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Robert Moffat and the Bechuanas

by Claud Field
A dismal prospect—Africaner the terrible—Sheep scared by a hyena—Between a tiger and a serpent—A frail shelter—Short commons—A happy transformation—Moffat poisoned—The frightened Boer—Further afield—Mischievous natives—A Bechuana virago—A stone for dinner—Cunning rain-makers—Facing death—A timely warning—Savage warfare—"Moving houses."

Robert MoffatBefore the year 1817, very little progress had been made by missions in South Africa, owing to the obstructions thrown in the way by the Cape Government, and also by the Boers, who preferred to keep the natives in the condition of slaves. In that year Moffat landed at Cape Town, having been sent out by the London Missionary Society. He had intended to proceed to Namaqualand, but permission was for a long time refused by the Cape authorities, who said that as many slaves had already run away from their masters to the mission station at Griquatown, it was not desirable that any more mission stations should be established.

After persistent applications, however, by Mr. Thom, a Dutch Reformed minister at Cape Town, the Governor at last consented that Moffat should proceed. An account which the missionary received from a traveller of the region he was about to pass through, was not encouraging: "You will find," he was told, plenty of sand and stones, a thinly-scattered population always suffering from want of water, plains and hills roasted like a burnt loaf, under the scorching rays of a cloudless sun."

Besides all this, the region he was about to approach was dominated by the terror of an outlawed Hottentot chief named Africaner. He had formerly been servant to a Boer farmer, who had ill-treated him and had been shot dead by his brother Titus. On this a price of 1000 dollars was set by the Cape Government on the head of Africaner, who dared any one to approach his territories. He threatened to destroy the mission station of Warm Bath, where he himself had formerly received Christian instruction. For a whole month the missionaries were in constant terror, expecting the threatened attack. On one occasion they dug square holes in the ground about six feet deep, that in case of an assault, they might escape the bullets; there they remained buried alive for a week, having the tilt sail of the waggon thrown over the mouth of the pit to keep off the burning rays of a vertical sun. Finding it impossible to remain in circumstances of such danger, they retired to Cape Colony. The mission station was soon afterwards burnt to the ground by Africaner's followers.

When the Dutch farmers heard of Moffat's intention to proceed to Namaqualand, they predicted his speedy death at the hands of Africaner. One said that he would set him up as a mark for his boys to shoot at; another that he would strip off his skin and make a drum of it to dance to, another consoling prediction was that a drinking cup would be made of his skull. One old lady wiping her eyes, bade him farewell, saying: "Had you been an old man, it would have been nothing, for you would soon have died, whether or no; but you are young and going to become a prey to that monster."

The difficulties of the journey were also considerable. The waggons were drawn by eight or ten oxen, and only went about two and a half miles an hour. The task of driving the loose cattle was not an easy one, for frequently the oxen would take one course, the sheep another, and the horses a third. Sometimes the unearthly howl of a hyena would make the sheep take to their heels, and the missionary, dreading the loss of his mutton, had to pursue them. At other times, after heavy rain, the oxen would sink in the mire and the waggons had to be unloaded and dragged out backwards. When there was a succession of dry days, their troubles were of an opposite kind. The oxen would toil along, their tongues lolling out with thirst, till they came to a dead stop and declined to go any farther. Moffat and his companion, Kitchingman, after digging an immense hole in the sand, would find a scanty supply of brackish water which scarcely sufficed for their needs.

They were also often exposed to danger from lions, which frequented the pools, and some of the party had many hair-breadth escapes. One night they were quietly seated at evening worship by a small pool, and the closing notes of a hymn had just died away when the terrific roar of a lion was heard; the oxen, which before were quietly chewing the cud, rushed upon them and over their fires, leaving them prostrate and in a cloud of dust and sand. Hats and hymn-books, Bibles and guns, were all scattered in wild confusion, but no serious injury was sustained. At another time, Moffat had a narrow escape from a spotted tiger and a serpent together. He had left the waggon, and wandered to a distance among the coppice and grassy openings in search of game. He had a small double-barrelled gun on his shoulder which was loaded with a ball and small shot; an antelope passed, at which he fired, and slowly followed the course it took. After advancing a short distance, he saw a tiger standing staring at him from between the forked branches of a tree, behind which his long spotted body was concealed, twisting and turning his tail just like a cat going to spring on its prey. This was a critical moment, as he had not a bullet in his gun. If he turned his back and ran, the tiger would be on him, so he moved about as if in search of something on the grass, taking care to retreat and reload at the same time. After getting, as he thought, to a suitable distance, he turned his back, and moved somewhat more quickly, but in his anxiety to escape what was behind, he did not see what was before, till he was startled by treading on a large cobra asleep upon the grass. It instantly coiled its body round his leg on which he had nothing but a thin pair of trousers. He leaped from the spot, dragging the venomous and enraged reptile after him, and while it was in the act of throwing itself into a position to bite, he shot it. Taking it by the tail, he brought it to his people at the waggon, who, on examining the bags of poison, asserted that had the creature bitten him he could never have reached the waggon. The serpent was six feet long.

When Moffat arrived at Africaner's kraal, things looked by no means propitious. The chief ordered the women to build him a hut, but himself preserved a cold and distant demeanour, while his brother Titus angrily insisted on the departure of Mr. Ebner, Moffat's companion.

The hut Moffat lived in was a frail structure composed of reeds and mats. If a dog wished for a night's lodging, it would force its way in and frequently steal his food; and more than once he found a serpent coiled up in the corner. As the cattle belonging to the village had no fold, but strolled about, he was sometimes compelled to start up from a sound sleep and try to defend himself and his dwelling from being crushed to pieces by the rage of two bulls which had met to fight a nocturnal duel.

Besides this, he often had to suffer from absolute want of food. His salary was only £25 a year, and he was confined to a diet of milk and meat, no vegetables being procurable owing to the want of water for the cultivation of the ground. This proved extremely injurious to his health, and brought on an attack of bilious fever, to which he nearly succumbed.

He was rewarded for his trials, however, by seeing a marked change come over Africaner, who would sit for hours studying his Testament and asking questions. Gradually, to Moffat's joy, he became an enlightened Christian, and proved a great help to him on his missionary itinerations.

These were attended by considerable privation and hardship. On one occasion, coming thirsty to a pool, Moffat drank heartily, but, finding an unusual taste in his mouth, discovered that the water had been poisoned by the Bushmen for the sake of killing game. He began to feel giddy, and his pulse beat with extreme rapidity. Fortunately his constitution was sufficiently robust to throw off the poison, and he recovered after some days. That the danger was serious, however, was shown by the death of some zebras which had drunk of the same water the preceding day.

In 1819 Moffat went to Cape Town to meet his future wife. He proposed to Africaner that he should accompany him, but the chief at first did not believe that he was in earnest. "I had thought you loved me," he said, "and do you advise me to go to the Government to be hung up as an example of public justice? Do you not know that I am an outlaw, and that 1000 dollars have been offered for my head?" However, after a time he yielded to Moffat's persuasions, and they set out on their journey to Cape Town.

Their appearance at the various farms on the way created the profoundest astonishment. One farmer seeing Moffat, put his hand behind him, and inquired rather wildly who he was. When Moffat told him, he said, Moffat! it is your ghost!" and moved some steps backward. "Don't come near me," he exclaimed, "you have been long murdered by Africaner. Everybody says you were murdered, and a man told me he had seen your bones." At length he extended his trembling hand, saying, When did you rise from the dead?" His astonishment, if possible, was increased on seeing Africaner in his new character as the missionary's friend, especially as his own uncle had fallen a victim to the chief's ferocity in former days.

On reaching Cape Town, Moffat went with Africaner to visit the Governor, Lord Charles Somerset, who was much struck with this successful result of missionary enterprise, and presented Africaner with a waggon worth £80.

During his stay at Cape Town, Moffat was appointed by his society to the Bechuana mission. This work, upon which he entered in 1821, proved to be even a severer trial of patience than that in which he had been hitherto engaged. The people were absolutely devoid of religious ideas, and had not even risen to the level of idolatry. They were also extremely mischievous. The Moffats were often left without any water for their vegetables, as the women would cut the watercourse which they had made from the Kuruman River, leaving them on a thirsty plain for many days without a drop of water, and with the thermometer at 130°.

The savage temper of the Bechuanas was a severe trial to the missionaries. On one occasion Mrs. Moffat, with a babe in her arms, humbly begged a woman to be kind enough to move out of a temporary kitchen, that she might shut it as usual before going to church. The woman seized a piece of wood to hurl at Mrs. Moffat's head, who was obliged to make her escape, leaving her in undisputed possession of the kitchen, and free to appropriate its contents to her own use.

Thefts of their property were indeed of daily occurrence, from cattle and sheep, which were carried off at night, to tools and utensils. Sometimes on returning from preaching the missionary would find a stone left in the pot instead of the meat on which he had hoped to dine.

Occasionally the natives hinted that the missionaries had left their own country for some crime. "What is the reason you do not return to your own land?" asked a chief whom Moffat had begged to help him recover his knife, which had been stolen from his jacket, laid down while he was preaching. "If your land was a good one, or if you were not afraid of returning, you would not be so content to live as you do, while people devour you," said another.

Besides their [ignorance], the superstitious reverence paid by the natives to supposed "rain-makers" formed a great obstacle to missionary labours. No device was too grotesque or absurd for the natives to carry out at the command of the rain-maker, in order, as they hoped, to obtain rain. On one occasion he told them to catch a baboon and bring it without a single hair missing, on another to kill a lion and bring its heart. Neither of these methods had any result; and the rain-maker then declared that Moffat and his brother missionary Hamilton frightened away the clouds by looking at them. Eventually Moffat had to intercede for the life of the rain-maker, whom the disappointed natives were preparing to kill. He succeeded in getting him off safely, but they then directed their anger against himself, saying that the missionaries' residence among them was the cause of the long-continued drought, and that they must leave the country. One day a chief, brandishing his spear, came to Moffat's door with a threatening message to this effect. Moffat came out and confronted him, while his wife looked on from the doorway with her infant in her arms. To his threats the missionary replied, "If you are resolved to rid yourselves of us you must resort to stronger measures. You may shed blood or burn us out. Then shall they who sent us know, and God, who sees and hears us shall know that we have been persecuted indeed." At these words the chief looked at his companions, remarking with a significant shake of the head, "These men must have ten lives when they are so fearless of death; there must be something in immortality." The threatening group then broke up, and the missionaries were left for the time in peace.

At last the day came when the Bechuanas were to learn the value of Moffat. For some time past rumours had reached Kuruman that a savage tribe named the Mantatees were about to attack the Bechuanas. Moffat had been preparing for a visit to a distant chief, Makaba, head of the Bauangketsi, in order to open up friendly relations with him. Notwithstanding the dissuasions of the Bechuana chief, Mothibi, who refused to lend him any men for the journey, he persisted in carrying out his plan.

After some days' journey he came in sight of the Mantatees, who were preparing for the attack on the Bechuanas. Moffat hurried back to Latta Koo, the Bechuana headquarters, and advised Mothibi to send for help to Griquatown. He followed the missionary's advice, and, after eleven days' waiting, about one hundred armed horsemen came.

Moffat and the Griquas proceeded to reconnoitre, and soon came in sight of the enemy. They were also seen by the latter, and a few warriors hurled their spears at them, which, however, fell short. Moffat then went forward unarmed, with one of the Griquas, to parley with them. They had approached within a hundred yards of the enemy, and were just about to dismount, when the savages uttered a hideous yell, and several hundred men rushed forward flinging their weapons with such velocity that Moffat and his companion had scarcely time to turn their terrified steeds and gallop away. Seeing no possible means of bringing them to a parley, they retired to a height at a short distance but within view of the enemy. At sunset Moffat rode back to confer with the Griqua chiefs, and to devise some way of bringing the enemy to terms, and avoiding, if possible, the dreadful consequences of a battle.

Next morning they were all in motion before daybreak, and the hundred horsemen rode up to the invaders hoping to intimidate them by their imposing appearance, and bring them to a parley. But when they had approached within one hundred and fifty yards the Mantatees set up their terrible howl and flung their spears and javelins, whereupon the Griquas fired and shot several of their warriors. It was confidently expected that the Mantatees, never having seen fire-arms, would be daunted by this, but it only seemed to inflame their rage. Those who had flung their spears snatched weapons from the hands of their dying companions, and sallied forth in such numbers that the Griquas were compelled to retreat. At length, finding their ammunition failing, they charged the enemy, who gave way in their turn.

During the battle the Bechuanas came up and began to plunder and despatch the wounded men, and to butcher the women and children with their spears and war-axes. Seeing this Moffat galloped in among them, and by entreaties and remonstrances turned many of the Bechuanas from their murderous purpose. At last, after many hours' fighting, the Mantatees were finally repulsed, and the threatened attack on Kuruman was averted.

Mothibi, the Bechuana chief, recognising that this deliverance was due to Moffat's having persisted on his journey in spite of the chief's dissuasions, and so having discovered the enemy, expressed his gratitude in lively terms. His people also seemed at last to become sensible of the deep interest the missionaries had taken in their welfare, standing by them in troublous times when they might have escaped to the colony with comparative little loss of property. After nine years' patient waiting the tide began to turn in the missionaries' favour. But though numerous candidates for baptism came forward, Moffat and Hamilton, with true Scottish caution, at first only admitted six to the rite.

About this time Moselekatse, the chief of the Matabele tribe, sent ambassadors to the Bechuanas to ascertain the nature of the improvements among them, of which a rumour had reached him. When the ambassadors saw the houses which had replaced mud huts, the walls of the folds and gardens, the canal conveying water from the river for irrigation, and the smith's forge, they were loud in their exclamations of delight and admiration. "You are men, we are but children," said one; while the other observed: "Moselekatse must be taught all these things."

The ambassadors being apprehensive of attack on their way home, Moffat accompanied them, and earned their heart-felt gratitude by doing so. On reaching Moselekatse's outposts Moffat was preparing to return, but the ambassadors pleaded with the utmost urgency that he should accompany them to the King's presence in order to save their lives. Pointing to the blue mountains on the horizon, they said, "Yonder dwells the great Moselekatse, and how shall we approach his presence if you are not with us? If you love us still, save us, for when we shall have told our news he will ask why our conduct gave you pain to cause you to return; and before the sun descends on the day we see his face, we shall be ordered out for execution because you are not with us."

Overcome by their importunity, Moffat proceeded to the King's town. Here in a large circle composed of warriors whose kilts were of ape-skins, and their legs and arms adorned with the hair and tails of oxen, the King gave him a friendly reception, saying, "The land is before you! you are come to your son. You must sleep where you please." When the "moving houses," as the waggons were called, drew near, the King, having never seen such things, grasped Moffat's arm and drew back in fear, doubting if they were not living creatures.

He treated Moffat with great kindness during his stay, and on his departure accompanied him in his waggon a whole day's journey. This visit of Moffat's led to the foundation of a mission to the Matabeles, which has lasted through various vicissitudes to the present time.

Moffat's own energies were mainly devoted to the Bechuana mission at Kuruman, where he worked till 1870, and was rewarded by seeing the steady rise of this people out of savagery, and their progress in Christianity and the arts of peace.


Copied for WholesomeWords.org from Heroes of Missionary Enterprise... by Claud Field. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Co., 1908.

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