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Blythswood: a unique South African mission station
A Warm Summer’s Day in 1873
"It is a warm summer’s day, four days after Christmas, 1873. From early in the morning members of the amamFengu tribe had been gathering on this bare stretch of level ground, with streams on either side of it. Some had been travelling for several days to be present, and had spent the previous night camped near this place, which was about two miles to the eastward of where the village of Nqamakwe, Fingoland, stands today.”
So starts my late father’s account of the history of Blythswood, the mission station where he labored for 20 years and where I was privileged to grow up.
The 19th Century in South Africa was characterized by the rapid expansion of the white community throughout the country, with often disastrous results for the indigenous people whose lands the whites encroached on.
Missionaries were among those who moved into the interior of South Africa at this time, many indeed were at the forefront of the movement. For that reason there is still controversy about the effects they had on the people they encountered on their journeys.
As former Professor Monica Wilson (1908 to 1982) of the University of Cape Town once said in a public lecture:
“There are two viewpoints about missionaries in Southern Africa. Some think of them as true servants of God, benefactors who brought the good news of the gospel to those who had not yet heard the Word, benefactors who, in seeking to spread the Word, created literacy, schools and hospitals. Others see missionaries as agents of conquest, tools of imperialism, tools of a capitalist system, who fastened the yoke on a subject people and sapped the will to resist.”
As in many such instances there is truth in both viewpoints. The missionaries achieved great things for the people, bringing literacy and health care, improved farming techniques. But, as Wilson pointed out in her lecture, contact with white people, including the missionaries, brought many changes in the traditional societies, which both sides sought. “But many changes which were sought had unwelcome and unexpected side effects. Our assessment of missionaries turns on what changes they really fostered.”
The "Child of Lovedale" is conceived
Which brings us back to that warm summer’s day and the three white men who arrive to talk with the gathered members of the amamFengu on that bare stretch of level ground between the streams.
The three white men are: Captain Matthew Blyth representing the government of the Cape Colony ; the Reverend Dr James Stewart, doughty Scottish principal of Lovedale Missionary Institution which is near the little town of Alice in the then Cape Colony; and the Rev Richard Ross, missionary of Cunningham Mission Station, at Toleni, not far from where this group is meeting.
Lovedale Institution had been founded by the Glasgow Mission Society in 1824 and Dr Stewart became its head in 1870. Under his guidance the institution became a beacon of hope for many, especially the amamFengu, who saw the benefits of education in terms of being able to command better-paying jobs in the growing economy of the Cape Colony.
The leaders of the amamFengu had therefor asked, through the Cape’s agent Captain Blyth, for the establishment of a “child of Lovedale” in the Nqamakwe district. Stewart decided to test the commitment of the amamFengu leaders by challenging them to come up with £1000, promising them that if they succeeded, he would get a matching amount from the church in Scotland.
The leaders of the amamFengu began collecting money from their people immediately.
The meeting with the leaders came about because they had told him the money was ready for him. So he had no choice but to meet them and to make good on his promise. At the meeting the representatives of each amamFengu residential areas (known in those times as “locations”) brought the money collected in their areas and laid it on the table which had been set up in the middle of the gathering, at which sat the three white men. The money had been collected in coins and the table had to be cleared many times as it was filled with money. The Rev Ross used a pillowcase from the cart in which Dr Stewart had travelled to collect the coins.
There were 103 such locations and so the collection of the money on the table took a great deal of time. At the end of the day the money was counted and it came to £1 478, much more than Stewart had challenged the people to collect. Indeed there were a few locations which were not represented at the meeting and when their contributions had been added the total was £1 646!
That a largely illiterate group of mainly subsistence farmers, only a small minority of whom were Christians, could collect such a huge sum of money in about four or five months was indicative of the people’s desire for and commitment to their education. This was in the year 1873.
One of the elders of the tribe pointed to the pile of coins on the table and said: “There are the stones. Now build!”
Stewart went back to King William’s Town in what was then known as Kaffraria, to the West of the Kei River, carrying the coins tied in a sack at the back of his cart. “The silver was heavy, but my heart was light,” he said later.
- The journey of my life
The reason for my being born in Cape Town rather than in the then Transkei where my father was a teacher, was Hitler. He overshadowed my life from the start and in some ways still does.
The birth of the child
Stewart was as good as his word and went back to Scotland to raise the matching funds. When he returned to Nqamakwe it was with £1 500 from the Free Church of Scotland and a further £1 000 from private well-wishers, and three skilled Scottish stonemasons to take charge of the building operations.
While this group of masons was laying the foundations for the main building of the proposed mission in 1875 a group of onlookers gathered. This group told Stewart that they thought the building, judging from the foundations they could see, would be too small. Stewart said that if there was more money, the building could be made bigger. The amamFengu held another series of meetings and came up with a further £1 500!
When the stonework was completed building was further delayed as the funds had run out and there was no money to provide for the woodwork still required – for floors, windows and doors. The amamFengu held a third meeting and again came up with another £1 500!
The building in the end cost just over £7 000, of which the amamFengu contributed more than £4 500. This made the mission, which would soon be called “Blythswood” in honour of Captain Blyth, unique in South African missionary history. No other mission had so great a financial commitment and contribution from the people it was designed to serve.
The great double-storey building was in the “Scottish Baronial” style and was built with locally-quarried sandstone dressed in the way the Scottish masons would have dressed the stone for Scottish buildings, and therein lay a problem for the future. It was completed in 1877, although it was officially opened before it was fully complete, on 25 July 1877.
Ninth Frontier War
A few months after its completion the last of a series of frontier wars between the amaXhosa and the Cape Government started, the so-called 9th Frontier war, also known as the “War of Ncayecibi.” The magistrate of Nqamakwe, Mr James Ayliff, commandeered the building on 27 December 1877 as a refuge for all the white women and children in Gcalekaland and Fingoland (the amamFengu were at that time known by the whites as the “Fingos”). The building was used in this way for abou9t six months, after which it needed some refurbishment, and so the building was reopened for its proper use in February 1879. In that same year Fingoland was annexed to the Cape Colony and so the amamFengu became British subjects.
After the death of Captain Blyth the amamFengu again raised money, this time about £500, for the erection of tower in memory of the man who they regarded so highly, and called “uYise woHlanga” – father of the people.
This tower was added to the main building in 1899. The tower was also to accommodate a bell donated to the institution by a rich man called Nogaga, who all his life refused to accept Christianity. He, however, donated this large bronze bell, cast in Scotland, so that every time it was used it would pray for him! The sound of this bell tolling every morning at 6.00 and again every evening at 6.00 was part of the soundscape of my growing years.
I knew the bell very well as I used, as a young boy, to climb up in the tower to the bell, which was covered with pigeon droppings, and on which the story of Nogaga was cast. This climbing was not encouraged nor approved of by my parents!
In the meanwhile other buildings were added to the institution and it became quite a large campus. One addition was the manse, started in 1882, in which I lived with my parents after my father became Superintendent of the institution in 1956, when the Department of Bantu Education took over from the Church of Scotland, until he was demoted in 1960 by the department for refusing to segregate the high school staff room.
From 1956 the institution was run by the apartheid department, which caused many problems.
In time the department got rid of many of the buildings, in fact anything in the institution that seemed to have had any connection with the missionaries was done away with, including the beautiful old main building with its memorial tower and Nogaga’s bell.
My father made huge efforts to get the building saved, both for its architectural and for its historical significance. The fact that it was largely paid for by the people it served so well for nearly a century made it seem worth the effort to save it. But other thoughts prevailed and the building was demolished, and with it an interesting link with a vital era in the country’s history.
One concession that my father obtained from the department when they persisted in demolishing the old building was that the bell should be preserved, but after the building had been demolished the bell had also mysteriously disappeared. Perhaps someone in the department made some money selling the bell for its bronze? Maybe we will never know, but the bell’s disappearance seems to me a tragic negation of someone’s dying wish.
Over the years Blythswood had many interesting visitors. I remember an ornate chair in the dining room of the Boys’ Boarding Department in the old main building which was always kept in a place of honour, on account of that arch-imperialist Cecil John Rhodes had apparently sat in it during a visit to the institution.
Another visitor of note was Lady Clarendon, the Governor-General’s Lady, who visited the institution in June 1932. The Union of South Africa as it was at the time, was a constitutional monarchy ruled in title by the King of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, at the time King George V, grandfather of the current monarch, Queen Elizabeth. He was represented in South Africa by the Governor-General, at the time George Villiers, 6th Earl of Clarendon, who’s wife was Lady Caroline, Countess of Clarendon.
Impact of World Wars
During the First World War Blythswood lost a staff member and two former students. The staff member was Mr James G. Leitch who joined the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and was killed in France in 1916.
The two students were Mr Charles Hamilton Kali and Mr Simon Lunganiso, who went down with the more than 600 members of the so-called Native Labour Contigent when the troopship SS Mendi carrying them to duty in Europe was tragically sunk off the Isle of Wight on 21 February 1917. The sinking of the Mendi is one of the most tragic events in the history of the South African contribution to the First World War.
The Mendi was cut in half by another ship, the SS Darro, which made no attempt to save anyone from the Mendi. As a result 607 black troops, nine of their white fellow-countrymen and all 33 crew members of the Mendi were lost. Besides the two former Blythswood students prominent black men who died in the disaster were the Pondoland chiefs Henry Bokleni, Dokoda Richard Ndamase, Mxonywa Bangani, Mongameli and the Reverend Isaac Wauchope Dyobha.
As the ship was sinking the Rev Dyobha encouraged the men saying: "Be quiet and calm my countrymen, for what is taking place now is what you came here to do. We are all going to die, and that is what we came for. Brothers, we are drilling the death drill. I, a Zulu, say here and now that you are all my brothers... Xhosas, Swazis, Pondos, Basotho and all others, let us die like warriors. We are the sons of Africa. Raise your war cries my brothers, for though they made us leave our assegais back in the kraals, our voices are left with our bodies..."
When news of the disaster reached the South African Parliament, which was in session, on 9 March, all members rose to their feet as a token of respect for their fellow-countrymen. There is a legend that news of the disaster reached the affected tribes before they were officially informed.
The years between the wars were a time of great accomplishments for Blythswood, and are often referred to as the “Golden Age” of the institution. In this time the first black graduate was appointed to the staff of the new Secondary School, Mr W.M. Tsotsi. Mr N.P. Bulube, an agricultural expert and the son of one of the founders of the Institution, was appointed Boarding Master and Farm Manager.
The Second World War also brought changes. Many staff members joined up, my father among them. At the same time another important appointment of a Black staff member was made – Mr Gladstone Bikitsha, grandson of the famous Captain Veldtman Bikitsha, was appointed Boarding Master when Mr Bulube decided to leave to start his own business. Captain Bikitsha was a member of a delegation to Queen Victoria in 1889 and a highly-respected leader of the amamFengu.
Also during this period a number of rondavels was built to house the High School. The centre one was internally divided to accommodate the Principal’s office, a storeroom and the staff room which would cause my father so much trouble later!
Until I was about 10 or so there was no electricity at Blythswood and we relied on candles and paraffin lamps for light at night. Then a diesel-powered generating plant was installed to give power to the people of the institution from 4.00 p.m. to 9.00 p.m. This was an amazing boon to us all. One of my great delights was to go down to the building housing the plant to watch it being started up just before four!
Growing up in Blythswood was a great privilege and one which I will always be grateful for. The people of all races and from many different nationalities that made up the influences on my young life were of inestimable value. I have no doubt that it was those early formative years that have given me my enduring love of people and their differences.
I hope that this all-too-brief account of some of the interesting facts of the institution gives some idea of what a great place it was.
I confess I have not been back. I think I would find the changes wrought by apartheid would be too painful. Better to keep the memories I have alive.
Update - I went back after all!
I have recently been back to Blythswood and it was a bitter-sweet return indeed. The way the old buildings have been demolished to make way for modern buildings is one thing, but the worst was that some of the beautiful old buildings, those not demolished, have been allowed to fall into desuetude and decay.
A good discovery was that Nogaga's Bell which we had all thought lost is there and in use again. It now stands in a special bell arch in front of the old building we used to call the Church Hall, which itself has been beautifully restored and is clearly well maintained.
Nogaga's Bell was cast in Glasgow in 1882. I rang it and was delighted to hear its wonderful reverberations once again.
I also met Ms Tsidi Qaba the headmistress of the school and she is working to develop a sense of the history of the place among the staff and students there. A wonderful, energetic lady who told me that Blythswood is visited fairly regularly by people from the Church in Scotland who are trying to maintain links with the place.
There will also be a reunion of past pupils during September 2011.
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- Leaves from My Logbook
This site contains the text of the memoirs of my late father Murray McGregor, who was born in Worcester, Cape Province, on 26 May 1908, when the Province was still a colony of Great Britain. He died in 2002