Robert Moffat

In the year 1816 the rather anonymous arrival in Cape Town of a 21 year old missionary echoed similar daily arrivals and departures in a town that had by then been established as an international sea port for more than 160 years. Robert Moffat, a Scotsman and recent inductee into the service of the London Missionary society, arrived as many had before him, with a vague understanding of Africa, a rather generally directed vocation and a profound faith in the guiding hand of providence. He was one of an army of men and women of mixed denominations who followed the tenets of enlightenment, and with varying degrees of self-sacrifice brought into the realm of European knowledge peoples and regions that, in due course, would be primed by faith and education to eventually come under imperial protection.

Robert Moffat and his peers working in the hinterland of South Africa were not quite as isolated in their missionary work as many in their field in other parts of Africa. South Africa was certainly a remote corner of the known world at that time, but the dangers of climate and population did not compare with those facing catastrophic wastage in the deep tropics of such places  as the Niger Delta, Nyasaland and along the coast of Portuguese East Africa. On the whole a posting to South Africa carried with it a palatable climate and a very reasonable chance of long term survival. Neither was Moffat the first London Missionary Society deployment in Southern Africa, since the organisation had maintained a long and respectable tradition of activity in the region. He was however destined to be one of the most famous of its African sons, ultimately responsible for founding perhaps the most enduring of all African missions, and for forging for himself one of the most recognised and eminent names in the field of African missionary endeavour.

Born to a humble family in Ormiston Mid-Lothian, Moffat began his working life as a gardener, developing as he did many of the practical skills that would form the bedrock of his success as an African missionary. After a successful application to the London Missionary Society he was formally commissioned at the Methodist Surrey Chapel in London before soon afterwards setting sail for the Cape. He arrived in the midst of a turbulent period in the history of the colony, ten years after it had passed from Dutch to British control, and two years after it had been formally ceded to Britain by the Anglo/Dutch Treaty of 1814.

Very little at that time was officially known about the interior of the sub-continent. The principal efforts of both British and Dutch were directed, although separately, and with a high degree of mutual antagonism, towards the pacification of the northward expanding frontier of the Cape. Beyond this much missionary outreach was already underway, some penetrating great distances into the interior, and some also of a highly freelance nature, and it was as part of a general survey and tour of inspection of these scattered facilities that Moffat spent his first year in South Africa.

The main objective of any missionary work at that time was to offer spiritual deliverance to the natives of any territory who until that was achieved were thought to writhe in the darkness and horror of a pagan existence. In the simple faith of many missionary men and women of that time it was easy to assume that that the natives of the interior craved this salvation, and would receive with gratitude any kind of baptism that would make it theirs. As a consequence the attitude of the philanthropic branch of the white settler community was usually patronisingly paternal, often woefully ignorant, and even more often openly hostile to any alternative styles of life and systems of belief.

Robert Moffat was an example of a missionary of a much less dogmatic frame of mind. In his approach to indigenous beliefs and customs he was hostile, but a great deal more liberal than most, and he worked towards their overthrow with a degree of sympathy and sensitivity that was very rare at the time. The great achievement of his career was to found the now famous London Missionary Society station of Kuruman in the dry back country of South Africa’s Karoo. Nowadays a small town in the Northern Cape Province situated about 100 miles west of the settlement of Vryburg, at that time it was part of the wild lands of the Bathlaping, or Fish People, a sub-group of the baTswana language group, and a large body of people that today makes up most of the population of Botswana.

The mission station itself was founded in 1821, and would in due course grow into one of the most influential sites of its kind in Africa, a pivot for a much wider missionary outreach, and a staging post for many important diplomatic and exploratory expeditions into the interior. However even as the first posts were being driven into the dry soil of the Karoo dark clouds were gathering on the southern horizon, signifying the violent and bloody climax to one of the great events of South African history.

The Mfecane was an immense and anonymous tragedy that played out across the interior of South Africa in the period immediately before the general penetration of the region by white missionaries, settlers and administrators. Many, like Robert Moffat, who were close at hand at the time, did not even know at its height that it was happening at all. The words Mfecane, or Difaqane, or Lifaqane, which all essentially translate into euphemisms for total and utter destruction, all manifestly fail to embrace the horror of what actually happened in South Africa during the first 25-years of the 19th century.

The event began as a consequence of the shifts in political organisation that set in motion the military expansion of the Mthethwa and Ndwandwe paramountcies, followed immediately afterwards by the dramatic rise of Shaka and the Zulu nation, and the chain reaction of demographic upheavals that all this set in motion. The focus of these events was the region between the Umfolozi and Thukela Rivers along the coastal littoral of what is today northern KwaZulu/Natal Province of South Africa, but the ramifications where felt much further afield. At its height Zulu power was projected as far south as the border of the Eastern Cape, and as far east as the Drakensberg escarpment, and those escaping the rampage of the Zulu hordes were driven over the Drakensberg Escarpment where a new reign of terror was seeded in modern day Lesotho and westward down the Caledon Valley into the central interior.

The principal figure of the Mfecane was a warrior queen by the name of Mantatisi who commanded a strong force of the Batlokoa, or Wildcat People. The Batlokoa were one of the three principal branches of the Basutho race, and the one that emerged as the principal power in the Mfecane. Mantatisi did not command a homogeneous force, however, but one made up of many other groups that combined into a horde owing allegiance only to survival, and whatever leadership provided the best potential for this. The nature of the Mfecane was a revolving cycle of attack and plunder that was not replenished by any process of production. This meant that the further afield it ranged, and the longer it continued, the more diminished its strength and the more limited its resource. An entire population was sucked into this centrifuge, and unable to escape or alter the deadly trajectory, it engaged itself in self consumption with the inevitable result of dissipation and ultimately annihilation.

Moffat was soon entering into his journal disturbing rumours of the imminent arrival of this horde on the borders of Kuruman. ‘For more than a year,’ he wrote, ‘numerous and strange reports [have] at intervals reached us, some indeed of such a character as induced us to treat them as the reveries of a madman. It was said that a mighty woman, of the name of Mantatee [Mantatisi], was at the head of an invincible army, numerous as locusts, marching onwards amongst the interior nations, carrying a devastation and ruin wherever she went; that she nourished the army with her own milk, sent out hornets before it, and, in one word, was laying the world desolate.’[i]

Initially Moffat was distrustful of these rumours, attributing them to the depredations of Shaka that were too far beyond the east horizon to have any particular impact on his life. However by 1823 rumours were beginning to be supported by witnesses, who themselves were supported in due course by the movement north of refugees offering clear and factual evidence of the approaching catastrophe. As Moffat’s son John was later to reflect: ‘To those who have known the country since, it must seem strange that events had been taking place for months, and even years, within the space of a few hundred miles, the knowledge of which had spread but very little way.’[ii]

Moffat himself was en route northwards of Kuruman when word reached him of the imminent arrival of the ‘Mantatees’. He hurried back and held council with the tribal worthies of the district who agreed with Moffat that without the military support of the ‘Griquas’ the odds of the survival of the local Batlhaping, and very likely Kuruman itself, were very low indeed.

The Griqua were at that time an aggregate people, a product of the heterogeneous racial mix of the Cape, who would nowadays be referred to in the South African lexicon as ‘coloured’, and who then as now stood separate from both races of black and white. With some pride the forerunners of the Griqua community termed themselves the Bastaard, a name that offended the sensibilities of early Britons who gave them the alternative name of Chariguriqua, or Griqua, which remains to this day the nomenclature of an indistinct branch of the more general coloured population of South Africa.

In the 19th century the Griqua existed as a distinct entity in an area situated somewhere between present day Kimberly and Upington, centred perhaps in the vicinity Griekwastad, some 60 miles west of Kimberly. A succession of Captains, beginning with the founding leader of the Griqua, Adam Kok I, governed the affairs of the Griqua. By the time of the Mfecane ‘Griquatown’ had become something of an established settlement under a later Griqua leader by the name of Nicholas Waterboer. The Griqua where a cattle loving people who lived according to codes adopted and adapted from both native and white society. They were armed with modern weapons, spoke Afrikaans, were mounted on horseback and dressed according to Boer custom.

Moffat set off promptly to petition the help of the Griqua, and by the ponderous means of an ox-wagon arrived at Griquatown several days later. There he petitioned Nicholas Waterboer, who, upon hearing the news, immediately assembled a council of his Captains who he instructed to prepare for war. With this achieved Moffat then set of on the return journey, followed 11 days later by a small commando of about 100 Griqua horsemen. A brief council was held in Kuruman before the assembled force of white men and Griqua set off towards where the milling armies of Mantatisi were assembled. There in a brief hiatus the Batlokoa horde pondered the moment when they would rush forward and overwhelm the land.

It was hoped that by parley and persuasion the invaders could be persuaded to return from whence they had come. Moffat, it was deduced, would have the best chance of achieving this, and so he rode alongside the Griqua to within two musket ranges of the vast body of apparently passive people who simply stood and watched as the party of horsemen approach. Encouraged by this Moffat dismounted and began to move towards the horde. He had, however, been mistaken if he thought that the subdued silence that had greeted his advance was a sign of peace, for abruptly the mass of people rose and surged forward. Moffat promptly spun on his heels and fled back to his horse, mounting under hail of lances, and spurring his mount he galloped back towards his comrades moments ahead of a surging wave of hissing and ululating humanity.

At sunrise the following day the small commando again approached the multitude across the plains within sight of Kuruman. At first there seemed once again to be an uncanny calm about the invading force, until, at the approach of the commando they rose and once again and surged forward to the attack. A volley was fired, and then another, and as the Batlokoa pressed forward many fell in confusion with no idea before they died of what it was that had killed them. The Griqua retreated, paused and fired, and retreated again. In this way a steady barrage of fire was directed at the persistent surge of Batlokoa until eventually it became clear that, at the loss of several hundred souls, not one Griqua had been unhorsed let alone hurt or killed. The Batlokoa turned and began to retreat. A steady rearguard action was fought for the remainder of the day until eventually the battle concluded and Moffat and the Griqua returned in muted triumph to Kuruman.

For some months thereafter, under the leadership of Mantatisi the warrior queen, the Batlokoa lingered in the vicinity of Kuruman in apparent irresolution, foraging for what could be found in the neighbourhood, mounting ineffective raids, before eventually turning south and retuning to the denuded heartland of the interior. There, in a weakened state, the stragglers fell victim to their own victims of earlier battles, now wandering the highveld in a predatory state of semi-cannibalism, ready at any time to kill or be killed. Famine swept the country, the Batlokoa were diminished and fractured, to be either wiped out or absorbed into other more powerful mergers and entities.

Mantatisi and her family returned to the Caledon Valley where she found sanctuary in the domains of the great Sotho Chieftain Moshoeshoe, from whose inspired leadership the Lesotho nation and people later emerged, and who ironically had only barely survived being overwhelmed by the Batlokoa at the beginning of the Mfecane, when Mantatisi had been greatly feared, which manifestly she was no longer.

[i] Becker, Peter. Path Of Blood, (Longmans, London, 1962), p54

[ii] Moffat, John S. The Lives of Robert & Mary Moffat, (T. Fisher Unwin, London 189_?), p74