribution to Cape slave history research by a single historian and that there is not a history book about Cape slavery written in the past four decades that does not have the name Shell in it. These are the things you already know.
What I would really like to speak about are the qualities that Robert had that I so admired. Robert saw beyond the surface of things and valued what society discarded.
In 1970, at the age of 22, Robert started researching the history of people who many in the society that Robert grew up in considered inconsequential.
The most wonderful thing about Robert was that he cared about, and made himself accessible to, the people whose history he was writing. When I was doing interviews in Ocean View, the name Shell was uttered with respect by people like the late Peter Clarke. My most poignant experience of this was when visiting 92 year old Aunty Kobie Manuel in Ocean View in 2009 and seeing a copy of Children of Bondage displayed on the sideboard in the lounge, duly signed by the author who had visited them and had sat eating a plate of curry with her son-in-law on a bench in the yard. He was often invited to attend functions for local communities and loved attending these. In many ways he was The People’s Professor.
Robert gave so much of himself to people and had no need of accolades, recognition or wealth. An ex-colleague who worked at the funding office at UWC mentioned to my daughter Blanche recently how Robert was always coming into the funding office to try and get financial assistance for his students. Rob also supervised students from other institutions, one of whom was a young French speaking Ruwandan student from AIMS named Antoine and Rob telephoned me to ask me to assist Antoine with his English. Donna Corns who is here today was doing her Honours degree at UCT in 2010 and very nervously approached Robert, who she did not know at the time, to ask whether he would be prepared to supervise her Honours dissertation on Hanglip. Robert did this gladly and when Donna achieved a First Class pass he was jubilant.
Robert had a way of taking people in and making them his own. He mentored many people and I am fortunate to have been one of them. It was through Robert’s prompting that I began historical studies at UCT and when I completed my Masters degree last year and it got a distinction, Robert was over the moon and he and Sandy invited me to lunch at their home to celebrate. He also told me that he now wanted me to do a PhD, which I was non committal about at the time, but he looked at me unperturbed, as though he knew something that I didn’t at the time.
In September last year Robert phoned me to tell me that he had been diagnosed with cancer. He was determined to continue his life as normally as possible and was insistent on continuing to supervise Prabha Rama’s PhD thesis. As the months went by the cancer spread rapidly and Robert lost a lot of weight, yet even in that dark time there was a silver lining when Robert became re-united with his beautiful daughter Elizabeth who had been living in America for many years.
I last saw Robert on 30 December 2014 when he gave me newly published history book and wrote a beautiful inscription, saying that he hoped this book inspired me for my next project, the title of which he decided would be ‘A forgotten identity’. I have just this week completed the draft proposal for my PhD thesis, A forgotten identity, which will be done in Robert’s honour.
I just want to end by saying, I have spoken this morning about some things that you may or may not have known about Robert. I am now going to end with something that we all do know, and that is that Robert’s marriage to Sandy meant the world to him. Robert adored Sandy, the one person who loved and understood him above all others. It was indeed humbling to witness such an intense display of love in the way Sandy lovingly nursed Robert at home right to the end and as he took his last breaths last Tuesday, Sandy was holding his hand and telling him that she loved him. When I asked Sandy recently whether it was difficult to have been alone at a time like that, she replied that it wasn’t, saying: ‘the most intimate time in a marriage is not at the wedding, but at the time of death’. I feel truly privileged to have encountered in my lifetime these two wonderful people, from whom I have learnt not only about history, but have reminded about the beauty of love between a man and a woman.