Aliwal North, South Africa - 1899 Article

Impressions of a minister returning to the place he was born.

Note: This historical article reflects colonial attitudes that we are not comfortable with in modern times.

Transcription of Article in the Christian Messenger by Edwin W. Smith

It was early one September morning that I came in sight of Aliwal North, after being absent from it for over ten years. All the previous night, and part of the previous day, I had spent in the railway train on the way up from the coast. As we drew near to the end of our journey the hills began to wear a familiar appearance, and I found myself expecting to see Aliwal as soon as the train passed a certain point. Nor did my memory fail me, for as soon as we surmounted a ridge, there before our gaze was the town, lying in a cup-like depression between the surrounding hills. South Africa is largely barren of trees, and the sight of a town almost hidden in trees, that are arraying themselves in the garb of spring, is most pleasing to the weary traveller. Apart from any intrinsic beauty of the scene it stirred many emotions within me, for l was approaching my birthplace after an absence of many years. I felt like an exile returning home to his native village.

All during the ten years and a half that had elapsed since my departure from Aliwal as a boy I had treasured the memory of happy years spent there, and continually in my dreams had I visited the scenes of my boyhood. A minister’s child has no home, in the sense of a place where he has lived many years, and to which he can look back in after years with fond remembrances: a place where he was born, where he was educated, where every stick and stone are old familiar friends. Most ministers’ children are wanderers upon the face of the earth; here they have no ‘continuing city.’ I have always looked to Aliwal as a Moslem looks to Mecca; it was my home, wherever I might pitch my tent in England. It often happens that a bitter disappointment is in store for the exile returning home; he finds that things are not as he has pictured them in his mind. To the child everything in his native town is on a huge, Brobdignagian scale; his father’s house is a mansion; the little Bethel in which he worships is a temple; he is convinced that his school is the largest that was ever built, and his schoolmaster the cleverest man that ever trod in shoe-leather. It is impossible for him to realise that there can be a city larger and more splendid than the little town in which he lives. The child leaves home, with sweet memories of it in his heart, memories that will never fade away. As he matures in body and mind, and mixes with his fellows, his view of life broadens, and he finds that the world is larger than ever he, in his childish imagination, conceived it to be. But no matter what amount of varied experience he gains, he never quite outgrows the ideas he had as a child, of the magnitude and splendour of his birthplace. He returns thither one day, and his first impression is that everything is so insignificant, so paltry, and he rapidly undergoes a process of disillusionment.

Mr. Barrie has sketched with rare power an illustration of this truth in his ‘Sentimental Tommy.’ Tommy’s mother was a Thrums woman, her bairns were born in London. She filled their little minds with dreams of her homeland, and, surrounded as they were with the sight of the great city, Thrums took upon itself most exaggerated proportions. They were doomed to bitter disappointment when, after their mother’s death, they visited Thrums. One by one their illusions were shattered until nothing of the Thrums of their dreams remained. It was something like this in my case. My first impression was that everything was so much smaller than I had imagined it to be. The church, the school, the library, all had shrunk into mean dimensions. I had expected to be disappointed – and disappointed I was. I was glad to get back to the Aliwal of my dreams, the Aliwal of my boyhood; and this Aliwal I repeopled with the playmates of old, with whom the happy games of long ago were once more played with all the zest and fervour of early youth. Happy memories of childhood! – memories that in the mind of a poet are so many ‘little brown seeds of what may yet grow to be poems with leaves of azure and gold.’

O.W. Holmes, from whom I have borrowed this sentiment, speaks of the superstitions of childhood; children, he says, are as superstitious as naked savages! I had my superstitions, too, one of which was a dread of the Episcopal Church. I had grown to regard that building as the home of all mysteries, and the memory of the terror I was in when, after vainly trying to curb my curiosity, I peeped in through the half-open door, abides with me still. Childhood, too, if all children are what I was, is a time of ambition, of hero-worship, a time at which impressions are received that never fade away. One incident recurs to me as I write. I remember as if it were but yesterday, a man dressed in Eastern costume coming to Aliwal, and un-rolling his bed upon the floor of the church vestry. His mission was to lecture upon Gordon at Khartoum, and he represented himself as going there to rescue him. He took great interest in us boys; he was our constant companion in his leisure moments; he made us a model of a Mohammedan temple and told us about the religion of his countrymen, the religion which he had forsaken for Christianity. He left us at last, and I shed tears as I said good-bye. My heart was stirred at the thought of this noble man going to rescue General Gordon, and day and night I prayed that his errand might be crowned with success. It was a piece of genuine hero-worship. Weeks passed away and then one terrible day there came the news that the man had been arrested for forgery, had been convicted, and was now in prison. I refused to believe it, and vehemently protested the honesty my hero. But, alas, the fact became only too patent that the Man was a rascal, and for the first time my faith in mankind received a rude shaking. I could enter then into the feelings of the disciles of the Lord, when they said, ‘But we hoped that it was He which should redeem Israel.’

However, it is not upon these reminiscences of my early days that I wish to dwell in this paper, nor do I intend to describe Aliwal North as it appeared to me in my boyhood’s days. I purpose rather to record my impressions of the town, and especially of the work of our church there, received during my short visit.

Aliwal North, situated on the Orange River, 306 miles from Port Elizabeth, and 280 from East London, with both of which ports it is connected by rail, is a town with about one thousand European and fifteen hundred native inhabitants. The town is regularly laid out with wide streets lined with rows of trees which afford welcome shade from the sub-tropical sun, and, as l have already suggested, give the town a very pretty appearance when approached by road or rail. The Orange River here is about the breadth of the Thames at London Bridge, and is spanned by a handsome iron bridge named after Sir Bartle Frere, once Governor of Cape Colony. Although from bank to bank it is of considerable width the river has nothing near the quantity of water in it that old Father Thames has. It was after along season of drought that I visited Aliwal; no rain had fallen for six months and more, and consequently the river was almost dried up. The river banks are thirty feet or more high, and occasionally it happens that after a long period of heavy rains the river becomes so full that it overflows its banks, often spreading devastation around.

The Frere bridge connects the Cape Colony with the Orange Free State, and is a valuable means of communication with that republic, Basutoland, and countries farther north, with which Aliwal North carries on trade. There is not much of special interest to be written about the town. Public buildings are few in number, and not very striking in appearance. Most handsome of all is the new Post-office and Court-house. Aliwal can boast of an excellent public Library in which there are several thousand volumes accessible to subscribers, and a liberal supply of periodicals which can be used by all, and in the subscribers’ room of the library hangs a life-size portrait of my Father, who had a large share in the work of founding the Library, and who was for a long time on the Board of Management. He shares the honour with Her Majesty the Queen, whose portrait hangs opposite, the only two in the building.

Opposite the library are the Botanical Gardens, where there is a splendid collection of tropical and sub-tropical vegetation. Near by is the Young Men’s Institute, founded largely by the Rev. G.E. Butt and the officials of Christchurch, to counteract the evil influences of the hotels, where many fair prospects have been ruined by the drink. Besides those belonging to our own Church, of which I shall speak presently, the only ecclesiastical buildings are the Episcopal and Dutch Reformed Churches. The Episcopal clergyman, the Rev. Mr. Rossiter, has been in Aliwal over thirty years; between him and our missionaries cordial relations exist.

In the centre of the town is the market place, where a sale of agricultural products and something of everything is conducted every morning. An English town is not complete without means of recreation. There is a large recreation ground in Aliwal, where tennis, cricket, and football, and other games are played. There are already a number of bicycles in the town, and a cyclist club is about to be organised.

If Aliwal is famous for one thing more than another it is for its healthy climate. It is a health resort where invalids come to seek new life. Outside the town, about two miles away, are two mineral springs which are much sought after for their medicinal virtue. Baths have been erected for the use of the townspeople and visitors. Some time ago the project was started of erecting a large hospital near the springs, and on Jubilee day, 1887, the foundation stone was laid, but the scheme has been dropped.

Aliwal North will be interesting to my readers on account of its being the centre of the South African mission of our church, and I proceed now to describe the work that our missionaries are doing. I was most anxious to see all I could of the mission during my short visit, and Mr. Butt was just as anxious as I was.

I wish it were possible for me to give a brief historical sketch of the mission, but I have not the necessary materials at hand. I have often wished, and since my visit my wish has been intensified, that the history of our South African mission could be written. It would be a most interesting book, and would do more than anything else to stimulate interest in our work. That a great deal of ignorance exists regarding that work is very evident. Two or three years ago the question was asked in the examination of candidates for our ministry, ‘In what year was the Aliwal North mission founded, and what has been the result? One candidate answered, ‘The mission was founded in 1876, and has proved an utter failure.’ Of course he did not know better. Founded in 1870 by the late Rev. H. Buckenham, the mission has prospered in every way, and has gradually extended its borders until it is not exaggerating facts to say that to-day it is the largest and most prosperous station in Primitive Methodism. Aliwal has been well-served by the men sent out from England; two out of the four superintendents of the mission, Dr. Watson and my father, have afterwards become Presidents of the Conference. It was recently stated in the pages of the magazine that ‘The Committee is fortunate in its representatives at Aliwal North. Never did church posses more devoted and trustworthy agents than the Rev. G. E. Butt and his son, ’and I endorse every word of that statement. Here at Morija, people who know what is being done at Aliwal, have expressed to me their wonder how these two missionaries are able to do so much. As I write I have before me the plan of the station, showing 24 preaching places, some of them seventy or eighty miles from Aliwal and 53 native local preachers. The membership of the whole station is 1,088, 66 of these being Europeans. It is of Aliwal alone, however, that I must write, as I have had as yet no opportunity of visiting the out-stations.

Facing Somerset Street, the principal thoroughfare of the town, stands Christ Church, where the European congregation worships. It is a handsome structure of brick coated with rough plaster, with a stone front; it calls forth the admiration of all strangers coming into the town. A belfry surmounts the building, which gives a Primitive Methodist Church – there are no chapels out here – a strange appearance to anyone coming fresh from home. Originally the church was built with a vestry in the rear, but this has been removed and the Training School built as a transept to the church opening on the side street. There is seating accommodation for two hundred people in the building, and very often it is full on Sunday. Two services are conducted on the Lord’s day, and one on a week evening. The membership of Christ church is hardly a criterion of the success of the European work. Ours is the only Nonconformist Church in the town, and the congregation includes dissenters of all shades. Many of these, while most devoted in their attendance at the services, and in their support of church work, do not enroll themselves as members because our test of membership is not theirs. Mr Butt, I was told by outsiders, is very popular in the town, and his preaching always attracts a good congregation, especially the young men of the place. A C.E. Society exists, and the meetings are held weekly.

When my father first went to Aliwal the Parsonage and European church were neither of them built, and for many months he had to make his home in one or two hired rooms and conduct services in a barn. But before long both buildings were completed, and stand side by side. The Parsonage was originally constructed with two stories, but as it threatened to collapse the top story was taken off and two wings built to the house. It is surrounded by trees, and there is a large garden in the rear with many fruit trees. In old times there was a row of tall English Poplars in front of the house.
‘I used to think their slender tops
Were close against the sky.’

They have been cut down because they obstructed the light. A new house was being built for young Mr. Butt when I visited Aliwal. It stands on a plot of ground behind the Parsonage garden, and when finished it will be one of the nicest houses in the town.

The description of the Training Institution and other matters must be left to our next issue.

For the photographs accompanying this and the succeeding article I am indebted to the skill and courtesy of Mr. Kidwell, of Aliwal, who is preparing himself for mission-work in Mashukulumbweland.

(To be continued.)


I was most anxious to see the work of the Training Institution; it was most interesting, and it is as important as it is interesting. When Mr. Butt succeeded my father in 1888 there was no such Institution, and Mr. Butt had instructions to commence one. A fitter man for this task could not have been found in the ranks of our ministry, for Mr. Butt possesses considerable technical skill, having been apprenticed to the building-trade in his early days. Mr. Butt was wise enough to make haste slowly in this matter. Before determining the scope of the new Institution he visited others in South Africa that had been founded many years. He went to Lovedale, the most famous school in the country, where the natives are taught everything. He came to Basutoland and inspected the French mission schools.

Here at Morija there is a Normal College, in which close upon a hundred boys are being trained as school teachers, and there is also an institution in which young men are trained as catechists. Then in South Basutoland there is a large industrial school, where natives are trained as carpenters, bricklayers, blacksmiths, masons, etc.

The idea struck Mr. Butt that it would be possible to combine these three schools in one, and it was upon such lines that he determined to work the Institution at Aliwal North. His scheme has been entirely successful. At present there are twenty-four young men – ‘boys’ they are called in South Africa, whatever their ages may be – in the school. During the morning they are engaged in the school, where they are taught by Messrs. G.H. Butt and Kidwell.

I spent some time in the school listening to the lessons being given, and inspecting the work done by the boys, which is very satisfactory. The curriculum includes arithmetic, physical and general geography, Cape history, school management, grammar, composition, etc.

The afternoons are devoted to manual work. The boys are divided into parties, and one party goes off to make bricks, another to build, another to the workshop to do joinery under the supervision of Mr. Butt, senior. Others construct fences, repair walls, stamp mealies for food, and do various jobs that require to be done about the premises. The boys are very handy, but there is a limit to their powers. They cannot be got to plan or design; this has to be done by Mr. Butt, but once they are shown what to do, and how to do it, they work well. This department, besides being a means of valuable training, is a great saving to the mission funds, for the boys do all the building and joinery that is needed on the station. They have built themselves a workshop; they have renovated Christ church, and put up some panelling that is the wonder and admiration of the town; they have erected, wholly or in part, two churches in Aliwal, and were at the time of my visit, putting the final touches to the house they have built for Mr. G.H. Butt; and besides this they have made benches and done other woodwork for churches on the out-stations.

The work has received the commendation of the Inspectors of schools and of Dr. Muir, the Superintendent-General of Education in Cape Colony, who visited the Institution lately. He said that the training given by Mr. Butt was exactly the kind he wanted given to the natives. The Government make Mr. Butt an annual grant of £30 as Trades-master, and he devotes this to purchasing new tools and other requisites, so that the Institution costs the Society nothing.

Besides the industrial work, Mr. Butt gives the boys Biblical instruction. I was present at the Bible class one evening, when the subject under consideration was Luke xx. 19-26, the account of the question put to our Lord by the Chief Priests and Scribes concerning tribute. After reading round as far as the verses would go, Mr. Butt commented on the passage. The sight of the earnest black faces of the boys, quivering with scarcely suppressed excitement, and illumined again and again by bright smiles as Mr. Butt explained the story in his own graphic, humorous manner, was most fascinating. They answered and asked questions most intelligently. The boys are great singers, and they are taught the Tonic-sol-fa by Mr. Butt, junior. They throw their whole hearts into their singing. I was walking in the garden one afternoon and was attracted, by the sound of many voices, to an old tumble-down shed, and there I found a number of the boys collected round a hymn-book singing with great vigour.

The importance of the work of the Training institution cannot easily be exaggerated. Those whose views of mission-work are narrow may not see the value of educational and industrial departments; they may say that people at home subscribe money to missionary societies that the Gospel may be preached, and not to train artisans or teachers. But the elevation of the natives of Africa will never be accomplished by merely preaching to them; with the moral uplifting there must come the intellectual training, and the Christian Church must see that this is done, and done well. Then the native is constitutionally lazy; he has to be taught to work, and the truth enforced upon his mind that He who
With human hands the creed of creeds,’
has hallowed manual labour for ever. I can easily conceive that the sight of a respected missionary labouring at the lathe would be a revelation of the Gospel to the boys. Mr. Butt is no conventional missionary; a black-coated, spectacled creature, armed with an umbrella and a Bible. When I saw him first he was fresh from the workshop; he was arrayed in a big white apron, his coat was laid aside, and upon his other garments and in his hair, there were particles of shavings that had ?own from his lathe. He and his assistants feel, as we feel here, that in teaching arithmetic, or carpentry, or whatever may be the subject committed to us, we are hastening on the Kingdom.

Education is making great strides in Cape Colony. Dr. Muir is energetic and progressive in his ideas, and he is determined to push ahead. Until recently there have been many hundreds of untrained teachers in the public schools, in mission schools especially; Dr. Muir is gradually rooting them out and supplying their places with qualified teachers. There are three classes of teachers recognised by the Cape Government; the first class is composed of teachers who have taken a degree at a University, the second class of those who have matriculated, and the third class of those who have undergone a course of study for three years and have passed an examination each year. It is for the third class that our boys qualify. At the end of the three years, if they have satisfactorily passed their examinations, they are granted a certificate. Qualified teachers are much in demand, and the boys from our Institution have no difficulty in securing situations. When we consider the vast amount of good that may be done by a godly, qualified teacher, the importance of our school, and of all such schools which turn out Christian teachers, may be realised.

I have lingered so long upon this department of the mission that I must pass rapidly over the more purely evangelistic work. An extensive native work is carried on. There are now three native churches, in all, at Aliwal, two in the town, and one in the native location outside. The old native church in the town was built during my father’s first term of residence, partly with his own hands. It has been enlarged since then, and now accommodates 400 people. It has become altogether inadequate to the needs of the people, notwithstanding that two other native churches have been erected, and a new building at least twice as large as the present one is therefore needed. At a recent Communion service, so I was told by Mr. Butt, the members filled the church. I paid a visit to the day school conducted in the church by Mr. Msikinya, assisted by several native teachers, and for my benefit the children stopped their work and sang several hymns, to my delight. Mr. Msikinya, our native minister at Aliwal, is a wonderful man; trained at Lovedale he came to Aliwal as a teacher in my father’s time, and was afterwards ordained. He is a cultured man, speaking English, besides several native dialects, and being familiar with the ancient tongues. In these days, when so many native ministers are being allured by the sectarian Ethiopian church, Mr. Msikinya remains loyal to our Church.

The second native church in the town was erected lately for the use of the Dutch-speaking natives, and is used largely by the half-caste population. It is a plain, unpretentious building of red brick, and will accommodate about 150 persons. The immediate result of building this church has been that the membership among the Dutch-speaking natives has doubled. That a third native church is necessary may perplex the stranger, but it really is imperative that there should be a church in the location. There are many heathen there, and they cannot be induced to come into town to services. If the mountain will not come to Mahomet, Mahomet must go to the mountain. Then this church acts also as a Chapel-of-ease for the old people who cannot manage the long walk into town twice or thrice on a Sunday, and several times during the week. Services are held in the church on Sunday, and on Wednesday evening. The afternoon service on Sunday is generally held outside, and many of the heathen attend. Mr. Butt drove me over one afternoon to inspect the school that is conducted in the church by Peter, one of the boys who has passed through the Institution and is destined for the Zambesi. There is a marked difference between the children in this school and those under Mr. Msikinya’s care. These are the children of heathen, and are dirty and scantily clothed; those are, as a rule, children of Christian parrents, and are neatly dressed and clean. This is a distinction which runs through the village; the huts of the heathen are mere hovels, those of the Christians are neat cottages, surrounded by plots of ground in which fruit trees are planted.

On our way to the location we called at the cemetery, which, as is the general custom in South Africa, is outside the town. Here in a corner, each of the families that have resided in the parsonage is represented by a grave.

I have now completed the round of the departments of the mission, leaving to the last an aspect of the work that never fails to excite applause when mentioned in missionary meetings at home. I refer to the fact that everyone of the 1,022 native members is a total abstainer, and that total abstinence is a condition of membership. This has been the case for many years, the natives having taken the step themselves. Once in a quarterly meeting, one of them proposed that no person who indulged in strong drink should be admitted to membership. My father was unwilling to impose this upon the natives, seeing that it was not imposed upon the Europeans, but the natives replied that a white man might resist the temptation of drinking to excess, but that tor a black man to taste the abominable thing meant ruin, body and soul. So the law was passed, and has remained in force to this day. Mr, Butt said to me, ‘We should suspend the most prominent member if he drank.‘ The drink question is as urgent and as difficult among the natives of Cape Colony as it is in England; would that all the churches; here and at home, might follow the example set by the church at Aliwal!

For the photographs accompanying these articles I am indebted to the skill and courtesy of Mr. Kidwell, of Aliwal, who is preparing himself for work in Mashukulumbweland.


Christian Messenger 1899/53; 1899/84

No Comments

Start the ball rolling by posting a comment on this page!

Add a comment about this page

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *