Robert Douglas Clark MA (1846-1907)

Joined the Society: 1871 (🌳 Original Member)

Robert Douglas Clark MA was born in Benholm, Kincardineshire, on the 19th of May 1846. In 1871, while a student at Edinburgh University, he became a founding member and one of the initial Presidents of the Philosophy Society. He graduated from the University in 1872 with 1st Class Honours in Classics, a considerable distinction which only one in fifty students attained at that time. That his academic performance was exceptional is further evidenced by the fact that he was awarded the Ferguson “and other Scholarships and Fellowships.” He later returned to the UK and continued his studies at New College, Oxford in October 1883, where he graduated with an MA in 1886 and a BA in 1887, acquiring considerable academic honours along the way.

Between his degrees, in 1879, however, he moved to Natal, in present South Africa, to take up the Rectorship of a struggling new boys’ school, Pietermaritzburg High School, soon to be renamed Maritzburg College. The school still credits him as the ‘father of the College’. Under his Rectorship, enrollment reportedly skyrocketed from two to three dozen to well over a hundred pupils. He also encouraged the boys to take up rugby and oversaw their first match outside of the local area, transporting the school team by means of a new railway to defeat Durban High School in their home ground in 1880.

Maritzburg College, like so many public boys’ schools around the Empire, was an institution focused on instilling the right moral character in its boys for the maintenance of the Empire. Clark aimed in Maritzburg to imitate the ideal of the English public school in Natal. Schools like Maritzburg built on such an ideal were, according to the historian, Dylan Thomas Löser, “factories of masculinity and contributed to the construction of upper-class gender ideals in the metropole and in the colonies.” They also offered the promise of upper-class life to white settlers whose backgrounds in the home nations was usually humble and sometimes poor, but who in Natal were wealthy landowners.

[…] it is primarily necessary that [pupils] should acquire in this college those qualities of fearlessness, patience, broad sympathy, and quiet unassuming strength, which have enabled boys trained in the public schools in England to rule hundreds of millions of natives in Asia and Africa, and to maintain Pax Britannica among them.

Matthew Nathan, Maritzburg College Prizegiving address, 1908

As Rector, Clark denied pressure to adopt a “practical” curriculum and instead pivoted hard towards a classical curriculum, with rigorous training in Latin and Greek. Some historians have argued that the classical curriculum was favoured by the white settlers, as they were more interested in enabling their children to climb the social ladder than in giving them practical skills. In addition, the way that those languages were taught, with a laser focus on grammar drills and little attention being paid to historical context or literary analysis of classical literature, backed up by liberal use of corporal punishment, contributed to developing the boys’ rigid sense of masculinity: self-discipline, stamina, stoicism. The masculinities taught in these schools is thought to have contributed to the remarkably high casualty rates from public schools from around the Empire in the First World War. There are precisely 100 names on the Maritzburg College war memorial, including that of Clark’s only son.

Clark House, Maritzburg College
Clark House, Maritzburg College (named after Robert Clark). Photo credit Clive Reid, 2008, Creative Commons License.

Pressure for a university in Natal had begun in 1873, the year Clark graduated from Edinburgh University. In 1910, these demands were at last met with the establishment of the Natal University College (now part of the University of KwaZulu-Natal). He was the first vice-chairman of the University, and remained in that position until his death in 1907.

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