Academic journal article African Research & Documentation

The Colenso Papers: Documenting "An Extensive Chain of Influence" from Zululand to Britain1

Academic journal article African Research & Documentation

The Colenso Papers: Documenting "An Extensive Chain of Influence" from Zululand to Britain1

Article excerpt

For several decades, members of the Colenso family conducted a vigorous humanitarian campaign across two continents, keeping in touch and exchanging information with one another between England and Natal. Prolific writers, continuously immersed in the often frenetic day to day activity of their campaigning work, they had little time to consider preserving for the future the vast amount of correspondence and documentation they produced. The result is that much of their prodigious output survives today only by chance, dispersed between different collections in the United Kingdom and South Africa.

The Colenso papers are authored not by an individual but severally by the members of a family, the family of John William Colenso, the first Bishop of Natal, his brother in law, his wife, their five children and two daughters in law. But I suggest that it is useful to regard these papers as a unified whole because the Colensos saw themselves as working collaboratively and in pursuit of a common cause: the defence of the Zulu people of Natal and Zululand.

In 1853, John William Colenso was consecrated as the first Bishop of the newly created Anglican Diocese of Natal [see fig I]. Two years later, he went out to Natal with his wife and their four children in their infancy. A fifth child was to be born in the colony. A mission station was established outside Pietermaritzburg, the capital of Natal. The family home built on the site was called Bishopstowe [see fig 2]. Bishop Colenso arrived in Natal believing in the civilising mission of the British Empire and seeing his own Christian mission as part of this imperial project. He formed a close working relationship with the Natal Secretary for Native affairs, Theophilus Shepstone, whose integrity and high motives he believed in implicitly. Then, in 1874, after nearly 20 years in the colony, he became disillusioned with colonial rule when the trial of a Natal Zulu chief, Langalibalele, revealed the underhand methods used by Shepstone to control the African population of Natal.

Bishop Colenso travelled to England to protest to the Colonial Secretary, Lord Carnarvon, about the unjust way in which the trial of Langalibalele had been conducted. As a result, the Governor of Natal was recalled and instructions issued to the colony that Langalibalele should be released from detention and his people, the Hlubi, compensated for their losses suffered following the capture of their chief. This marked the beginning of a lifelong campaign by the Bishop and his family for justice for the Zulu people. But it brought the Colenso family into conflict with the Natal authorities and, in particular, it created a permanent rift between the Bishop and Shepstone. It also set the Colenso family at odds with the majority of the settler community of Natal. In early 1875, on his return from England, Bishop Colenso wrote, "I landed and found the Durbanites were in a furious state of excitement threatening all sorts of iniquities against me." 2

At the same time, the Langalibalele affair marked the beginning of a lifelong relationship between the Colenso family and the London based humanitarian organisation, the Aborigines Protection Society, and, in particular, its secretary, Frederick Chesson. In 1875, after his return to the colony, Bishop Colenso replied to a letter from Chesson saying "[your letter] has done me good and refreshed me and mine in the hot fight which I am sorry to say we have still to maintain in reference to the Native Questions." 3 Evidently, the Bishop realised then that he had committed himself to a long and difficult struggle.

When Bishop Colenso first arrived in Natal, the neighbouring Zululand was a politically independent kingdom with a largely self-sufficient economy based on subsistence agriculture. In 1879, British and colonial forces invaded Zululand. The effects of the ensuing Anglo Zulu war, and the post war settlement imposed by the British, were ruinous for the country's economy and social system. …

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