From the book: The Role of the Missionaries in conquest by Nosipho Majeke

The Missionaries and the Chiefs

THE FULL EXTENT of the political role of the missionaries, in the subjugation of the Bantu tribes becomes apparent during the twenties thirties and forties of the 19th century. It is not enough they acted as peaceful forerunners paving the way for the governor and the military. The participated in a very positive sense in conquest.

For invaders the problem at this period was to destroy the power of the chief as military leader of his people. The breakdown of tribalism meant first the removal of the tribal head, the chief or chieftainship. Every effort had to be directed to this end. During the period of military conquest, therefore, the missionary had a very particular part to play, distinct from that which he was to play later. Every step that brought a section of the people nearer to the missionary, every idea out of the new system that was insinuated into their minds, served to undermine the authority of the chief, and therefore weakened his position as the military head of his people. The mission station itself was the spearhead of that attack on the authority of the chief, for there the Christian converts put up their dwelling and were separated off from the rest of the tribe. Allegiance to the missionary undermined allegiance to the chief. Of course, this process took place gradually, insidiously. The missionary came as a man of peace: he came as a “friend” It was much later that the chiefs themselves became aware of what was happening and put their finger on the fact that the missionary constituted a danger to their position.

"They mean to steal our people," said the chiefs “and become magistrates and chiefs themselves” .

At first, then, the chief merely tolerated the presence of the missionary, to whom, as to anyone else, lie granted leave to occupy a portion of his land. He was thus disarmed at the outset. Judging from a document like the Diary of the Rev. Owen, who preached the foreign doctrines under the sceptical eye of Dingane, the Zulu chief, the Christian dogma was dismissed as unacceptable to reason. It was rare for a chief himself to become converted. But as the contacts between the tribe and the foreigners increased, he found it more and more necessary to rely on the missionary as go-between and interpreter. He had to rely on the very agent of imperialism whose task it was to undermine his authority. From this it was easy to pass to the next stage. As the ferocity of the military invasion increased, the chief in desperation was more willing believe that the missionary could help him to recover his lost territory. Here we see the beginning of the role of the liberal as the conciliator between oppressor and oppressed. The missionary in actual fact identified himself with the government, but he was careful not to do so to the chief himself. He came as his "friend" who was willing to intercede with the Government on the chief's behalf. He protested a great deal on behalf of his protégé . But the more the chief relied on the missionary, the more surely was he betrayed into the hands of the Government.

The missionaries for their part seem to have had no difficulty in being at one and the same time God's ambassadors and Government go betweens. Quite as a matter of course they played a political role in the more obvious sense. There was constant communication between them and the Governor and the local military commanders. From their position of vantage in tribal territory they proceeded to map out the surrounding district, gather information about surrounding tribes, find out the customs of the people, and pass on this information where it was most useful. Thus they not only charted unknown territory for the use of the military, but they communicated their knowledge of the Africans to influential parliamentarians in London, the Secretary for the Colonies and the rest. Therefore it was natural that the Government made use of them when it came to drawing up "treaties" and evolving “Native" policy. The missionaries prided themselves on knowing the Africans better than anyone else. Once more we see here the beginnings of that tradition which for a hundred years and more the liberals have kept alive and which is only now breaking down as the eyes of the people are opened to their true function. The liberals have always specialized in "knowing" the Africans and in this sense have been the Government's most useful agents.

Of course we know that this claim on the part of the missionary to an "intimate knowledge" of the Africans was a false one, often compounded of arrogance, ignorance and bigotry. It was true only in so far as they were in a position to gather information useful to the Government and at the same time, having been accepted by the chiefs as intermediaries, could appear as their spokesman. On the other hand it was they who helped to build up a picture of the Africans as a people who were morally inferior; "irreclaimable thieves," "treacherous, ungrateful savages," etc., were missionary epithets handed on to headquarters in Government reports. In their position first as assistants in evolving "Native" policy and then as the chief instruments in educating the Africans into the new system, they reinforced the subsequent policy of trusteeship, of imposing special and separate treatment on all Non-Europeans.

At the period of which we speak (the thirties of last century) it is understandable that a man like the Rev. William Boyce, Wesleyan missionary and the Governor's confidential adviser in place of Dr. Philip, should make the following boast:

"Nothing can be effected without the hearty co-operation of the missionaries, but, with this, no obstacles are too difficult to overcome."

By this time the tentacles of missionary activity were spread through out Southern Africa. A glance at a map will indicate how far they had penetrated. The Moravians and the London Missions had been followed by many others, Wesleyan, Scots, the Rhenish and Berlin missions, the French and, finally, the American mission. Both the Rev. Williams and the Rev. Brownlee of the Glasgow Missionary Society had added their efforts to those of the L.M.S. missionaries in breaking down the resistance of the Xhosa chief, Ngqika. The Rhenish mission concentrated on the Namaqua and the vaHerero ("Hereros" ) in the far north-west beyond the Orange River. The Berlin mission added its quota of missionaries operating among the maXhosa and founded a mission station at Bethel; they also attached themselves to the Koranas beyond the Orange River, having obtained land from the Griqua Chief, Adam Kok II, who was himself under the influence of the Wesleyan missionaries.

East of them the French missionaries, on Dr. Philip's advice, ingratiated themselves with Moshoeshoe, the great chief of the baSotho, and the Americans, also at the instigation of the superintendent of the London Missions, attempted to get a footing both among the maZulu situated between the Drakensberg Mountains and the East coast, and among the maNdebele (Matabele), a branch of the maZulu who had broken away from Tshaka and settled further inland on the High Veld. Dingane, the Zulu chief, however, had as little time for the Rev. Owen of the American mission as he had for a handful of arrogant Trek Boers under Retief. The maNdebele, also were averse to foreign doctrines.

Of all these missionaries the Wesleyans were the most remarkable for their thoroughness and came to be regarded by the Government as its most efficient agents. Their first mission was to the Namaqua in the extreme west of the Colony, whence they crossed the Orange River into Great Namaqualand. But their most intensive operations were among the Bantu tribes, both in the east and in the north. Under the leadership of the Rev. William Shaw, a most zealous organiser, they proceeded to entrench themselves systematically beside every chief. The Rev. Shaw mapped out a chain of mission stations in the south-east from the Zuurveld (now Albany) to Port Natal, a distance of 400 miles, and we shall see later how persistently they carried out the tactics of "divide and rule" in this region. Beyond the Orange River they became the political rivals””we use the word advisedly””of the London Missionary Society among the Griquas and played their part in hastening the dismemberment of that nation. Still further north they gained a footing among the baTswana (Bechuana) tribes and soon followed the French missionaries into the land of Moshoeshoe.

With this general survey of how the missionaries were strategically placed throughout Southern Africa, we must now give a more detailed picture of how the position of the chief as military leader of his people was undermined It was not enough to place a missionary beside him; the influence of the Missionary had to be reinforce by other means. The plan for doing this was largely evolved by the Superintendent of the London Missionary Society, Dr. Philip, who, at this time, was political adviser to the Governor.

"We must be the masters"

The British were aware that they had no easy task in subduing the Bantu tribes. The maXhosa, who were in the front line of attack, were preparing to put up a renewed resistance. In the east and in the north the chiefs Dingane and Mzilikazi had no fear of the White man; Dingane knew the value of the White man's weapons and unceremoniously dismissed the missionary when he couldn't get a sufficient number of guns out of him. Moshoeshoe, the most resolute and sagacious of them all, constituted a formidable barrier to the invaders, both Boer and British.

Through his numerous correspondents. Dr. Philip, superintendent of the London Mission, was aware of these things. He did not make the mistake of belittling those who had to be conquered. And with his imperialistic outlook, he saw further than military governors and commanders. This determined his line of approach to the problem. One of his correspondents, a merchant of Uitenhage, had summarised the position in a very apt phrase. This Dr. Philip quoted and fully endorsed in his communications with Buxton, his supporter in the British Parliament:

"We must be the masters, but rule as we do in India."

India””England's richest colonial possession, and to this day in its so-called state of independence, rent asunder as a result of England's consistent policy of "divide and rule" carried out over a period of two hundred years. Let us see what Philip meant by this statement.

"We must be the masters." The missionary superintendent elaborated this point when he said on another occasion: "Annex up to the tropics." He had no doubt as to the tightness of British conquest. What he feared was the spirit of resistance in the chiefs goaded by the sheer ferocity of the military machine. He had more subtle methods of subjugation. Failing outright annexation””and a Government which had plenty of unofficial agents to carry on the job was not yet prepared for the expense involved in annexation””Philip proposed making treaties with the chiefs with the specific purpose of undermining their position in preparation for outright annexation of their territory.

The first step was to persuade the chiefs, through the missionaries, to accept the "friendship" of the British Government, to accept its "protection." The next step was to subsidise the chief, i.e., pay him a fixed salary. This was a revolutionary step, for it meant making him a paid servant of the Government, accepting payment in the coin of the new economic system. This was what Dr. Philip meant when he emphasised the necessity of "ruling as we do in India," namely, through paid chiefs. It was the very cornerstone of the policy which he, as the self-appointed political advise of the Government, proposed. And there was no doubt as to the purpose behind that policy. "Had a few of the chiefs been subsidized," he said on one occasion, "by having small salaries paid to them, we might by- this time have had the affairs of Kaffirland in our own hands." The plan involved the undermining of the authority of the chief by placing beside him a resident agent (as the British representative was called).

This agent, ostensibly his guide and adviser, was later to fill the position of magistrate and gradually usurp his functions as head of his tribe. As the magistrate's authority grew, so that of the chief diminished. Again, Dr. Philip left no doubt as to the purpose behind this step. Recommending to the Governor the appointment of these resident agents beside each of the Xhosa chiefs, he wrote:

"A total expenditure (on agents) of even £3,000 would cost much less than armies."

The joint effect of a missionary on the right hand of the chief and resident agent on his left, was to reinforce those elements of disruption in the tribal system that already existed through the teachings of the missionary. And when subsequently the imposition of a magistrate over the chief was a settled point of "Native" policy, it was perfectly natural that he should be a missionary or the son of a missionary. For did they not claim to "know" the African?

There is no doubt that Dr. Philip contributed much to evolving this scheme of subjugation which proposed to emasculate the power of the chief. Others took up the idea and elaborated upon it, but he may well claim to be its begetter. The Governor, D'Urban, put the plan into practice about the middle thirties, but a certain discussion that took place between a military man, a missionary and a liberal, reveals them working out the problem nearly ten years before that time. On one of his frequent tours of the country, Dr. Philip, accompanied by Thomas Pringle (subsequently secretary of the anti-Slavery Society) discussed with the Dutchmen, Andries Stockenstrom, the problem of subduing the African tribes and civilizing them, i.e., bringing them into the new economic system.

Stockenstrom (as he records in his Autobiography) emphasised the necessity of co-operation between the Church and the Government.

"These two forces combined," he said, "will not civilize unless they make the Native chiefs the principal levers in the operations on their people. ... If we gain the confidence of the chiefs, they, with the power of the Government and the efforts of the missionaries, will influence the masses. . . .
"A powerful Government like that of England, with equitable treaties . . . will soon have the chiefs so completely under its influence that its word will be law without appearing to be so."

It is not at all incongruous that he who talked of "gaining the confidence of the chiefs," was to drive Ngqika's son, Maqoma, out of the Kat River valley and cover up this act of aggression with the hypocrisy typical of his adopted countrymen, the English. The apparent contradiction disappears when we understand the common purpose behind these two methods, namely, the subjugation of the African tribes.

The focal point of attack on the part of the military was the chief. This was no less true of the missionary. But Dr. Philip had no doubt as to the superiority of his method. The purely military phase of conquest looked to be long, costly and wasteful, for it delayed the initiation of the new order of society. This larger perspective led the missionary superintendent to condemn the plunder and pillage methods of the military forces, the "Reprisal" system of cattle-raids, which had the effect of stiffening the resistance of the chiefs. He condemned it in no uncertain terms. Once more he prepared reports and memoranda for the London Missionary Society in London, with instructions to communicate certain passages to his supporters in the British Parliament, particularly Buxton. As usual the liberal is performing the useful function of collecting information useful to the Government. No sooner had the new Governor, Major-General Sir Benjamin D'Urban, assumed office, than he received a despatch from the Colonial Secretary, Lord Gleneig, a son of one of those "Philanthropists," whose colonial policy was directed to the best interests of the British industrialists. In this despatch the Governor was instructed to "cultivate an intercourse with the chiefs of the Kaffir tribes," by stationing "prudent and intelligent men among them as Government agents, and to consider the practicability of annual presents or salaries for the chiefs." Subsequently D'Urban explained that:

"I was well aware that the substance of that Despatch had originated in the London Mission within the Colony. . . . And Dr. Philip was my agent for introducing the system which I contemplated in accordance with the Despatch."

We have since become well-acquainted with this phenomenon of seemingly independent and "friendly" advisers being employed as the best agents for bringing Government policies to the Non-Europeans.

On the strength of Dr. Philip's role at this time, herrenvolk historians have depicted him as the Friend of the Africans, carrying out the same humanitarian principles that actuated his efforts in "liberating" the Khoikhoin. But again we must reject the falsification of history that obscures political expediency with the cloak of humanitarianism. The Rev. Boyce, who succeeded Philip as the Governor's political adviser, was nearer the mark when he commented that "The Kaffirs entertained very extravagant expectations as to the good to be anticipated from Dr. Philip's advocacy," and added acrimoniously: "The Wesleyans have done at least as much as those whose names have been trumpeted forth as the friends and saviours of the aborigines" ””meaning the "Philip Party," including Philip and the liberal, Fairbairn, his son-in-law. Of course we are not concerned with petty quarrels between missionaries, all of whom were serving a common end. But there is point in the Rev. Boyce's comment on his rival.

The subjugation of the chiefs was a matter of historical necessity, just as the "liberation" of the Khoikhoin had been. As the great Conciliator of the chiefs, the missionary superintendent was acting consistently as the agent of a Christian capitalist civilization.

It was in the role of benefactor, then, that Dr. Philip was able to approach the Xhosa chiefs Maqoma, Tyhali and Botomane, as a preliminary to a new treaty which would do something to mitigate the barbarities of the Reprisal system. "I have resolved to carry the whole of the system you have recommended into effect," wrote the Governor, D'Urban, to Philip. It was agreed that the missionary superintendent would act as the Governor's forerunner and gather information as to the temper of the chiefs. Philip wanted his visit to appear unofficial and gave it out that he came simply as their "friend." The chiefs, however, saw him as one who had a great deal of influence with the Governor and not unnaturally assumed that he would he help them to recover their land which was to them the vital it is hardly necessary to say that this was very far from the missionary intention.

The chiefs expressed themselves freely to their “friend” . With eloquent anger Chief Maqoma pointed out the injustices of seizing land as a reprisal for so-called cattle-theft.

"The Governor," he said "cannot be so unreasonable as to make our existence as a nation depend on a circumstance which is beyond the reach of human power”¦ You sanction robbery by the patrol system. After having taken our country from us you shut us up to starvation, you threaten us with destruction for the thefts of those to whom you have left no choice but to steal or die by famine” .


The chiefs were obviously dissatisfied with the nature of this reply. Pointing to the lands that bore the marks of recent devastations, Chief Maqoma replied:

"We have had these promises for fifteen years."

Whereupon the missionary spoke as follows:

"If they (the soldiery) drive away your people at the point of the bayonet, advise them to go over the Keiskamma peaceably.

If they come and take away your cattle, suffer them to do it without resistance. If they burn your huts, allow them to do so. If they shoot your men, bear it till the Governor comes and then present your grievances, and I am convinced you will have no occasion to repent of having followed my advice."

Dr. Philip was very confident of the results of his pacification of the chiefs. While he waited at the Kat River Settlement for D'Urban’s arrival, he betook himself to a great deal of writing, setting down his ideas on "Native" policy to Buxton and others. In a letter to his wife he made the interesting comment: "I am now ready for him (the Governor) with a grip of the whole situation." To Miss Buxton, to whom he often communicated things he wished to be passed on to her father and thence to the British Parliament, he wrote: "I consider my work in this place done. Nothing is left to accident I can leave the frontier, should the Governor not come at this time without caring whether I am at a public meeting of the chiefs or not.

The principle of my scheme (and that is all I care for) is no longer an experiment that may fail, but a law that must be enforced. God commands it. The thing is practicable. ... I stand as on a rock.
British imperialism owes much to men of such character.

To the Governor he pressed home the necessity of making a treat with the Griqua chief, Waterboer, on the northern frontier, where the Trek Boers were seizing land, but were unlikely””he feared””to be able to protect either themselves or the Colony from an attack by the Ndebele chief, Mzilikazi. As Waterboer was a particular protégé of the missionaries, Philip considered him a good subject for the first application of the new system of treaties on the Indian model, i.e., ruling through paid chiefs. Thus, in 1833 Waterboer was brought to Cape Town and went through the formalities signing a treaty with the British Government. Its primary purpose was a military one, making the Griqua nation a buffer state between the Europeans and the Bantu beyond the Orange River.

While Dr. Philip was formulating "Native" policy in what he considered the best interests of the British Government, other agents of Imperialism were pursuing their more violent methods. Colonel Somerset, who was in charge of military operations, was particularly active with his commandos during the two or three months following Philip's conciliatory (but secret) visit to the Xhosa chiefs. Instead of the new order that had been promised then the missionary there was still more ruthlessness. Even a military officer expressed his "utter amazement" when, on entering territory near the Tyhume River, he found the whole landscape ablaze. On asking Colonel Somerset the reason for it, that worthy replied that he was expected to keep the country clear and this was the most energetic method he could think of””by smoking them out. The situation was working up for a climax; crops were burned and the people were faced with famine; if an African lodged a complaint about stolen cattle, he was seized as a prisoner; a chiefs envoy bringing in stolen cattle (which it was the chief's duty by law to recover) would be shot. In despair, Chief Maqoma sent a letter to Dr. Philip through the local missionary.

"When shall I and my people be able to get rest?" said the chief. "Both I and my brother, Tyhali, have almost no more country for our cattle to live in. ... I beg the favour of your enquiring at the Governor for me the reason of all these things."

In all likelihood the Xhosa were being deliberately goaded into attack as a pretext for the further seizure of land. The frontier farmers, who, as well as Dr. Philip, were waiting for the Governor to arrive, made no secret of their expectation of further grants of land from him. It needed but the wounding of a chief to give the immediate signal for war””though indeed a war of destruction had been waging against the inhabitants of Southern Africa for more than a hundred and fifty years. The Xhosa chiefs, Maqoma, Tyhali and Botomane, led an attack into the Colony; farms and traders' stores were burned. But it is noteworthy that not a single mission station was touched. The Africans drew a marked distinction between the missionaries and the rest of the Whites.

The assegai had to yield to the gun. Colonel Harry Smith, who commanded the British soldiery, drove back the Xhosa and laid their land waste. But the chiefs found an impregnable stronghold in the Mathole fastnesses and from there carried on a guerilla war-fare which baffled the invaders. A significant epilogue to the missionary superintendent's "peace" negotiations with the Xhosa chiefs a few months previous was his action on the outbreak of war. He immediately informed the Governor that he would send messages to all the missionary institutions, calling the Khoikhoin to defend the Colony against the Xhosa.
This was done and the Khoikhoin were armed.