- Historic Sites
Champion Among The Heathen
An American Missionary Caught in South African Conflict 140 Years Ago
February/March 1978 | Volume 29, Issue 2
On January 16, 1836, the Reverend George Champion of Connecticut stood on a hill in Zululand and gazed down at a vast fenced oval enclosing almost two thousand grass huts. It was the kraal of Dingaan, king of the Zulus. Dingaan was a tyrant who ruled the most powerful black empire in southern Africa. Champion, a gentle, scholarly man of twenty-five who had graduated from a Congregational seminary a year and a half earlier, was a missionary. With two other young American missionaries, he had sailed up the Indian Ocean coast from the Cape Colony and then tramped inland more than 150 miles beside an ox wagon to ask Dingaan’s permission to preach the gospel in his land.
The missionaries spent a week in the capital of Zululand. Accompanied by their interpreter, a white youth from the Cape, they presented the tall, ponderous king with gifts-an umbrella, a razor, a tin trunk with a lock, handkerchiefs, and quantities of the white and yellow beads that only royalty could wear. Champion explored the town. He watched the making of ox-hide shields and brass ornaments, and he looked on disapprovingly as the Zulu warriors whiled away their time draining calabashes of native beer. When Dingaan took the missionaries on a tour of the cluster of big, beehive-shaped huts that constituted his private quarters, Champion counted about two hundred women. While a few were servants, the others, as he wrote discreetly in his journal, “evidently filled a different sphere.”
King Dingaan’s wide-ranging curiosity about white civilization was particularly aroused by a small lathe the missionaries had brought as an example of the mechanical marvels wrought by Christian nations. They demonstrated it by turning a snuffbox, and Dingaan subsequently tried his hand several times. He “succeeded very well for a beginner” except for one occasion when the elaborate trappings of beads and monkey tails that he wore dangled over the lathe and interfered with his work.
Initially, the missionaries met with less interest when they broached the purpose of their visit: the establishment of a mission. But on the last day Dingaan consented to discuss the matter. “Some short account of God’s word was given, & our object briefly stated,” Champion recorded. “A Testament was shown as a part of God’s word. He wished to know how many leaves it contained, & was surprised to hear us tell without counting them.” Dingaan also asked the missionaries to read from the Bible. This reflected his interest not so much in its content as in reading and writing. The idea that a man’s words could be captured on paper fascinated the Zulus, and the missionaries proposed to teach the people to read and write as well as to know God.
Even so, Dingaan and his counselors were uneasy. White traders and hunters had already settled at Port Natal (now Durban, South Africa), the starting point for the missionaries’ overland journey. Although Dingaan liked to exchange elephant tusks with these English settlers for such items as the elegant armchair he used while conducting business, he did not want them to make their homes in Zululand. But at last he announced that he would allow the missionaries to live just inside Zululand, at a site a few miles north of the Tugela River, the southern boundary of Dingaan’s country. “If you succeed I will bring the school right into the heart of my dominions,” he declared. “I will learn myself, & set an example to my people.”
As the missionaries departed to collect the other members of their party, Champion was exultant over Dingaan’s decision: “We left him feeling that unless we were greatly deceived the Lord had given to us to win the heart of the Heathen King.”
Dingaan’s heart was to prove elusive. Moreover, the missionaries were to become entangled in the collision between black tribesmen and whites making their first great thrust into the interior of southern Africa. But through all the trials, even when it appeared that he would be doing well to escape from Zululand with his life, Champion never wavered in his faith in the ultimate triumph of the kingdom of God.
Such faith was the hallmark of the small army of men and women caught up in the missionary movement in the United States in the nineteenth century. They held an unshakable conviction that they possessed a message of inestimable value and that if the millions dwelling in darkness could only hear it, they would seize upon it. Armed with little else, they sailed off to strange lands to speak in strange tongues to people who often did not have the slightest idea of what they were talking about. They were always audacious and sometimes foolish, and they failed to achieve their goal, which, as countless missionary sermons and tracts put it, was nothing less than the “conversion of the world.” Yet they left their mark.
The tradition that they followed started toward the end of the eighteenth century, when fervor to spread Christianity gripped Protestantism in both Europe and America. In the United States the Congregationalists, the Baptists, the Presbyterians, the Methodists, and the Episcopalians were active in the mission field by the 1820's. They found targets close at hand in unchurched frontiersmen and Indian tribes, but they quickly reached across the oceans as well. Thousands of local missionary societies sprang up, and people flocked to three-hour sermons by missionaries returned from exotic lands. Sunday-school classes studied maps showing where the heathen lived, and young men and women who had never traveled farther than the county seat prayed to be sent to China or Africa. By the end of the century, more than four thousand Americans, representing some seventy organizations, were working abroad as missionaries.
The sponsor of George Champion’s mission to Zululand was the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, founded in 1810 by New England Congregationalists. It was the first organization to send missionaries overseas from the United States. By the time Champion and his colleagues reached Dingaan in 1836, its missionaries were already established in India, China, Ceylon, Hawaii, and throughout the Middle East.
The board began recruiting for its mission to southern Africa late in 1833, after an official of the London Missionary Society wrote from Cape Town that the “Zoolahs” offered “a noble field for missionary labor.” The letter and an appeal for volunteers were published in the board’s monthly organ, the Missionary Herald . Champion, then in his final year at Andover Theological Seminary in Massachusetts, promptly applied to the board’s Boston headquarters and was accepted.
From a portrait painted just before he left for Africa, it is difficult to imagine Champion in the bush. Dressed in a highcollared black suit and a high white stock, he appears a pale, delicate young man. He was, in reality, frail and often sick. Nor would anything in his upbringing seem to have fitted him for rough living. He came from a wealthy landowning family in the village of Westchester in southeastern Connecticut, and he grew up in comfortable, even luxurious, surroundings. Before entering the seminary, he mingled at Yale with the sons of other prosperous families, and when he first broached the idea of going to Africa, his paternal grandfather, who played a large role in raising Champion after his father died when he was a boy, tried but failed to dissuade him by offering to make a large contribution to the American Board instead.
Champion had a bent for science; some of his notes on the geology of the Cape of Good Hope were published by an American scientific journal after his arrival in South Africa. But it was obvious early that his intense religious faith was to dominate his life. At Yale, where residents of rooms adjoining his could hear him praying late into the night, he decided to become a clergyman. At the seminary his missionary zeal was fueled by a student organization called the Society of Inquiry on the Subject of Missions to the Heathen. If he had any doubts about getting along in Africa, his zeal overrode them.
From the perspective of a more skeptical age, Champion’s zeal would also seem to have overridden common sense to a considerable degree after his arrival in Africa, making him oblivious when hostility began to mount among the Zulus to his preaching and to the very presence of whites. But even though his faith bordered on fanaticism, there is something appealing about him. Like his fellow missionaries, Champion viewed the world as a sinful place, but unlike some of them he did not go around as if the weight of all its sin were bearing down on him alone. “Oh ‘tis a happiness to be a missionary in Africa,” he exclaimed midway through his first year, and even when things turned darker, he never gave way to self-pity. Moreover, although he constantly reminded himself that Africa was “in a moral view a land of darkness,” he was thrilled to be there. The head-high grass, trackless as the sea, that parted before the ox wagons, or the sight of an African village on a hillside—the prized cattle in a central pen, the women making neat stacks of pumpkins and firewood by their huts, the cultivated green patches beyond the outer fenceimpressed him deeply.
Champion was one of six men appointed by the board to go to southern Africa. Three of the others were also clergymen. The remaining two were doctors, in keeping with the board’s view that medicine, like education, was part of the process of uplift. The other missionaries were perhaps less bookish than Champion and less out of place shouldering an ox wagon over the crest of a hill or fording a river where crocodiles lurked, but they also proved less acute observers of the African scene.
Missionaries’ wives were customarily appointed assistant missionaries, and all six men were married when they departed for Africa. Champion married Susanna Lamed of Webster, Massachusetts, shortly before leaving. While Susanna shared her husband’s faith, she did not share his blindness to the dangers that were to close in on them in Zululand. For her, Africa was to become a terrifying ordeal. But as the great adventure was about to begin, her thoughts may well have been similar to those of another young wife in the party, Jane Wilson. Jane, a sweet-faced girl from Richmond who was the bride of Dr. Alexander Wilson and who was never to return from Africa, wrote a friend that she would be happy if she could rescue even “one of the females of Africa” from “ignorance, superstition, degradation, and wretchedness.” But she also wondered what to wear. She decided that silk dresses would be superfluous but flannel gowns highly useful. And she had been told that a simple gingham or white frock would do for a missionary on any occasion-"especially in poor Africa.”
On Sunday evening, November 23,1834, the six Africa-bound couples gathered before an overflow crowd in the Park '' Street Church in Boston for commissioning as missionaries and for final instructions. Their task, said the Reverend Ruf us Anderson, a secretary of the board, was not to produce “transient effects” but to “rear up Christian communities.” For their own welfare, he warned them to “learn the approved methods of preserving health and life” in Africa, but he assured them they would find compensations for the hazards. “The whole African continent is wonderfully constructed,” he said, “and no part of it is more wildly romantic than the southern.” On December 3 the missionaries sailed for Cape Town on the bark Burlington . Champion, who took along a goat so they could have milk for their tea during the voyage, had to get up from a sickbed to make the sailing.
The Burlington anchored at Table Bay on February 6, 1835. But because of delays caused by transportation difficulties after their arrival at the Cape and by the need for the reconnaissance trip, it was not until September of 1836 that George and Susanna Champion pitched their white tent in the district of Zululand that Dingaan had selected for the missionaries on the exploratory visit earlier in the year. By then the Champions had a small son, also named George, who had been born during the long period spent marking time in the Cape Colony.
By then, too, the original contingent of missionaries had scattered. At Cape Town, following the board’s instructions, three couples had immediately split off and started a nine-hundred-mile trek to the north, where they were to minister to tribesmen the board had designated as the “Interior Zoolahs.” Champion was not to learn how this group fared for more than two years.
The other missionaries had been assigned to the “Maritime Zoolahs,” the tribesmen living under Dingaan in the northern half of the present South African province of Natal. Besides the Champions, this group now comprised Dr. Newton Adams and his wife and the Reverend Aldin Grout, whose wife had died of tuberculosis in the Cape Colony. The Adamses were at Port Natal, running a sort of base station for the Zululand mission on the Umlazi River. Aldin Grout was with the Champions when they took up residence in Dingaan’s country.
In some ways they could not have come into a more alien world. The Zulus were a fearsome people. Until they began their rise under Dingaan’s predecessor, Shaka, two decades earlier, warfare in the region had been a relatively harmless exercise in which foes lofted spears at each other from a distance. Using a new weapon—the short stabbing spear—the Zulus rushed their enemies and engaged in bloody closequarter combat. By such tactics they rapidly evolved from a minor local clan into a nation occupying an area twice the size of New Jersey and dominating a far wider territory through terror. They destroyed some tribes, assimilated the remnants of others, and drove still others to distant refuges. Just as the Zulus instilled fear in others, their own kings instilled fear in them and thereby ruled with an iron grip. A word from Dingaan could lead to a subject’s instant death for an offense as trivial as belching in the royal presence-or for no offense at all.
Champion nevertheless was unworried. “This is an evening of joy,” he wrote on the night of September 26,1836, the first day at the site of the mission station. The missionaries named the station “Ginani,” from the Zulu for “I am with thee,” and began settling in. Champion intended to spend the rest of his life in Zululand.
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 .
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.
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.
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.