A home fit for a bishop

2009-10-26 00:00

“ERIC’S wild fig tree up against the house has developed well,” wrote Francis (Frank) Colenso on April 18, 1900, in a letter to his wife Sophie who was in England.

Frank, a barrister, was the son of Bishop John Colenso and he had come to Natal to visit his sisters Harriette and Agnes at Bishopstowe. Eric was his nephew, the son of his brother Robert, and the tree was planted to mark Eric’s birth shortly before his grandfather’s death in 1883. It was always referred to as “Eric’s tree”.

Frank had not visited the family home since its destruction by fire in 1884. “How can I describe my emotion on riding up to the dear old grounds so little and yet so much changed,” he noted in a previous letter. “As I sit writing on the front verandah, it is quite easy, if I ignore the ruined walls to my right, and do not too closely regard the rebuilt portion of the premises on my left, to imagine myself at the old Bishopstowe.”

Colenso took up his appointment as Bishop of Natal in 1855 and his family — wife Sarah Frances and children Harriette, Frances, Robert, Francis (Frank) and Agnes — moved from the centre of Pietermaritzburg to the farm Bishopstowe in 1856.

“Bishopstowe was not built in a day, but grew,” wrote Sarah Frances. The house initially began life as a four-room cottage with a row of small rooms behind it. According to Jeff Guy, Colenso’s biographer, the finished building “reflected the domestic architectural styles [the Colensos] knew in England. For their children it was home and school, the geographical location of the formative experiences of their lives.”

Most of the bricks were made on site and, writes his wife, the Bishop himself laid a few courses “to prove by demonstration that the occupation was not degrading for a catechist!” He also planted some of the first trees.

Over the years, foundations were laid and the cottage extended. A yellowwood chapel was built nearby and a hexagonal “summer house of lath-and-plaster” which served as workplace for the bishop before the study in the main building was completed.

His study enjoyed a magnificent view over the Umgeni Valley towards Table Mountain which the bishop referred to as his altar and he positioned the furniture in the study to make sure the mountain would be the first thing he saw when he looked up from his work. “The Bishop loved it from first to last,” said his wife. “His study was without a fireplace, but he could never be persuaded to change it for an equally convenient and quieter room, because then he ‘could not see the mountain’: and the same reason met us when we wanted to put his writing-table in what we thought a better light.”

On an adjacent piece of land Colenso established Ekukhanyeni, the “Place of Light” — a training centre for the sons of chiefs who, says Guy, “would be trained in the best traditions of English education, but also as a centre of religious instruction and industrial, mechanical and agricultural training.” It opened its doors in 1856 but proved a short-lived venture, closing in 1861 due to various setbacks and also because Colenso was moving away from conventional approaches to missionary teaching.

In 1862, the whole family went to England for a visit, during the course of which they made friends with Sir Joseph Hooker, the curator of Kew Gardens. He sent 500 kinds of flower seeds to Bishopstowe and Harriette organised the planting.

Friendship and botanical interests kept the links between Kew and Bishopstowe alive and in May 1883 the Colenso’s were visited by the eminent botanical painter Marianne North. A gallery is devoted to her work at Kew and the paintings she did at Bishopstowe can be viewed on-line at http://www.kew.org/mng/marianne-north.html

In her memoir Recollections of a Happy Life, North recalls her visit: the ride from the city across the bare wintry landscape, “a dreary waste of long yellow grass till we came in sight of Bishopstowe, with its many-gabled house and gum-trees like an oasis in the desert.”

The bishop was waiting for her on the creeper-covered veranda, “giving me his arm with as much courtesy as if I had been a princess. It seemed quite a dream of old days to meet such a thorough gentleman again, and difficult to understand how one so genial and gentle could have made himself so hated by the majority of the country.”

North was shown the Colensos’ printing press “which was continually contradicting every fact stated by the Government or officials, who in their turn contradicted every fact published by it.” She also met the family pets, including a dog passed on to them by King Cetshwayo kaMpande who had been given the dog “by an Englishman”, but it had proved intractable. Similarly with the Colensos.

However, the bishop had a retriever “which never left him. He used to talk with him during meals, and the dog seemed to understand all he said.” He also had a pet lemur from Madagascar, while assorted cats, rabbits and a crane “wandered about the pretty garden all sociably together, and never strayed further, as they found (like myself) that there was no place to stray when once they left the oasis.”

A month after North’s visit Colenso died on June 20. The following year a fire raged through Bishopstowe. “The property was particularly vulnerable to runaway grass fires,” says Guy, this despite the regular burning of firebreaks.

“On September 3 Harriette was working in her father’s study when an African rushed in saying another fire was approaching,” records Guy. “Harriette went out and, to her horror, saw ‘towers of smoke rolling towards’ them, driven by a violent wind. It had already jumped the firebreaks, and was soon in the trees around the house.”

Inside the house were five women and children when the front of the building began to burn: Frances and Harriette, her friend Katie Giles, Robert’s wife Emily and her son Eric. A neighbour hurried them out of the house to a grove of mulberry treees through which the fire had already swept. “Frances and Katie then got the horse out of the stables while women of the family of Langalibalele living on the farm drove the cows to safety.”

By now the fire had taken hold. “A desperate effort was made to save some of the contents. The top floor was burning and they lost all their clothing and linen.”

Frances managed to save her notes for a third volume of The Ruin of Zululand, as well as her notes demonstrating how Colonel Anthony­ Durnford had been made the scapegoat for the British defeat at Isandlwana. They also managed to salvage some of the family’s most treasured possessions — paintings, books and church documents.

But much more was lost than was saved. “We can only guess at the correspondence which went up in flames,” says Guy, “and what documents and photographs on Natal colonial life, mission work, Zulu history and the Zulu language.”

The next day, Harriette walked through the ashes heaped in the foundations: “The walls stand a great deal better than I should have expected … But it is rather a ghastly sight. The bare walls — every scrap of wood gone, every door plate and window frame, and nothing visible in the heaped up ashes at the bottom of the foundations but a few tin boxes and numerous iron bedsteads twisted in all directions, as if they had been tortured to death.”

Gradually the three sisters built another house amidst the ruins. Frances died in 1887. Harriette and Agnes remained living at Bishopstowe until June 1910 when the Natal parliament passed the Church Properties Act. This gave the Anglican Church control over the property and the land on which Bishopstowe and Ekukhanyeni were built was sold.

“The African tenants, teachers, printers and preachers, friends who lived and worked with Harriette and Agnes, and some of them with their father, were dispersed,” says Guy.

The day Bishopstowe was sold, Harriette and Agnes learned that their brother Frank had died in England. The two sisters moved to a small house in Pietermaritzburg and later to a cottage in Sweetwaters. “Now marginal figures, they used to take a train into the city — two elderly women in long, home-made dresses and men’s hats, with their African friends helping them carry the shopping back to the station; strange figures who, it was said, had been women of some importance when they were young. By the time they died, in 1932, within a few months of one another, little more was known of them than that.”

Today, thanks to the Colenso Homestead Restoration Project (see box) their house at Bishopstowe still stands. Eric’s tree continues to thrive.

• Acknowledgments: This article has made use of Jeff Guy’s biography of Bishop John Colenso, The Heretic, as well as his study of Harriette Colenso, The View Across the River.

JOHN Colenso was the first Anglican bishop of Natal and a noted mathematician, theologian and Biblical scholar.

He married Sarah Frances Bunyon in 1846 and they had five children, Harriette, Frances, Robert, Francis (Frank) and Agnes.

Formerly rector of Forncett St Mary, Norfolk, in 1853 Colenso was appointed as the first Bishop of Natal by the Bishop of Cape Town, Robert Gray, and he took up the position in 1855.

He set up the mission station Ekukhanyeni, the “Place of Light”, next to his residence at Bishopstowe. There (with William Ngidi) he published the first Zulu grammar and English-Zulu dictionary, as well as Zulu translations of the New Testament and other books of the Bible.

Colenso forged links with the Zulu monarchy and became a staunch advocate of their cause in their struggle with the colonial authorities.

His contact with Africans also influenced his theological development and he questioned some of the teachings of the church and the literal truth of the Bible. His books outlining his ideas influenced contemporary Biblical scholars in Europe but proved too controversial for the church. This, plus his advocacy of the Zulus, brought him into conflict with both church and state and he was deposed as Bishop in 1863.

By-passing church structures, Colenso appealed his deposition to the Privy Council court in London which found in his favour, while another British court ensured Colenso was not deprived of his income. However, he was excommunicated by the church who appointed another bishop of Natal — William K. Macrorie.

In 1873, Colenso came into direct conflict with the colonial regime when he took up the cause of Langalibalele of the Hlubi, who was found guilty of rebellion in a show trial and was imprisoned on Robben Island. The blatant manipulation of the trial by Theophilus Shepstone, secretary for native affairs, ended the long friendship between himself and Colenso.

Later in the same decade, Colenso opposed the official line on the invasion of Zululand and condemned the consequent war which he considered grossly unjust.

He subsequently played a role in King Cetshwayo kaMpande’s release from jail and his return to Zululand.

To the Zulus Colenso was known as Sobantu (“father of the people”).

After his death in 1883, his wife and daughters continued his work supporting the Zulu cause.

THE Colenso Homestead Restoration Project was wound up recently and the Anglican Diocese of Natal has now assumed custodianship of this heritage site. The diocese has it on a long lease which expires on June 30, 2045, with provision for renewal.

The restoration project came into being in 1995 when it was learnt that the building, then in a dilapidated state, was in danger of being demolished to make way for sugar cane. The original intention was to renovate the house and restore the adjacent chapel and surrounding gardens. It was also hoped, in keeping with Colenso’s original vision of Ekukhanyeni, the “Place of Light”, to make it available for meetings, retreats, seminars and conferences.

Unfortunately, that vision could not be realised. “Such a conference and retreat venue would certainly not be self-sustaining, and would require the diocese to provide considerable funds each year,” said the project’s chairperson John Deane in his final report.

On the plus side, the existing house has been renovated with a new corrugated iron roof; replica period sash windows; restoration of the east-facing veranda; the provision of new wooden veranda posts and French windows. In addition, two flats have been created within the house.

Architect Brian Kearney did an architectural survey — assisted by family letters and old photographs — of the site to ascertain what exactly was rebuilt by Colenso’s daughters after the fire. The position of the unused and long-buried parts of the foundations of the 1884 house were discovered in an archaeological dig in 1997 by Gavin Whitelaw, head of archaeology at the Natal Museum.

Unfortunately, it has not been possible to conserve the ruined chapel and school room adjacent to the house. The structure is now in a dangerous condition.

Apart from the improvements and changes to the fabric, several plaques have been placed on the outside walls. A bronze National Monuments Council plaque has been in place since the forties, indicating that this was the site of Bishop Colenso’s mission. To this has been added a marble tablet in recognition of Bishop Colenso’s and his family’s “dedication to truth and justice”. A small metal plaque, unveiled by Bishop Rubin Phillip on November 22, 2003, marks the 150th anniversary of the Diocese of Natal, while another metal plaque provides an account in English and Zulu of the significance of the site and a photograph of the 1884 house. A plaque listing those who have given substantial donations or grants will be added later.


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