I revelled in my newfound independence.  But the novelty of writing an MA in History soon wore off.  It became routine. Like a job. I was reading official documents – court records, government letters and deeds – to find myself back at law, only this time through the lens of history.

I had difficulty reconciling my wide philosophical perambulations with the narrow focus of my project: the slave trade to the Cape from 1797-1818. I met my supervisor, Nigel Worden, every six months. Nigel would ask the same question: ‘What is your thesis?’ A blank stare. ‘Michael’, Nigel explained, ‘A thesis is an argument or theory, based on original research, that contributes to the existing knowledge of the discipline of history’.  He continued, ‘What are you trying to say?  What is your argument?  Your contribution to knowledge?’ We were both frustrated. What was my thesis?

I wanted to present to the world a broad and expansive history – like Braudel’s langue duree – of the slave trade to the Cape. Nigel always brought me back to the essence of my task: ‘Why?’ he would ask,’ Why is this relevant?  Why is this information necessary?’  Nigel was an exceptional teacher.  My thinking process was diffuse and holistic, but Nigel coaxed me into seeing the cause-and-effect of historical processes – for myself. I sympathised with John Stuart Mill, the child prodigy, who had a nervous breakdown when his father asked him, ‘What is a theory?’  (He later cured himself with Wordsworth’s poetry!).

The demands of my research and the promptings of Professor Worden had a profound effect on me.  Critical thinking gave way to ethical and existential enquiry. The study of ethics helped me understand people’s decisions and actions.  I, like Diogenes Laertius, wanted to establish a personal code of ethics.  How was I going to do this?

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