Christian missionaries don’t get such a good press these days, often viewed as merely an arm of western colonialism, accompanying the trader and the soldier. But some missionaries broke the mould. One was John Colenso, born at St Austell on January 24th, 1814. The Colensos were actually a Penzance family. John’s father was a mine agent, a notoriously peripatetic calling. This seems to have left its mark on his children as John‘s brother, William, also became a well-known missionary in New Zealand.
After his father lost his tin stream in a flood, John was forced to scrimp to save enough money to take up a place at Cambridge University. There he excelled at maths, later in the early 1840s writing textbooks on algebra and arithmetic. After graduating, John followed a familiar route of teaching before being offered the rectorship of a parish in Norfolk in 1846. In the year he became a rector, John married and the prospect of a comfortable middle age bringing up his children, of whom there were five, lay in prospect. But it was not to be. At the end of 1853 he was invited to take up the post of Bishop of Natal, in the eastern part of present-day South Africa.
Once there, with his customary energy he threw himself into organising the infrastructure of a self-respecting Anglican diocese overseas – churches, schools and mission stations duly springing up. Yet by the 1860s John was harbouring growing doubts about the literal truth of the Old Testament. Perhaps his mathematical inclination convinced him that the earth could not have been created in 4004 BC and Noah wasn’t 600 years old when he built the ark.
John was unwilling to teach this nonsense to the local Zulu people and in fact went further by publicly criticising the authenticity of the first five books of the Bible. Panicking at a time when Darwin’s theories were being widely circulated, in 1863 the church hierarchy in southern Africa attempted to haul him before them on charges of heresy. However, they were over-ruled from London and John kept his post.
He was hardly the typical colonialist of the time. Although believing in the separate origin of races, he was very sympathetic towards the native Africans, learning isiZulu, their language. He was perhaps fortunate in that the stress in isiZulu is on the penultimate syllable, something that would come naturally to any Cornish person. In 1855 he argued for the toleration of polygamy and in the 1870s championed Zulu leaders who were being persecuted and wrongly imprisoned. At a time of mounting tension, he defended Zulus against the Boer oppression and then British aggression that marked the years preceding the Zulu wars of 1879. In return in Natal he became known as Sobantu, or father of the people.
John Colenso died in 1883. A memorial window to him can be found in the south aisle of St Austell Church.