Christianity as an alternative

The first page of the Gospel. Photo credit: Mik Motala

Most of what we know of the formation of early Genadendal is gained from the accounts of the missionaries, and in particular, diaries of Georg Schmidt and the missionaries Christian Kühnel, Henrik Marsveld and Daniel Schwinn (Schmidt, 1981; Marsveld, et al., 1999). It presents us with the opportunity to begin to understand the relationships that the Khoi and other peoples of colour had with the missionaries, the farmers and the colonial officials. The diaries are an invaluable source as they reveal what took place at that time, however, they tell the story only from one side, that of the missionaries. One can imagine that the missionaries were not moved to question the reasons people from the community converted to Christianity, which is what this project seeks to explore. Moreover, this essay is written from a contemporary perspective informed by a critical regard of colonialism.

A productive starting point is to ask the question why the Khoi, who had existing belief structures, were willing to accept Christianity (Elbourne, 1992). Elbourne (1992) attributes the process of the Khoi adopting Christianity to the damage that had already been done to the fabric of Khoi society due to the colonial presence of the VOC. In other words, existing factors of resilience had been eroded in the process of colonialisation. This means that by the time Georg Schmidt arrived at Africo’s kraal, fragmentation of their way of life was already taking place (Bredekamp, 1997; Elbourne, 1992). What had once been structured groups of the Hessequa and Chainoqua Khoi in the Overberg, had fragmented to the looser clan-based groups (Bredekamp, 1997). Bredekamp (1997) and Elbourne (1992) suggest a mechanism that functioned to hold together this fragmenting society and what made it cohesive again was a particular type of Christianity that focused on the importance of community.

Elbourne (1992) suggests that when a society has fragmented, the resilient structures underpinning it begin to disappear. Due to this, a given society will try to find meaning to make sense of this fragmentation (Elbourne, 1992). For example, when Georg Schmidt arrived at Africo’s kraal, and set up his tent, he was meeting a group of people who had already experienced fragmentation. According to Bredekamp (1997) a broader systemic structure of Khoi society had broken up into clans that were headed by a clan leader. The society’s sources of authority now rested on individual clan leaders.

The shifting parameters of the life of Khoi communities must have been a source of turmoil for the Khoi communities. Viktor Frankl (2006), a psychologist who was a Holocaust survivor, explained that human beings can bear any suffering if they can find meaning in their suffering. This applies to the Khoi in the Overberg because they had begun to find meaning through the preaching and teachings of Schmidt at a time when they faced persecution and dispossession (Elbourne, 1992; Bredekamp, 1997).

Elbourne (1992) raises the idea of agency, which reflects the ability or power one has in a given situation or time and warns not to fall into the trap of thinking of the Khoi in a simplistic way. Instead he suggests that, in reality, a set of complex mechanisms was in place that allowed increasingly oppressed peoples to find meaning within it (Elbourne, 1992; Bredekamp, 1997). For example, the process of Schmidt teaching Vehettge (Mother Lena) how to read reveals the way in which the power of literacy can be a mechanism of inclusion, as up to that point her illiteracy had been a mechanism of her exclusion from the expanding hegemonic or dominant colonial society that was being created by the colonisers (Bredekamp, 1997). In other words, a direct mechanism of exclusion was made null by an act by the missionaries that sought to counter it.

It is important to give context as to why Schmidt’s arrival to the Overberg was unique and provided an alternative form of Christianity than to the one that existed in the Cape before it. Christianity, like literacy, in the colony was used as a form of exclusion by the settlers (Elbourne, 1992; Ross & Elbourne, 1997; Krüger, 1966). As Cape Dutch society became the most dominant form of society within the Cape, the elements that initially made them different to other groups i.e. Christianity and literacy, became forms of exclusion as the Khoi began to be swallowed into Cape Dutch society and were under the authority of the colonisers (Elbourne, 1992; Krüger, 1966). As the colony expanded so did its population of people who were now under their control. The Dutch Reformed Church in 18th century Cape society was a church of the settlers. Their God served only them (Krüger, 1966; Ross & Elbourne, 1997). During this period, the baptism of slaves was also discouraged and the picture that emerges is that to be Christian was only for the powerful, the European settlers and not for the subjugated (Bredekamp, 1997; Krüger, 1966; Botha, 1999). It is only after slavery was abolished in 1834 that a more concerted effort was made towards people of colour by the Dutch Reformed Church (Davenport & Saunders, 2000).

Schmidt was often at the receiving end of mockery and offensive abuses when it became known, by the settlers, what his purpose of being in the Cape was. For example, in a letter to von Zinzendorf, dated 23rd December 1737, he explained that many people (colonists) mocked him because he wanted to bring Christianity to the Khoi (Schmidt, 1981). It reveals the racism that existed within the colony and the settlers, as they did not see the need to convert the Khoi to Christianity (Elbourne, 1992; Marsveld, et al., 1999; Schmidt, 1981). A significant notion that we can reflect on is the need to break the tendency to think of Christianity as a homogenous entity because what the record reveals is that there was a great degree of difference within Protestantism. Out of these differences existed alternative forms of Christianity in the Cape Colony entailing on the one side, salvation for the settlers and on the other, for a people whose way of life was coming to an end or those who had been forced into slavery and brought to the Cape by force (Bredekamp, 1997; Krüger, 1966).

The story of Genadendal, then, provides us with an opportunity to understand the impact of Christianity in the Cape, and that this opportunity came at a price (Bredekamp, 1997). The Khoi were in a transition phase, they were moving from clan herder groups to becoming labourers on farms. Importantly, this was not a benign transition but a direct result of dispossession and encroachment on their way of life and their land. This process was by no means a passive one (Bredekamp, 1997; Krüger, 1966; Marsveld, et al., 1999).

The Book of Psalms. Photo credit: Mik Motala

The diaries of the missionaries at Genadendal are a valuable resource because within them are the records of the changing society of the Khoi in the Overberg, their response to Christianity and how their lives changed from one society to another (Krüger, 1966). One of the effective methods with which Schmidt brought Christianity to the Khoi, was through books (Bredekamp, 1997; Krüger, 1966). One of the first methods that Schmidt introduced was that of the Dutch ABC books, which he taught the Khoi how to read (Krüger, 1966; Bredekamp, 1997). In a society that relies heavily on text i.e. contracts or laws, those who cannot read are automatically excluded (Bredekamp, 1997; Schaefer, 2015). When he felt that one of the Khoi made good progress, as is the case with Mother Lena, he would present them with a New Testament Bible. This is also one of the first forms of agency that was taking place within this new community.

In other words, what was once a point of exclusion is now a point of inclusion, but this came at a cost, because those of this new community who still ran away to the “dances of the old world” could have their ABC books taken away by Schmidt as punishment (Schmidt, 1981; Bredekamp, 1997; Krüger, 1966). Much to Schmidt’s frustration some of the community often ran away to the moonlight dances (Schmidt, 1981; Bredekamp, 1997). It reflects this process, that as they obtained agency within the new world, they also lost something of the old world and crucially, that this was not a black and white process but one that was negotiated and gradual (Bredekamp, 1997; Krüger, 1966). Members of the community “running off to the dances”, and coming back reveals that their conversion to Christianity was not a smooth process (Bredekamp, 1997; Krüger, 1966; Elbourne, 1992) Instead, Schmidt’s banning them from attending these moonlight dances meant that many of them still felt a connection to Khoi forms of spirituality and expression (Krüger, 1966; Bredekamp, 1997).

There were other signs of resistance to converting to Christianity and to this new community that Schmidt was creating (Bredekamp, 1997; Krüger, 1966). For example, on one occasion, Mother Lena comes to Schmidt and tells him that she no longer wants to be a part of the community because her people have turned against her (Schmidt, 1981). In the process, she returned her book and left the community (Schmidt, 1981). She later came back, and this time for good – she asked for forgiveness and said that she wanted to better herself (Schmidt, 1981).

Another important method of teaching was sustainability and self-reliance – Schmidt did this by introducing subsistence farming, which is a practice that still takes place in Genadendal today (Schmidt, 1981; Bredekamp, 1997). When Schmidt moved the community from Africo’s kraal to Baviaanskloof, one of the first things he and the others built was a hartebeesthouse for himself and a garden to plant vegetables (Schmidt, 1981). When the members of the community saw the benefits of the garden, by seeing the vegetables he was growing, they too wanted a garden. He helped Africo and Wilhelm, Africo’s brother in law, to measure some land outside of their houses (Schmidt, 1981). Through this method, the community was able to take care of itself and to be sustainable but there was also a price to it, as it aided in changing Khoi societal norms (Bredekamp, 1997; Krüger, 1966). Usually, women would go out and search for veldkos such as bulbs and vegetables, but by having gardens there was no need to go foraging because food was now available much more readily.

An important concept that helps to understand how the Khoi transitioned from their religion to Christianity is how the Khoi used the process of retro-fitting (Elbourne, 1992; Ross & Elbourne, 1997; Bredekamp, 1997). What this process means is that the Khoi were able to fuse their existing belief system with that of Christianity. This societal mechanism was significantly powerful because it legitimised both the old religion and new religion, making them part of the same process of change (Elbourne, 1992; Ross & Elbourne, 1997). In the Khoi religion, Tsuni //Goam is seen as the rainmaker and the God that brings good things, and Tsuni //Goam is wounded in a battle against //Gaunab, who is seen as more evil (Elbourne, 1992; Bredekamp, 1997). Tsuni //Goam and Jesus Christ share a bodily injury as Tsuni //Goam has a wounded knee and Jesus’s hands and feet are wounded due to the nails. These are but examples of the kinds of overlaps that enabled a process of retro-fitting (Bredekamp, 1997; Elbourne, 1992; Ross & Elbourne, 1997). A similar comparison exists for the devil; //Gaunab, the one who wounded Tsuni //Goam was seen as the devil. On the 15th of December 1737, Schmidt writes that in the Khoi language they do speak of a God, and he remarks that they have angels and that they call the devil ‘Gauna’ (Schmidt, 1981).

Kinderfees in the Genadendal Church. It is a service dedicated to the children of the community.

Andrew Nissen (1990) explains that one should not forget the depth of the Khoi religion and that Christianity was adapted in the face of a willful force of destruction, led by the VOC and the settlers. The process of social upheaval caused by the arrival of the Europeans was not benign. In the face of these changes the Khoi had found an alternative form of agency, while confronted with the crumbling Khoi way of life orchestrated by dispossession of their land and subjugation by colonial officials (Nissen, 1990). Yet, this conversion to Christianity wiped out existing belief structures and provided a platform for further dispossession and subjugation of the Khoi (Nissen, 1990).
In a diary of Kühnel, Marsveld, and Schwinn written between 1795-1796 they reflected that as the Moravian community got stronger so did racism towards the Moravian community. Most interestingly, the diaries reflect on the growing dispossession of the Khoi from the land (Marsveld, et al., 1999). In an entry on the 2nd of January 1795, the missionaries write about how a Khoi man came to them and asked if he could join them (Marsveld, et al., 1999). What the man also revealed was that there were false rumours about the Moravian community and that the farmers were trying to scare them by telling them that they would get hurt if they went there (Marsveld, et al., 1999; Krüger, 1966). The Moravian mission station, it seems, was threatening the status quo, and the farmers in the area with their plans of encroachment and suppression felt threatened by a community that was empowered (Bredekamp, 1997; Elbourne, 1992).

The following text appears in the diary of Kühnel, Marsveld, and Schwinn: “I went to the Lord Commissioner. He appeared approachable. I humbly submitted my request, in vain. He said he was being besieged by farmers for the land of the Khoi, and that the farmers complained that if the Khoi were being taught they would learn their secrets. I asked pleasantly if I could tell him my thoughts on the subject, and not to take offence. He answered: Speak. I asked: What secrets do the farmers have? Ploughing, sowing, reaping? That must be the sum of it. Another secret is hunting, but that they need to learn from the Khoi… Is it that the Khoi would read their letters?” (Marsveld, et al., 1999, p. 10). It is hard to decipher what exactly the secrets might be, perhaps it was that the Khoi would become farmers themselves, and use their land in the same way as the settlers. This interaction is pivotal in understanding colonialism in the Cape, and the gradual stealing of Khoi land and cattle, which led to their impoverishment and forced them to become labour for the farms (Ross & Elbourne, 1997; Krüger, 1966).