Sanele Ntshingana recently received an honours degree in African languages from Rhodes University. He is now studying for an MA in African Languages with a focus on historical sociolinguistics. His research interests include Xhosa historiography, the making and unmaking of archive and the production of “history”.

Sanele Ntshingana, Rhodes University
William Wellington Gqoba’s Isizwe Esinembali Xhosa Histories And Poetry (1873 – 1888)

The late eighteenth century southern seaboard of South Africa is marked by the beginnings of missionary evangelical mission in the Xhosa land. This new phase, in the world of amaXhosa (Xhosa people) takes place in the backdrop of colonial subjectivity, where the indigenous men and women saw their lives changing as they were being robbed off their lands and dignity. These new missionary ‘invaders’, armed with an agenda to evangelize the ‘natives’, introduced the notions of [European] schools and the skill of writing into the Xhosa world. The indigenous folks, argues Tisani (2001) then devised new ways of responding to these missionaries and colonialists. One of the strategies they devised was to read and learn the ways of the ‘invader’ by taking their education and religion while grafting their own African epistemologies. These were indeed difficult times. They were times of strife, where the African had to negotiate with the missionaries the power speak and write themselves into history. This negotiation was in many times not balanced.

William Wellington Gqoba is born in this context, where the forces of colonial subjectivity and the evangelizing mission were at its highest. Born in Gaga in August 1840, a year before the commencement of Lovedale Institution, Gqoba would not escape the fate of being one of the early “people of the school”. Fathered by Gqoba, the son of Peyi who was a member of amaCirha clan, Wellington Gqoba would become a prolific writer, essayist, poet, and historian. Initially trained as a wagon-maker, Gqoba left this trade and worked in various mission stations as a teacher and interpreter. It is in this time that he started to contribute articles in local newspapers like Isigidimi.   

Published in 2015, Isizwe Esinembali Xhosa Histories And Poetry (1873 – 1888) is an assemblage of all William Wellington Gqoba’s clearly identifiable writings. These writings were copied and collected by Prof. Jeffrey Opland mostly from Isigidimi samaXhosa (The messenger of amaXhosa), a newspaper platform Gqoba contributed to immensely. This work was then translated and co-edited by Prof. Opland, Dr. Pamela Maseko and Prof. Wandile Kuse. Amongst other things, these writings reflect the intellectual thought of the isiXhosa-speaking Nguni people of the Eastern Cape and their African ways of knowing (Maseko 2017).

Spanning different literary types that do not necessary conform to the western conceptions of “genres”, this volume consists of Gqoba’s opinion pieces on various subjects, poetry that fuses indigenous forms and western forms (see Opland 2004), and also historical expositions penned as early as 1873. Written in isiXhosa, most of Gqoba’s writings are profoundly provocative and unapologetic. They speak against the injustices endured by amaXhosa in the 19th century and the colonial laws subjected to his people. He comments on religious and educational matters and- his favorite subject- the history of amaXhosa. According to Tisani (2001) Gqoba’s most outstanding work is the long poem he serialized from January 1885 to 1888 “Ingxoxo Enkulu NgeMfundo” (A Great Debate on Education). This poem was divided into seven parts, which totaled 1,150 lines. As the title suggest, the poem is about education. The discussion includes many aspects: the harsh treatment of the Africans by white people despite being educated, the missionary work and its establishment of the missionary schools that brought light to the Africans who were living in “darkness”, and the loss of land and freedom which Africans were suffering in the land of their birth.  He comments:

The taxes keep increasing

they could even make the present impossible;

whites show no respect for our royals

defaulting on tax results in imprisonment!

As for me, if you’d like to know,

I’ll never love the whites.

The truth is this, they snatched this land

when by rights it belongs to us;

we’ve been turned into strangers,

requiring a pass to travel:

it’s a dazzling magic trick,

a meticulous white campaign

In 1884, Gqoba took up the editorial position in Isigidimi samaXhosa left by John Tengo Jabavu.  Initially edited by James Steward, this newspaper broke off from the heavy missionary control and censorship when the first African intellectual, Mr Jabavu, edited it. It was the norm under missionary presses, which were designed to spread the gospel news, to exercise power over what was written and published. There were many texts trashed and authors made to change their writings to reflect the thinking and ideologies of the missionaries.

Expressing the need to the archival of African history in newspapers, Gqoba urges his audience in his capacity as an editor, to contribute to the newspaper any historical and contemporary knowledge about African history. In here, Gqoba sees the need for Africans to write down the history and knowledge in a medium of power.  That which was passed down orally from one generation to another was now being written down in newspapers that were least censored. The royalty’s authority was swayed by colonial encroachment and missionary discourse and it is in this context that Gqoba saw the press as a powerful medium in which oral literature- poetry, folktales, history, biographies, etc. to be written down. He links this with the survival of the nation. He wrote:

“My fervent desire is that our history should be well known and brought into print because all nations who possess a history, even if they are scattered far and wide, continue to live and do not die”

“Imbali yakowetu asikuko nokuba ndinga ingaziwa kakuhle ishicilelwe kuba zonke izizwe ezinembali ziba zihleli azifile noko sukuba zezicitakele”

The unearthing, compilation and translation of this work into one volume adds value to this knowledge that was previously scattered in various hard-to-access locations. The value lies not only in this work’s potential to speak in new ways to the present, but it also has a quality of provoking new thought that meaningfully adds to looming debates in the South African academy around decolonizing the universities. Scholars need to investigate how these texts can be used to construct knowledges that show African ways of understanding society, thus creating a curriculum that shows “multiversal” ways of knowing (Santos, 2014). Being translated into English makes this accessible to a wider audience, both in South Africa and elsewhere- it also puts William Wellington in his rightful place in isiXhosa literature.

Maseko, P., 2017. Exploring the History of the Writing of isiXhosa: An Organic or an Engineered Process?. International Journal of African Renaissance Studies-Multi-, Inter-and Transdisciplinarity12(2), pp.81-96.

Opland, J., 2004. Nineteenth-century Xhosa literature. Kronos, pp.22-46.

Santos, B. 2014. Epistemologies of the South. New York: Routledge.

Tisani, N.C.2001. Continuity and change of Xhosa historiography during the nineteenth century: an exploration through textual analysis.Ph.D. Rhodes University.