On 15th December 2014, en route home after delivering a lecture at a Cambridge University conference to mark the bi-centenary of the birth of Bishop John Colenso, prominent historian Jeff Guy died suddenly whilst on the way to London’s Heathrow airport.
Born in 1940, Guy took what might today be termed a four year ‘gap’ as a farm worker, sailor and soldier before registering as a student on the Pietermaritzburg campus of the then Natal University. After completing his BA Honours degree under the guidance of Colin Webb, to whom he attributed his passion for history, he became the first PhD student of Shula Marks at the University of London. He subsequently taught at universities in Norway, Lesotho and finally the University of KwaZulu-Natal, which accorded him the status of Professor Emeritus.
Jeff Guy has been described as a ‘towering figure’ among historians and, with his Marxian perspective, made a major contribution to redefining the historiography of the colonial period in KwaZulu and Natal. His scholarship was characterised by meticulous research and cogent writing. Amongst his major publications, his doctoral thesis was reworked and published in 1980 as The Destruction of the Zulu Kingdom: The Civil War in Zululand.
In 1983 came The Heretic: A Study of the Life of John William Colenso. Very probably Guy felt a kinship with Colenso in his challenges to the establishment and his empathy with the Zulu people. It would have been much the same with the bishop’s daughter Harriet, whose efforts on behalf of the exiled king Cetshwayo are the subject of Guy’s The View across the River: Harriet Colenso and the Zulu Struggle against Imperialism.(2001).
A less congenial figure was Theophilus Shepstone, but in Theophilus Shepstone and the Forging of Natal Guy overcame his initial prejudice against Shepstone in his assessment of the man’s responses to the complex challenges of his times. Before the 2013 publication of this last major book, Guy had produced two smaller but still significant works to mark the 2006 centenary of the so-called Bambatha Rebellion, entitled The Maphumulo Uprising and Remembering the Rebellion. He also contributed a series of articles analysing the root causes and the ruthless suppression of the uprising to The Witness newspaper, thus reaching a wider audience.
In his obituary for the Mail and Guardian, Colin Bundy refers to Jeff Guy’s description of the role of academic historians as “guardians and propagators of informed, critical, disinterested history”. His interpretations were challenging and could be controversial, but he was always true to his calling.
Moray Comrie – 2015 01 05