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A Living Man from Africa: Jan Tzatzoe, Xhosa Chief and Missionary, and the Making of Nineteenth-Century South Africa

A Living Man from Africa: Jan Tzatzoe, Xhosa Chief and Missionary, and the Making of Nineteenth-Century South Africa

by Roger S. LevineRoger S. Levine
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Born into a Xhosa royal family around 1792 in South Africa, Jan Tzatzoe was destined to live in an era of profound change—one that witnessed the arrival and entrenchment of European colonialism. As a missionary, chief, and cultural intermediary on the eastern Cape frontier and in Cape Town and a traveler in Great Britain, Tzatzoe helped foster the merging of African and European worlds into a new South African reality. Yet, by the 1860s, despite his determined resistance, he was an oppressed subject of harsh British colonial rule. In this innovative, richly researched, and splendidly written biography, Roger S. Levine reclaims Tzatzoe's lost story and analyzes his contributions to, and experiences with, the turbulent colonial world to argue for the crucial role of Africans as agents of cultural and intellectual change.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300198294
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 09/10/2013
Series: New Directions in Narrative History
Pages: 328
Product dimensions: 5.70(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Roger S. Levine is associate professor of history at Sewanee: The University of the South.

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A Living Man From Africa

Jan Tzatzoe, Xhosa Chief and Missionary, and the Making of Nineteenth-Century South Africa

By Roger S. Levine


Copyright © 2011 Yale University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-300-16859-4




His Longing Desire to Return to Our Place 1810

In the early days of 1810 the Reverend James Read is about to cross the Cape Colony's eastern border at the Sundays River when his horse slips on a muddy slope and falls on all fours, trapping itself between two small trees. Read runs his hands over his body to reassure himself that all of its parts remain unbroken. Raindrops shatter beneath his feet, so unlike the drizzle of his English childhood that gently dripped off his hat brim. The wet red clay of the road coats the flanks of his horse and streaks his pants.

Along with seven men who have accompanied him from the London Missionary Society's Bethelsdorp mission station, Read is officially on the hunt for stolen cattle. But his real aim is to search for our young Caffer Chief who had informed me of his longing desire to return to our place. Read is looking for Jan Tzatzoe.

Six years earlier, in 1804, Kote Tzatzoe, chief of the relatively poor amaNtinde lineage, or clan, of the Xhosa state, had spent some time among the rolling hills clad with knotted fynbos fur that rise above the vast semicircular sweep of Algoa Bay. There, just inside the colony, he had entrusted his son to Read and his fellow LMS missionary, Johannes van der Kemp, to live and learn at the year-old Bethelsdorp mission station. The missionaries had quickly grown fond of the ten-year-old boy, who had left Bethelsdorp a few years later to return across the colonial border to his father and his natal land.

In his attempt to locate Tzatzoe, Read is passing at his peril, and with begrudging permission from the local colonial official, the Landdrost of Uitenhage, Colonial Jacob Cuyler (an American Loyalist who had fled Albany, New York, for Canada), across an expanse approximately one hundred and fifty miles wide, from Algoa Bay in the west to the Great Fish River in the east. This border region is a locus of cultural exchange, where two settlement zones meet and merge together on their margins.

To the west, the European zone, where, since the start of the eighteenth century, European settlers have been trickling across the four hundred miles of mountains and open plains that separate Algoa Bay from Cape Town, the cosmopolitan seaport established by the Dutch East India Company in 1652 near the Cape of Good Hope. Mostly Dutch and French Huguenot, these European settlers live off the output of small farms, large herds of cattle and sheep, and the skins and meat from hunting expeditions. Many of the European families settling the zone have brought slaves along with them. These individuals have been transported to the Cape from the length and breadth of the Indian Ocean world, the west coast of Africa, or were born into African captivity.

Along with Read and Van der Kemp (whom the Dutch colonial government had recalled to Cape Town), Jan Tzatzoe had witnessed the military engagements through which the British (concerned about the Cape's importance in their wars with Napoleonic France) had wrested control of Cape Town and its hinterland from the Dutch in the early months of 1806. Since then, the European zone has been under British colonial control, but it remains authoritatively Dutch and sparsely populated. Roman Dutch law and Dutch bureaucratic structures remain in place. Most importantly, Dutch remains the language of the farmers and hunters, the traders and soldiers, the missionaries and interpreters.

To the east, the Xhosa zone, where large numbers of densely settled Africans remain fully independent. Known to the colonists as Kafirs, or Caffres, following an old Arabic description of the peoples of the southeast African coast, in 1810 a population of between fifty and one hundred thousand people lives near and along the coast for three hundred miles from Algoa Bay past the Kei River. They call themselves amaXhosa, and maintain a fractious unity through a mutually intelligible language and an assertion of common descent from an early seventeenth-century ancestor, Tshawe. The Xhosa are descended from a millennia-old migration into southeastern Africa of agriculturalists and metalworkers, and their language and way of life is closely related to that of other states found on or near Africa's southeast and eastern coast. They reached the western limits of their zone (where rain-fed agriculture gave way to arid conditions) at least two hundred years before the area became a border region. Much like the Europeans to their west, the Xhosa rely upon livestock, hunting, and trading; their agriculture, however, is more sophisticated and prolific as a result of better rainfall in the land they control.

Another group of people live (or have lived) in both zones. These are the mostly nomadic Khoisan pastoralists and foragers, known at the time as Hottentots and Bushmen, who predate both the Europeans and the Xhosa. The Xhosa have been in contact and conflict with the Khoisan for centuries, defending their herds from Khoisan raiders, expelling Khoisan families from valuable hunting and agricultural land, pushing them ever farther to the west toward the Cape of Good Hope but also integrating them as herders, hunters, guides, religious practitioners, and even family members. The Xhosa have incorporated three click consonants from the Khoisan into their language—the explosive plop produced by the tongue rocketing from the top of the mouth, the gentle tut from the front of the mouth, and the cluck from the side. The Europeans have rapidly conquered the Khoisan in their zone, reducing them to a servant class on European farms and with European livestock ranchers under a quasi-legal situation that amounts to forced labor at worst and indentured servitude at best. Christian missionaries of varying denominations had come among these broken people and many of them have embraced the new religion.

Over the course of the eighteenth century, the border region where the two zones meet has grown increasingly violent as the Khoisan remaining there have resisted colonization by the Europeans and Xhosa, and the two major groups in the area have crossed paths more frequently, competing for grazing land and raiding each other's cattle. In response to Xhosa incursions, and, primarily, to perfect their predatory excursions, the Dutch settlers and their Khoisan allies have developed a military system built around the commando, which is a small to medium-sized group of armed and mounted men who muster, strike, and retreat quickly (often driving captured cattle before them). This time period has featured three particularly intense eruptions of conflict within the border region that will later be identified as the First, Second, and Third Frontier Wars. The amaNtinde lineage of Jan and Kote Tzatzoe is among the most western of the Xhosa lineages. As a result, the amaNtinde have had a significant degree of integration with Khoisan groups; they have also faced considerable European pressure and influence.

After James Read's accident and in spite of the rain, the party from Bethelsdorp hurries to reach the Sundays River before sunset. The north-to-south course of the Sundays marks the official border of the Cape Colony and Xhosaland, hanging like a plumb line through the border region. Elephants pose a great danger. The beasts rush to the river after dark, resisting every thing before them, and there are no paths but what are made by them. The river has a frightful appearance, both banks guarded by one hundred and fifty paces of reed beds, in rows so orderly as to appear planted.

Read is happiest at times like these, indulging his great desire for itinerating, putting the constricting life of the mission station behind him, sleeping on the ground, searching for new converts. The son of a carpenter from a small village in Essex in southeast England, the missionary is broad-backed, with a welcoming face dominated by bushy eyebrows. Read first cast his lines off from Britain during the waning moments of the eighteenth century. He and his fellow missionaries aboard the Duff were anxious—yet eager—to jostle with storms, to journey halfway around the world to a land of soaring mountains, crashing waves, wide sandy beaches, fecund and savage vegetation. But the French fleet captured the ship in the South Atlantic, ending its voyage to the famed South Seas, and ordering it back to England. Being thus disappointed in his object, Read turned, instead, toward the craggy cliffs of the Cape of Storms.

Having crossed the Sundays, the party passes through broken country. Open plains mix with large woods. Fresh elephant dung and the uprooted carcasses of trees remind Read just how far he is from England's tamer shores. But as he rides up to the village of Sibi, a young Caffra and subordinant chief of Conga—perhaps it is the rain which has him in such a nostalgic mood—he sits tall in his saddle, swivels around for a panoramic view, takes in with pleasure the vast fields of Caffra and Indian corn, and cattle dotting the fields to the horizon, and remarks to himself that it bears a strong European resemblance. Another English traveler will share Read's admiration and nostalgia for the broken border country, which is totally different from that about the Cape, being covered with grass ... of the richest green; and large tracts with a striking resemblance to English park scenery.

The coastline to the east of Algoa Bay is ragged and treacherous. Heading inland, a coastal belt of rainforest clings to the sides of steep inland mountain ranges that tower over plains that extend about thirty to fifty miles into the interior. Large open grasslands intercede between coast and mountain. Here, mimosa with its delicate green, rich yellow blossom is the dominant presence. Acacia trees stand guard, their crowns of toughened-green leaves and disproportionately severe milk white thorns thrust regally into the air. On steeper slopes, there are spiky-haired aloe, both large and small, and the palm-like euphorbia, with its naked trunk. Many types of heather. Different jasmines, speck boom, ivy geraniums. Like giant candelabras, rock outcroppings display proteas; squat, anti-diluvian cycads with fernlike leaves trailing upward like a squid's many tentacles; and most spectacular of all, the flamboyant Strelitzia, blossoms blazing with an orange glory that seems to combine the red of the soil with the yellow of the noonday sun.

Precipitous river valleys furrow the entire region, replete with strikingly beautiful timber: the rich foliage of the wild fig, the plum, and that of the gnarled and twisted elsewood ... the cold green of the bending willow. Approaching to within twenty miles of the coast, the trees grow larger. Along with Assegai and Ironwood, there are now Stinkwood, Coral trees, and most majestic of all, the soaring Yellowwood, its stubby branches feathered with tiny, waxy, leaves forming an endearing counterpoint to its massive, corrugated, trunk. At the ocean's edge, rivers greet the sea with marshy hands.

It is possible that Read sees the aftermath of the fires that are sometimes the effect of chance, frequently of design, and that serve to regenerate the grass while helping it fight off the spreading mimosa and acacia. Cattle come galloping and bounding and playing. Young Xhosa boys are in charge of the herds, which graze on sourveld on the upland leas in the springtime, while the young grass shoots are in their infancy. Sweetveld, eaten year round, is found lower down the mountains and in the river valleys.

Chief Sibi greets the travelers hospitably, offers them as much green Indian corn, or maize, which when boiled or roasted is very delicious, as they can carry, and agrees to serve as their guide and their translator of the message of eternal welfare as they push further into Xhosaland. They move on in search of Kote Tzatzoe's village, visiting another Chief, Camma or Kama, who with his son had always ... much regard for the word of God. In the twilight they emerge from the dark recesses of the woods, inhale deeply of the brackish air, brush beads of sea-spray off their cheeks, and ride the short distance uphill to Kote Tzatzoe's village.

The chief's eldest son greets them with signs of great friendship. He slaughters a fat ox as a treat and supplies them with fresh corn and a sufficient quantity of milk. Jan Tzatzoe and his father are away on a hunting trip gathering the skins of antelope, and of lion and leopard if their luck is auspicious. The skins will be sewn into karosses, or toga-like garments, with the leopard skin garments reserved for the few with aristocratic status. As night settles over the dwellings, a runner is dispatched to inform the hunting party of Read's arrival.

Read has been given the chief's house in which to stay, but he finds it unbearable. The Xhosa houses are shaped like bee-hives, formed on strong wicker-work frames, and thatched with reeds or grass. They have a low, narrow aperature for a door, and a round shallow hole in the center for a fire. Women do the majority of the construction, with the men providing the four to six central timber supports. A flat mat lies on the earthen floor, but, typically, no other furniture is present. Read complains of the smoke from cooking which only partly escapes through the door and the thatched roof. The small space throngs with visitors night and day, and his clothes, washed clean by the rain after his encounter with the mud, are again quite red after a night of such close proximity with the quite naked, clay-daubed bodies of the Xhosa men.

Read wakes to sunshine slanting through an open door. Compounds consisting of the houses of a man and his multiple wives, and his central cattle enclosure, are known as kraals, and they are generally located on the side of [a] gentle hill, the entrances of the huts facing the rising sun. Kote Tzatzoe's kraal is only distinguishable from those of his followers by its relative size and the elephant's tail hanging from a pole near its entrance. Activity is audible beyond the thin clay and dung-daubed walls of the hut: women and girls murmur to each other as they start cooking fires and leave to fetch drinking water from the stream down slope; boys fetch their willowy cattle prods and gather around the cattle enclosure, readying themselves and their charges for another day of grazing and dozing and swatting at flies; older men emerge from the huts to admire their cattle and enjoy the calm and comfortable temperature of the early summer morning.

Most of the boys and men are dressed in antelope karosses. The women and girls wear short leather skirts. The clothing is decorated with brightly colored trade, or more subtle bone, quill, and stone, beading. Both sexes wear necklaces, bracelets, and anklets made of shell, ivory, and copper. The men tend to favor copper or brass armbands. As they prepare for the scorching day, the villagers cover their exposed skin with a mixture of reddish clay and animal fat to protect against insects and sunburn. The result is to make them appear to be carved from polished bronze.

Young boys herd the cattle and move around during the day in search of pasturage. At night, they return to the village cattle kraals. It is not unusual for hyenas, lions, and leopards to prowl around these walls of amputated thorn bush limbs. The older men are responsible for the care of the animals and the production of fermented milk, which is a key component of the daily menu. Cattle are the preeminent source of wealth in Xhosa society, and powerful members of society, mostly associated with the aristocratic families, gain followers by disbursing cattle. Young men aspire to two or three cows in order to raise a large herd with which they might pay bride wealth.

Read eases into the sunlight. He looks down the hill to the foaming shoreline. To his left and right, about twenty kraals are arrayed along the hillside in a row. Each one contains an average of twelve huts and a cattle enclosure. Below the kraals are abutting gardens; he can see sorghum, maize, millet, pumpkins, melons, sweetcane, tobacco. Next fine grass and timber, and running through it a river with fine fish that is stained by wood tannins to a color resembling the tea that he is sipping for his breakfast.

In the morning air, he holds a service for his little group. To his surprise, many members of the village arrange themselves around him. They conduct themselves in an altogether different manner from usual, keeping very quiet. He repeats the message he has delivered so often. Spoken in Dutch, it is consumed by various translators and released in Xhosa. The word of God: the birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ, the resurrection of the dead, and the last Judgement.

Excerpted from A Living Man From Africa by Roger S. Levine. Copyright © 2011 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents


Preface....................     ix     

Acknowledgments....................     xi     

Maps....................     xiv     

Introduction....................     1     

Kelso, Scotland, 1837....................     7     

Part I....................          

Xhosaland, 1810....................     11     

Bethelsdorp, 1811–1815....................     21     

Makana's Kraal, 1816....................     34     

Kat River, 1816–1818....................     49     

Fish River Valley, 1822....................     66     

iQonce, 1825–1832....................     74     

Buffalo River, 1833–1835....................     93     

Queen Adelaide Province, 1835–1836....................     106     

Part II....................          

Charles Darwin in Cape Town....................     123     

England, 1836....................     125     

Great Britain, 1836–1838....................     142     

Part III....................          

Tzatzoe in Kuruman....................     161     

King William's Town, 1838–1845....................     163     

British Kaffraria, 1845–1868....................     175     

Epilogue....................     193     

Notes....................     197     

Bibliography....................     265     

Index....................     283     

What People are Saying About This

Robert Harms

“In this beautifully written story of Jan Tzatzoe, an African chief and British-educated Christian who embodied many of the contradictions of his age, Roger Levine paints a vivid portrait African-European relations on the South African frontier during its historical transformation in the nineteenth century. Levine shows that on the South African frontier borders were porous, identities were malleable, and religious beliefs were negotiable. Africans were neither total resistors nor total collaborators, but instead negotiated tortuous paths through shifting landscapes.(Robert Harms, author of The Diligent: A Voyage through the Worlds of the Slave Trade)

Andrew Bank

This fascinating and absorbing work demonstrates a great depth of knowledge of colonial and British source materials. Despite the difficulties of disaggregating the sounds of Jan Tzatzoe from those of his colonial translators and mediators, Levine gives us access to the voice of an African who experienced fluctuating fortunes as a cultural intermediary, a man-between, thus making a particularly significant contribution to our understanding of the dialogue between Western and indigenous knowledge systems.—Andrew Bank, University of the Western Cape

John Demos and Aaron Sachs

This is a book that captivates, that draws you immediately into both its story and its argument and then invites you along for the most delightfully jostling of rides. The urgency of the present tense, the energy of the action, the vividness of the metaphors: this kind of craft brings the pleasure back to reading history, allows us to exercise our imagination. Yet Levine's compelling narrative is blended, throughout, with the kind of deft, nuanced analysis that would never allow Jan Tzatzoe's tale to be merely another anecdote about a cultural intermediary operating within colonialist power structures. A Living Man from Africa thus becomes both a surprising, humane intervention in the historiography and a sustained meditation on the nature of history. It is astonishing to see what Levine has uncovered about the life of a spiritually inclined Xhosa man in the first half of the nineteenth century. It is even more astonishing to realize that Levine has enlisted his readers in an effort to rediscover the humble joy of pursuing mystery and possibility. We are delighted to inaugurate Yale University Press's new series, New Directions in Narrative History, with this exemplary piece of historical scholarship and writing.—John Demos (Yale University) and Aaron Sachs (Cornell University), series editors.

Nancy Jacobs

The author demonstrates how intertwined Europeans and Africans were and that the European-introduced religion was not an alien imposition. These observations have been made before, but Levine makes them in an accessibly told biography.(Nancy Jacobs, Brown University)

Robert Harms

In this beautifully written story of Jan Tzatzoe, an African chief and British-educated Christian who embodied many of the contradictions of his age, Roger Levine paints a vivid portrait of African-European relations on the South African frontier during its historical transformation in the nineteenth century. Levine shows that on the South African frontier borders were porous, identities were malleable, and religious beliefs were negotiable. Africans were neither total resistors nor total collaborators, but instead negotiated tortuous paths through shifting landscapes.—Robert Harms, author of The Diligent: A Voyage through the Worlds of the Slave Trade

Elizabeth Elbourne

This is a fascinating and frequently moving book, packed with unexpected detail and beautifully crafted. A rich micro history of the life of an African chief, diplomat and Christian evangelist who was ultimately betrayed by the colonial state, A Living Man from Africa also raises penetrating wider questions about the lived experience of colonialism.—Elizabeth Elbourne, McGill University

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