Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Shepstone, Theophilus

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SHEPSTONE, Sir THEOPHILUS (1817–1893), South African statesman, the son of the Rev. William Shepstone, who emigrated to the Cape in 1820, and his wife Elizabeth Brookes, was born at Westbury, near Bristol, on 8 Jan. 1817. He was educated chiefly at the Cape, at the native missions to which his father devoted himself, and he early acquired a great proficiency in the native dialects. On 8 Jan. 1835 he became headquarters interpreter of the Kaffir languages at Capetown, and served on the expedition against the Kaffirs on the governor's staff; at the conclusion of the campaign he was made clerk to the agent for the native tribes on the frontier. In 1838 he accompanied the expedition under Major Charteris which accomplished the first temporary occupation of Natal; and in the following year he became the British resi- resident among the 'Tslambi, Congo, and Fingo tribes.

In 1845, when Natal was constituted a separate government, Shepstone was appointed agent for the native tribes, and in 1848 was made captain-general of the native levies. In March 1851 he received a dormant commission to act as lieutenant-governor of Natal in case of the death or incapacity of Sir Benjamin Chilley Campbell Pine [q. v.] In 1855 he became judicial assessor in native causes. In 1856, when the constitution of Natal was reformed and the scope of the local government enlarged, Shepstone became secretary for native affairs and a member of the executive and legislative councils. In this position he showed himself a strong and uncompromising official. He maintained the importance of continuing native customs and condemned attempts to hasten civilisation. His policy was on the whole successful, though it often provoked violent opposition.

In 1872 Shepstone was sent into Zululand to arrange for the peaceful succession of Cetewayo; he crowned the new king and obtained his fealty to Great Britain, and so long as Shepstone was in Natal Cetewayo behaved fairly well. In 1874 he was specially sent to England to confer with the secretary of state on questions of native policy. In 1876 he again proceeded to London to represent Natal at the conference upon South African affairs. He had been created C.M.G. in 1869, and was now promoted to be K.C.M.G. On his return to Africa he found native affairs in turmoil: the war with Sekokoeni was proceeding, Cetewayo was restless, and the Transvaal Boers were in trouble with their native neighbours. In January 1877 Shepstone, with a small personal staff and twenty-five policemen, rode into the Transvaal, and on 18 April declared it British territory. He was appointed the administrator of the new province [see under Herbert, Henry Howard Molyneux, fourth Earl of Carnarvon].

Shepstone's action in regard to the Transvaal has naturally, in the light of subsequent events, been the subject of severe criticism; but it is claimed for him personally that he was not allowed to carry out his own ideas as administrator. In 1879 he relinquished the administration, and in 1880 retired from the public service. Independence under British suzerainty was restored to the Transvaal state by the English government in 1881. He continued to reside in Natal, taking little part in public affairs. In 1884, however, he was selected to replace Cetewayo in the sovereignty of Zululand. He also showed decided opposition to the erection of Natal into a responsible government. He died in Pietermaritzburg on 23 June 1893, and was buried in the church of England cemetery.

Shepstone's power over the natives was wonderful, and he used it with great wisdom. They called him their ‘father,’ or, from his great prowess in hunting, ‘Somsteu.’ He was active in church matters, and for years a friend of Bishop Colenso.

Shepstone married, on 10 Nov. 1838, Maria daughter of Charles Palmer, commissary-general at Capetown. He had six sons and three daughters. Of the former, one was killed at Isandhlwana; another, Theophilus, is adviser to the Swazi natives; the eldest, Mr. H. C. Shepstone, C.M.G., was secretary for native affairs in Natal from 1884 to 1893.

[Natal Witness, 26 June 1893; Colonial Office List, 1883; information from Mr. H. C. Shepstone.]

C. A. H.