In the Spotlight: Professor Robert Ross

On the occasion of the retirement of Robert Ross, Professor in African History at Leiden University, his successor and former student Jan-Bart Gewald wrote a valedictory note.

Robert as supervisor of the Research Masters studentsStudents like me who visited Robert in his office in the P. van Eyckhof building would sit opposite him, literally with our backs against the wall, whilst in front of us were bookcases filled with an enormous collection of books that covered but a small bit of the formal curricula Robert taught. And on the wall behind us, Robert would pin up a variety of quotes, sketches found in archives (Engels to Marx of a buxom lady if I remember correctly), prints of rare birds and, above all, topographical maps − initially of South Africa as a whole and then in later years a highly detailed map of the Kat River Valley proper.

Over the years as we sat with our backs to the wall in awe of Robert and his books, he would gaze dreamily at the maps of his other world, namely South Africa in the 1830s, 1840s and 1850s, the period that he studied and saw as laying the ground rules for contemporary South Africa, which were forged in the many wars and disturbed peace of the region. Central in Robert’s work have always been his attempts to place the material in the social. For him, the history of South Africa only gained meaning and became understandable when the nitty gritty, the nuts and bolts, the issues of land, water, agriculture and labour were placed in a social context.

Robert as promotorRobert was, to his credit, never one for the high politics of university, nor was he one for the soulless regurgitation of names, dates and decrees of political history. He was interested in the hardtack of life and what people made of it as they chewed their beskuit and drank their tea or dop from chipped china mugs. Robert was consciously concerned not so much with resurrecting the dead but with allowing the silenced to speak and with resuscitating and rehabilitating the thoughts and ideas of people branded as delinquents, traitors or rebels. Over the last 40 years, Robert has drawn back from obscurity and shame the social history of millions of largely forgotten South Africans and returned to them the respectability and rationality they so deserved and desired in the face of racial prejudice and British Imperial power.

Colleagues and students of Robert have consistently fallen into one of two categories: those who understood what he was talking about and those who were too pig-headed, not to say stupid, to realize that what he had to say was valuable beyond measure. As Africanists and historians, Robert’s students are unique and immediately recognizable. They may not be very good at dates and decrees but they do have a unique and eclectic way of looking at how the world works. Heavily influenced by the social sciences, Robert’s students conduct histories that never lose sight of people, whilst covering topics as diverse as religious movements in Zimbabwe, West African alcohol production and consumption, Sahelian armed movements, agricultural developments in Zambia and issues of chieftaincy in Malawi.

To his students and colleagues alike, Robert has been consistently loyal and kind to a fault. With characteristic disregard for convention, he has taught far in excess of the bureaucratic norm and his students have benefitted immeasurably from this. For Robert, the student − and what the student thought − was always of central importance; the trick was in getting the students to express and argue their ideas coherently and convincingly. Those students and colleagues who took the time and invested the effort could not have wanted for a better tutor and mentor.

Jan-Bart Gewald, September 2014

Photo 1: Robert as supervisor of the Research Masters students, February 2014 (photo: Fenneken Veldkamp)
Photo 2: Robert as promotor of Mary Davies; next to Robert co-promotor Jan-Bart Gewald (photo: Maaike Westra)
Photo 3: Robert in the hallway of the ASC (photo: Maaike Westra)