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Charles Johnson of Zululand

By A. W. Lee

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

Chapter III. Charles Johnson's preparation

HAVING now seen something of the people amongst whom Charles Johnson lived his life and carried out his life's work, and having also considered the conditions of missionary work amongst them previous to his call to take part in it, we turn to the story of what he accomplished.

In this chapter it is proposed to narrate the circumstances of his early life, because it is only with these in view that a full understanding of his character and of the part he played in the development of missionary work amongst the Zulus can be arrived at. "The child is father to the man" runs the old saying. The following pages will show how true this saying is as applied to him.

Charles Johnson was born on September 3rd, 1850, at Barnsley, Yorkshire, the second son of William and Anne Johnson. There was an elder brother, who died in his youth, and two sisters. The mother was delicate, and this fact induced Mr. William Johnson to contemplate emigration to Natal, where, it was hoped, the climate would suit her health better than that of the bleak Yorkshire town. When all was packed and ready, and all arrangements made for sailing, the mother died. In spite of this blow the arrangements previously made were carried out. The family sailed for South Africa in a sailing vessel, and after a voyage of five months, landed at Port Natal, as the town of Durban was then known. Charles was then seven years of age, his elder sister, Anne (afterwards Mrs. McLeod, a name held in much honour in Zululand), a few years older.

For a time the father struggled to make a living in Durban, then a wilderness of tangled bush and sand, with here and there the clearings containing the homesteads of the settlers. Elephants, buffalo, and other wild animals then roamed the bush actually inside the town boundaries, while monkeys, snakes, and every kind of flying and creeping insect abounded. This is not the place in which to enlarge upon the changes which seventy years of development have brought about in Durban: but where Charles Johnson, as a boy, avoided the death-dealing serpent in his play now runs the much more deadly motor-bus, less easily avoided than the serpent, and more fatal in its results. Where elephants trumpeted their rage and defiance now resounds the roaring of the betting multitudes which throng the Durban racecourse. The buffalo charged the hunter in his dying rage in those days, where now legal gentlemen charge their clients with bills more terrifying than the buffalo's horn. So civilization clears away the terrors of the wild to make room for the more subtle dangers it brings in its train.

It was here, without a doubt, that the future expert in Zulu speech first learned to babble words,, almost meaningless to him then, in that strange tongue. The native, in those simple days, lived in close companionship with his young charges. A young boy, naturally inquisitive and quick, could not fail to pick up many lessons which stood him in good stead in after life. After spending a few years at Durban, the family moved to Pietermaritzburg, the capital of the Colony of Natal. Here the children went to school together with other young people, many of whom in after life played conspicuous parts in the history of the colony. After a short time here the father again moved, this time out into the country near to the little settlement of Byrne, where many English families who had come in the ill-fated Minerva were settled. Mr. Johnson senior took up farming here with his family of young children. But he was not by training or experience suited to this avocation, and the family passed through severe times. Anne, the elder sister, then aged about twelve, mothered the smaller children and managed the household. Conditions of life in that new and raw country were very difficult. Transport was slow and expensive, and foodstuffs were scarce. Building materials were hard to come by except those provided by nature. For a long time the family lived in a small cottage built of wattle and daub and thatched with grass. Wild animals, such as leopards, were numerous, and many a night the family lay awake in terror listening to the strange noises made by prowling beasts. The children all worked hard up to the limit of, and sometimes beyond, their strength. Charles herded cattle out in the veld. In wet weather or fine his charges had to be herded, driven out to the pasture, brought back to be milked, and generally valeted. It was during these years that he acquired the mastery of the Zulu language which was at once the admiration and the despair of later generations of missionaries to the Zulus. His daily work brought him into intimate relations with Zulu boys, both small and big, with whom he played, fought, and conversed. Such a life, aimless as it must then have seemed, was as a matter of fact, one of the best kinds of preparation he could have undergone for his future work. What, in after life, distinguished him from those of his fellow-workers who almost equalled him in their knowledge of the language, was his unfailing insight into the native mind. He was able to meet the errant Zulu on his own ground. It was useless for any native man, woman, or child to try to pretend that things were not as they were. He could cast back into his own experience and find there complete understanding of the state of mind of the person brought before him.

Life in a new and sparsely-inhabited country such as the Colony of Natal was in those days could not have been easy in any conditions then possible. But the special circumstances of his life rendered the boyhood of young Johnson more difficult and strenuous than fell to the lot of other youths. He was often sent on errands over long distances, and he knew what it was to spend a night on the bare veld with no other covering except his own clothes and with no food. Two incidents stood out clearly in his mind which may be told here as illustrating both the hardships which he underwent and the kindness of the Zulu to children. When he was twelve years old, he had one day been sent on an errand which involved a long tramp. Returning, footsore and weary, towards evening, he was overtaken by a native riding a horse. The native was a stranger to him, but when he overtook the boy limping wearily along, he dismounted, put the boy up on his horse, and led him the whole way home.

Returning on a similar occasion he got lost in the dark and the rain of a cold spring evening; stumbling about the soaked veld, he discovered some cattle sleeping out. A brilliant idea struck him. More than anything else he craved for warmth. The cows should provide it. With admonitory whistles and shouts in Zulu he roused a cow out of its place and promptly lay down therein himself, thus getting the warmth which it had left in the ground. By dint of repeating this manoeuvre he managed to get through the night alive. With the first streaks of dawn he found that he was near a Zulu kraal. He went to it and the natives gave him of their best to eat, and then made him lie down and covered him with a warm rug, until he was fit to go home.

When he grew up to young manhood he was faced with the necessity of self-support. In a young colony, the main industry of which was agriculture, there was no lack of opportunity for a young and able-bodied man to earn his living. It would be a rough one, with plenty of hard work, but a living none the less, and one not without its attractions. Charles Johnson, judging from what he was in after life, must at that time have been a strongly-built, stocky young man, with rather exceptional muscular development, with a strong will and a firm resolve to "make good." He was a good shot, a fine horseman, a good Zulu linguist, and possessed of the pluck and tenacity of purpose of the true Yorkshireman. These were no mean assets to a man who had his own way to make. But somehow things did not go well with him. One kind of work after another he tried, but in none of them did he succeed so well as to make him anxious to persevere with it. Strangely enough, for a man of his out-of-door tastes and experiences, his first essay in self-support took the form of a clerkship in the Standard Bank of South Africa. He became second clerk in the Maritzburg branch, then a small concern employing three men. Whether it was here that he developed the ability to manage money matters which afterwards so distinguished him cannot now be known. But all his life he displayed keen business acumen, the use of which, for his own personal ends, must have brought him financial ease. Very soon the attractions of the bank palled. This was the period of the diamond fever which swept the whole country when these gauds were discovered round Kimberley. Every one who could, and many who ought not to have done so, sold all that they had and joined in the rush to El Dorado. Here was an adventure! Not all the banks in the universe could have kept Charles Johnson tied to their desks with such an exciting prospect before him. The open road, the trekking in waggons, the shooting of the next meal, the limitless riches awaiting him at the farther horizon, these things went like wine to his head, and off came the collar and the black coat of respectable clerkdom. Into the rough clothes, out with the rifle and the powder and shot, sell your best black clothes to get you a horse withal, and off into the midst of that stream of hardy adventurers seeking their meat from God, and counting their diamonds before they were dug. Up over the steep passes of the Drakensburg mountains, the piercing cold of evening and early morning to brace you. Out into the wide dry plains of the Orange Free State, with the Basuto Maluti mountains dimly blue on your left hand. There before you the countless herds of springbok, gemsbok, duiker and koodoo, leaping, grazing, stamping. Up into the saddle, your gun held in your left hand, your spurs busy, your reins flying. Dash amongst them, leap off the pony's back, drop on your knee: now, steady I cover that big fellow, hold your breath and gently squeeze the trigger, and there is your quarry, kicking his life out on his back. It was a man's life. Then, the long trek ended, Kimberley, that dusty dreary home of scintillating hopes, is reached. There is a claim to be pegged, a tent to be pitched, provisions at famine prices to be bought. With spade and pick the hard dry ground is attacked. Hope runs high. But the days go on and no diamonds reward you for the loss of your epidermis and for that crick in the back which comes from over-eager digging. Hope gradually dies, but you go on in dogged determination to find something somehow. Then the hardships and the privations which you have undergone begin to tell. One day you are missing from your claim, and the two or three friends you have made come to your tent to find you tossing in a fever. For a long while you hover between life and death, roughly nursed and roughly fed by those faithful friends. Then, one day, you hear of a wagon returning to Natal, and at once you are heart-sick for the sight of familiar faces, and for the soft pleasant country scents and sounds of your home. So back again over the old trail you go. This time the game goes unmolested by you. Your pony and gun are sold, you are returning poorer than you went in every respect save one: and that is the undiminished, fadeless hope of finally finding something to do that is so well worth the doing that the doing itself is a sufficient reward for all your toils and labours.

Returned once more Charles Johnson had first to be nursed back into his usual robust health. Many days passed before he was once more able to face the world and to continue his quest for his life's work.

But finally that time came, and he undertook the rough and punishing work of a sawyer in the forests of Natal. See how he was preparing himself, all unconsciously, for his future work! His business training, as we have already seen, stood him in good stead as a missionary. His experiences while on his long trek to Kimberley made him familiar with every phase of the rough life of travel then necessary in this country. So much of his after life was spent in travel as a missionary that the experience he then gathered was not the least valuable of the many lessons he learnt as a young man. His sawyer life, again: what could seem less likely than this to be of use to him in his efforts to extend the kingdom of God on earth? Yet, when he was faced with the problem of having to build houses and churches with almost no money, he was able to go off to the nearest Zululand forest and hew sufficient timber out of the thick trees to be able to bring it to an excellent work.

Next he tried farming. It was inevitable that a young Natalian should at that time sooner or later settle on the land. His farming operations appear to have been successful up to a point. He gathered together much stock, and for a time it seemed that he was destined to settle into the pleasant life of a well-to-do farmer. But the great change was now near at hand. His questing spirit had for years, as we have seen, been seeking for that ideal way of life which was so soon now to claim him as its eager votary.

Whatever he was doing when the change came the immediate cause is to be found in a wound which he received while on military duty and the resulting time of bodily inactivity.

He was a trooper in the Natal Carbineers, a volunteer regiment formed for the defence of the colony, and manned and officered mostly by young farmers. The regiment was called up to arrest the Hlubi chief, Langalibalele, who had committed overt acts of rebellion against the government. The Carbineers were sent up to the Free State border on, the Drakensburg mountains to prevent the escape of the chief and those of his people who followed him. While waiting the arrival of the rebels young Johnson was severely wounded accidentally. A loaded gun which was leaning against his tent pole fell and discharged its contents into his back. The wound was so severe that he was sent at once down to Maritzburg in a stretcher which was carried on the heads of native women and passed along by them from kraal to kraal. They were so afraid that he would die on their hands that each team passed him on as quickly as possible, and he reached Maritzburg just alive.

For a year he was in hospital, surviving three operations, each intended to extract the bullet, and each being carried out in a different direction from the others. The effects of the wound and these operations remained with him all the rest of his life. Never afterwards was he quite the strong, vigorous man he had formerly been.

While in hospital he was regularly visited by the Dean of Maritzburg, Dean Green, a faithful priest and a great champion of the integrity of the Church of Natal. It was through this good man that Charles Johnson finally found that for which he had unconsciously sought all his adult days, a work which would call upon all the powers of his soul, mind, and body and which would, like virtue, be its own reward. We have, happily, his own account of this turning-point in his life, an account which he gave in answer to the question set by those who had the right to ask it as to his reasons for undertaking missionary work amongst the natives of Natal. Writing in 1916 he says:--

I am asked to write a short account of what led me to become a missionary; I do not think it will offer much matter of interest to other people, but as I have been asked to do so I comply. The account will be short.

(1) I was a young colonial, having arrived out from England when only seven years old. At twenty-one years old I had no more idea of offering myself for mission work than of flying. I was fond of horses and sheep and cattle farming.

(2) When I was twenty-two, I was very seriously wounded, and I was taken into hospital where I was under the doctor's hands for many weeks. At first it was thought that I could not recover, but thanks to good doctors (military) and good nursing, and I hope also because God had some work for me to do, I turned the corner and commenced to live again. I suppose that no one who has been so near death as I had could help being somewhat changed in mind, so that no great credit is due to me that during my long time of convalescence I became more thoughtful and studious, and I came under the influence of a strong earnest Christian character whom I venerated and loved. I had known Dean Green of Maritzburg slightly as a boy, but I was too insignificant a youngster to have attracted any special notice, and when we left Maritzburg to go and live in the country, I only saw him very occasionally during my visits to the town; but when I was brought into the hospital the first thing I recognized on regaining consciousness, after the operation of extracting the bullet, was my dear old father and Dean Green, with the Sacred Vessels for Holy Communion arranged on a small portable altar by my bedside, waiting for the first gleam of consciousness to administer to me the last rites before I passed away. I do not think that I was a very impressionable young man, but I never quite forgot that scene, and Dean Green's influence began then, and never weakened again, even to the day of his death many years later. How he could spare so much time to devote to me in his busy life, while I was an inmate of the hospital, I cannot understand. He lent me books and used to come down and sit with me.

(3) I was a good linguist, and the thought came into my head during the enforced quiet of my convalescence that I would enter the Civil Service, and with that object I prepared for, and passed my examination, which was not a very severe one at that time, and I suppose I should have been fairly well up in the Civil Service to-day had not my venerated friend, Dean Green, just at that time put other thoughts into my head. I had been to see his native mission work, and it was his words that led my thoughts towards trying to do something for God in the mission field. By this time I left the hospital and returned to my farm; in the quiet of the farm (for I was not quite strong enough to do much work yet) I prayed and thought a good deal over the matter, and commenced in a shy way to do a little amongst the natives who were working for me, but my lack of training and direction became so very painfully evident that at last I offered myself in fear and trembling to Archdeacon Fearn, of Richmond, who had been a second father to me, and to whom I had told my troubles ever since boyhood, and he advised me at once to write to Dr. Callaway, who had just been consecrated missionary Bishop of St. John's, Kaffraria. I still felt very doubtful, but I wrote to the bishop and he asked me to come and see him. He was then living at Springvale before going to St. John's. He was, however, coming to see some friends of mine about thirty miles away, to hold a native service, and I went to see him there. The upshot of our talk was that he wanted me to go to St. Augustine's, Canterbury, to be trained. This troubled me immensely, as I was not able to afford the expense. This was a check; I did not know quite what to do, so I did nothing; I went over to speak to my father, whose farm was about twenty-five miles away, but when I got there I lost the courage to broach the subject, for active mission work was considered to be a most absurdly foolish thing for an able-bodied young colonist to commence, so I came back to my own place. My perplexed state of mind at this time was most painful; I tried to think the matter out: should I accept the post offered as clerk and Zulu instructor in the magistrate's office that I had been told by a friend in office that I could get if I applied without delay, or should I ride into town and see Dean Green again? Reason argued that it was a foolish fad that had been started by a good man who did not understand the mind of the colonists, and that I had been weak in body and mind from my look into death's door. That if it had been God's will to evangelize the "niggers" (I still thought and spoke of them as niggers), why had he not called other young colonists to the work? for I had tried quietly to find out whether any others in Natal were doing mission work, and could not hear of one (at that time). At last I went into town to see Dean Green again, and I suppose that was really the turning-point of the matter, although I did not understand it at the time; my old friend advised me to wait patiently and some way would be opened if I had really made up my mind to devote myself to mission work; but I did not know whether I really intended to do so or not, so I returned home still doubtful what to do, or how to do it; one thing, however, I had made up my mind about, viz.: to give up farming, and then I commenced to settle up my affairs and sell off what stock and crops I had, and this absorbed my attention for some time. While I was thus engaged, I received a letter from Canon Jenkinson, who had succeeded Dr. Callaway as head of the native mission at Springvale. He offered me a post as schoolmaster in the Springvale native school, and asked me to come and see him. I left everything and started on the 120 miles' ride, reaching there on the evening of the second day. After a short conversation with the canon and a look round the schools, I accepted the post straight off, and engaged to come and commence my duties at the beginning of the following month, which just gave me time to finish settling up my affairs, I went to my father's farm and electrified them all by announcing that I had made up my mind to devote myself to mission work amongst the natives, and that it was all settled. That was the first intimation they had of the matter, and I fear they thought I had gone mad.

I went to Springvale at the time agreed on, and I was astonished at the simple way in which it was all settled at last; Canon Jenkinson offered me a home in his house. I grew to love my work more and more every day, and I have never looked back since that day. I was willing and ready for anything I was put to; I did not aspire to holy orders; I passed my examination as catechist, and I was quite content to work as schoolmaster and catechist. My old farmer friends laughed at me, but I was astonished how little their laughing affected me; I was at peace in mind and spirit. Gradually I began to feel that I was being led by God, and I was content to leave my life in his hands. Your question as to whether I was convinced of the necessity of a mission to the natives has troubled me somewhat; I have tried to cast back my mind and I cannot see that that was my reason for giving myself to mission work. I believe that the only idea in my mind at the time was to do some small work for God, and it was Dean Green who showed me that the simplest and obvious channel was mission work, because of my knowledge of the native language. This was all in Natal. It was not until I was sent here to Zululand in 1879 that my eyes were really opened, and I began to feel within myself the loud call of the work itself, and that voice has been incessant ever since. I believe that these natives are a great trust committed to us by God, and the only way in which the burning native question will be settled is by our Lord's gospel of love, and by education.

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