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Unisa Press

Christianity and the colonisation of South Africa, 1487 - 1883: Documentary history

Volume 1
Charles Villa-Vicencio and Peter Grassow

Unisa Press Hidden Histories Series
Series Editors: Russel Viljoen, Johannes du Bruyn & Nicholas Southey
Format: 240 x 170 mm
Pages viii+125pp
ISBN 978-1-86888-399-8
Item 8050
Publish Year: 2009
World Rights: Unisa Press
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Initial religious encounters between the settlers in southern Africa and the indigenous inhabitants entailed the establishment of settler churches and their relationships with their home countries. This era therefore saw little by way of the spread of Christianity. However, with the arrival of Johannes van der Kemp and other missionaries from the London Missionary Society in 1799, Christianity began to cross colonial boundaries, marking the great era of missions in southern Africa.

At the outset, the missionary presence remained precariously perched between success and failure. While missionary influence among the indigenous peoples was relatively insignificant, the opposite was true within the colony. At the same time, expansion pressures from the Cape  precipitated growing conflict between settlers and indigenous peoples. Increasingly, missionaries were caught between the interests of indigenous peoples and those of the colony. For the most part they sided with their colonial heritage and roots, but in some significant instances, their identification with the indigenous people led them to take extremely unpopular stands against both Boer and British colonial authority. This conflict is traced at various levels throughout the book.

The book concludes with a fascinating glimpse into two different sites of missionary expansion; Christianity across the Orange River and finally, Natal and Zululand. While Robert Moffat of Kuruman and Bishop Colenso are central figures in these respective stories, the broader spread of Christianity in this period is traced through multiple voices and stories.

Series Foreword
Acknowledgements ix
Introduction xi
Chapter 1: First Religious Encounters, 1487–1795 1
First Encounters 3
The Dutch Settlement 1652–1795 4
The Eastern Frontier 9
Chapter 2: Christianity and African Culture:
Christians, Converts and Resisters, 1795–1820 13
The First Missionaries 13
Eastern Cape 17
Expanding Mission Activity 24
Slavery 38
Chapter 3: Evangelisation and Cultural Encounter:
Colonial Christianity and African Resistance, 1820–1828 46
The Eastern Frontier 50
The Interior 60
Slavery 66
Chapter 4: Missionaries and Xhosa Defeat:
From Military Conquest to Philanthropy, 1834–1870 76
War of the Axe 79
The Eighth Frontier War 81
The End of Xhosa Independence 84
Chapter 5: Christianity Across the Orange River:
African and Boer Appearances, 1834–1870 100
Crossing the Orange River 100
The Gospel and the Gun 103
Christianity through African Eyes 108
Racially Segregated Churches 111
Chapter 6: Missionaries and Zulu Kings: Invasions,
Resistance and Defeat, 1834-1883 117
Colenso and the Anglicans 120
Other Missions 132
Documents Chapter 1 145
Documents Chapter 2 155
Documents Chapter 3 190
Documents Chapter 4 238
Documents Chapter 5 272
Documents Chapter 6 305
Bibliography 336
Index of Names 349
General Index 354

Extract from the book:

Christianity and the Social History of South Africa

Christianity has played a formative role in the shaping of the social history of South
Africa. Since the beginning of the colonial era in the seventeenth century until the present, it has been the dominant religious force for both good and ill. From the outset, many indigenous peoples experienced it as the handmaiden of colonialism and a threat to their
culture. But Christianity also injected into southern African society a positive dynamic,
giving rise to people, movements and institutions which, in more recent times, have been
at the forefront of the struggle for justice and reconciliation in a country long wracked by
oppression and violence.
Whatever the role of Christianity in a future South Africa (and it is likely to be as ambiguous
as it has been in the past), it is appropriate at this moment, when a new democratic society
is in the process of formation, that we should look back and take stock of its past record.
In some small way this may help Christians and the churches to participate with greater
and more self-critical insight in helping to shape the new South Africa. It may also help
people of other faiths, as well as non-believers, to understand the role of Christianity in
our public life.
The present volume and its companion, Christianity and the Modernisation of South
Africa, are not attempts to produce a history of the church or churches in South Africa, but
rather are studies of the role of Christianity in the social formation of the country. Readers
should not expect, then, to find a comprehensive account of South African church history,
nor will they find that equal space has been devoted to every denomination, or even to
what some refer to as the ‘mainline’ churches. The fact is, some churches and Christian
traditions have been far more influential in shaping South African society than others, and
these have inevitably determined the material under discussion and the documentation
selected for publication.
While churches are the major institutional carriers of Christian faith and praxis, they
are comprised of people from all walks of life and sections of the population. Thus the
relationship between Christianity and society finds expression not only in the words and
actions of church synods and assemblies, but also in the words and deeds of Christian
educationists, medical doctors, newspaper editors, as well as politicians, trade unionists,
farmers, and workers. Understandably it is more difficult to assess the ways in which
Christian values have been expressed through such a diffusion within the body politic or,
by the same token, the ways in which Christians have failed to be true to the gospel of
Jesus Christ. Yet even such a statement as this is now seen to be problematic in the sense
that interpretations of Christianity vary, sometimes greatly, so that we not only have to
speak about different churches but also about different Christianities. Nonetheless, it is
also appropriate to speak about Christianity as a whole once we have become mindful of
the problems involved.
This volume and its companion originated within the Social History Project of the
Research Institute on Christianity in South Africa at the University of Cape Town. The
project has collected to date some 3 500 primary documents relevant to understanding the
role of Christianity in forming South Africa, dating to the mid-seventeenth century. It was
originally intended that a series of documentary volumes be produced, so that students and
other interested persons might have access to material which is often otherwise difficult to
locate. In the process of working with the documents, however, the need to locate them in
their historical context and discuss their significance became apparent. Also apparent was
the silence of subaltern voices, and the need to read between the lines of the documents.
This led to a fresh consideration of the secondary literature, and especially the monographs
of contemporary social historians and anthropologists. As a result, the final product is,
in many respects, different to that originally intended. Nevertheless, the documentary
collection remained the point of departure for the chapters in the present work. Selections
from it are included in the book, chosen and extracted on the basis of their relevance
for understanding the period under consideration. Plans are underway to make a larger
portion of the collection more widely available in the coming months.
The authors of this volume and its companion are not primarily historians, or even church
historians, but theologians who have a particular interest in the historic contours and
social development of Christianity in the South African context. They have approached
their task from a particular perspective which has been shaped both by their faith and
commitment and by the struggle against apartheid and oppression in South Africa.
While the result might satisfy neither the historians nor other theologians, the conviction
underlying these volumes is that theological reflection should be grounded in historical
enquiry, and that the scientific study of religion provides important tools and insights
for this task. Of course, theologians do not have a monopoly on insights in uncovering
the ‘Christian past’, whether in South Africa or anywhere else. But perhaps theologians
can contribute by providing perspectives which are not normally part of the professional
historians’ craft. The recent concern of historians and other social scientists to give more
attention to the consciousness, intentionality, motives, hopes, fears and imaginings of
the agents of domination and those in resistance suggests, that there is a growing area of mutual interest and agreement which bodes well for the future.

Christianity and the Colonisation of South Africa, as is Christianity and the Modernisation
of South Africa, is intended to introduce readers, including students of religion, theology,
and South African history, to a wealth of material about which they might otherwise know
very little. But it is also introductory in the sense that no attempt is made to provide an
exhaustive account of the subject. Like archaeologists, the author has dug several ditches
in order to expose items of interest at each level which help piece the story together. In
doing so it has become apparent that each level has built upon those below and, in turn,
helped determine those which came later. There is enormous scope remaining for those
who wish to examine each stratum in more detail, and even dig more and deeper ditches.

Christianity and the Colonisation of South Africa

This first volume begins with the arrival of the European settlers on the shores of the
Cape in 1652 and ends in 1870 when, with the discovery of diamonds and gold, a new
era of modernisation begins. Our starting point might seem to perpetuate the Eurocentric
myth that South African history begins with the colonial era. This is not the case. The first
chapter identifies a varied set of cultural and religious traditions and practices that existed
among the various indigenous peoples of the sub‑continent, prior to the arrival of the
settlers. For a long time it was co-terminous with colonisation. Five hundred years later
the many religio‑cultural strands of Africans continue to compete with settler Christianity
– with the advent of democracy in South Africa giving a new impetus to the process. These
traditions, and the way in which they both shaped and were shaped by the encounter with
colonial Christianity, provide the essential framework within which the social history of
Christianity in South Africa must be understood.1
While the development of the settler church dominates the early part of our narrative,
in the bulk of this volume it is the missionaries who hold centre stage. In their multiple
interactions with the colonial authorities, both Dutch and British, and with the indigenous
peoples of the land, it is the missionaries who significantly shaped the social history of
the period and established a pattern of Christianity which has been, for good and ill,
determinative. Jean and John Comaroff, in the first volume of their study, Of Revelation
and Revolution, underscore the work of late anthropologist Monica Wilson who taught
that it is impossible to understand the past or the present in South Africa without taking
the salience of religion into account. The Comaroffs have come to differ with Wilson on
various issues, yet they agree that her general point has been proven correct.2
Religion is a carrier of culture and social custom. It is thus impossible, as argued above,
to understand the resistance of African people to missionary policy without understanding
the extent to which African religion inspired social norms, beliefs and traditions that
ensured the survival of African traditional society. It is also important to note that
mission Christianity (and its missionaries) was also transformed by the encounter with
these indigenous religious traditions. In this dialectic of encounter between mission and
missionised, it is therefore imperative to analyse the religious world of the mission. Many
past analyses of the mission have focused on its rhetoric – its preaching, correspondence
and home propaganda – and on the intentions, stated or assumed, of the missionaries. More
recent studies, utilising the tools of historical anthropology, have sought to probe beneath
this surface and to focus on the conflictual and creative interaction between missionary
and missionised at the level of religious practice. This involves an understanding of how
ritual, both in its more formal and structured practice and the supposedly more mundane
ritual practices of the everyday, became a central site of domination and resistance in this
interaction. Resistance is a new note that has been sounded in many of these analyses.
Historians have frequently shown the extent to which the missionary imposition of western
Christian culture on African societies undermined the African will to resist. They have not
always, however, investigated the manner in which the recipients of the missionaries’
gospel understood it or appropriated it to meet their own ends, in particular, the use of this
message and these practices as a mode of resistance to colonial domination. Here the work
of the Camaroffs has opened up new theoretical and historical space.
There is also a need to consider the driving religious factors which brought missionaries to
South Africa and sustained them in their missionary zeal. This too had been a significant
gap in the historical record, which has now, thankfully, been filled. Here the works
by Jeff Guy on Bishop John Colenso and his daughter Harriette are exemplary. Greg
Cuthbertson’s comprehensive critique of Andrew Ross’s biography of John Philip, and
to a lesser extent his analysis of Ido Enklaar’s work on Johannes van der Kemp have,
in turn, shown the insufficiency of merely identifying the theological trends underlying
a particular social ethic. It is equally important to investigate the social forces that have
impinged on those beliefs.3 Cuthbertson’s point is well taken – religious activity in South
Africa cannot be regarded as an independent motor of social change. Religion, other
ideologies and culture, are intertwined with social, political and economic forces, without
any one of these having an exclusive epiphenomenal influence upon the other. There
is no easy way to make plain the complexity of inner and hidden forces in individuals,
communities or society. Recognising the need to uncover these forces is, however, an
important step in what might, in certain contexts, be an inevitable encounter between
theology and history.
A final methodological gain of recent times has been the increasing attention given
by historians and anthropologists to the influence of cultural, ideological and belief
systems in the response of indigenous people to the message of the missionaries and
colonial churches. Of importance here is the work of William Beinart and Colin Bundy
on the cultural and ideological dimensions of rural communities in the Transkei, while
Belinda Bozzoli has, in turn, provided important insights into the encounter between the
missionaries and African converts in her work on class and community consciousness in
the formation of South African society.4 As already argued, however, if careful attention
is not given to religion, the clash of cultures and conflicting worldviews that stand central
in the encounter between colonisers and the colonised cannot be fully understood nor
adequately investigated. Exploring the religious ideas, symbols and rituals of the African
people is imperative if the ‘African point of view’ is to be included in mainstream
historiography. Important texts in this regard include the work of the Comaroffs already
noted, along with that of Janet Hodgson on the Xhosa prophet Ntsikana and that of Jeff
Peires on the Xhosa Cattle Killing of 1856–57.5
In this volume, attention is given to these new insights and debates without directly
entering the methodological fray. Given the bibliographical nature of the project,6
an attempt is made to adhere to the task of providing a coherent commentary on the
documents, situating them within a narrative account of the events which gave shape to
this era. Where possible, however, texts have also been ‘read against the grain,’ seeking
to uncover some of the hidden narratives and subaltern voices, recognising all the time
the difficulty, if not impossibility of the task.7 Our history is an engaged history. The work
of missionaries is seen to be ambiguous, contributing to the colonisation of the country
and the defeat of the indigenous peoples – but also to the alternative narrative of Christian
resistance to colonialism. The pages that follow do not present a missionary hagiography,
but neither do they reduce the analysis to the simplistic ‘mission = imperialism’ thesis.
The texts cited cover a far more complex story, one which plumbs both the depths and
heights of domination and resistance. One further mode of engagement has been noted
in the General Introduction. The project provides not only a historical narrative, but also
a theological account of these events. Attention is given to the theologies at play in the
missionary enterprise – again, both for good and ill.
This volume is divided into six chapters. In the first chapter, initial religious encounters
between the settlers and the indigenous inhabitants is traced. While this is the longest of
the historical periods covered (from 1487–1795), it is also the shortest of the chapters.
During this period the fundamental issue has to do with the establishment of the settler
churches and their relationships with their home countries. Apart from the abortive
missionary endeavours of Georg Schmidt at Baviaanskloof, this era sees little by way
of the spread of Christianity among the indigenous or slave populations. It is only with
the arrival of Johannes van der Kemp and other missionaries of the London Missionary
Society in 1799 that Christianity begins to cross colonial boundaries. Their arrival marks
the great era of missions in southern Africa which reaches its apex in the last quarter of
the nineteenth century.
Chapter two, entitled ‘Christianity and African Culture’, addresses the early period of
missions on its multiple frontiers. By 1820, when this early period ends, the missionary
presence is still precariously pitched between success and failure. Although mission
stations are established during this period, their influence among the indigenous peoples
remains relatively insignificant. Within the colony, however, they exercise an influence way
beyond their numbers. This is because the question of the frontier becomes increasingly
pronounced as expansion pressures from the Cape and boer and imperial greed precipitate
growing conflict between settler and indigenous peoples. The missionaries, many of
whom lived either on the contested margins of the colony or, in some instances, beyond
its frontiers, found themselves more often than not caught between the interests of the
peoples among whom they worked and the pressures exerted on them from the colony.
As Europeans themselves, the conflict between these two sets of competing interests cut
right through the consciousness of what they were doing. For the most part they sided
with their colonial heritage and roots, but in some significant instances, their identification
with the indigenous people led them to take extremely unpopular stands against both boer
and British colonial authority.

This conflict is traced through all the remaining chapters on various frontiers. In chapter
two the focus is on the eastern frontier, although other sites of interaction, conflict and
conversion are also considered. Chapter three spans the period from 1820 to 1838. This
period sees the occupation of the Eastern Cape by British settlers, the establishment of
missions outside of the borders of the Colony, and the consolidation of the missionary
enterprise under Dr James Philip of the LMS and Barnabas Shaw of the Wesleyans.
Kuruman, across the Orange River, and Brownlee, Lovedale, and a whole string of
Wesleyan missions across the Kei among the Xhosa, all became centres of missionary,
and sometimes colonial, expansion. This expansion, and African resistance to it, gives this
period its distinctive mark. One further site of significant struggle which marks this period,
was that for the abolition of slavery. In this too, many of the missionaries (especially
those of the LMS) were centrally involved. The emancipation of the slaves was finally
accomplished in 1838.
Entitled ‘Missionaries and Xhosa Defeat’, the fourth chapter spans the period 1834–1870.
It is during this period, when colonial boundaries were being ever‑enlarged and Xhosa
independence was being increasingly subverted through military force, that the lines
between the missionaries became ever more sharply drawn. This chapter traces the
growing conflict between Philip of the LMS and the Wesleyans led by Shaw. Philip,
almost alone, opposed the war against the Xhosa and the annexation of Xhosa territory,
leading a delegation to London to protest the actions of the colonial authorities. Most
missionaries however, welcomed the ‘peace’ attained by the British military action, and
turned against Philip. By the end of the era, however, Philip was dead, the Xhosa defeated
and then brought to destitution by the apocalyptic ‘Cattle Killing’. In the wake of the
defeat, mission work flourished, and the state of poverty and dependence to which the
Xhosa had been brought gave a growing philanthropic dimension to the mission, seen
especially in the building of hospitals.
The final two chapters cover much the same era as chapter four, though concentrating on
two different sites of missionary expansion. In chapter five the focus is on Christianity
across the Orange River, whereas in chapter six the frontier shifts to Natal and Zululand.
While Robert Moffat of Kuruman and Bishop Colenso are central figures to these
respective stories, the broader spread of Christianity in this period is traced through
multiple voices and stories. The volume ends with the colonisation of Natal, Zululand and
the Eastern Cape complete. The discovery of diamonds at Kimberley and gold on the Reef
would see new forces of imperialism unleashed, forces that would bring to completion the
process of dispossession of the indigenous peoples and consolidate white rule throughout
the sub‑continent. It would also mark the fundamental transformation from a rural to an
industrial economy, which is the focus of the companion to this volume, Christianity and
the Modernisation of South Africa.

1 For an account of pre‑colonial Christianity in Africa, see: Adrian Hastings, The Church in Africa
1450‑1950 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994); Elizabeth Isichei, A History of Christianity in Africa: From
Antiquity to the Present (Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 1996).
1 Jean and John Comaroff, Of Revelation and Revolution: Christianity, Colonialism and Consciousness in
South Africa (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1991), vol. 1.
2 Andrew Ross, John Philip (1775‑1851): Missions, Race and Politics in South Africa (Aberdeen:
University of Aberdeen Press, 1986); I. H. Enklaar, Life and Work of Dr. J. Th. van der Kemp 1747‑1811:
Missionary Pioneer and Protagonist of Racial Equality in South Africa (Cape Town and Rotterdam:
A.A. Balkema, 1988); G. Cuthbertson, ‘Van der Kemp and Philip: The Missionary Debate Revisited,’
Missionalia 17: 2 (August 1989): 77‑94.
3 J. Guy, The Heretic: A Study of the Life of John William Colenso 1814‑1883 (Braamfontein: Ravan
Press, 1983); J Guy, The View Across the River (Claremont: David Philip, 2001); Comaroff, Revelation
and Revolution, vol. 1; W. Beinart and C. Bundy, Hidden Struggles in Rural South Africa: Politics and
Popular Movements in the Transkei and Eastern Cape 1890‑1930 (Johannesburg: Ravan Press, 1987);
Belinda Bozzoli, ‘Class, Community and Ideology in the Evolution of South African Society,’ in Class,
Community and Conflict: South African Perspectives, ed. Belinda Bozzoli (Johannesburg: Ravan Press,
4 Janet Hodgson, ‘Ntsikana’s Great Hymn: A Xhosa Expression of Christianity in the Early 19th Century
Eastern Cape,’ Centre for African Studies, University of Cape Town, 1981; Jeff Peires, The Dead
Will Arise (Johannesburg: Ravan Press, 1989). See also C. Crais, ‘Peires and the Past,’ South African
Historical Journal 25 (1991): 236‑40 for a critique of Peires’ failure to give sufficient attention to the
possible impact of Xhosa cosmology on the Cattle Killing.
5 See the notes on the bibliographical genre in the General Introduction.
6 See Gayatri Spivak’s famous essay on the subject ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’, in G. Nelson, and L.
Grossberg eds, Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture (London: Macmillan, 1988), 271‑313.

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