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Proto-Apartheid at an Eastern Cape town

4. Arrival of
the Missionaries

Keith Tankard
The Time Traveller
Updated: 14 December 2009
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A fundamental element in Sir George Grey's acculturation scheme was his attempt to instill the norms of Christianity into the amaXhosa, for which a concerted missionary effort was initiated. Proselytising the community would have a number of advantages because, if combined with the natural establishment of mission schools, it would irrevocably break the amaXhosa allegiance to their Chiefs and to tribal custom while converting them to western philosophy, dress, the economy and allegiance to the Crown as head of the Church of England.


Although religion played an important role in society at the early Cape, the various Christian denominations were nevertheless late in establishing themselves as organised bodies within the colonial structure. Indeed, for many years the Dutch Reformed Church could not fully shepherd its own flock but relied on the services of English-speaking Presbyterian ministers.

In like manner, after the British had taken over the Cape Colony in 1806, the Church of England was very slow to set up its first diocese or even parishes. In fact, the Church as a corporate body began to organise its structure in southern Africa only after Robert Gray was consecrated as the first Bishop of Cape Town in 1848. Prior to that date, therefore, although individual missionaries like Dr John Phillip often played important roles in society and in the political arena, the Church of England as a body had very little impact. Even after 1848, the organisation remained tentative because Bishop Gray's diocese was enormous, stretching from Cape Town to Durban. The first separate diocese, that of Grahamstown, was established only in 1853 under Bishop John Armstrong. The Church of England was therefore still spreading its wings and learning to fly at the very moment that East London was being established as a new frontier town.

Two factors emerged from this. First, the Church of England came firmly under state control and had to tread warily lest it lose financial support from the government. Second, although it became deeply involved in mission work after 1854, especially in British Kaffraria, the Church of England had neither the manpower nor the economic resources to set the East London mission on its feet. Religion at the port would flounder until about 1860 and even then the evangelisation of the Black community would largely be ignored.

The White community at East London was cared for at its foundation by the military chaplain at Fort Glamorgan, the Reverend Buckner. It is not certain when he arrived or when he left, or even for that matter what his Christian name was. Church registers signed by him, however, date from December 1849 and closed in March 1853.

There is no evidence to explain how the Church continued its operation between the time of Buckner's departure and the arrival of the first civilian clergymen during the second half of 1857. It is possible that East London relied on the occasional visit of a missionary from St Luke's Mission at Mhala's Great Place some 20 miles away, once that station was established in October 1854. It seems clear, nevertheless, that the Church of England had virtually disintegrated at the port by 1857. The Wesleyan Church, on the other hand, took an early lead with monthly visits organised from the mission station at Mount Coke. Services were conducted in a store, used by both the Wesleyans and the Church of England. The Wesleyans were the first to build a chapel and this was also shared by the Church of England until it constructed its own building in 1862.

In June 1857, less than a month after his installation as the second Bishop of Grahamstown, Henry Cotterill began a visitation of his missions, a journey that took him to East London. There he was begged to establish a proper parish, which he did. Indeed, he went further and installed two parsonages: one for the English community at East London on the western bank of the Buffalo River and another for the German military community now established at Panmure on the eastern bank. The first minister to the English community was the Reverend Joseph Willson, who was transferred from Post Retief while Rudolph von Hube, a German-speaking Pole, was appointed to minister to the Germans.

Little is known of Willson, and his sojourn at East London was very brief because he was murdered while on his way to conduct a Sunday service. His parish included the troops quartered at the military posts within the East London district. One afternoon late in February 1858, only six months after his arrival, he set out on foot for Fort Pato where he intended to preach. He was attacked and murdered somewhere in the vicinity of Fort Grey, although his absence was not noticed until the following Sunday when "serious apprehensions" began to arise and the police at East London were ordered out on a search but found his remains only ten days after the murder. His head had been fractured and there were two spear wounds in his back, although his body was already so badly decomposed that he was recognisable purely by his clothes.

John Maclean linked the murder to the general state of unrest which existed in the territory as a result of the Cattle Killing frenzy and its aftermath. There was, he said, so strong a feeling of "irritation and disaffection" among the amaXhosa that no White person, on foot and unarmed, could travel in safety. He immediately put out a reward of £100 for any information leading to the capture of the murderers and consequently three men were arrested. They were quickly put on trial, found guilty and sentenced to death - but would languish in the prison cells at East London for more than a year awaiting their execution.


In the meantime a major force in the British Kaffrarian missionary field arrived at East London and his sojourn would cast great light on almost every aspect of life at the seaport. He was the Reverend William Greenstock who had been serving as a missionary at Chief Mhala's Great Place in the Newlands Reserve since 1854. It was most fortunate, at least from the historical point of view, that East London had a resident missionary of his calibre for not only was he a dedicated and hard-working evangelist but, more importantly for the historian, he maintained a journal which painted a remarkably clear and composite picture of the port community during 1858. Although his sojourn would also be brief, lasting under a year, nevertheless a reading of his journal provides a glimpse of the total community as a vibrant entity, painted in vivid and tangible colours.

Greenstock found on his arrival in April 1858 that there were to be a number of clear-cut divisions to his evangelical duty. There was the English-speaking community to shepherd and at times his assistance would be needed with the Germans across the river at Panmure because von Hube was still a deacon and could not administer the sacraments. Greenstock had already had a degree of contact with the location people on the western bank for he had made sporadic attempts to evangelise them from his mission at the Newlands Reserve. They therefore became a focal point in his ministry but there was also a small group of domestic helpers who served the German community on the eastern bank. Finally, Greenstock was expected to visit the gaol periodically.

His reports reveal his shock at the state of spiritual affairs at the port. The English, he said, had been "sadly neglected", so much so that there were only two or three communicants in a population that was now over 300. They were still dependent upon the Wesleyans for providing them with a place of worship and, indeed, he quickly discovered that the parishioners were largely Wesleyan in attitude so that they tended to view their new pastor's "High Church" attitude with apprehension. It is possibly for that reason that an uneasy relationship came to exist between Greenstock and his White parishioners although he made every effort, he said, "to be all things to all men".

His special love was for the Black community which appeared to give him most pain and yet most exhilaration. There had never been a missionary residing in their midst and, although Greenstock was forced to divide his attention with the White community, it is clear from his writings that he saw his main evangelical work as preaching to the amaXhosa whom he gathered around him and with whom he shared his parsonage.

So seriously did he take his work that he would preach up to eight services of a Sunday to reach his whole congregation, whether they be White, Black, in prison, working as shift labourers or living as servants on the eastern bank of the river. East London, he wrote, presented "a most excellent position" for a mission church because not only was there one of the biggest Black communities in British Kaffraria but their very existence "in wretched huts" caused them to live in what he termed "a shocking state of immorality". They were therefore likely to be fully receptive, he concluded, to the "elevating power of the Gospel.

His first difficulty with the location people was to overcome the problem of their mobility. He was aware that the community existed under sufferance from the White authorities, that only the previous year the village had been razed to the ground and the people had been relocated as a body. It might therefore have been a futile exercise to build a chapel in their midst, only to see it wasted if the Resident Magistrate changed his mind and moved the location once more. He therefore hit on the novel idea of constructing a quaint wooden chapel on wheels, which could easily be shifted to a new site if that were necessary.

Greenstock was also confronted with the problem that his African parishioners worked very long hours and therefore had little time to attend services. The entire Black community served as the work-force for the harbour or as servants in the two White villages, and all without exception laboured from dawn till dusk. Although the missionary provided two services a day for the dozen or so people living with him at the parsonage, he still had to find ways of preaching to the multitude of labourers who did not live with him and were simply not available during daylight hours.

He found a solution by confronting them whenever they were gathered in small pockets. He would preach to those who had settled as a group to eat their midday meal. He would proselytise to all who happened to be waiting with him for the pontoon to take them across the river. He would discourse to the wagon drivers and to the boatmen. In short, he lost no opportunity to preach his gospel whenever and wherever he could and, although the people at first found his religious zeal somewhat curious, they were quickly captivated by the missionary's enthusiasm and his flock grew rapidly.

There is, of course, a tendency today to judge missionaries by their attempts to convert the people not only to their religion but also to their particular colonial way of thinking. Greenstock clearly falls into that category because, apart from being a dedicated missionary, he was also a died-in-the-wool Victorian who judged his flock by the standards of his age. He therefore laid great emphasis on the Victorian work ethic, believing that heavy labour rather than subsistence farming was the only way to true human and spiritual fulfilment. Indeed, he viewed the self-sufficient peasants as lazy, while only through "proper labour" would they achieve salvation. He also accepted as fact that the traditional Xhosa customs were innately evil but, then again, he thought the same of the Catholic and Wesleyan Churches.


Like Willson before him, Greenstock's sojourn at East London was to be of short duration. He quickly became embroiled in a dispute with the British Kaffrarian authorities and with his own Bishop, who sided against him and bowed to secular pressure to transfer him to a station where he could do less harm. His pastoral zeal was to blame for his duties took him regularly to the local prison, then situated on the western bank of the river, and there he proselytised three inmates to the chagrin of the British Kaffrarian authorities.

At first Greenstock reported on the "very superior" state in which he found the building which had been renovated just before his arrival at the port. Disillusionment quickly set in, however, and soon Greenstock found himself at loggerheads both with the Gaoler and with the Magistrate about the need for radical improvement.

Part of the problem lay in the fact that when the Transportation Act expired in 1858, many of the convicts who would have been transported from British Kaffraria to Robben Island were now to be imprisoned at East London and employed on harbour construction. A barracks was prepared for the influx but this was completed only in January 1859. In the meantime, the convicts had to be placed in the local prison, causing immense overcrowding and leading to serious irregularities and unhygienic conditions.

The gaol consisted of only six cells, each measuring nine foot by eight foot. Each cell, the Magistrate reported, was capable of holding three prisoners, or four at a push, and yet there were frequently as many as eight to nine per cell, and sometimes official figures reveal that as many as 12 to 15 were crushed in. The overcrowding, the District Surgeon once reported, succeeded in reducing "strong and robust men" to a state of "emaciation" if confined for any length of time. Indeed, in December 1858 a prisoner died in his cell and the post-mortem revealed the cause of death as being "asphyxia from foul air".

Greenstock found not only overcrowding but inhumanity of the worst form. In one cell he visited, there were no less than 15 prisoners tied to one another by means of ropes around their necks. In another cell there were six men linked together by iron armlets, and each with a leg locked in a stock. Women, on the other hand, had problems of another kind because invariably there were no cells available for them and they had to share with the male prisoners. Furthermore, he found that the inmates were infested with lice and other vermin. Yet, he concluded, most of the prisoners had in fact committed no crime other than being caught without a pass.

During his ministrations, Greenstock found himself attending to the three prisoners who had been convicted of Willson's murder, whom he named as Muleka, Unqite and Jan. They were still at East London awaiting execution. Although they had been sentenced to death, the British Kaffrarian authorities were not convinced that all three had in fact committed the crime. The executions were therefore being delayed in the hope that one of the men, filled with a true British sense of justice, would confess so that the other two could be set free.

Greenstock's weekly visits caused all three men to become interested in the Church, although he never ceased to urge on them the need to admit their sins and not try to hide their crime, if indeed they had committed any. There should, he said, be confession before God but that "before men they should not deny it" lest by doing so they were "adding sin to sin". He nevertheless would not allow the men to speak about either their guilt or their innocence in case it made him a witness to their alleged deed and thereby compromised his role as a clergyman.

The men quickly began to show an earnest desire to be baptised but soon were transferred to the King William's Town gaol for execution. The move threw Greenstock into a quandary. Although he was allowed entrance to their new cells, he knew that such visits would be few and far between, and soon all three men might be dead. Their urgent appeals for baptism and acceptance into the Church eventually forced his hand. Not knowing whether he would be able to return before their execution, Greenstock decided to hear each man's confession, whereupon he baptised them into the Christian faith.

He also had other reasons for conferring the sacrament upon the three men. In a determined effort to wring a confession out of the prisoners, Governor Grey had appointed a Wesleyan minister to visit them. Greenstock was afraid that this might be successful but that the men would then be allowed to go to their deaths without the opportunity of baptism. This had happened before, he noted in his journal, but on the previous occasion the Wesleyan missionaries had excused themselves by saying that no doubt the prisoner's faith and repentance were sufficient. Greenstock was not prepared to take that chance again.

He therefore baptised them and immediately all hell broke loose. News of the deed quickly reached the ears of Chief Commissioner Maclean who believed that Greenstock's actions had deprived the authorities of the opportunity to obtain a state confession from the prisoners. He promptly demanded to know of Greenstock, from the evidence of the confessions, whether the priest believed his converts were indeed guilty of the crime and if they were in any way convinced of the justice of their sentences.

Greenstock refused to answer because everything told to him had been said in the secrecy of the confessional. Maclean thereupon threw a tantrum and wrote a lengthy letter to Bishop Cotterill of Grahamstown, demanding immediate action and claiming that Greenstock was defying authority and flouting the law. Indeed, Maclean wrote, the missionary had had no permission to visit the prisoners at all and so his presence there was not only unfortunate but also illegal.

This accusation sent the bishop into a frenzy of letter writing in which he roundly condemned Greenstock's actions to all and sundry. Although Cotterill certainly believed that the act of sentencing a man to death and then awaiting a confession was hardly British, he was nevertheless indignant at what Greenstock had done. He presumed that the accused were indeed guilty of their crime and that they should therefore have made reparation by a full confession to the Resident Magistrate. To have administered the sacrament of baptism without such evidence of repentance, he said, was "to profane the sacrament itself" and "to confirm the men in their impenitence".

"I am sorry for it," the bishop wrote to one of his most trusted men, "Greenstock is a very nice fellow, but his judgement is not to be trusted especially in any question between the [natives] & Govt. - in which he is sure to take the [native] side however wrong." Cotterill also claimed that Greenstock had become implicated in a political matter and believed that the missionary might even have committed a serious political offence for which the British Kaffrarian government would demand his removal from the territory.

Cotterill argued moreover that Greenstock had failed in his duties on six different counts. The missionary had not consulted his bishop before baptising the prisoners. He had performed the sacrament without proof of the prisoners' sincerity which could only have been indicated by a disclosure to the Magistrate and he had heard a secret confession from men who were under sentence. He had then not informed the authorities whether or not he thought the prisoners were innocent, had undertaken a duty at the King William's Town prison for which he had not been assigned and, finally, had entered the prison without permission from the civil authorities.

Cotterill's chief anxiety seemed to be that Greenstock's action would alienate the Church of England from the State. It was of utmost importance to the missions, he wrote, that it should be made very plain to the government that the Church did not sanction the ignoring of the civil authorities. This was especially true in the light of the amount of financial aid which the government was giving to the Church of England mission schools. Governor Grey was in fact receiving an annual grant of £40 000 from the British Treasury towards operational costs in British Kaffraria, of which he was then donating a tithe of £4 000 for the Church of England missions. The bishop feared, therefore, that the funding would dry up or, worse, that the government might decide to support the Wesleyan missions instead.

It is also clear from the correspondence that another issue was at stake. Bishop Cotterill was of the "Low Church" while Greenstock believed in "High Church" practices. The bishop, for instance, objected to the very idea of Greenstock's hearing secret confessions and he feared therefore that the missionary's "High Church views" were beginning to affect the man's judgement, to the ruin of good relations between Church and State. Evidence suggests, however, that the broadside against Greenstock was in fact unjustified. If it were true that the priest had succeeded in entering the gaol at King William's Town without permission, that would have indicated gross negligence on the part of the prison authorities rather than with the missionary.

A reading of Greenstock's journal, on the other hand, reveals that the priest did not take the decision either to enter the cells or to baptize the prisoners entirely on his own. In fact, he consulted with his immediate superior, Reverend Henry Kitton, who was the Anglican Secretary for the southern region of the diocese, before entering the prison. Furthermore, when Greenstock did minister to the men on that auspicious day in order to hear their confessions and thereafter to baptize them, he did so in the company of Kitton himself. The bishop was fully acquainted with these facts and yet was not prepared to confront Maclean on the issue.

The British Kaffrarian authorities, however, were eventually forced to commute the death sentences to simple imprisonment because of the uncertainty as to the prisoners' degree of guilt. As for Greenstock, Bishop Cotterill soon removed him from East London in disgrace, probably at Maclean's request. He was transferred to St Matthew's Mission at Keiskamma Hoek where it was felt he would be able to do less harm. In a sense, though, the priest had the last laugh because within a year he had courted and married the bishop's daughter.


Greenstock's removal to Keiskamma Hoek caused yet another vacuum at East London. Although it was filled in part by the German-speaking deacon, Rudolph von Hube from Panmure, there is little evidence to suggest that he paid any attention to the Black community on either bank of the river. It was therefore not until the arrival of Reverend Edward Lees in July 1860 that normality was restored but even then Lees's correspondence indicates that he had little interest in the location community.

Lees in fact believed that the amaXhosa should become black Englishmen and the only way that this could be achieved would be by forcing them to become more involved with the Whites at East London. In this he differed vastly from his predecessor. Whereas Greenstock took religion and a chapel to the location, and attempted to work with the people at their homes, Lees believed that the amaXhosa had to be made to leave their homes to come into closer association with the missionary at his residence. Only in that way, he argued, would the Christian civilization and education rub off onto them.

For that purpose, he even wheeled the portable chapel to a new site within the White sector of the town. His excuse was that the building was decaying where it stood but he also believed that the town was the better place for it. It would be an advantage, he wrote, "in the case of the natives that their school shd. be in the Town. away from their crawl [sic] and as near the Parsonage as may be:: . . . A mission unconnected with our Church in the Town wd not do!"

In this he was reflecting a missionary philosophy current at the time. Bishop Gray's earlier criticism of the Wesleyan Mission at Mount Coke, for example, indicates a similar attitude. The eight people at the Wesleyan school, he wrote in July 1850, lived in the institution but not under the roof of the missionary. "Yet," he said, "if characters are to be formed, if men are to be educated, and not merely instructed, it surely is of the utmost importance that they should live in the very presence of their teacher."

Although the post-Greenstock clergy at East London appeared to do very little for the Black community, their hands were nevertheless also tied by a shortage of funds. East London was not treated as an equal of the other mission stations in British Kaffraria and, as a result, there was little money available to support even the employment of a catechist. Lees, for one, decried this situation, claiming that "for exclusively Spiritual work" the amaXhosa at East London were entitled to some aid from the funds received from the revenue of British Kaffraria.

It is also clear from the letters of Rudolph von Hube that the port did not enjoy an equal share of the diocesan finances as did the other mission stations in British Kaffraria. As a result, educational activity in the location floundered and the church school soon closed. In 1871, another venture was started which came not from the East London parish but was under the direction of a catechist from St Luke's Mission in the Newlands Reserve. Although this mission school had more pupils than the White establishment at the port, it was nevertheless closed after being officially condemned in March 1873.

The government inspector wrote that the hut that was being used for educational purposes was in a deplorable condition and only by extensive repairs could it be made more serviceable to hold a school. The standard of education, the inspector reported, was very low and the work elementary. Although this could have been remedied with little effort, the need was ignored and all Black education at the port would cease for at least a decade.

From 1873 until the 1890s the Xhosa congregation at East London fell into the doldrums. Little mission activity was reported and the people were regarded merely as labourers to supply the port's needs. Their location on the West Bank had degenerated to such a degree that in 1884 it would again be moved to prevent its becoming a slum. It was only with the arrival of the first Black clergymen in the 1890s, men like Reverend Walter Rubusana and Stegman Dlakija, that religion would again take root. By then, however, the Black pastors were already perceiving the need to defend their congregations from a growing tide of racial intolerance and were becoming deeply involved in the Native Vigilance Associations, quasi-political bodies which were beginning to spring up in the various towns of the eastern Cape.

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