- Historic Sites
Champion Among The Heathen
An American Missionary Caught in South African Conflict 140 Years Ago
February/March 1978 | Volume 29, Issue 2
Yet it is doubtful that the Zulus got much from their Sundays at Ginani other than socializing and a close look at the curious strangers. Belief in witchcraft and ancestral spirits was still strong among them. They also laid much stress on ceremony, holding great dances that began in the day and continued into the night by the glow of bonfires, but these were more harvest celebrations or preparations for war than strictly religious observances. Champion, the sober Yankee, deplored the bizarre costumes and the frenzied stamping, shouting, and clapping as “senseless mummery.”
One reason Champion, like many other missionaries, made little headway with the Christian message was that he was so unbending in his attitude toward native ways. He was quick to condemn, and, for all his intellectual attainments, he often made little attempt to understand the Zulus’ customs. One of the noisy celebrations that offended him, for example—the Feast of the First Fruits—had the practical purpose of ensuring that no grain was harvested prematurely. Nakedness seemed an abomination to Champion, and he and Susanna passed out dresses made by “some kind Christian friends at home” to the girls at the mission school. Champion also deplored the Zulus’ polygamy. With differences like these creating such an immense gap, it is little wonder that the Zulus responded to the missionaries’ sermons on the mysteries of creation and salvation by “conversing, smiling, taking snuff, & retiring from the audience.”
For all their narrow-mindedness, however, the missionaries at Ginani did have a warmth and kindness that attracted some of the Zulus. Many came to Ginani seeking treatment for illnesses or wounds. Generally the missionaries could do little, said Champion, but once they bound up a man’s spear wound and he recovered and was grateful. Champion walked to nearby villages to talk with the people, and he was known and liked. He described such an excursion in August of 1837. At one village he was welcomed with “Sakubona, Champion” ("We see thee, Champion") and the women pressed around, studied his coat, and asked him questions about his family while he tried to tell them of the deliverance of the Israelites from Egypt. At another stop he dropped his Bible”& one picked it up, saying, ‘Give it to him, he will forget it.’ ‘No’ sd another ‘would he forget his hand?’”
This must have been Champion’s happiest time in Zululand, but the troubles that would send him fleeing had already begun.
The members of the interior party had taken until July of 1836 to assemble at the site of their station, almost as long as Champion had taken to reach Ginani. The ox-wagon trek over the desertlike interior plateau had been arduous, and there were long pauses along the way at English mission stations. Two children were born, one to Jane Wilson. When they at last reached their destination, a place called Mosega, “they were come to the Edge of Beyond,” says the biographer of one of the members of the party, a clergyman named Daniel Lindley. Mosega was 140 miles west of where the city of Johannesburg now stands, in an area then largely unexplored. It was less than thirty miles from the spot where David Livingstone would build his first mission station eight years later.
The tribesmen in the vicinity turned out not to be Zulus. They were the Matabele, a nation that had grown up around one of the groups driven out of Zululand. But the missionaries at Mosega never really got started on their work with the Matabele because they were hit by two disasters in quick succession. First, in September of 1836, came a sickness—apparently rheumatic fever-that produced high temperatures and such severe stiffness and swelling of the joints that the slightest movement was agony. One by one all the adults in the party except Dr. Wilson fell ill, and he had to nurse them and care for the two babies by himself. On September 18 his wife, Jane, the girl who had wondered what to wear in Africa, died. The others survived, but they had not recovered completely when the second disaster struck in January of 1837.
The missionaries were caught between two historical forces—literally. One force was the Boers, the farmers of predominantly Dutch descent who in 1836 had begun their great trek north from the Cape Colony in a quest for more land and freedom from British strictures on the treatment of their black retainers. The other force was the black tribesmen—in this case the Matabele-who did not want to yield their land to the whites. The Matabele had made two raids on small groups of Boers, and on January 17 more than a hundred Boers rode to Mosega to retaliate. The missionaries ducked as Boer bullets flew through their windows. When the shooting stopped, four hundred Matabele lay dead and, said Daniel Lindley, “our field of labor” was “an awful desolation.” The missionaries decided they had no alternative but to join the Boers when they withdrew to the south.
Word of the affair, along with the added news that the interior party was now making for Port Natal, filtered through to Zululand in May of 1837. Characteristically, Champion saw the bright side; it was simply another case of God working in mysterious ways. “Indeed would we rejoice in having this accession to our number, & thank God for what his Providence indicates by it, that he is about to give the land to his Son,” he commented.
Dingaan surely saw things differently. He had a new chain of events to ponder. White missionaries had come to the Matabele. In their tracks had come armed whites to attack the Matabele.