Project Canterbury  

Charles Johnson of Zululand

By A. W. Lee

[no place:] The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, 1930.

Chapter II. Early missionary efforts

AMONG this strange, brave, loyal, virile people, spirit-ridden, superstitious, sensual, is now to be introduced the Christian message. Surely never had the gospel a less promising ground for its planting! Our Saxon forebears provided a sufficiently difficult sphere of work for St. Augustine and his fellow missionaries, but they had, at least, ideas in common with their new teachers. Even amongst the fierce old Saxon warriors there existed primitive ideas of chivalry, of monogamy, of the probity of their women, of civilized law and order. But the Zulu, polygamist and magic-worshipper as he was, seemed to possess in himself little to which the Spirit of Christ could make appeal. It is not surprising, therefore, to find that the first tentative beginnings of missionary work amongst the Zulu were, from the human point of view, distinctly a failure.

Among the first efforts which were made to evangelize the Zulus were those begun at the instigation of a certain Captain Allen Gardiner, a retired naval officer who spent some years in the small settlement of Durban doing what he could to look after the spiritual interests of the settlers there as well as to initiate the beginnings of missionary work amongst the black people in their vicinity. He penetrated Zululand, undertaking journeys which must have been prodigies of adventure and hazard. He persuaded the then king, Dingane, to receive a Christian missionary. In answer to his appeal the Church Missionary Society sent out the Rev. Frank Owen with his wife and family to Zululand. Dingane gave permission to the new teacher to live near to his "Great Place," the Mgungundhlovu kraal, and himself went so far as to try to learn to read. About the same time, or perhaps a little before, a party of American missionaries had settled, with the leave of the king, on the coast of Zululand, near to the mouth of the Mhlatuze river. There is no record of any converts to the new faith being made either by the American mission or by Mr. Owen. The probabilities are against it. No Zulu man or woman would at that time have courted certain death by attempting to do anything of which the king disapproved. Dingane, although he played for a short time with ideas of progress, had not the smallest intention of using the missionaries for anything except to learn from them, if possible, how to make and use firearms. When he found that they would not or could not oblige in this direction he lost what little interest he had in them. In 1838 Dingane murdered a Boer leader, Pieter Retief, and his sixty-nine followers, who had ventured into the royal kraal in order to get the king to sign a deed conceding to them the right to acquire certain lands in Natal. Mr. Owen was a horrified spectator of the massacre. As soon as possible thereafter he left the kraal and Zululand, never to return. The American mission was also withdrawn, and both ventures came to an abrupt end. For the rest of his reign Dingane was no more troubled by missionaries.

Mpande succeeded his brother Dingane, and about 1855 a Mr. Schreuder, a missionary of the Church of Norway, made an attempt to gain a footing in the Zulu country. He was, for a time, unsuccessful, and he went away from South Africa to the Far East. Returning in 1858 he managed to gain the confidence of the king by curing him of some complaint which had defeated the native doctors. Mr. Schreuder, with a courage and devotion which must provoke the admiration of all, fought his way inch by inch into Zululand, and gradually succeeded in getting two or three embryo mission-stations planted there, notably at Ondini, a spot near to the king's-ihief kraals, and at a place near to where the sugar township of Empangeni now stands.

In the same year Bishop Colenso, then Bishop of Natal, accompanied by the Rev. Robert Robertson, an English Church missionary in Natal, visited Mpande and got his permission to settle Mr. Robertson at a place about a day's ride from the royal kraal, amongst the Magwaza section of the Langeni tribe, Kwa Magwaza (At Magwaza's) as the place was, and is still known, was occupied by Mr. Robertson in i860.

For the next eight or nine years both of these tiny missionary parties struggled on amidst their unpromising and daunting surroundings. It was the heroic age of missionary work amongst the Zulus. The king, or rather his overbearing son Cetshwayo, peremptorily forbade any of the men of the nation to become Christians under pain of death. Both missionary parties risked the displeasure of the king every time they made any move towards evangelizing the people. Two or three Zulu soldiers are reported to have been put to death during this period because they showed leanings towards the Faith. One was certainly shot by order of the king. Another is said to have been hung, head downwards, over a deep pool in the Nyezane river below Eshowe, until either the crocodiles reached him or he perished from suffocation. Gradually the missionaries gathered around them small bodies of adherents, elderly women for the most part, about whose defection from the national life Cetshwayo had no strong feeling. But the whole situation was precarious in the extreme. The very existence of the work depended upon the mood of the hotheaded young man whose will was law to his people. Any false step on the part of any of the missionaries, or of their following, would have meant the final expulsion of the whole of them from the country. It might also have meant their death, though this was a step from which even Cetshwayo would have shrunk. During this time, and especially after the death of Mpande his father, Cetshwayo's relations with the Dutch settlers of the Transvaal Republic and with the British Colony of Natal were growing more and more unsatisfactory. His proud spirit chafed at the constant nibbling carried on by the Boers at his northern boundary, as it did, also, at the restraints placed upon his conduct by Sir Theophilus Shepstone, the Natal Secretary for Native Affairs. The Boers encroached farther and farther into what he regarded as his territory. Fighting between them and his soldiery was avoided from day to day almost by a miracle. On the other hand, he could not exercise his royal power in putting to death recalcitrant girls who refused to obey his command to marry certain elderly regi? ments of his soldiers, according to Zulu law, without inconvenient questions being asked by Sir Theophilus Shepstone. The truth was that the old Zulu regime was becoming more and more an anachronism. While the country remained in the sole possession of the Bantu such a system of government was probably the only one which could have survived. But when Europeans came to be close neighbours of the Zulus the customs and ideas of the latter conflicted seriously with the aims and desires of the former. For years both British and Boers lived in almost daily fear of the invasion of their territories by the Zulu army. It was this fear of the armed might of Zululand which created in the minds of the Natal European settlers that strong antipathy to all men with black skins which has played, and still plays, so great a part in the political and social life of South Africa. The Dutch had already imbibed it. Their early history in South Africa was one of long-continued warfare against the Bantu. The Zulus, in their massacres of Dutch immigrants at Weehen and elsewhere, had stamped this antipathy deeply into the consciousness of the Dutch. The fear, distrust, almost hatred of, the Zulu became a part of their very nature. This result of close contact with a savage and warlike people became hardly less marked amongst the British. Such strong feelings cannot fail to have left their mark upon the characters of all Afrikanders, whether of Dutch or of British extraction, and they must be taken fully into account when considering the present relations between black and white.

Amongst his own people Cetshwayo was not without his difficulties. The nation was organized for war. Its very domestic life depended upon the waging of successful warfare with its accompanying looting of the cattle of the defeated enemy. Without cattle, and consequently without raids and warfare, the young men could not marry, nor could the older men take unto themselves the additional young wives they desired. At one time there were three regiments of men, and therefore of women also, of marriage able age who awaited the king's order to wed. The orde could not be given because of the lack of cattle with which to pay the lobola. Dissatisfaction was naturally widespread. In addition to this fact the nation was not of one mind in its loyalty to Cetshwayo. Faction had been always the curse of the people. Cetshwayo had himself found it necessary to clear his path to power by warring with his brothers. But the defeated faction, though silent perforce, was still present, sullenly angry.

Something had to be done. War was a necessity in order to put a stop to external complications and to internal dissatisfaction. Such a period was plainly not the most promising from the point of view of the small missionary forces at work within the country. How they stood their ground at all in the face of all this turmoil it is not easy to understand. Apart from this they were singularly ill-equipped for the work they were sent to do. Poorly paid, wretchedly housed, suffering privations and hardships almost unbelievable, not conspicuously well-trained for the difficult and delicate work of giving Zulu people a different outlook on life from their traditional one, they yet struggled on bravely and uncomplainingly until the storm burst and war was declared between the British Government and the Zulu people. That event was, for the missionaries as well as for the Zulus, the end of a period. They were all obliged to leave the country, and once more, for the second time, missionary work amongst the Zulus came to an end.

During the period we have been considering the country of Zululand had been formed into an ecclesiastical diocese, forming a missionary diocese of the Province of the Church of South Africa. A bishop (the Rt. Rev. T. E. Wilkinson) was consecrated to the diocese, his appointment being "to the Zulu people and to the tribes towards the Zambesi," in the spacious manner of those early pioneer days. The new bishop had made his headquarters at KwaMagwaza with Mr. Robertson. He enlarged the scope of the missionary work then being carried on, placing missionaries around the borders of Swaziland to the north, and one or two in Zululand proper. Bishop Wilkinson retired before the Zulu War of 1879, and no new appointment was made until peace was restored to the country.

While it is true to say that the political situation in Zulu-land during this period largely accounted for the failure of the missionaries to make any discernible impression upon the nation there are also other reasons which in fairness ought to be mentioned in this connexion. The missionaries were the products of their time. The European consciousness of superiority to the Bantu was a very marked feature of that period. The black races were held to be, are, indeed in some quarters still so held, the children of Ham the accursed of the Lord. There could be nothing, it was thought, in their philosophy of life, nothing in their religious ideas, nothing in their social customs, but what was altogether bad and worthy of disapprobation. Their habit of going about without clothes was thought to be the sign of depraved natures. The first step towards the Christian Faith was held to be the putting on of second-hand European clothing. The second step was to give up all loyalty to their own national ideals and to become not exactly pale copies--the term is unsuitable perhaps--but poor copies of Europeans. The fact that no Zulu boy or girl could at that time become a Christian without failing in the eyes of his or her own people to carry out the natural duty of obedience to parents and loyalty to the clan militated against any widespread movement amongst the young towards the new Faith. No one tried, as far as can be judged, to learn what there was of good in the Bantu system of life and conduct, and to sublimate it by infusing Christian doctrine and ethics into it. The central idea was to prise individuals off the mass of the national life, rather than to leaven the whole nation with Christian teaching. When so prised off the individuals were gathered together into missionary reserves and no longer permitted to take part in the life of their nation. That this process seemed at the time inevitable does not really alter the fact that it was almost fatal to the true progress of Christian teaching amongst the masses of the people. A Christian became the enemy of the State as he did in the days of the Roman emperors. But with this difference, that in the Roman empire the Christian became an enemy from religious reasons--he must either burn incense to Caesar and deny Christ, or renounce allegiance to Caesar and follow Christ--while the Zulu Christian became an enemy merely for social and political reasons.

Without in any way attempting to belittle the difficulties which the early missionaries had to face, and without any desire to pose as superior to them, it is permissible to regret that a clearer view of the situation was not possible to them so that they might have avoided placing their adherents in a false position with regard to their attitude to their own people.

It can now clearly be seen that there is much in Bantu thought and conduct which, with very little alteration, approximates to Christian ideas. Upon this could have been built the foundations of the great Church of Africa which will assuredly come into being, but now with how much of racial misunderstanding and of loss of the genuine African ethos!

It must also here be recalled that the men and women sent out to foster amongst the Zulus desires for higher things, and to guide their faltering footsteps along the Christian "way," were nearly all badly equipped in every respect to carry out this exacting work. Their strength lay in their quiet trust in, and intense love for, the Lord under whose banner they had ranged themselves, and their extraordinary heroism and calm acceptance of conditions of life which would have been intolerable to any but those who were satisfied that they were where God would have them be. They gave the best that was in them, and very good it was.

But what can be said of the Churches which sent them so poorly equipped to the task? Without, for the most part, any special aptitude for the work, with little or no special training for it, with scarcely enough money to keep them in the ordinary needs of life, with practically none to spend upon their work, it is greatly to their credit, and enormously to the discredit of those responsible for sending them, that they were able to achieve anything at all.

Do we, in these days, manage our missionary work better than this? Training certainly is better, knowledge of conditions of life more exact, hardship less cruel. But the reflection must always arise that the Church, by which term is here meant the Church of England, is still more apt to spend its resources upon the elaboration of aids to devotion in churches already over-elaborate than it is to lavish its wealth upon the spreading of the gospel in heathen lands. It is difficult to resist the fear that a devotion which needs to keep it warm, so many extraneous helps, in the way of peals of bells, magnificent organs, elaborate choirs, expensive frescoes and the like, is only a poor sort of thing at the best, and at the worst a very far cry from the sturdy, open-air, lilies-of-the-field religion preached by our Lord.

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