The Van Riebeeck Society's journey: The origins and destination of the Van Riebeeck Society, 1918-2004

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South African Journal of Cultural History

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University of Cape Town

Recognizing that the 86-year old Van Riebeeck Society for the Publication of South African Historical Documents is sui generis in South Africa, as a long-existing cultural organization dedicated solely to the publication of primary historical documents, this article investigates its origins, output and strategy for continued existence. The article locates the Society's origin in the ethos of white nation-building accompanying the establishment of the Union of South Africa in 1910. Keen to establish the historical pedigree of the (white) nation, supporters of the idea sought to publicize its heritage and history. After attempts to publish primary source material on the latter were initially unable to secure financial backing from the hard-pressed Union Government, recourse was instead had to the South African Public Library as a publishing body; however, when the second volume in its historical publishing series drew sharp political flak, this task was shifted to the new Van Riebeeck Society which was specifically set up in 1918 for this purpose. Since then, it has published 88 volumes containing rich original source material on southern Africa. The article analyses the nature of these 88 volumes and concludes that they represent a narrow conception of South African history, topically, chronologically, linguistically and authorially. How this conception is nowadays being broadened is the focus of the final section of the article.