Champion Among The Heathen

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Dingaan did not turn completely against the missionaries overnight. Attendance at the Ginani school and at church held up well as the summer of 1837 ended. Moreover, in September he gave two of Champion’s brethren newly arrived from Mosega—Dr. Wilson and the Reverend Henry Venable—permission to build a station between Ginani and the capital. An English missionary, the Reverend Francis Owen, was allowed to live at the capital itself, and he began to tutor Dingaan in reading and writing.

But the situation soon became more ominous. Dingaan’s concern over white intentions mounted in October when Boers began descending one of the passes of the Drakensberg, the escarpment separating the interior plateau from Natal. Whites at Port Natal heard rumors that Dingaan was planning to attack their settlement. Around November 1 an induna came to Ginani and remonstrated with Champion for encouraging the people to refrain from labor on the Sabbath; he asked how the women could get the digging done in the gardens if they rested one day in seven. Congregations dropped to a handful again. Late in November, when Francis Owen tried to preach at the capital, he was ridiculed by Dingaan and told not to do it again.

Then Champion received an alarming message from an English missionary at Port Natal. One of Dingaan’s indunas had fled there for protection because, said the induna, he had angered the king by balking at an order to kill all the whites in the area. Champion was dubious about the story, and it seems more likely that the order was aimed at a party of Boers rather than all whites. In any case, Dingaan was sufficiently displeased to order the death of the induna’s followers. Many lived near Ginani, and so in mid-December George and Susanna Champion found themselves in the midst of slaughter.

The victims, wrote Champion, were “taken & beaten to death by the clubs of the executioners, & left in the fields a prey to the wolves [hyenas or jackals] & carrion birds.” Joseph Kirkman, an interpreter staying with Champion at the time, recalled long afterward: “Many women were taken captive, brought back and put to death. These were brought passed [sic] the mission house more to taunt the Missionary, and to show him his helplessness to save them, and also to harrow his feelings.”

Champion does not come off very well in this incident. He protests a bit too much that the need to avoid interference in Dingaan’s affairs left him powerless, forcing him to turn out two women who hid in his house and to ignore a youth who ran by crying, “Champion, help me.” Kirkman, who was still in his teens, says he managed to save a mother and child who had only been stunned by the executioners’ clubs.

On the other hand, nothing Champion could have done would have stopped the killing, and it would have been only human for him to be concerned lest any action of his imperil Susanna and their son. Susanna was already a cause for worry. Champion says little about personal matters in his journal, but it is obvious that Zululand had been hard on his wife. An entry for January 20, 1837, mentions in passing the death of an infant, their second son. The isolation of Ginani must have weighed more heavily on Susanna than on Champion, who was immersed in his work. Mail was so slow and infrequent that the latest news from home was often more than a year old. When letters did come they might well include a stern notice from the board in Boston that missionaries, who received no salaries, would have to watch expenses more closely. The Champions must have felt more alone than ever after Aldin Grout left Ginani at the end of August on a journey that would take him back to America with his own young daughter and that of Dr. Wilson, both of whom had been left to be cared for in the Cape Colony. Susanna’s nerves had worn raw. Now she had every reason to be thoroughly frightened as well.

George Champion was still not ready to give up. He viewed the recent adversity “more in the light of a trial to our faith, patience & hope, than as any thing which portends evil to the cause of our dear master in this region,” according to a letter dated January 2, 1838. He still found time to worry about fine points of Zulu orthography. But later in January, when he walked from village to village to preach to those who were now avoiding Ginani on Sundays, he was coolly received. ”‘What is this talk,’ they say, ‘which declares of one greater than Dingaan?’” Soon the little girls in their new dresses melted away from the school.

Champion’s journal chronicles his last days in Zululand in February, 1838. On February 2 he heard that a party of Boers had arrived at Dingaan’s kraal. This was a group of seventy armed farmers led by a man named Piet Retief. Retief wanted a treaty with Dingaan giving the Boers land. He had stopped at Ginani two months earlier, and Champion had warned him against provoking Dingaan by visiting him with a body of armed men.

On February 6 the Champions’ son was taken ill, and George sent a message to Dr. Wilson at Temba, as the new station was called, asking him to come. On February 9 Wilson and Mrs. Venable arrived at Ginani. Henry Venable had gone to the capital to ask Dingaan why one of his indunas had ordered the Zulus to shun the missionaries at Temba.