Love them or hate them, revile them or praise them – missionaries played an immense role in the colonisation of Africa, as well as in the introduction of European culture, ideas, practices, prejudices – as well as vices, to the indigenous populations which they came to uplift and enlighten. These fervent spreaders of the Gospel, often themselves ill-educated men with but a few artisanal skills, braved a hostile environment among alien peoples whose languages they could not speak, whose customs appalled and whose very mode of existence was an opposite to the settled agrarian life of northern Europe whence these teachers came. They were ill-equipped with materials and funds, practical knowledge and teaching skills – yet they taught their flocks simple agriculture, carpentry, building, language, and later reading and writing. They struggled valiantly to assimilate local languages, in the quest of that Holy Grail – the testament in the vernacular, to make it intelligible to all their parishioners.
Mostly they were supported by wives; often all too short-lived, as they succumbed to illnesses or childbirth. When one reads of the last days of some of these worthy women, one can only marvel that any were to be found who would trek alongside their menfolk into the howling wilderness of the hinterland. Some widowers then married Khoi or slave women, who became valuable aides in the exchange of culture in both directions, however much the practice was frowned on by the government or society of the day.
Above all, the missionaries wrote. Firstly they had to report back to their mission societies, either in South Africa, Moravia or in London, from whose records much of the regional histories can be reconstructed, or if they were fortunate enough to be able to return to their homelands on retirement, they sometimes penned their memoirs. It is mostly from these writings that we know today how life was lived then, how people found food, water and shelter; how they celebrated, how they mourned; how they played and how they warred with each other. Imperfect the records may be, filtered through the dour dogmas of the faiths these men professed, and coloured by their narrow views, but the reader should find information, adventure, natural history, ethnography and yes, entertainment and humour among the ‘missionary labours’.
Georg Schmidt was the first of this illustrious band to come out to the Cape. Although he was not of the ‘official’ reformed church, he was found acceptable to the establishment and settled first at Riviersonderend, and later Baviaanskloof, which became known as Genadendal. Although his baptismal practices brought him into conflict with the establishment, he spent seven years in South Africa, and though his converts were few, his reputation probably eased subsequent entry by other Herrnhut brethren into the country. This simple farmer’s diaries and letters are available in the book Dagboek en Briewe van Georg Schmidt (Wes Kaaplandse Instituut vir Historiese Navorsing, 1981). A hiatus of almost fifty years followed before the next batch of Herrnhuters established themselves at Baviaanskloof, where their work flourished during the changes of government from Dutch to British, not without some suspicion by the European community, but also earning some commendation from notable travellers such as Lady Anne Barnard and the governor, the Earl of Caledon. In 1808 the Moravians were permitted to open a station at Groene Kloof, or Mamre, as it became known.
Meanwhile, a South African Missionary Society had also been founded by interested locals, and the renowned London Missionary Society entered the field. Before the end of the 18th century, two men, Kicherer and Vanderkemp, assisted by Messrs Edwards and Edmonds respectively, went to work in the northern Karoo and in the Eastern Cape. Although Kicherer made much of his work among the ‘Bushmen’, his efforts scarcely reached the few remaining tribespeople, nor did he convert any. He did parade a couple of converted heathen in Cape Town and even Europe, but from the book by Karel Schoeman J J Kicherer en die Vroë Sending 1799-1806 (S A Library, 1996), it would seem as if he had very little taste for the heartbreaking slog of teaching the nomadic flotsam that inhabited the region between the Zak and Orange Rivers, and that he preferred the lecture halls of the great cities. Vanderkemp achieved fame, or rather notoriety at Bethelsdorp, near Port Elizabeth, where he lived and worked in the same humble circumstances as his converts, and even married one – as did one of his fellow missionaries, one Read. The former's controversial career is described in the book Doctor Vanderkemp' by A D Martin (Livingstone Press, 1948).
By 1810 there were a number of workers in the missionary field of the subcontinent; the Albrecht brothers, Anderson, Edwards, Kok and Seidenfaden pioneered briefly in the north, while two men who left a lasting impression on the region, Ebner and Schmelen, also arrived at this time. The former wrote one of the first ‘missionary memoirs’, which appeared under the snappy title Reise nach Sued Afrika und Darstellung meiner waehrend acht Jahren daselbst als Missionar unter den Hottentotten gemachten Erfahrungen ( L Oemigke, 1829). While the book is a chore to read, even to one who has no problem with Gothic font and antiquated German language, in between the pages of pious drivel and biblical references, there are signs of a man with keen observational powers, intellect and the ability to paint a vivid picture of the Namaqualand scenery and people during the period 1812–1820.
During this time, the LMS sent a couple of inspectors to tour the pioneer mission establishments, and to report on how the directors’ money was being spent. One of these was the irrepressible Dr John Campbell, who travelled widely and left an endearingly breezy record of his journey (which predated Ebner’s book by many years). Travels in South Africa (1815 & 1822) proved to be a hit with a public hungry for news of the opening of the pearly gates for the heathen. The book was reprinted several times in the next few years, expanded, and even published in a miniature ‘pocket’ version for the use of scholars and travellers. It remains an eminently readable work to this day, and is even available in a recent reprint.
The good Reverend Latrobe did a similar task for the Moravian brethren when he visited Mamre and Genadendal in 1815. He then penetrated further east and chose a new site for the Enon station in the Uitenhage region. His book, Journal of a Visit to South Africa (1818 & Struik 1969) has endured as a classic work on the Southern and Eastern Cape, as Latrobe was an educated, tolerant, kindly and observant man, as well as a writer of considerable talent. His book is prized for its illustrations, which he takes pains to explain ‘were all made on the spot’ probably using a camera obscura, and though they seem to have been redrawn by others, Latrobe’s artistic talents would appear to have been considerable. The book is essentially a humanist’s record of the people that he met with, their way of living, their culture or lack thereof, described in a gently humorous vein, which should entertain most readers as well as supplying a record of the Cape of the period.
Back to the early workers in the field. Johann Heinrich Schmelen, who accompanied Ebner, as recorded above, worked at various missions in Namaqualand and Namibia during an eventful career spanning some thirty years. Unfortunately none of his writings have been published, and we are limited to the few scraps of information contained in books such as H Kling’s Onder die Kindere van Cham (Nasionale Pers, 1932), W Moritz’s Auf dem Reitochsen quer durch’s Südwestliche Afrika (John Meinert, 2004) and U Trueper’s The Invisible Woman – Zara Schmelen (Basler Afrika, 2006). His main legacy is the mission station and settlement at Komaggas, which survived even the apartheid era as a ‘coloured reserve’, as well as the oldest extant building in Namibia, at Bethanien – the so-called ‘Schmelen House’. With the aid of his Nama wife, he did succeed in translating a Dutch catechism into the Nama language, even though the ‘click’ sounds he transcribed were not successfully rendered in the printing of it. Schmelen’s experiences told in his own words would have made a memorable book, I feel.
The Wesleyans were among the next few prominent churchmen to make their mark; both Shaws – Barnabas and William – were fated to do important work, and to leave written records. Barnabas settled at Leliefontein and started a station among the Nama who had been granted a reserve there by Governor Ryk Tulbagh. He had to contend with the nomadic lifestyle of his flock, and managed to introduce them to agriculture – a not altogether wise choice, with hindsight, since the poor soils, scanty rainfall and growing population made this type of economy unsustainable – even in present times. Shaw wrote a book after his retirement, Memorials of South Africa (Mason, Hamilton Adams, 1940 & Struik 1970), which is almost readable – depending on how interested one is in the practical aspects of changing an entire economy of a people. The mission proved to be an important way-station for missionaries on their way to the interior, and numerous others who worked there left records of their sojourns.
William Shaw came a few years later with the Sephton party of 1820 Settlers, and worked among them for a short time before embarking on an almost fatal missionary venture to the pestilential swamps of Delagoa Bay. He returned to the Eastern Cape and spent the next thirty-odd years establishing a network of Wesleyan missions, of which he became superintendent. He did valuable work in establishing educational facilities, and became involved in the politics of the region in the aftermaths of several frontier wars. His book The Story of my Mission in South Africa (Hamilton Adams, 1860) did not manage to capture my attention in its entirety, though I read a few chapters to get the ‘feel’ of the author. Possibly it would be a different story for readers with a greater interest in Eastern Cape matters.
The next few decades saw a proliferation of missionary efforts. The London, Rhenish, Berlin and Paris Missionary Societies, as well as the Wesleyans, all entered the fray, so to speak, and while relations among these Protestants were usually cordial and co-operative, some sniping and poaching of converts did start. Messrs T Arbousset and F Daumas, from the Paris Society, settled in Basutoland and in 1836 they set out on a journey to explore the regions to the northwest, between the Vaal and Orange Rivers. Theirs was no missionary enterprise – their book Relation d'un Voyage D'Exploration au Nord-Est de la Colonie du Cap De Bonne-Esperance (Arthus Bertrand, 1842) is a work of considerable value as it contains much reliable information on the natural history, as well as on the tribes of the region and their ethnography. While no thrilling read, it is worthwhile to have a look at the modern English reprint Narrative of an Exploratory Tour to the Cape of Good Hope (Struik 1968), especially for first-hand accounts of the founder of the Basuto Nation, Moshesh, as well as the rise of the Zulu nation, Mantatise's Tlokwa, the Bechuana and other tribes they came into contact with.
The year 1817 also saw the arrival of a number of worthy men, among whom several made a lasting name for themselves. One was a callow youth, James Kitchingman, who wended his way toward Namaqualand and Namibia in the company of Robert Moffat. He was one of the less hardy souls who found the tough region and nomadic flock more than he could handle, and he departed within a short time for the kinder climes of Bethelsdorp, where he did considerable work during several stints until his early death. The Kitchingman Papers by le Cordeur & Saunders, eds. (Brenthurst Press, 1976) are a trifle tedious collection of writings which are probably of more interest to historians interested in his correspondents, Messrs Read and Philip.
Moffat, on the other hand, is a completely different proposition. He also earned his spurs in Namaqualand, but before long he was off to Great Namaqualand to the kraal of the Nama robber-chief Afrikaner. After a short and uneasy partnership with the aforementioned Ebner, he explored the country to the east, which later became known as Griqualand. Moffat displayed great leadership in rehabilitating Afrikaner, and by establishing a mission at Lattakoo among the Batlhaping under the chief Mothibi. In 1823 the missionary assumed the de facto generalship of a combined force of Griquas and Bechuanas who beat off a huge force of Mantatise’s pillagers and inflicted heavy losses on them – so altering the balance of power in the entire region. He firmly established the mission at Kuruman, and this became a hub of civilization, exploration and in time religious conversion. He also became a political power-broker between tribes and the British, as well as using his influence to exclude the expansion of the Boers from the republics eastwards and north. His book Missionary Labours and Scenes in Southern Africa (John Snow, 1844) does not make for the easiest reading, as like most of his brethren, he is inclined to sermonise. He does, however, include a wide scope of history in the narration of his personal story, and some of the passages are descriptive writing of a high order, with even the odd humorous glimpse.
It is almost obligatory to mention Livingstone at this stage – connected as he was to Moffat through his marriage to the latter’s daughter. During my younger days I avoided the great man’s writings like the plague. I could never understand why he was called a ‘missionary-explorer’, since those two titles are not compatible. If you explore, you beat your way through the jungles or slog through the sands of inhospitable deserts; if you are a missionary, you stay put, plant pumpkins and pray with the locals while trying to learn the lingo to translate the bible – period. I would have forgiven him the odd weekend jaunt, or 19th century long-leave equivalent thereof, but after he got a whiff of travel fever, he was off trailing that unfortunate woman and kids for a spell, before dumping them in England so he wouldn’t have them hampering those heroic footsteps. So caught-up with his own importance was our Davey, that he forgot entirely to mention his wee wife or his nuptials in what was supposed to be his biography. It took a gentle nudge from his publisher, John Murray, to put that right, resulting in the hilarious situation that subsequent impressions of the book have the thrifty Scottish solution of three page eights following each other, thus obviating the expense of needing to redo the entire typesetting of the book.
All-right, so he did a little dilettante converting when he stopped for long enough, but for a couple of decades he was much too busy earning fame and his place in the resting-place of kings. Then, at a time of having nothing better to occupy me, I read Missionary Travels and Researches in Southern Africa (John Murray, 1857 and dozens of reprint versions) of which I happened to have a tatty copy in stock at the time. To say that I was surprised would be putting it mildly. I was touched by the miseries and heartbreaks of the slavery he describes, I was engaged by his indomitable spirit that persisted against hunger, disease and dreadful travelling conditions, while his descriptions of the country traversed and the people he met with, kept me interested for all but the inevitable ‘and so I preached a sermon and we sang and prayed etc etc’, which was, after all, his stock-in-trade. It was only after reading the work that I could understand how the man had managed to become the beau ideal of missionary endeavour, the champion of the poor, enslaved and oppressed, the teacher of the ignorant as well as the magnetic beacon that would inspire others to plunge into the wilderness that was the centre of Africa. He’s still not my favourite man of the cloth, but hey, he publicised his professed trade better than anyone else did; he awoke compassion in people, and great good came from his life. Try reading him sometime.
By the middle of the 19th century missionaries were two a penny. In addition to those groups already mentioned, the next fifty years also saw the entry into the field of the Americans, the Anglicans, the Scottish Presbyterians, the Norwegians and the Catholics. It would be a very difficult and lengthy process to review the millions of words that made it into print by the efforts of these worthies. A number of them became astute politicians (perhaps they were born to it), and as their circle of influence spread among their parishioners, they grew powerful and assumed duties and rights which were not theirs over their little fiefdoms. They took it upon themselves to travel to the Cape, to lobby the government – yes, even as far as Britain they went, to try to persuade the old queen’s men to annex their sphere of influence, or to declare a protectorate over it. One such man was John Mackenzie, who laboured at Kuruman, a successor to Moffat. His work-rate was prodigious, his influence vast, but the various books written by him and about him are more of a picture of political machinations than missionary work with human beings. The volume written by his son, entitled John Mackenzie, South African Missionary and Statesman (Hodder & Stoughton, 1902) has a fitting epitaph for him: ‘to have been the man who first forced Great Britain to face her God-given task of controlling the destinies of the entire region from the Cape to the Zambesi’. Ja, well, no, fine – didn’t Mr Rhodes have similar ideas? If Mackenzie influenced the southeast of Bechuanaland, his colleague J D Hepburn struggled to play a meaningful role towards Lake Ngami. His book, Twenty Years in Khama's Country (Hodder & Stoughton, 1895) gives an interesting picture of the country and its people, but the poor man strove in vain to come to terms with the powerful chiefs like Moremi and the almost legendary Khama, and finally he had to decamp back to Britain to nurse his disappointment.
I have kept my most favourite piece of missionary literature for last. One Benjamin Ridsdale, a young Wesleyan minister, arrived in the Cape at the end of 1843, and he was almost immediately despatched via Leliefontein towards Nisbett Bath (Warmbaths, Namibia ) with his wife. Here was a lad with a cheerful outlook on life, who was not shy to enthuse about having a picnic in a lovely spot, or describing his antics when they had to cross the Gariep on a swimming log. He claimed to have been the first to sail on the Great River in a boat assembled by him with whatever materials he could find, and powered by a scrap of sheeting flapping in the breeze. The young minister slaved away in the torrid heat, often sustained by no more than a bowl of milk that someone saw fit to give him during the day, and the pair endured for four years before his health could no longer take the strain. Ridsdale and his wife had endeared themselves to their flock during that time by unselfish devotion, hard work and a real effort to understand their nomadic ways, and the scenes he describes of his departure in a mutual flood of tears is quite touching. His Scenes and Adventures in Great Namaqualand (T Woolmer, 1883) has become a prized rarity available at eye-watering prices, but for those who can put up with it, you can buy a horrible softcover scanned reprint from Kessinger, USA, as I did. – just to have an occasional read of a few pages of thoroughly heart-warming stuff.
This essay is not a history of missionary endeavour; neither would I condemn their efforts to obtain basic human rights for the fragmented, downtrodden and displaced people among other, strong, traditionally ruled nations in the subcontinent; nor is it an endorsement of the perceived benefits of conversion to another belief-system and a break-down of traditional ethics and morals. Rather, I hope to have given the interested readers an idea of what they are likely to find between the covers of the books written by some extraordinary – and some very ordinary people – who were also pioneers, travellers, explorers, ethnographers, biographers and historians, without whom the early literature on the Dark Continent would be much poorer.