- Historic Sites
Champion Among The Heathen
An American Missionary Caught in South African Conflict 140 Years Ago
February/March 1978 | Volume 29, Issue 2
It was not an unpleasant existence, at least at the start. The mission was located by a small stream at the foot of hills dotted with Zulu kraals. Away from the warlike atmosphere of the capital, three days distant by foot, the Zulus were generally friendly. They came with pots of milk to exchange for beads. A garden quickly yielded vegetables. To help cultivate it, the missionaries had several Hottentot servants they had brought from the Cape Colony. For meat there was game shot by the Hottentots, such as buffalo and probably impala and other antelope, and the missionaries also seem to have acquired some cattle. In the mild Natal climate, housing could be simple. Champion and Grout built two small houses with walls of stone and mud and roofs made partly of thatch and partly of wagon canvas. In November the Champions moved from their tent into their house, which had three eight-by-ten-foot rooms. Grass mats hung in the windows and doors.
As on the first trip to Zululand, the missionaries had a young white man with them as an interpreter. But Champion, whose scholarly abilities included a talent for languages, was eager to speak for himself. He reported that by December he could preach in Zulu with the aid of notes. A few months later he could hold forth extemporaneously.
Getting someone to listen was another matter. Dingaan had led the missionaries to believe that he would deliver his followers to the mission station, but for six months the “great work” of preaching and teaching got nowhere. Usually only a handful of Zulus showed up for Sabbath services, and sometimes the missionaries had only their servants as a congregation. When pressed to come, the Zulus had endless excuses—they had to frighten locusts from the corn, mourn a death, build a fence for the king. Once two men said they could not attend because they had to strangle a woman the king had ordered executed. The effort to start a school fared no better; no pupils showed up.
It gradually dawned on the missionaries that they did not really have Dingaan’s full backing. The ambivalence toward whites that was evident on the first visit persisted. On the one hand, the king continued to want things the missionaries and other whites possessed. Not long after the missionaries arrived at Ginani, for example, Champion had to hurry to the capital to hear Dingaan’s demand for some blankets they had brought for barter. “The king is inexpressibly pleased with the long shag on the outside of the blankets,” noted Champion, who agreed to let Dingaan have the blankets. The king also continued to press for information on such diverse subjects as steam carriages, weaving, and hat making.
At the same time, Dingaan remained wary of white encroachment on his lands—with good reason, in the light of subsequent history. So, despite his professions of support for the missionaries, he did not pass the word to all his indunas, or captains. One of the indunas in the missionaries’ district—a “tall form wrapped in a shag blanket"—was at best cool and sometimes downright hostile. For a while he ordered the Zulus living around Ginani to shun the station completely, though some defied him and brought milk to the missionaries after dark.
Eventually even Champion, who did not discourage easily, began to despair, and in April of 1837 the whole Ginani contingent, including Susanna and young George, journeyed to the capital to confront Dingaan. The missionaries told him of their problems, and he again promised to support their efforts. Champion’s hopes soared anew. “Truly the king’s heart is in the hands of the Lord,” he wrote. For whatever reason, Dingaan made good on his promise this time, and the situation improved after the missionaries returned to Ginani.
Soon several score pupils were showing up for school. Dingaan himself sent seven little girls from the capital, as well as two servants whom he desired to be taught reading and writing. The classes met in a schoolhouse of reeds. Susanna helped with the instruction, which included sewing for the girls. Working together, the girls pieced a quilt for Dingaan.
A major goal of the missionaries was to reduce the Zulu language to writing. Then they could begin the long-term project of translating the Bible into Zulu, along with the more immediate work of producing teaching materials in the vernacular. A small printing press sent by the board had arrived at the Umlazi station, so that this work would begin shortly, but meanwhile the children could also be taught English. Champion wrote in August: “My scholars. They are learning some English, among other things the days of the week. I gave them each the name of a day, & this morning they come with smiling faces to let me know what is the name of their day, & when it occurs.”
As many as three hundred people now appeared for Sunday services. Champion records that the new school doubled as a church, but the audience often must have spilled out of doors, perhaps gathering in the shade of a large fig tree. Sunday was given over almost entirely to religious functions; just like home, said Champion. In the morning and afternoon there were worship services, and in between was Sunday school. In Sunday school, Champion reported, he was using Thomas H. Gallaudet’s The Child’s Book on the Soul, With Questions, Adapted to the Use of Sunday Schools and of Infant Schools .