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 V. The great adventure

BUT the great adventure of his life was now near at hand. During the year or two which had just passed, the situation as between the Zulu king, Cetshwayo, and the governor of Natal had grown steadily more critical and dangerous. In December, 1878, war was declared between Great Britain and the Zulu king, and during the following month British soldiers invaded Zululand. The war was most popular amongst all classes of Europeans in Natal. For years they had suffered under the fear of a Zulu invasion of their country and homes. What that would have meant in bloodshed and destruction was only too vividly realized by the older people. The Natal Carbineers and other local volunteer regiments were mustered. Native levies were called out. The whole colony seemed determined to put an end, once and for all, to the threat under which it had so long lived.

Amongst the native levies was Hlubi with his horsemen, some 100 or 200 Basuto, mounted on their hardy ponies, and armed with rifles as well as with their national spears and battle-axes. The young missionary burned to go with them. To such a man the ignominy of being left behind with the ancient men and women and children was almost intolerable. But, as he afterwards said in another connexion, "no man who has taken up the burden of converting the people should be found with arms in his hands against them." He remained behind to keep things going, to look after the interests of the tribe in the absence of its men, and to protect, if necessary, the women and children. Hlubi's men fought and ran away at Isandhlwane. This statement carries with it no reflection on their courage as anyone who is familiar with the details of that dreadful day will realize. With the victorious Zulu army rushing the camp and "stamping flat," according to its previously-uttered threat, the broken British column, the only alternative to running away was to stay and die. So they ran, together with better men than themselves. Years after Hlubi met, in Archdeacon Johnson's study, a Zulu chief, Mehlokazulu, who had fought on the Zulu side at Isandhlwane. "Ah!" said the latter, reminiscently, "you nearly met your death at my hands on that day, Molefe. I saw you running away, and I leapt on a loose horse of the white army to chase and kill you. But my horse put its feet down where it had taken them up, and I could not catch you. Your snake was powerful that day."

"Maybe," replied Hlubi, with a twinkle in his eye, "it was your snake, Ngobese, that was working hard. I had a gun, and I should not have died on that day."

But Hlubi did not always run away from the Zulus. On the contrary, he and his troop did much good service on the British side throughout the campaign. So much so that, the war over and the settlement, such as it was, having been proclaimed, Hlubi found himself appointed to rule over the Nqutu district of Zululand as one of the thirteen kinglets set up by the British Government in the vain hope of bringing quiet to the land. His appointment was an unlooked-for piece of retributive justice. His grandfather had been dispossessed of this very territory by the uncle of Cetshwayo. Now on the defeat of the latter, he and his people came back to the deserted hearthstones of his ancestors. Some 200 families moved up from Estcourt, crossing the Mzinyati, and settled along the east bank of that river which was the boundary between Zulu-land and Natal. With them moved their teacher, Charles Johnson, by the special request of Hlubi.

We saw in a previous chapter that the Zulu war had brought to an end the missionary work which the English Church and the Church of Norway had begun to carry on. The organization of the diocese of Zululand had almost entirely broken down. There was no bishop, all the Zulu-land clergy, the whole three of them, to make use of a famous bon mot, were fugitives, and the oversight of what remained had been given over to Bishop Macrorie of Natal. He it was who appointed Mr. Johnson to be catechist and teacher to Hlubi's people in their new home. This appointment of a young layman to be in charge of an important sphere of work naturally raised misgivings in the minds of all concerned. There was in existence then the McKenzie Memorial Missionary Association in England, which had supported through thick and thin the tentative work carried on in Zululand. The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel had also borne its share in the support of this work. These two bodies of people longed greatly to see the work amongst the Zulus revived under the most favourable conditions possible. The sending of a solitary layman to this work did not seem to them, as it would not seem to us now, to be the best way of carrying on. Bishop Macrorie himself had his doubts on the point. Writing in November, 1879, he says: "I am afraid that there is little doubt but that Zululand is actually closed for the present to missionary enterprise, except in the district assigned to Hlubi, the Basuto chief, among whose tribe we had begun a mission in 1875. He has expressed his desire to have Christian teachers to accompany his people to their new territory. It appears to me therefore to be our duty in any case to follow this chief and establish as strong a mission as we can in his district. It is a matter of regret to me that I have not a clergyman at work among these Basutos. I was only able to place a catechist among them . . . there are as yet none of them confirmed. The consequence is that it is a catechist instead of a priest upon whom now devolves this very important work of setting up the first mission in this new Zululand. Mr. Johnson, who has been with Hlubi and his people, appears to have their confidence, and is himself ready and anxious to go forward with them. I shall make preparation to settle Mr. Johnson somewhere in the locality of Isandhl-wane, if it should prove a suitable place." In a further letter of about the same date the bishop says:--

" Hlubi is really anxious that Mr. Johnson should go with him. I heartily wish he were in holy orders, and that I felt justified in encouraging him to take his newly-wedded wife, a daughter of Mr. Jenkinson's (late of Springvale), to such an unsettled country. It looks like a distinct call to him, and I cannot but think that the McKenzie Memorial Mission should be urgent in favour of sending a clergyman in priest's orders to be with him. Hlubi has advised the Administrator of Native Law only to admit to his territory the missionaries of one denomination so as to avoid discussion in his tribe. If this advice is taken there can be no doubt that it will be to us the door is opened. . . . We might pitch our station at Isandhlwane and build there a memorial church near the battle-field. Sorry as I shall be to lose Mr. Johnson from my own diocese I could not hold him back from such a promising field, especially as it seems to be the only opening for Christianity."

In a third letter Bishop Macrorie deals with further details of the new situation:--

"The number of Hlubi's own tribe of Basutos," he says, "is about 500 of all ages, but he does not send away any of the former occupants of the land, so that there will be the whole of Sihhayo's people (the Abasemaqunge-beni or Ngobese tribe) in the district, and these will be scattered over an area of twenty miles square. Thus the mission will be to the Zulus as well as to the Basutos from the first. I can well understand that it will appear to be a very unsatisfactory thing to start a mission under a layman, and I own that it is far from satisfactory to myself. My own desire would be to start with two priests . . . but as I have not the agents I desire, and the opportunity must not be lost, I conclude to make a beginning with the layman who has already an influence with the chief and his tribe, and will be welcomed among them. It appears to me that there should be also a helper of her own sex to be with Mrs. Johnson; she is very brave about going, but her husband might have to be away a good deal on missionary excursions, when she ought to have some companion."

These extracts will have made the situation perfectly clear. There were four parties to the arrangement. Hlubi and his people were the first, he, especially, anxious for the moral support and guidance of a Christian teacher, and looking to the man he knew and trusted to go with him; there were Mr. and Mrs. Johnson in the second place, he, ardent and confident, glowing with the first consciousness of a divine call; she, brave, trusting, and herself a missionary teacher of some experience, despite her youth; both eager to go and impatient of restraining influences. There was the bishop, anxious, doubtful, yet quite unwilling to lose this great opportunity of extending God's Kingdom. Lastly there were the home people, so faithful as they had been all through the years of struggle and difficulty, yet not able to shake off the feeling that a layman was not really the right person to send in charge of such a mission. It was one of those crises, seeming to be in themselves so unimportant, which are always arising in the Church, upon the decision of which such great results depend. A little more doubt, a little more very natural shrinking from the responsibility of sending out the one solitary man and his wife to face the tremendous adventure, and the opportunity would have been irretrievably lost. But, fortunately, the home people decided to trust the bishop, the bishop put his faith in Charles Johnson, and he, in his turn, had already learned to have faith in the guidance and goodness of God. So on they went. Yet it was a prospect of appalling possibilities. Zululand was at that time practically terra incognita, except to a few "smousers" or pedlars who trekked with their wagons over the veld from time to time, trading store goods for cattle and produce. Of roads it was quite guiltless, as indeed it largely still is. The people, lately so dreaded a military power, might be expected to be sullen and dangerous in their defeat. Their chief men were contemptuous of Christianity where they were not actively hostile to it.

But these larger problems are not, in reality, those which matter most to people like the Johnsons going to live in a new and raw country. What really matters is the host of little everyday hardships, privations, and discomforts which such a life cannot avoid. How to get food, and when got, how to cook it, and when cooked where to eat it. These are the principal problems with which the new missionaries found themselves face to face. That they solved them speedily and contrived to live, with the minimum of decency and comfort, it is true, but with the maximum of good fellowship and cheerfulness is a tribute at once to the "handiness," determination, and pluck of both of them. Grass huts were built, à la mode d'Afrique, under the principal one of which a spring of water burst forth, reducing its floor and its occupants to a state of sodden misery. The archdeacon used, in after years, to relate their experiences of those days with much humour, and that fond relish which it is the dearest privilege of the old to enjoy. There was a day when he stood outside his grass parsonage regarding with somewhat anxious eyes the near approach of a considerable body of Zulus who were carrying large bundles on their heads. No such numbers had come near the new settlement at Isandhlwane before. What could it portend? He felt like Joram, king of Judah, who sent messengers to the approaching Jehu asking "Is it peace?" The procession drew near, and he saw that the people were carrying on their heads long bundles of sticks such as are used in building Zulu huts. A neighbouring chief, Maweni, moved with compassion for the badly-housed missionary, had sent his young people to cut sticks in the bush and to carry them as a present to his new neighbour. It was a gracious
act which aroused much gratitude in the heart of the newcomer. To the day of his death the archdeacon would always turn aside to see Maweni when in his neighbourhood. The chief, a friendly person though an obstinate heathen, is alive to this day, an old old man well over a hundred years of age.

On a certain Sunday, just as the scanty congregation was gathering for worship in the school-church grass hut which also did duty as a store-room on occasions when there was anything to store, a huge rocket which had been dropped by the rocket-battery when that unit was cut to pieces by the Zulus in the battle of Isandhlwane, caught fire from some burning grass, and came with a swoop and a roar right into the little camp. The service was completely disorganized. The scanty congregation could be seen making its rapid way towards the far horizon what time the missionary and his wife poured water on the resulting fire.

The bodies of those slain in the battle of Isandhlwane had been reverently gathered as far as was possible and buried. But many still lay unburied in odd nooks to which they had crept to die. Hordes of mankentshane (wild dogs) gathered there and made life distinctly unpleasant for a time.

During this first year of their residence in Zululand the Empress Eugenie, ex-empress of France, paid a visit to the district to see the spot where her son, the Prince Imperial, was killed during the Zulu War. The place where the tragedy occurred is about twenty-four miles from Isandhlwane across country, but much farther than that by any available road. The empress apparently wished to see the battle-field of Isandhlwane as well as the grave of her son, for she camped near the mission station for a night. Mrs. Johnson was able to show some little kindness to the sorrowful lady. She tells the story of the incident. "To-morrow we expect the empress may pay us a visit. She is camped within a mile of this place. General Sir Evelyn Wood, who is with her, passed us yesterday, attended by some Basutos. They asked for some milk, and Charles sent two boys down to the camp with some. The boys returned saying they had been set down to eat meat with knives and forks, and they ate and ate till they could eat no longer. The empress sent up an officer to thank Charles in her name and that of her suite for the milk. He brought the Due de Bassano's compliments and said that the empress hoped to call the next day."

The call, however, seems not to have been paid as there is no further record of it.

The year was marked by a great shortage of food in the district. The growing crops had been destroyed by the troops, and the unsettlement of the country had prevented any of the usual planting being carried on. Charles Johnson began during this time of famine a practice which he kept up, more or less regularly, all the rest of his life. He bought food out of his own slender resources to distribute to the hungry people, taking the risk of getting back from them, when they could repay it, the money he had spent. He says, "As the people have no cattle to buy food with, I don't know what they will do. I do what little I can. Indeed I have done for them more than I ought to have done, I have gone beyond my means. The whole neighbourhood comes for food."

This practice has from time to time called forth some severe comment from different quarters. It is, indeed, easy to criticize it. The charge of making "rice Christians" leaps to the mind. The further charge of trading has freely been brought against the archdeacon. But if some of his critics will say what else they themselves would have done in these circumstances their criticisms might gain more weight. What, indeed, could have been done? No humane person could allow people to starve under his very eyes. On the other hand, a man placed as Charles Johnson was, without resources other than his rather exiguous stipend and the stock he had collected during his farming days upon which to rely, was obliged to get repayment of the money he had spent to buy food for the people when he could do so. This repayment was so uncertain and so long delayed as quite effectually to dispel any idea that he sold food for profit.

It will be seen from the foregoing narrative that the project of building the new mission station at Isandhlwane mentioned by the Bishop of Maritzburg in his letters had been carried into effect. Mr. and Mrs. Johnson settled on a site on the edge of the battle-field. Life there was grim enough, but it was lightened by the presence of several friends who came from time to time to lend a hand. Hlubi was and remained a constant friend and a help in time of need.

The mission work began not unpromisingly. As both Mr. and Mrs. Johnson were familiar with the Zulu language there was none of the first hesitating, shy advance towards a mutual understanding with the people that characterizes the work of so many young missionaries. They plunged at once in medias res. Neither Charles Johnson nor his young wife were persons who were likely to loiter over essential tasks. He preached, taught, doctored, built, gardened, and toiled generally, while Mrs. Johnson taught school, looked after Zulu girls who came to live with her, sewed, washed, cooked, and played the part which every missionary's wife plays, or soon he must cease to be a missionary.

They soon had scholars in their little school, but it was some time before they gained their first convert. An ancient Zulu man who lived some short distance from the new settlement became afflicted with toothache. He visited the missionary from time to time to seek relief from the offending tooth, and was advised by him to have it extracted. For some time he declined, having a natural shrinking from subjecting himself to some unknown operation. During this time of his visits the missionary tried to teach him and to persuade him to place himself under instruction. He would not. But one day he came in great pain and said that he would believe in God if his tooth could be extracted without pain. The connexion between Christian truth and the extraction of a bad tooth is not, at first sight, very obvious: but the matter was quite clear to the man's mind. A successful extraction meant to him that the white man loved him as he said he did. If he loved him he would speak the truth to him. Therefore, what he had said about Mnkulunkulu (God) would obviously be true and it would be well for him to accept it. Without committing himself to the acceptance of this queer test of orthodoxy, Charles Johnson agreed on general principles to remove the tooth. It was not without some mental prayer that he grasped his forceps, took hold, and pulled. The test was brilliantly successful, the tooth came out, the patient feeling so little pain that he was convinced that his syllogism held. God was in his heaven and all was right with the world. He placed himself under instruction, was in due course baptized, and became one of the leading members of the small Christian community.

Hlubi had settled at a spot above twelve miles away from Isandhlwane, near to an old derelict Norwegian mission station called Masotsheni. Here he built himself a two-roomed stone house and proceeded to rule his district from it. Mr. Johnson paid regular visits to this place and thus established his first out-station, the first of the forty-odd which owe their beginnings to him.

In 1880 a new Bishop of Zululand was elected in the person of the Ven. Douglas McKenzie, Archdeacon of Bloemfontein. Bishop McKenzie was consecrated in Cape Town on St. Andrew's Day, 1880, and entered his diocese early in the following year. After a survey of the diocese he decided to make his centre at Isandhlwane and there to build a substantial house as well as schools and a memorial church. The coming of the new bishop brought a great change into the lives of the few scattered missionaries to the Zulus. He rapidly drew them together and organized them into a diocese. KwaMagwaza was reoccupied, the Swazi mission strengthened, more money for building obtained, and many important matters connected with the progress of the work settled.

Amongst other changes the bishop soon saw that the Johnsons would be of more value to him if they lived nearer to Hlubi. This was also in accordance with Hlubi's wishes and with the desire of Mr. and Mrs. Johnson. For some time Charles Johnson had been reading steadily to prepare himself for ordination. It was so apparent that he had found his true vocation that his lack of specialized theological or pastoral training could not have prevented any bishop from ordaining him. Where other men have been trained and fitted for their life's work as missionaries at universities and in theological colleges, he had found his training in the circumstances of his life. He was ordained to the diaconate on March 15th, 1881, by Bishop McKenzie at Isandhlwane. The Rev. G. H. Swinny, who was one of the new clergy who had come with the bishop, writes:--

"The ordination was a very important event in our little community, fraught, as we trust it was, with the germs of many blessings for the time to come. The staff in Zululand is at present but small. After the ordination the bishop addressed a large assembly of natives in our church hut. There were nearly 100 present, and the hut was packed full. The address was interpreted by Mr. Johnson."

After his ordination active preparations were made to settle him and Mrs. Johnson at their new home. The place chosen for this was about twelve miles from Isandhlwane, and four from Rorke's Drift on the Mzinyati river. Hlubi's house was a bare mile farther along the narrow plateau, lying close under a rocky ridge, upon which the new settlement was to be built. The spot had little to recommend it in the way of natural beauty. It faces a typically South African landscape. At the foot of the rocky ridge under which the mission station stands begins a wide plain which stretches for possibly ten miles to the west, north, and the south. In the middle of the plain winds and twists the Ncome (Blood) river to its junction with the Mzinyati (Buffalo) river. At the far edge of the plain rise high ridges and solitary rocky kopjes, the more remote of which overlook the town of Dundee in Natal. Rorke's Drift lies, as has been said, about four miles to the south, and Vecht Kop about six miles to the north, both in full view from the mission house. It is curious that those two points, both famous in the annals of South Africa as places where the Zulu army received severe defeats, should lie within view of the mission. At Vecht Kop the army of Dingane was repulsed with great slaughter by the Dutch, after the dreadful massacre of the Boer farmers and their wives and families at Weenen. At Rorke's Drift a part of the army of Cetshwayo was defeated by the British after its victory at Isandhlwane.

Here, then, huts of stone were built, and Mr. and Mrs. Johnson came over from Isandhlwane to take up their work, a work which they were only to lay down forty-six years later, at his death. They brought with them the old name of St. Augustine as the dedication of the church when it should be built, it having been decided that the church at Isandhlwane should be dedicated to St. Vincent upon whose feast day the battle had been fought there.

During the short time that he had been at Isandhlwane, Mr. Johnson had, with characteristic energy, laid down secure foundations upon which future developments could be built. The number of Zulus attending school and classes of instruction was encouraging. Besides this central work he had begun work at three other places in the district, at Masotsheni (the new St. Augustine's), at Hlazakazi, a spot about six miles south of Isandhlwane, and at another place not far from where the Prince Imperial fell, now called Hlomisa.

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