Port Elizabeth of Yore: Bethelsdorp – PE’s First Organised Settlement

Even though farmers had been living in the area since 1776, the tiny settlement of Bethelsdorp, nestled on a hillside 10km north -west of Port Elizabeth, near the Little Swartkops River, was Port Elizabeth’s first organised settlement. Founded in 1803 by a missionary from the London Missionary Society, Dr Johannes Theodorus  van der Kemp, and assisted by the Rev James Read, the settlement became a catalyst for racial conflict. Bethelsdorp is the site of the oldest London Missionary Society (LMS) station in South Africa and today it forms part of Port Elizabeth.

Main picture:A fanciful view of Bethelsdorp with van der Kemp Kloof in the background

Initial activities

Johannes Theodorus van der Kemp, an elderly Dutchmen with military and medical experience, was ordained in the Church of Scotland and joined the LMS. He arrived at the Cape with three other missionaries in March 1799. Their primary focus was to establish a mission station from which they could perform their proselytising activities.  

Unlike the Moravian and Rhenish churches, which worked amongst the Khoikhoi, van der Kemp attempted to pioneer mission work amongst the Xhosa beyond the colonial frontier. However, the unsettled frontier situation made the prospect of a permanent missionary presence impossible at that time. Nevertheless, his concern to remain in contact with the Xhosa and his neutral stance on the frontier question invoked the hostility of the settlers and the suspicion of the colonial authorities.

Johannes Theodorus van der Kemp

After a failed attempt to establish a mission station near Gaika’s Kraal, Van der Kemp moved to Graaff-Reinet to conduct Christian missionary activities among the nomadic Khoikhoi. About this time the government was concerned about the number of “lawless vagrant” Khoikhois.

During the Third Frontier War, van der Kemp ministered to slaves and Khoikhoi at Graaff-Reinet. When he encountered hostility from white settlers, he applied to the British military governor, General Dundas, for permission to settle near Algoa Bay, in the vicinity of Fort Frederick. The British authorities looked upon such a mission as a means of reconciling the rebellious Khoikhoi who had taken up arms against the colonial authorities.

In 1802, the Graaff-Reinet Landdrost, Bresler, ordered Van der Kemp to move the “vagrants” to an unoccupied loan farm known as “Botha’s Place” in Port Elizabeth’s Kragga Kamma area. With the British withdrawal from the Cape and the removal of the soldiers, the settlement was raided by both Xhosa and Boer raiding parties in the latter half of 1802. With their cattle stolen, Kemp and his followers took refuge at Fort Frederick, and the abandoned buildings were razed to the ground by a trekboer commando.

Establishment of Bethelsdorp

In May 1803, Lt-Gen Jan Willem Janssens was appointed governor and military commander of the Cape. He came to Algoa Bay and, on June 2 granted the farm “Roodepan” to Van der Kemp as a mission station. The farm renamed “Bethelsdorp” consisted of 6 700 morgen (5 740 hectares) of land along the “Little Zwartkops River”.

By the following year, Bethelsdorp included Xhosa and Gonaqua (people of mixed Khoi and Xhosa descent) converts to Christianity which altered the nature of the settlement considerably. Virtually from the outset then Bethelsdorp served a larger group than the Khoikhoi alone, although it remained Batavian policy to draw a firm line of demarcation between the Xhosa and the Colony.

Suitability for farming

The Khoikhoi erected reed and mud huts and a church, the latter collapsing in 1809. Ploughing and sowing was at first delayed because farmers refused to sell seed to the residents at Bethelsdorp.  Eventually the government sent 70 sacks of seeds, but the first crop was a disaster.

The soil was poor and there was hardly any drinking water. Reed believed that the unproductive site had been chosen in the malicious belief that the mission would not survive.

The site of the Bethelsdorp mission station was not suitable for agriculture or pastoralism, and it appears likely that van der Kemp and his assistant, James Read, regarded it as been given on a trial basis. Initially only temporary wattle and daub dwellings were erected because of the hope of removal to more fertile land. The aridity of the scrub-bush terrain and the poor water supply made agriculture a difficult undertaking, and very marginal even for stock. A large proportion of the community (males especially) had to seek employment with white farmers when crops failed successively every year until 1808. In spite of the attempts by van der Kemp to promote self-­sufficiency through the teaching of skills such as blacksmithing, carpentry, salt-panning and wagon-making, the population of Bethelsdorp became increasingly dependent on wages from labour.

Nevertheless, settlers complained that the mission was depriving them of a potential source of labour. General Janssens viewed mission stations, such as Bethelsdorp, as a potential reservoir of labour for the government and white settlers by way of controlling those dispossessed Khoikhoi given to nomadic and marauding habits. In this respect, missionary aims coincided with government policy.

Visit by Lichtenstein

On his travels through the Cape Colony, Dr Henry Lichtenstein visited Bethelsdorp. He was clearly not enamoured with the settlement which he described in the following scathing terms:  “On a wide plain, without a tree, almost without water fit to drink, are scattered 40 or 50 huts in the shape of hemispheres … In the midst is a small clay church thatched with straw”.

Henry Lichtenstein

For a great way round, not a bush is to be seen, for what there might originally have been has long ago been used for firewood, the ground all about is perfectly naked, and hard­-trodden down,” he wrote. He said there was no trace of any industry and everywhere were “lean, ragged, or naked figures, with indolent sleepy countenances“.

Contemporary travellers such as Lichtenstein, who dubbed the mission station “Bedelaarsdorp”, or “Beggars Rown”, ascribed the apparent indolence of the inhabitants of Bethelsdorp to van der Kemp’s pre-occupation with his converts spiritual, rather than material welfare. Against this backdrop, this caricature of van der Kemp as an impractical ‘other-worldly hermit’ was initially believed even by one of his greatest defenders, Dr John Philip. The persistence of such an image owes much to the writings of Theal and Cory. Although van der Kemp was undoubtedly a man of intellect and learning, he was a man of practical training and experience.

Rev Dr John Philip

Literacy

Van der Kemp considered that a missionary institution should be a place where converts could hear the gospel, attend school, as well as learn practical skills. Thus, he ignored the Batavian government injunction not to teach literacy. In 1805 van der Kemp produced a ‘Hottentot catechism’, which is believed to be the earliest work ever printed in a native South African language. Further educational progress was made during the period of van der Kemp’s ministry: a school was attached to the church and steady progress was made in literacy teaching to both children and adults. The success of the missionaries was, more often than not, measured in terms of the extent to which converts had appropriated the habits and values of European civilization. But van der Kemp did not subscribe to the norms of early nineteenth century Christianity, nor did he wish to create “carbon copy Europeans”.

Van der Kemp’s enlightened view on race

Unlike many of his contemporary missionaries, van der Kemp identified closely with his converts. He declined a LMS stipend and expended a private source of income on his parishioners, forsook all worldly comforts and lived a life of austerity. His marriage to a half-Malagasy freed slave woman and that of Read to a Khoikhoi woman, caused the settlers to charge that intercourse (in every sense of the word) would not result in the ‘upliftment’ of the Khoi, but in the denigration of the white man. Subsequent accusations of fornication against Read by the irregular Thom Synod and his suspension from the ministry, seemed to confirm the view of detractors that his moral character did not make him fit to be a Christian missionary. Freund argues that the distaste for inter-racial liaisons and the controversy over this issue reflects later, rather than contemporary opinion. Whilst there have been attempts to rehabilitate both van der Kemp and Read, there is evidence to suggest that accusations of sexual impropriety (whether unfounded or not) provided a useful means to discredit the LMS missionaries in the past, and still remains so.

This is Livingstone’s cottage where he reportedly slept in Bethelsdorp in 1841 en route to Bechuanaland

By 1806, Van der Kemp lived and dressed in the traditional Khoikhoi manner and in that year married a 16-year-old girl whose freedom from slavery he purchased, along with her entire family

What concerned the Batavian administration even more, though, was the question of the political loyalty of the Bethelsdorp missionaries. Thus, van der Kemp and Read were ordered to Cape Town in April 1805, where they remained until the British occupation in January 1806. The new British military administration allowed them to return to their station. Notwithstanding that, complaints of injustices from Bethelsdorp on behalf of Khoikhoi servants alienated the British authorities in the same way as the Batavian regime. A low point in relations with the new regime was reached when Bethelsdorp was threatened with closure in 1809 following the Collins Report, which stated that its existence could not be justified. However, the report was never acted upon and the mission was given a reprieve.

An early photograph of Bethelsdorp village

In 1806, Britain recaptured the Cape from the Dutch, and American-born Jacob Cuyler was appointed Landdrost at Uitenhage. According to historian Noel Mostert, Cuyler “reacted with … vindictive fury to anyone who dared to oppose his will and commands“. Conflict arose immediately between Cuyler and Van der Kemp as Cuyler wanted six men from Bethelsdorp to build his offices in Uitenhage.

Almshouse built in 1822

Van der Kemp refused. He believed that the Khoikhoi were free men. He also opposed Cuyler’s call for the men to serve commando duty and wanted no service contracts with surrounding farmers unless signed in the presence of the missionaries.

The argument climaxed when Cuyler called for Van der Kemp’s removal from the frontier. In 1808, the Governor of the Cape, the second Earl of Caledon, compromised and stipulated the Khoikhoi were to be given written contracts in which their salaries were stipulated.

Ordinances passed by Governors Caledon and Cradock in 1809 and 1812, respectively, although confirming the status of the Khoi as unfree labour, did give them recourse to the courts in cases of breach of contract or allow them to bring charges against white masters in cases of assault. The Bethelsdorp missionaries immediately began to aid the Khoikhoi attached to their station and many others scattered throughout the eastern frontier districts to lay charges before the new Circuit Court. These cases were heard during the infamous ‘Black Circuit’ of 1812, by which time van der Kemp was dead but Read did his utmost to help the many litigants bring their cases to court. Although a number of charges against farmers were upheld, this legislation did little to change the behaviour of the settlers, both Dutch and British alike. In fact, it only made the settlers more resentful of the political meddling of the LMS missionaries.

Van der Kemp Memorial Church. Bethelsdorp Village

Van der Kemp died in 1811 and was succeeded by Dr John Phillip who instigated a large-scale plan for the upliftment of the area, including the construction of permanent buildings.

Later developments

The years between the death of van der Kemp and the arrival of the Rev. Dr. John Philip, as superintendent of the LMS missions in South Africa in 1819, were particularly difficult ones for the LMS in South Africa. It was the express wish of the directors of the LMS that priority should be given to make the missions models of industry and propriety, Christianity and civilization. These expectations were certainly unrealistic in the case of Bethelsdorp, given the uncertainty of its future. Moreover with Read involved in aiding Khoikhoi servants to bring charges to court until 1814, the supervision of Bethelsdorp was neglected. But with his vision, commitment and astounding energy, Philip had the ability to translate his ideas into reality, and a period of consolidation followed at Bethelsdorp.

Rev. Dr. John Philip

Philip felt that the campaign to improve the status of the Khoikhoi would be harmed by the poor impression created by the mission stations and would only serve to reinforce the settlers’ view that they were indolent and unworthy of legal equality. Therefore, Philip urged the Khoikhoi to prove their capacity for equal legal rights and coined the slogan, “fit to be free”. He determined that Bethelsdorp should be improved in outward appearance and initiated an appropriate programme. A large-scale reconstruction project was commenced, which included a plan for the rectangular layout of streets and permanent stone dwellings. A row of almshouses to accommodate the aged and indigent, a new schoolhouse and a store were erected by 1822. A modicum of prosperity and a measure of economic independence was possible on account of the arrival of the British settlers and the expanding markets. Philip’s influence was effective in procuring considerable improvements to Bethelsdorp and thoroughly reforming the work of the LMS as a whole.

Bethelsdorp Commonage with slave bell

The Bigge Report (1830) reflected favourably on the advances made during the third decade of the existence of Bethelsdorp. If van der Kemp can be regarded as the founder of Bethelsdorp, Philip must be regarded as having made a greater contribution to its continued growth.

Philip has been vilified as a ‘political missionary’ who interfered in matters beyond his jurisdiction. His Researches in South h Africa has been described as a piece of propaganda designed to serve a particular political purpose. Ross argues that the central thesis of the work is that colonial legislation deprived persons of colour their basic civil rights and ensured that they constituted a pool of docile and readily available labour for whites. It documents numerous instances of maltreatment of Khoikhoi servants by settlers but, far more importantly, provided a wide-ranging critique of Cape society. While van der Kemp and Read had attacked specific examples of injustice, Philip sought to expose the injustice of the structure of the administration of the Cape Colony as a whole. He criticised the treatment meted out to Khoikhoi servants, opposed the terms of service in the Hottentot Corps, and the system of compulsory labour whereby the Khoikhoi shouldered the burden of labour on public works to the extent that it inhibited attempts at individual enterprise. In short, it was his opinion that the landless, rightless Khoikhoi were no better off than the slaves. He enlisted the support of the evangelical parliamentary lobby in seeking changes to the Cape Colony’s legislation pertaining to the status of the Khoikhoi. In addition, he was instrumental in effecting a review of the status of the Khoikhoi with the passage of Ordinance 50 of 1828

The Slave Bell

Ordinance 50 rescinded all previous legislation which bound landless Khoi to white farmers.  Although the legislation allowed freedom of movement, and the choice of work and dwelling place for the Khoikhoi, it had little immediate impact on the Bethelsdorp mission station. Whilst the concept of vagrancy and the conscription of labour by the authorities was eliminated, most of the able-bodied men continued to work for farmers and this drained the manpower reserves of the mission station. Neither did the Ordinance secure legal ownership of land for residents of the mission station, nor was the land formally allocated to the LMS or the missionaries.

The first mud and reed church, erected in the days of van der Kemp and Read, collapsed in 1809. It was replaced by an L-shaped structure with clay walls and a thatched roof. The church rebuilt on the site in 1903 was named the Van der Kemp Memorial Church in honour of the founder of the mission. It was subsequently reconstructed in 1926 without changing the renovations, which complement the old church both architecturally and structurally.  The Church and its precincts (which includes the almshouses, bell, and so-called Livingstone cottage) is the only physical reminder of the erstwhile Bethelsdorp mission station.

Although the mission station never served a homogeneous group, the Khoikhoi remained preponderant in the early days. An influx of Africans meant that they came to comprise the largest ethnic group in Bethelsdorp by the 1940s. However, the subsequent implementation of the Group Areas Act resulted in Bethelsdorp becoming a ‘coloured’ township. Demographically, the character of the Bethelsdorp community has been transformed by the natural process of urbanisation and the social engineering of apartheid. Thus, it is historically misleading to associate Bethelsdorp purely and simply with the ‘coloured’ community.

Map of the extension of Port Elizabeth’s Municipal Boundaries 1897 – 1931

The present Congregational Church, although rebuilt many times over the years, has a direct connection with the historic Bethelsdorp mission station.

Sources

Settlement began as Mission Station to relocate ‘vagrant’ Khoikhoi by Ivor Markman (The Herald, Friday, 5th June 2009)

Bethelsdorp: The Early Days by G. Baines (Looking Back, Volume 27, Number 1, March 1988)

Port Elizabeth: A Social Chronicle to the end of 1945 by Margaret Harradine (2004, Historical Society of Port Elizabeth, Port Elizabeth)


2 Comments

  1. A fascinating history little known. The definitive book,generally accepted, is ‘Frontiers’ by Noel Mostert which is a monster read well recommended. It’s in most PE libraries.

    Reply

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