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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 IV. First steps in missionary work

IN the letter describing his call to take part in the work of the Church amongst the Zulu people with which the last chapter ended, it will be noticed that the writer makes some allusion to the mingled astonishment and amusement with which the news of his decision to give his life to that work was received by his family and his friends. His testing in this particular way was probably far more severe than he hints in his account of the circumstances. He had a stern fight with himself before he reached that mood of detachment from and indifference to the opinions of those around him which enabled him to continue in his chosen way without undue perturbation of mind. That this should be so will come as no surprise to those who are familiar with the estimate which the world places upon the work of missionaries. Especially will it cause no surprise to those who understand the minds of people who are born and live their lives among the child-races of Africa. Some attempt was made in Chapter II. of this book to show the reasons why any effort to improve the conditions in which the black people of Natal lived would inevitably be looked upon with disfavour by Europeans. That an able-bodied young Natalian who had every reason to think he would "get on" in the world should be so perverse as to give up his prospects and devote himself to "spoiling the niggers" would cause a shock of unpleasant surprise to all his associates. If he had taken to drink, or had lost himself in any other vice, his condition of mind might have been far more easily understood and far more readily forgiven by them than his lapse from the paths of common-sense in becoming a missionary could be.

This fact need not distress us over-much. It is one of the oddest things in this odd world that people who, in most other respects, are ready to obey the precepts of the Christian religion should fail so utterly to comprehend that the spreading of Christ's teaching is one of the primary duties of every Christian man. The years which followed Charles Johnson's acceptance of the life of a missionary until his entrance into Zululand may be regarded most fittingly as part of his preparation for the work which he was to do there. The six years from 1873, when he went to Springvale as a schoolmaster, until 1879, when he was sent up to Zululand, were passed by him in acquiring the necessary knowledge of missionary methods. He was fortunate in having as his first missionary superior Canon Jenkinson, who had succeeded Bishop Callaway, its founder, as head of the Springvale Mission. Canon Jenkinson was a scholarly and experienced priest, punctilious and exact in the discharge of his spiritual duties, having a love for the natives and for his work amongst them, and much given to study. It was here that Johnson met his future wife, Miss Margaret Jenkinson, who was even then, at an early age, occupied in teaching the native school.

After a short time spent at Springvale, Charles Johnson was sent out to an out-station, Highflats, some distance from Springvale, but still under the charge of Canon Jenkinson. From this place he was moved to the town of Durban and was placed in charge of the work amongst the Zulu labourers in the town. He was here at St. Faith's for a year. That he had already begun to make his mark as a missionary is evident from a note in Canon Jenkinson's diary which reads: "The bishop (Macrorie of Maritzburg) addressed the confirmation candidates through Mr. Johnson as interpreter. This Mr. Johnson, who began mission work under me at Springvale and Highflats, has carried on a very successful work at St. Faith's, Durban, for the past year; but being unable to stand the climate of Durban, he has resigned and has just gone towards the mountains northwest beyond Estcourt, to undertake the Mission of St. Augustine's to the Basutos under the chief Hlubi."

Here we have the first mention of Charles Johnson's connexion with Hlubi and his Mahhulukwa tribe of Basuto people, a connexion which was to continue until the end of their lives.

It is a little confusing to the reader thus suddenly to be plunged into the midst of a mission to the Basuto people when he has all along been connecting Charles Johnson with missionary work amongst the Zulus. It is necessary, therefore, in the interests of clarity, to explain how this apparently fortuitous connexion was brought about.

In the time of Senzangakona, father of Chaka, the first king of the Zulus, the delimitation of tribes was not so clearly marked as it afterwards became. Especially was this the case in the country on both banks of the Mzinyati river, round about where the towns of Newcastle and Dundee in Northern Natal now stand. This piece of territory was an olla podrida of tribes, Hhulukwa, Mnguni, and Ngwano people living in close proximity together there before they became definitely associated with their present Basuto, Zulu, and Swazi nationalities. The Hhulukwa people, under their chief Seka, lived round the highlands of the Nqutu range and from there down past Isandhlwane on to the banks of the Mzinyati river. Chaka attacked this tribe as he did all other tribes within his reach and drove them out of their territory. They took refuge in the north of the Free State where they multiplied and became strong. To the original Baloi stock of the Hhuluk-was were added the Molefe and the Tsodetsi families, which became incorporated with it. Soon, following the almost universal rule of all African tribes, civil war broke out, and the three families of Molefe, Moloi, and Tsodetsi fled, under Mbunda their chief, to the Estcourt district of Natal for refuge. Here Mbunda died and Hlubi his son reigned in his stead. Hlubi Molefe was one of those great men thrown up from time to time by raw African tribes; Moshueshue of the Bakwena Basuto, and Khama of the Bamangwato Bechuana, are two famous examples of great Africans. Perhaps Hlubi was not so great a man as either of these proved himself to be, though if their opportunity had fallen to him he would no doubt have attained to equal greatness with them. But his was the naturally Christian soul of the Latin tag; he was a great gentleman in his manners and in his outlook on life; he was a brave and able soldier, a loyal and faithful servant of Queen Victoria, and a skilful administrator. To Christianity he was attracted as it was inevitable that such a man should be. He asked the Bishop of Maritzburg to send him a teacher who might guide himself and his people along the way of progress both spiritually and in material things. His request was answered, and Charles Johnson, at that moment in need of a change of work and climate, as we have seen, was sent to take charge of the infant mission of St. Augustine's in his district. So in six short years the young missionary had garnered much varied experience in his new career. On the settled mission station at Springvale he had acquired a knowledge of the routine work there done. At Highflats he had adventured into the beginnings of a new work. In Durban he had been brought into contact with the problems of work amongst urbanized natives. At Estcourt he was thrust out among a strange people whose language he did not speak, to make a start with the work of evangelizing them.

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