- Historic Sites
Champion Among The Heathen
An American Missionary Caught in South African Conflict 140 Years Ago
February/March 1978 | Volume 29, Issue 2
Champion’s entry for February 12 begins: “Yesterday was the Sabbath, rendered a day of sadness to us by the reception of intelligence which speaks of a treachery unparalleled within my knowledge.” What had happened was that on February 6 Dingaan had lured Retief’s visiting Boers into his kraal without their rifles. Then, at his signal, Zulu warriors had swarmed over them and dragged them away to the Hill of Execution to be killed by clubbing and impalement. Francis Owen, the English missionary, had watched the whole scene in horror. Henry Venable had arrived at the capital just afterward. He saw the Boers’ saddles and rifles but no sign of the Boers. And then he saw the vultures circling the hill where the dead Boers lay.
Dingaan assured Venable that he “meant no harm towards us, the missionaries, that we were his people,” but it was now clear that they would have to leave Zululand. Champion at last concluded that he could not put “a whit of confidence” in Dingaan’s promises. The danger was palpable. Immediately following the massacre, Dingaan had dispatched ten thousand warriors to attack Boer camps, and in the general war that loomed between Boers and Zulus, the missionaries could easily be confused with Boers. Moreover, the Zulus were already behaving menacingly toward the Champions, “brandishing their spears, feeling their keenness, & singing war songs about the white men.”
The Champions were alone amid the Zulus. Their Hottentot servants had gone, and Wilson and Mrs. Venable had returned to Temba after learning of the massacre. The missionaries hoped to withdraw in orderly fashion. They would take care to inform Dingaan of their plans in such a way as not to anger him. Then the missionaries at Temba would fall back first to Ginani, and the whole group would retreat from there.
Aside from insisting on “some fine presents,” Dingaan raised no obstacles, but in the end Champion did not wait for the others. Susanna, he later wrote in a letter, had become “almost deranged.” On February 22 a warning of imminent peril came from Port Natal, and that night one of the Champions’ Hottentot servants returned to Ginani and urged them to leave with him at once. Champion decided it would be “trifling with God’s providence” to remain. They spent the rest of the night packing two ox wagons, and the next day they headed for the Tugela River. It was dark when they reached the river, and George wanted to wait until dawn to cross, but Susanna refused to spend another night in Zululand. So they crossed and spent the night sitting on the other side while a downpour soaked them.
Five days later the Champions reached the Umlazi station, where the Adamses had awaited them, fearing that they were dead. On March 4 word came that the Venables and Dr. Wilson, along with Owen, had safely crossed the Tugela, and soon all the remaining American missionaries, including the Lindleys, who had started a second station in the vicinity of Port Natal, gathered at Umlazi. The war had followed them there. A Zulu attack on the settlement was feared, and Port Natal whites were organizing a counterthrust. On March 25 all the Americans except Daniel Lindley sailed for Port Elizabeth in the Cape Colony aboard a ship that by sheer luck happened to be at Port Natal.
It was Sunday, and just before embarking, Champion put some spare moments to use preaching a sermon on the parable of the prodigal son to a crowd of Africansrefugees from Dingaan-who had gathered near the shore. Lindley was supposed to keep an eye on events, but when the Zulus did raid the settlement a month later, sacking the Umlazi station in the process, he, too, fled by sea.
The board was not discouraged. It printed the missionaries’ accounts of their travails in the Missionary Herald , hoping to inspire new support for the work. In time the fighting ended and Dingaan was overthrown, and some of the original group—the Adamses, the Lindleys and Grout, who had returned from the United States with a new wifewent back to working with the Zulus. Others joined them, and by mid-century the board had a dozen stations in the area. In the 1850's the mission published a Zulu dictionary and a grammar, and in 1883 a translation of the Bible.
Champion had wanted to stay in Africa, but Susanna’s continuing emotional distress forced them to sail for the United States early in 1839. Champion became the pastor of the Congregational church in Dover, Massachusetts. He soon became ill with tuberculosis, however, and he died in 1841 at the age of thirty-one. Susanna died of the same disease five years later.
In Natal today all that remains of the great kraal Champion first looked upon in 1836 is a mound of earth at the spot where Dingaan’s royal compound stood. Dingaan used to ascend the mound to survey his capital. At Ginani there is no trace of the mission houses. American Congregationalists still help support two schools in Natal, but they have fewer missionaries in South Africa than in Champion’s day. One reason for the decline is curbs by the government of South Africa on mission schools and missionaries in general because of the missionaries’ opposition to apartheid.
If Champion were alive, he surely would be eager to return to South Africa, whatever the obstacles. “I love Africa and her sons,” he wrote the board from Port Elizabeth in April, 1838, “and until I see the work absolutely done, I am willing to labor.” The depth of his love cannot be doubted. How wisely he loved is another question.