In defence of an ‘unimportant’ inkosi

2011-09-28 00:00

BISHOP John Colenso along with his family are well known for their campaigns on behalf of Chief Langalibalele of the Hlubi and the Zulu kings Cetshwayo kaMpande and Dinizulu kaCetshwayo, but British historian Gwilym Colenso has uncovered their campaign on behalf of a minor inkosi known only as Beje while researching the Colenso campaign network that stretched bet­ween two continents.

As his surname suggests Gwilym Colenso is related to the Colensos. “But not directly,” he says. “The bishop was a cousin of my great-great-grandfather, Richard Colenso.”

Colenso has published several papers on the Colensos as well as contributing to The Eye of the Storm: Bishop John William Colenso and the Crisis of Biblical Inspiration edited by Jonathan Draper.

Exploring the Colenso legacy found Colenso first visiting South Africa in 1999 when he rounded off a visit to the sites associated with the Colenso family in and around Pietermaritzburg with a reading of Jeff Guy’s bio-graphy The Heretic. “It was a real eye-opener,” says Colenso.

“A lot of work has been done on the South African side of the family of Bishop Colenso,” says Colenso, citing not only Guy (who also wrote The View Across the River dealing with Harriette Colenso’s campaigns on behalf of the Zulus) but historians such as Shula Marks, Ruth Edgecombe and Brenda Nicholls. “I decided to concentrate on the British connection. Frank Colenso was the most active campaigner there and, after he died, his widow, Sophie.

“During the period when the Colensos were campaigning, attitudes hardened towards indigenous people and British imperial expansion became more and more aggressive,” says Colenso. “Humanitarians protesting about its destructive effects on colonised people became more isolated in the white community­ and faced increasing hostility­ from colonial officials and whites settlers alike.

“However, the Colenso family were able, via their family connections, to maintain what has been called an ‘extensive chain of influence’ linking a beleaguered and relatively powerless humanitarian minority in Natal to the source of imperial power at the heart of the British Empire.”

By the time of the Langalibalele trial­ in 1874, Bishop Colenso had been in the colony for two decades and his children were in their late 20s or early 30s. “His two sons were in England having finished their university education and his three daughters remained in the family home at Bishopstowe in Natal,” says Colenso.

The Langalibalele affair marked the beginning of a lifelong campaign by the bishop and his family for justice for the Zulu people. “But it set the Colenso family at odds with the Natal authorities,” says Colenso. “And it also brought the Colenso family into conflict with the majority of the settler community of Natal.”

Their campaign for Langalibalele also saw the beginning of a close relationship between the Colenso family and the Aborigine’s Protection Society in Britain, especially with its secretary Frederick Chesson.

“With the aid of Frank as their British connection, the Colenso’s campaigning work had the effect of enabling the Zulu voice to be heard not only in Natal but also in England at a time when black Africans were yet to harness the full power of the written word.”

Caption: Gwilym Colenso

Gwilym has returned to South Africa for research trips in 2001, 2009, and again this year when he presented­ a paper at the 23rd Biennial conference of the Southern African Historical Society in Durban dealing with his work on the British connection in the Colenso family’s work with the Zulu.

A key focus of the paper is the Colenso campaign on the behalf of Beje which Colenso first came across when researching at Rhodes House, Oxford university. Further archival research in Britain and South Africa unearthed the details.

“The Beje case is just one of very many cases taken up or championed by the Colensos over a 35-year period of intense campaigning,” says Colenso. “It is not in itself more dramatic than many others but I think it is important because, in political terms, Beje was unimportant.”

A Natal Zulu chief, Beje, with over 20 of his followers, was tried in 1880 in the Native High Court of Natal in Pietermaritzburg on a charge of high treason for crossing into Zululand during the Anglo-Zulu war the previous year.

When they were found guilty and sentenced to terms of imprisonment with hard labour in Pietermaritzburg Prison the Colenso campaign swung into action: the bishop and daughter Harriette collecting evidence­, writing letters, and compiling reports in Natal which son Frank, together with Chesson in London, used to lobby the British public and the Colonial­ Office.

The Colensos argued for the release of Beje and his men on the grounds that there had been a miscarriage of justice and because of the unhealthy conditions in the Pietermaritzburg prison — two of Beje’s followers died of a mysterious “gaol sickness”.

The Colenso’s tenacious inquiries revealed not only the dire conditions in the prison but also evidence that Beje and his men had crossed into Zululand­ from Natal fully two months before the war began.

The parallels with the trial of Langalibelele did not escape either the Colensos or the Colonial Office where one official dug out the documents on the earlier case. “Since the Langalibelele case had been accepted as a gross miscarriage of justice and the Colonial Office had ruled that the verdict be overturned, one wonders why similar action could not be taken in the case of Beje,” says Colenso whose research demonstrates that the Colonial Office was reluctant “up to its highest level to go against the ‘state of feeling (of the white settlers) in Natal’.”

The efforts of the Colensos and Chesson proved successful. In November 1881, Bishop Colenso reported to Chesson, “to our great joy, came Beje and 15 others who had been released yesterday, through an order ... from the Secretary of State.”

The Colensos joy at Beje’s release was tempered by the fact that two of his followers had died in prison, while a third was so ill he did not survive the journey out to the bishop’s home Bishopstowe. All those who survived were sick as a result of their stay in prison.

After the bishop died in 1883, his eldest daughter, Harriette, took the lead in continuing his campaigning work in Natal in partnership with her brother, Frank, in England.

“In the later years of their campaigning, the Colensos in Natal, particularly Harriette, were in contact with and gave encouragement and advice to many of the growing numbers of largely mission-educated, literate, and politically active Africans who were beginning to set up newspapers and organisations directly representing the interests of black Africans in Natal and Zululand and elsewhere in South Africa­.”

Such initiatives, which included the formation, in 1912, of the South African Native National Congress (SANNC) which became the ANC, and which received the support of the Colensos, were eventually to place the leadership of the struggle fully in the hands of black people.

In the early decades of the 20th century, representatives of the SANNC went to Britain to make direct representations directly to the British government and some were shown hospitality there by Frank’s widow, Sophie.

“The Colenso family home in England became a place of rest and respite for delegates from South Africa, such as Sol Plaatje and John Dube when visiting England,” says Colenso.

“Even after Frank’s death in 1910, the British connection of the Colenso family continued to be of significance in facilitating representations being made in Britain in defence of the rights of the black population of South Africa.”



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