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February 2010: John Lambert

John Lambert
Professor Emeritus, Dept of History, University of South Africa, Pretoria

1. Where, when, and why did you become interested in British history?

I come from a family in which religion and singing were important parts of family life and it was taken for granted that as a young boy in the 1950s I would follow in the footsteps of older family members and sing in the choir of St Alban’s Cathedral in Pretoria. During evensong on Sunday evenings a love of British history was instilled in me by John Agar-Hamilton, at that time editor-in-chief of the Union War History and a sub-deacon in the Cathedral. I was captivated by the history in his sermons and would sit enthralled listening to him expound on Britain’s Christian and missionary history. I was so impressed by a sermon on Roman roads that to this day, over 50 years later, I seek them out every time I am in England! In the late 1950s my love of British history was further stimulated by the redoubtable Maurice Geen, headmaster of Clapham High School in Pretoria. Geen shaped my understanding of what history means and guided my reading. He was a passionate believer in British values and institutions and the books he recommended tended to be on British history. But he skilfully weaned me from an early love of the works of ‘patriotic’ historians such as Arthur Bryant and Winston Churchill by exposing me particularly to those of C. V. Wedgwood for whom he had great admiration. More important, he encouraged me to discover and value other British historians and biographers.

2. Who most influenced your academic development?

In the 1960s I read History at the University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg where, like so many undergraduates of that time, I fell under the spell of Colin Webb, history professor at Natal and later King George V Professor of History at the University of Cape Town. There are few scholars in the field of Natal and Zulu studies who do not acknowledge their debt to Colin Webb. Physically, intellectually and as a man of principle, he was larger than life; an inspiring lecturer who widened my studies to embrace a love of South African, and particularly Natal history. A man of deep convictions, Colin instilled in me the belief that history was something to be passionate about; that although the historian had always to see both sides of an argument, he should, indeed must, be prepared to hold strong convictions about what had happened in the past.

3. If you hadn’t become a historian what career path would you have chosen?

I spent some years as a librarian and archivist before joining the History Department at the University of South Africa in Pretoria. I never had any intention of making either of these professions my career and the only alternative to history that I did consider was archaeology.

4. What Project Are You Currenty Working On?

A book on the history and development of a white English-speaking identity in South Africa. Despite the fact that so much attention has been paid to Afrikaner identity as well as to African identities such as those of the Zulu and Xhosa, South Africans of British descent are a forgotten people and I hope to go some way towards remedying this. My interest in English-speakers is wider than researching them in their South African context alone and, drawing on the works of other historians on the British diaspora, I place them firmly in the context of the nineteenth and twentieth century British World.

5. Of your academic projects, which one has proven to be most fulfilling?

My current project is proving to be very exciting and fulfilling. As an English-speaking South African of British descent with maternal roots going back to the 1820 Settlers, I am finding it most rewarding tracing the way in which the group has changed and developed during the last 200 years. I see my work as a biographical study of English-speakers and, at one level, my own background makes the study virtually an autobiography. Of my completed projects, however, the most fulfilling is the work that I did on Africans in colonial Natal which culminated in a book, Betrayed Trust: Africans and the State in Colonial Natal, published in 1995. Examining and coming to understand the way in which a pre-colonial subsistence society met the challenge of colonial conditions and adapted its homestead economy to take advantage of the opportunities offered by a market economy, only to see their efforts undermined in the late colonial period, was a fascinating experience. Researching how many of the colony’s chiefs were able to use the British presence to enrich themselves and protect themselves from the neighbouring Zulu Kingdom provided interesting parallels with the way in which chiefs tried to manipulate the policy of apartheid and, today, try to use conditions in the new South Africa, to aggrandise themselves and their chiefdoms.

6. Where do you see the field of British history heading in the next few years?

There are so many varieties of British history or British histories these days that I find it difficult to conceive of the concept of a ‘field of British history’. As a South African working in the field of British World studies, and very excited by the number of Australian, New Zealand and Canadian historians, as well as a smaller number of South Africans, who are exploring the British legacies in their countries, I certainly hope that the diaspora dimension of British studies will continue to flourish.

7. What advice do you have for graduate students and beginning academics about finding a topic of interest and publishing on it?

The best advice that I can offer any aspiring historian is to select a topic about which he or she can become passionate. Research can only too often prove to be a lonely endeavour which consumes more time and energy than the student or beginning academic would believe possible. Without a deep and ongoing interest in the chosen topic it is only too easy for interest to wilt and what should be an exciting voyage of discovery turns into drudgery. So, chose a topic that you truly want to research and that you feel is valuable and don’t be swayed by concerns such as the trendiness or otherwise of the field in which you want to work. Above all, research a topic that appeals to you and is not imposed on you by your promoter’s interests! It is difficult to give advice on publishing. In South Africa it is extremely difficult to find publishers who are prepared to risk money publishing academic histories.

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