Am I too late to restore Robert Keable’s reputation in South Africa?

Am I too late to restore Robert Keable’s reputation in South Africa?

April 23, 2023


Robert Keable, my grandfather, died aged just 40 in 1927. To say he led an unconventional life would be an understatement. He was born in London, won a scholarship to Cambridge University, was ordained as a Church of England priest, spent a year in Zanzibar as a member of the University Mission to Central Africa (UMCA), became a parish priest in Basutoland (Lesotho) and travelled to France as a padre in the South African Native Labour Contingent (SANLC). After returning from France, he spent a further year in his parish in Basutoland where he wrote the notorious war novel Simon Called Peter. He left the priesthood and back in England continued to write, supplementing his income with teaching jobs. With the huge success of Simon Called Peter and other novels he separated from his wife and travelled to Tahiti to live with Jolie, my grandmother, who he had first met in France during the war. After Jolie died in childbirth on a trip back to Europe, he returned to Tahiti and after a year he met and fell in love with a Tahitian princess, Ina Salmon. A month after Princess Ina gave birth to his second son, Keable died. He had published 27 books including 7 novels during his short life and, in the 1920s, was an international celebrity. His book Simon Called Peter was so well known that Scott Fitzgerald felt it necessary to include reference to it in The Great Gatsby.

I have spent almost 25 years researching the life and works of Robert Keable and in November 2022 published Utterly Immoral a biography of his life and of his novel Simon Called Peter. My aim was to reintroduce him to the world and to shine a light on his extraordinary life and achievements. I received a fair amount of encouragement from academics in South Africa who were especially interested in the story of the SANLC.

For an account of Keable’s time as a parish priest in Basutoland I was reliant on the work of Canon R Dove who lived and worked in Hltose from 1952 to 1971 and wrote Anglican Pioneers in Lesotho 1876-1930. In the book he was full of praise. 

Keable was an outstanding priest and during his time big changes took place in the Hlotse parish. He was well remembered by many people in the 1950’s and everybody spoke of him as a devoted priest and strong personality, having an able mind.

After praising his work introducing Anglo-Catholic practices, and developing the outstations in the parish, Canon Dove wrote:

His career was a brilliant but sad one. He was greatly put off his spiritual and moral balance by his experience while he was a chaplain in the Great War and it is possible to read some of the turmoil of his life in the many books he wrote…

Perhaps I should have paid more attention to the comment on ‘moral balance’. I must confess I had also been told by Dr Tim Couzens, who researched Keable's time in Basutoland, that he had found reference to Keable's reputation in the notes Canon Dove made for his book. Canon Dove suggested a woman who used to play cards at the Rectory (without her husband) after the war, felt uncomfortable when escorted home by Keable, writing: 'Mrs Robertson was afraid and suspicious of him (sex)'. Canon Dove also quoted a local priest, Rev Falkner, who suggested that Robert had a very passionate nature, that his wife was unresponsive and that he was 'free with native women.' However I discovered that Rev Faulkner had never met Keable and only arrived in the country after he had left so put this down in my mind as unsubstantiated rumour.

It was only after I had published my book that I learnt that Robert Keable had quite the reputation for being a wayward priest.  

How wayward a priest was Keable?

I had had a clue of this reputation when I had been shown a letter back in 2016 written by a former civil servant and resident of Lesotho, Mr Wilson, answering a question about what had happened to Keable after the war. He wrote from Fish Hoek, near Cape Town, on 16th July 1990:

In 1917 he went overseas as an army Padre: on his return his “high Church faith” seems to have vanished. The tale goes that he organized a Xmas nativity play among the native parishioners at Leribe and is said to have seduced the girl who was acting the Virgin Mary. He was duly defrocked from the church; became a Catholic, was sacked for trouble with a choir mistress and, by this time was making a small fortune from his novels “Simon Called Peter” “The Mother of all Living” etc He bought an island in the S. Pacific where he had a harem of hula hula girls and died, reportedly of over indulgence in 1927 at the early age of 40.

That there is much truth in this tale there is no doubt but, over the years it had probably grown to ‘make a good story’.

I had found the story so absurd that although I quoted it in my book, I did nothing to investigate it further.

Since I published Utterly Immoral, I have been in touch with a few people in southern Africa including the eminent academic and Lesotho expert David Ambrose. He confirmed that he had heard the story of Keable seducing the virgin Mary in his nativity play, and then went on to tell me about another rumour.

There is a similar story, perhaps better handed down as oral tradition in the towns Himeville and Underberg at the foot of Sani Pass… This version of events in Mokhotlong is that Keable seduced the wife of the Mosotho who shot him, the revenge shooting deliberately aimed at Keable's leg so as to punish, not kill him… That there was no court case could have been because it would have exposed unpalatable truths about Keable, not the insanity of a Mosotho.

Now as it happens, I had already spent much time researching the shooting of Keable which occurred in April 1916, and had accessed the papers on the affair in the National Archives. The witness reports testify that Keable was shot by an escaped prisoner called Khomoapinya who by a series of unfortunate events had got hold of a gun and broken into the room in the Government Rest House where Keable had been sleeping. The reports stated that Khomoapinya had not known of, or met, Keable before he shot him. He was never prosecuted as he was diagnosed as insane following a series of other episodes. Keable was compensated by the British Government for the high medical costs he incurred while in south Africa recovering after the shooting.

But what came as a shock is that this story, that Keable had been shot by the husband of someone he slept with, has been much repeated. David Ambrose gave one example. James Colman included a chapter on the incident in his book 'Sani Pass: revealing its secrets' (Pietermaritzburg: Otterley Press, 2016). In it Colman wrote:

Keable was suspected of being a philanderer – in fact he was a bit of a bounder! The incident at Qathlamba store was, in reality, that Keable had been shot by an enraged husband in Mokhotlong with whose wife he had conducted an affair. … Fable has it that he also seduced a woman playing the role of the Virgin Mary in a Christmas play at a mountain trading station. He was transferred to the lowlands where he impregnated the local choir mistress. Unsurprisingly, he was defrocked! Keable lived out his last years in Tahiti surrounded by nubile young girls where he died of exhaustion, so the story goes!

It appears that Colman lifted part of his story from a book by Michael Clark self-published in Himeville in 2001, which recounted stories from old-timers collected over 30 years.

Equally surprising for me, when I wrote to tell David Ambrose that the story was not true, he responded:

On reflection, I think that although Keable had escapades with several women in Lesotho, we really won't know the motive of the person who shot him.

Escapades with several women in Lesotho! Is that true? And what is the evidence? Another academic Marc Epprecht had written that back in the 1990s he had only read one of Robert Keable’s books – Recompense – and otherwise forgotten about him ‘not counting isolated, and perhaps slanderous rumours about his libido over the years’.

So, there were plenty of rumours in Lesotho and South Africa about Robert Keable’s behaviour, but where was the evidence? One man who had known Keable in Basutoland was the administrator JH Sims. In an unpublished autiobiography he confirmed the story that Keable’s assailant in Mokhotlong had been a ‘madman’ unknown to Keable. Sims also discussed how Keable had sought his advice about joining the SANLC and seemingly had ignored Sims’ warnings that he should not join. Sims continued:

However, he insisted [on joining the SANLC] and eventually sailed overseas – he was a married man with a very nice Yorkshire wife. I heard more of him later through our officers overseas who said after a time a change came over him and he began going out with the lads on leave excursions and became, one might say, very worldly, and when he returned we happened to be on leave at [illegible] when he came from the ship before going back up country and I noticed a difference from the zealous priest I had known and eventually he resigned from the Church altogether and became an agnostic.

Sims went on to discuss Keable’s novels and concluded:

[he] persuaded his wife to join the RC Church and my wife and I corresponded with her once or twice in London. K[eable] later went off with some young woman to live in the South Sea Islands and a son was born but the girl I believe died in childbirth but not the child… K[eable] became mental I believe later – he was always highly strung – and spent some time in a home in America but died I believe in the South Seas.

Intriguingly, I had read a very different rumour about Keable’s time in Africa and France spread in England. Dr Douglas, the Scottish academic and librarian had written to former friends of Keable in 1960 and had very different responses. Rev AV Atkindon a friend from Keable’s days in Cambridge wrote:

I once heard …that he had left the Mission and was serving in the Diocese of Mashonaland, where it was said that he killed a white man who was ill-treating a Native. This, though probably an exaggerated tale, I can well believe, for he was always on the side of the ‘under-dog’, and he did not always have his temper under control. Anyway, he had to leave Africa, and the next thing I heard he was serving as a chaplain in France. Here he got into further trouble as he was against military authority. He was always against anything, unless he was the authority.

Although the rumour that Keable killed a man seems very unlikely the suggestion that Keable fell out with the Europeans from Africa both in France and back in Basutoland seem more likely. When Keable served with the SANLC there is no doubt that he was upset by the treatment of the volunteers, some of who he helped to recruit.  At the beginning of 1917, during the first four months of their time in France the African labourers found themselves poorly equipped for the coldest winter for many years, with temperatures reaching 5°f (-15°c). Their boots did not fit. They had no gloves for a while followed by woollen gloves that fell apart. Some were shelled every day for weeks with only open trenches to hide in.

By the time Keable arrived in France in August 1917 – having witnessed white officers racially abusing black chaplains who had joined with him – the men were stuck in huge closed-compounds, banned from stepping outside except to work. They were segregated from all other soldiers and labourers made to work harder and longer than any other labour groups in France.

Whilst in France Keable wrote a book about the treatment of the men called the First Black Ten Thousand which was accepted for publication by a London publisher but banned by the British censor as it was going to print. A friend later claimed the book was banned because ‘it was too sympathetic to native aspirations.’ It seems very likely that Keable upset his fellow white officers many of who he considered racist or worse. (He wrote about one officer in an applauding officer’s mess calling Basutoland the ‘plague spot of South Africa’ and suggesting that ‘the Basuto [were] growing too well educated and too numerous and ought to be “thinned out”’.) Could it be that the rumours of his behaviour in Basutoland were spread to discredit him?

There was certainly a very aggressive attack on Keable by Dr Lewis Hertslet, a medical officer with the SANLC who defended the treatment of the labourers during and after the war. Hertslet picked up on a clumsily written article Keable had written about African chaplains. Hertslet reacted to Keable's article, in a letter in Imvo Zabantsundu, (Native Opinion) on July 9th 1918 by calling his view 'inconsistent and stupid' and stating:

Mr Keable has a long way to go, he is inexperienced and unwise, he has gone out of his way to malign his ministerial brethren he has through his stupidity done considerable damage to the cause of his own Church, and incidentally condemned himself.

This criticism from a man who had claimed the labourers in the SANLC had been well treated and applauded the success of the campign to prevent the labourers from being contaminated - or to contaminate others - while in France. Dr Hertslet wrote the racist tract Native Problem just before the war which is a very disturbing read today. 

So, what is the truth?

I am now wondering whether my attempts to re-establish Keable as an important figure in the second and third decades of the twentieth century are going to be derailed by his reputation as a lothario. Of course, if it is true then so be it. I am happy to present my grandfather warts and all, but I am intrigued to find out the source of the rumours and to try and discover how much truth there is in them. It would help if I could accurately date the first appearance of the rumours about him. Currently I can only go back to 1990 for the source of the rumour about him seducing the virgin mary and to 2016 for the story of him being shot by a cuckolded husband. The suggestion that he was 'very worldly' in France goes back to a memoir written in 1938, and that he was 'free with native women' to notes written in 1975.


So, there we are. I am not sure if I am any the wiser, but I am certainly better informed. Robert Keable clearly acquired a reputation at some stage of being a womaniser and perhaps of sleeping with African women whilst a married priest. It is not a good look! If someone wanted to undermine him and ruin his reputation, then spreading such rumours would have worked very well.

The question I cannot answer is whether these rumours began before Keable went to France with the SANLC; or after he came back from the war; or after he had left Basutoland and begun to write novels. I also do not know whether stories of his life after he left the priesthood – leaving his wife for another woman and later having a child with a Tahitian ­– encouraged people to create the rumours, or in fact his behaviour encouraged people to report his actions. Perhaps I will never find out.