A critique of the Shell Group history published in 2007

The centenary history of Royal Dutch Shell (2007)

A report on its many errors

RDS history in 4 vols

The centenary history is a massive and beautifully illustrated set of three volumes, plus a smaller volume with statistics, listings of senior management, a cumulative index and a set of three DVDs.

The history was written by a strong team of historians at Utrecht University, based on full access to the Group's archives. It also included Stephen Howarth, who had previously written a history of Shell's tanker fleet and also a history of Shell Petroleum. The Dutch authors of this tragedy were Joost Jonker, Jan Luiten van Zanden and Keetie Sluyterman. It was published in a Dutch version by Boom Publishers of Amsterdam and in an English translation by the Oxford University Press. Boom were responsible for the indexing and probably for the translation. Van Zanden is shown as responsible for volume 4 with the overall index that was so chaotic and he was the senior member of the Utrecht team. I find it incredible that a man of his eminence and background could have taken responsibility for the history's overall index but failed to notice its all too obvious failings.

Having worked in Shell from 1950 to 1972, with a father who was there from 1920, and having spent the rest of my career in the oil industry in New Zealand with a joint venture led by Shell, I was keenly interested in the Group history. Also, as this web-site describes, I had recently rewritten a faulty history of Shell in New Zealand. With such a life-long and continuing association with Shell, I have a sense of loyalty and "belonging" that makes a failure such as this positively painful. In some strange way it feels like an attack on one's own personal integrity. One feels personally "let down". It was a situation that I found it impossible to ignore, impossible to walk away from. My background gave me a sense of total responsibility. It was a task that simply had to be pursued.

I was astonished, as soon as I delved into the centenary history, to find obvious errors. I reported them to Shell International's archivist, Veronica Davies, whose reaction was one of deep concern. I undertook to pass on any further mistakes that I might find. I soon had extensive notes that I submitted over a period. The notes grew to the point where I formed them into a critique for which I obtained an ISBN, sending multiple copies to Shell Centre. Before committing to formal publication I continued my analysis and more than doubled the length of the original notes to 198 pages (despite changing to a smaller typeface).

My notes were passed by Shell to an outside historian who was undertaking a review of the history and also went up to senior Shell management in London, being considered by the Board of Directors. I wrote to the historians and to the Oxford University Press, the publisher of the English edition.

In the course of five months I worked through the history about three times, steadily finding more and more problems. They included actual errors of fact, errors in spelling, errors in maps, diagrams and tables, errors in names of people (including some managing directors), names of companies, names of places, errors in dates. Just to quote a couple of errors, it is stated that the historic tanker Vulcanus was built in 1912, yet Howarth, one of the authors, clearly gave 1910 as the date of building in "Sea Shell", one of his earlier books. Another obvious error concerns another tanker, the Torrey Canyon, but gives two different dates for when she ran disastrously aground. To list in this website all the factual errors in the history would take dozens of additional pages.

There were problems with English idiom and usage, problems with punctuation and particularly hyphenation, problems with text that had clearly been altered incompletely resulting in errors in wording. Much of the English translation showed distinctly Dutch word order.

RDS history critique - cover

Above all, the indexing of the set of volumes was disastrous, with several indexers having worked differently and inconsistently, making a nonsensical overall structure and with thousands of omissions. Several important subjects failed to be indexed. Many subjects were indexed from one volume but omitted for the other two. "London" was indexed for volumes 2 and 3 but not for volume 1. Natural gas was indexed under "natural gas" by one indexer and under "gas, natural" by another.

For a book of this importance the extent and variety of the errors were nothing short of astonishing. They point to inadequate work by the proof readers, the translators, the typesetters and the indexers. Above all they point to totally ineffective control by the editorial committee and to very poor work by the publishers. If I, as a retired septuagenarian, could see a large number of obvious faults in the first few minutes of looking at the history, and could go on to uncover errors on a huge scale, how could a senior editorial committee with great Shell knowledge fail to do so? If they had checked just one chapter in detail, errors should have shouted at them.

My feelings were a mixture of devastation and shock that work with such a pedigree could have somehow been so badly done. Even the pedestrian work of proof reading must have been extraordinarily defective. I have presumed that the historians' conclusions in terms of historical analysis should be reliable, but in the light of such overall error in terms of detail and even of some important facts, who knows how good the historical analysis really is?

The explanation, I believe, as with the history of Shell in New Zealand, is that there was an unquestioning trust in the work of the "professionals", the writers, the publishers and all their acolytes. After first seeing so much that was obviously wrong, I brought an attitude of deep and ongoing suspicion, a continual questioning of everything I read. The errors multiplied as I read and reread the story, finding more and more problems each time. I am quite sure that there was not the slightest expectation that anyone in the world would be prepared to take on such a dedicated task of examination.

The irony is that I had only just wrapped up my revised version of the New Zealand history and had written several times to Shell New Zealand, Shell in Melbourne and also to Shell Centre, explaining the work that I had done. Thus in theory the Group should have been aware that in little old New Zealand there was a dedicated Shellman who had been prepared to spend nearly three years in dissecting and correcting a company history. Clearly that fact failed to percolate to the consciousness of those who were immersed in producing the Group history. Thus another possible lifeline failed to be grasped.

My critique is now held by major libraries, including such bodies as the British Library, the Bodleian, the Newton, even Harvard, and of course our own New Zealand National Library. I have very appreciative letters from both the British Library and the Bodleian for supplying them with copies of my critique.

The reader of this website may have noticed, in respect of the history of Shell in New Zealand, that one of its principals let slip the comment that "We were not very pleased with the results". I feel sure that this critique of a far more important history must have caused many a heart in London and The Hague to miss a few beats. After all, how do you feel when such a catastrophe is exposed? I well know that when I have noticed just one or two proof-reading slips in my own books after they have been printed, I have been mortified. To have such a vast raft of errors pointed out, in all aspects of the book, cannot be anything short of devastating, however pachydermatous one may be. When I first published my "Comedy of Errors" in 1998, I did so with serious qualms, fearful that my work might be torn to shreds and trodden under foot. To have the work treated with acclaim and every sort of commendation was both a relief and an immense pleasure. What professional historians with well established reputations must feel when the boot is on the other foot is almost beyond imagination.

I was pleased and relieved when Veronica Davies, the Shell Centre archivist, was happy to correspond with me, but I am sure that she must have felt a great deal of the pain that would have been felt in the nerve centres of the Group when such a significant history was found to be so disastrously wanting. It was not just the multiplicity and scope of the errors: it was the supremely painful consciousness that everyone concerned had somehow fallen down on the job, people who ought on any basis to have done so very much better.

I remain very conscious that I could have said very much more. In fact the critique actually excludes the final segment of volume 2 and could thus have been significantly longer. When I recently (October 2008) re-read the critique my reaction was amazement and horror at the extent and depth of the errors in the material and the sheer ineptitude of those who had worked on it, in the writing, the proof reading, the indexing, the translation and the editorial supervision. A large element in my sense of amazement is the fact that so many professionals could have failed to see the astonishing extent of the faults in the book. A careful reading of any half dozen pages should have set off deafening alarm bells. My work has been based on a sense of commitment and obligation but the results have the elements of a nightmare.

I would not wish to delete any of its criticisms (even if I would correct a very few small typing slips). The Dutch historians have not condescended to respond to any of my approaches but that is not a great surprise. Many authors over the years have responded with gratitude and often with complimentary books when I have pointed out a few of their errors. It would be much harder for an eminent team of published historians to respond appropriately to a critique on the scale stimulated by the horrendous quality of this Shell Group history.

Despite the very large number of errors, the story of the Shell Group is a fascinating one and the photographs are outstanding. It is the story of the Group's growth and development told very much at boardroom level. It is told independently, with respect but without the flattery that overwhelms so many corporate histories. I believe that it misses some important points but that is probably inevitable.

broken back

Unfortunately it is not only the content of the book that has fallen short. The binding of all four volumes of my set has proved shockingly inadequate. My advice from bookbinders is that these very heavy volumes were poorly glued. Sections came adrift in many places after just five months of careful handling. I am told that recent changes in bookbinding glues are the problem. Heavy glazed paper, sometimes with further gloss overlays, will not absorb glue and there is very little to hold the sections together.

I do find it somewhat disquieting when I see the Shell history advertised by such major booksellers as Blackwells and Amazon. Though I would like to think that my own set was exceptionally badly bound, the comments from my book-binder friends are far from encouraging. My experience has been well reported, to Shell International, to the Oxford University Press, to the Dutch historians, and finally, via copies of my critique, to major libraries such as the British Library, the Cambridge University Library and tne NZ National Library. I have commented to Blackwells via that company's website. If the binding problem should turn out to be a general one, an embarrassing outcome could possibly eventuate. I hope not, but I remain concerned. Any large-scale complaint from purchasers could be hard to handle when it is a situation that has been well publicised.

All the issues with the RDS Group history are discussed in my critique that is entitled :
"The Royal Dutch Shell Centenary, a Shellman's view of the 2007 history"

I could give hundreds of examples of errors but it is probably inappropriate to do so here. Many libraries, and especially those in universities, have bought copies of my critique of the New Zealand history because it was seen as an unprecedented example of a "history gone wrong", an example to be presented as a dire warning to students. I can safely say that this Shell Group history of 2007 has eclipsed the NZ disaster of 2004. The NZ history was largely condemned by errors of facts and understanding. The 2007 book has errors in far greater variety and number.


The critique "The Royal Dutch Shell centenary" is available from the author, Michael Whitfield Foster, 30 Campbell Street, Karori, Wellington 6012, at NZ$25 by post within New Zealand, in the form of a comb-bound A4 book.

It is also available on a CD as a PDF file for $9 by post within New Zealand. It is also much the cheapest way of sending it overseas and it can be airmailed anywhere in the world as a CD for NZ$12.

The book has ISBN 978-0-473-12905-7