Back in 1802, the establishment of a missionary village on a deserted farm near Algoa Bay, now Port Elizabeth, became a thorn in the side of the colonial authorities.
Bethelsdorp, established for a group of about 600 indigenous Khoikhoi people by Johannes Theodorus van der Kemp of the London Missionary Society, was seen by local farmers as a hotbed of rebellious behaviour by indentured workers.
Said workers saw things differently. For them, Bethelsdorp was a refuge from a harsh colonial system that thrived on their labour but often lacked qualities like compassion, charity and a willingness to pay a fair wage.
The Khoikhoi took to the fiery Van der Kemp version of Christianity with a fervour that must have at times amazed the missionary and his colleague, James Read.
Not satisfied with simply providing a place of safety for runaway Khoikhoi, Van der Kemp began teaching his congregation to read and write. The Cape governor, Jan Willem Janssens, thought this was nonsense. He forbade the missionaries to expose their flock to European-style education.
Read married a Khoikhoi lady in 1803. She was described by Van der Kemp as a ‘young Hottentot girl, the inventory of whose earthly possessions are two sheep skins and a string of beads to ornament her earthly body’. Three years later, the 60-year-old Van der Kemp married a 17-year-old former slave from Madagascar. Both missionaries were deemed to have crossed the ‘colour bar’ and gone ‘native’.
Bethelsdorp, back then, was a dusty little settlement, almost treeless and with little water. It was described by travellers as a gloomy collection of about 50 little huts with a small, thatched clay hut in the middle acting as a church.
Van der Kemp and Read lived like the Khoikhoi, a great irritation to the local magistrate and military commander, Jacob Cuyler. Over the years, their mutual animosity grew fierce, with Van der Kemp standing up for Khoikhoi rights and Cuyler trying to rid his colony of Bethelsdorp and its meddling missionaries.
Today, Bethelsdorp is a vibrant suburb of Port Elizabeth, where many of the Van der Kemp-era descendants still live. The Van der Kemp Memorial Church is still very much the spiritual centre of Bethelsdorp. Nearby are the almshouses, built in 1822, and inside the church itself you will find Van der Kemp’s original Dutch Bible, believed to be the oldest in South Africa.