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The Van Riebeeck Society for the Publication of Southern African Historical Documents was established in 1918 to publish meticulously-edited original sources on Southern African history, which were inaccessible to the average South African. Since then it has produced one volume in every year bar one. Membership is open to all who pay an annual subscription fee which funds our publications. In return, members receive that year’s publication.

The Society was very much the product of the new Union of South Africa established in 1910 and sought to provide the fledgling state with a sense of its roots in the colonial past. Even so, in a multi-racial and interdependent country like South Africa, the subject-matter of its volumes went well beyond white society and also contained rich information on the indigenous San, Khoekhoen and African populations and slaves, though usually seen through colonial eyes. However, since the beginning of the 21st Century, the Society has deliberately sought to widen the range of voices and perspectives it puts into print, making its publication list far more wide-ranging. In our second century our aim is to reflect the diversity, the richness and the complexity of our country.

The origins of the Society

The Society had its birth in the South African Public Library (now the National Library of South Africa) in Cape Town, and it has always retained close links with that institution. The Van Riebeeck Society owes its origins to two men in particular - A.C.G. Lloyd, Librarian of the South African Public Library, and John X. Merriman, sometime Prime Minister of the Cape Colony and a Trustee of the Library.

The origins of the Society lie in the discovery by Lloyd in 1911 of a large fragment of Adam Tas's diary for 1704. As the leader of the free burgher opponents of the corrupt Dutch East India Company Governor of the Cape, Willem Adriaan van der Stel, Tas symbolised the long pedigree of the colonists’ struggle for freedom from autocratic foreign rule, which seemed so relevant to the building of national identity at the time of Union. The Trustees of the Library, led by Merriman, raised the funds to publish the diary which appeared in 1914, edited by Professor Leo Fouché.

With the money remaining from the publication fund, the Library’s Trustees decided to publish as the second volume Baron van Pallandt's General Remarks on the Cape of Good Hope, a rare work which had been suppressed when first published in 1803. Pallandt’s General Remarks duly appeared in 1917 but met with sharp criticism in Parliament from the Opposition National Party for its inclusion of passages referring to the harsh treatment by the Dutch settlers of the Khoekhoen (‘Hottentots’). They denounced the work in rousing terms, with the result that sales soared, providing the Trustees with a healthy profit.

Despite this financial success, the Trustees hesitated to continue publishing works which might fuel controversy. Accordingly, Lloyd and Merriman decided to found a private historical publication society along the lines of the Hakluyt and Linschoten Societies in Britain and Holland respectively.  Therefore, on 29 August 1918 the inaugural meeting of the new society took place in the South African Public Library. To appeal to both English- and Dutch-speakers, it was named the 'Van Riebeeck Society for the Publication of South African Historical Documents'. The Society started with 54 members, many of them members of parliament; the first volume to be published was De Chavonnes’ and Van Imhoff’s Reports on the Cape.

New directions

The volumes of the Van Riebeeck Society have often reflected the period in which they have been

In 2018 (our centenary) our name suggested a colonial past which was out of place in post-apartheid South Africa. In addition, it was misleading. It did not reflect our national identity as a Southern African rather than a Cape society and it suggested an organisation that took no cognisance of a changing world. For these reasons, in 2017 the members of the Society agreed to a change of name to Historical Publications Southern Africa / Historiese Publikasies Suider-Afrika (HIPSA).

The volumes of the Van Riebeeck Society have always reflected the period in which they have been published. The earliest works dealt with the Dutch period, in keeping with the interest at the time in the Dutch heritage of the country. The shift of interest to a British heritage can be seen in the volumes dealing with the writings of Lady Anne Barnard and the 1820 settlers, amongst others. The centenary of the South African / Anglo-Boer War has produced several volumes on less familiar aspects of the war. There are some perennial favourites. Travellers’ accounts are popular, partly because they provide such valuable information on the indigenous inhabitants of Southern Africa, although their viewpoint is that of whites. Volumes like the travels of Carl Peter Thunberg and Anders Sparrman also contribute to our knowledge of the botanical heritage of the country.

Diversity in culture means diversity in language. South Africa now has eleven official languages. How does a small society like ours reflect this fairly? From the beginning we have provided translations into English from Dutch and, later, from Afrikaans. In recent years we have included originals in Setswana and isiXhosa, with translations into English.

In post-apartheid South Africa the subject matter of our volumes has also changed. We have moved into the twentieth century with the letters of Alan Paton, Patrick Duncan, A.B. Xuma and R.V. Selope Thema. More important, black writers have become prominent. Their volumes range from  Words of Batswana. Letters to Mahoko a Becwana 1883-1896, a fascinating collection of early Tswana letters dealing with language and the influence of missionary teaching, to the writings of Richard Victor Selope Thema, an editor of Bantu World, and a significant early member of the African National Congress.

We are well aware that we live in an era of changing technology. We have explored digital options but, for the present, we expect to continue to publish hard-copy volumes edited to a high academic standard. At the same time, we want our volumes to be readable - enjoyable to all South Africans who have an interest in the making of our country. That was our original mandate - and it remains so.

 

Council Members

Prof Howard Phillips (Chairman)

Dr Elizabeth van Heyningen (Vice-Chair/Public Relations)

Mr Danie de Villiers (Secretary/Treasurer)

Ms Tanya Barben
Dr Francois Cleophas

Mr Andrew Duncan

Dr Anton Ehlers

Mr Justice Ian Farlam
Dr Russell Martin

Prof Adam Mendelsohn

Prof Alan Morris

Prof Susie Newton-King

Dr Sandy Shell

Mr Nick Southey (Gauteng member)

Prof Sandra Swart

Prof Chris van der Merwe

 

Office

 

Mr Rolf Proske

Me Sandra Commerford