James Stuart

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James Stuart

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Dates of existence

1868 - 1942

History

[Source - John Wright for FHYA using KCAL materials, 2016: James Stuart was a colonial official and a prolific recorder of oral historical materials in Natal in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He was born in 1868 in Pietermaritzburg, the capital of the British colony of Natal, and grew up with a good knowledge of isiZulu. He was educated in Natal and at a public school in Sussex, England. In 1888 he was appointed clerk to the resident magistrate in Eshowe in the recently annexed British colony of Zululand, became a magistrate in the colony in 1895, and subsequently served as acting magistrate in a number of centres in Natal. In 1901 he was appointed as assistant magistrate in Durban.

In the Natal rebellion of 1906, Stuart served in the Natal Field Artillery and in the intelligence service of the colonial forces. In 1909 he was appointed Assistant Secretary for Native Affairs in the colony’s Native Affairs Department. After the formation of the Union of South Africa in 1910, he was transferred to Pretoria. He took early retirement in 1912, and returned to Natal. The following year he published A History of the Zulu Rebellion, 1906, which remained the standard work on the subject until the 1960s. He was in London in 1914-15, and on military service in France with the South African Native Labour Contingent in 1916-17. In 1922 he left Natal with his wife Ellen and two young sons, and settled in London.

In the late 1890s Stuart began devoting much of his spare time to interviewing people – particularly elderly African men – with a knowledge of the history of African societies in Natal (into which Zululand was incorporated in 1897), and, to a lesser extent, in Swaziland. He recorded his conversations with them in detail in a gradually growing collection of written notes. At the same time, he read widely into the history of Natal. His aim was to make himself the leading authority on what he called ‘Zulu’ history and custom, with the larger purpose of being able to inform the making of native policy in the colony, which he saw as based on ignorance and misunderstanding of the historical Zulu system of governance. He pursued his researches until his departure from Natal, ultimately amassing notes of conversations with a total of some 200 interlocutors.

After he moved to London, Stuart used his notes to compile and publish five isiZulu readers for use in schools in Natal. In the late 1920s he was actively engaged in research into Natal and Zulu history in the British Museum. The later years of his life are obscure. He died in London in 1942. In 1949 his widow sold his corpus of papers to Killie Campbell, a noted collector of Africana in Durban. Since 1971, six volumes of Stuart’s notes of his conversations, edited and translated by Colin Webb and John Wright, have been published in the in-progress series, the James Stuart Archive. Wright and fellow editor Mbongiseni Buthelezi are currently working on a seventh volume.]

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