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Creating new connections: shared digital curation of the Royal Commonwealth Society (RCS) southern African collections at Cambridge University Library is a two-year project generously funded by Carnegie Corporation of New York. The project aims to consider and develop approaches to co-production and co-curation using the holdings of the RCS relating to southern Africa.  

The material relating to southern Africa encompasses personal papers, manuscripts, diaries, drawings and watercolours, photographs, pamphlets and ephemera, newspapers, journals, maps, cartoons, official government publications, directories and monographs. It is an unquestionably diverse range of material, rich in research potential. The collection, however, is intrinsically problematic in that it represents for the most part the perspective of the coloniser and settler. Similarly, with the exception of a small amount of digitised material, the bulk of the RCS holdings relating to southern Africa are accessible only to those able to physically visit Cambridge. The material is effectively set apart from the communities which it documents.

The project’s aims are:

  1. to develop and promote engagement with groups or individuals in or closely related to southern Africa, whose local and personal knowledge will enhance understanding and interpretation of the RCS collections;
  2. to draw on these relationships to develop a digital collection relating to southern Africa hosted via Cambridge University Digital Library (CUDL), an established platform for sharing images and metadata, freely available to anyone with an internet connection;
  3. to carry out a concurrent programme of conservation, through surveying, assessment and targeted treatment, to secure the long-term preservation of this material.

The project represents a first step in opening up the collections to communities and researchers in southern Africa, where the material originated in the first place, and globally. The creation of a dedicated digital collection relating to southern Africa, drawing on local and personal knowledge, will allow more robust interrogation and interpretation of the collections than has previously been possible.

Newly digitised material, with accompanying enhanced metadata, will be added to the Digital Library throughout the second year of the project (2023). To get involved or to learn more about the RCS material relating to southern Africa please contact  

Material added to Cambridge University Digital Library (CUDL) in April 2023

Godfrey Lagden’s presentation copy of the South African Native Affairs Commission (SANAC). The commission, chaired by Sir Godfrey Lagden (1851-1934), later a vice-president of the Royal Colonial Institute (an earlier iteration of the RCS), took evidence from settlers and Africans across the four colonies, then known as The Cape (Western Cape, Eastern Cape, Northern Cape, parts of North West province); Transvaal (Limpopo, Mpumalana, North West province, Gauteng, parts of KwaZulu-Natal); Natal (KwaZulu-Natal); and Orange River (Free State province), and across the territories then known as Rhodesia (Zimbabwe); Bechuanaland (Botswana); and Basutoland (Lesotho) between 1903 and 1905. The commission was appointed by the British High Commissioner for South Africa, Alfred Milner, to examine and provide recommendations for “the Native question”. The volumes of evidence give some access to the African voice which is so often silent or simply absent in official documents. The report, published in February 1905, advocated for, amongst other things, territorial and political separation along racial grounds, the industrial and manual education (as opposed to literary education) of Africans, and the importance of Christianity.  Notable interlocutors include John Tengo Jabavu, Harriette Colenso, Reverend Elijah Mdolomba, Reverend Pambani Jeremiah Mzimba, Arthur Jesse Shepstone, Theophilus Shepstone, J. Stuart (likely James Stuart), and Reverend Edward Tsewu.

General project updates:

Contact us

Please address enquiries about RCS holdings to:

RCS Curator
Cambridge University Library
West Road


Telephone: +44(0)1223 333146.

Please note that we are unable to provide valuations.  We recommend you contact a specialist antiquarian bookseller or auction house.