Blasphemy, Race and Empire collide as an undertaker appears before the Southwark court.

170px-John_William_Colenso_by_Carlo_Pellegrini

I am often reminded of how tremendously ignorant I am of some aspects of history. Most of my  study has been concerned with Britain and Europe and the world conflicts that involved them. I studied some American history to A level and some aspects of colonial history as part of my undergraduate degree, but for the last decade or so I have been firmly rooted in the period between about 1750 and 1900 and rarely stray much beyond London.

So until I read about him today I’d never heard of John William Colenso (1814-1883) or his important influence on African history. Colenso was born in St Austell in Cornwall where his father lost money in the mining industry when a sea flood deluded the works. After several false starts Colenso eventually took a career in the church and in 1853 became the first Church of England Bishop of Natal in what is now South Africa.

Throughout the 1850s Colenso travelled around Zululand meeting its people and writing up his experiences. Unlike many colonial travellers and officials Colenso was sympathetic to the cause of Africa rights and equality and this brought him plenty of criticism from the church and colonial authorities and eventually led to his removal from office in 1863.

And this is where he came across my radar, appearing (albeit not in person) in the Southwark Police court in April, in a case heard by Mr Combe the sitting magistrate.

As the newspaper report noted:

‘An elderly Scottish gentleman entered the court to complain of a blasphemous placard placed outside the shop of an undertaker’. The notice declared “Colenso right and the Bible wrong’, and the complainant wanted it taken down immediately. It was, he said, ‘full of blasphemy’ as it denied the truth written down in the scriptures.

At first Mr Combe was reluctant to get involved in this, as he didn’t think he had any jurisdiction to interfere but the Scot was instant. The magistrate sent a warrant officer out to fetch the placard and ask the undertaker to attend to explain himself.

Once the offending message and the undertaker’s men ( a Mr Antill) were present Combe asked him whether he was aware what it said. Antil was, he explained that he related to a series of lectures due to be given over the next six Sunday evenings. We don’t learn what the lectures were about but given what I now know about Bishop Colenso I think I might make an educated guess.

Colenso was a polygenist, in other words he believed that mankind had evolved from more than one initial source. The Bible, of course, states that man descends from Adam and Eve. Science and history made it hard, Colenso argued, to accept that all races were descended from the same single pair of human beings. Instead he suggested that God had created several races, but all of them were created equal. As with others that held this belief he argued that monogenism lay at the heart of racism and slavery.

The Colenso controversy sparked huge religious debate in Britain and southern Africa in the 1860s and we can see from this small snippet in the news that this manifested itself even in daily life in the capital of Empire.

Mr Combe asked the undertaker if he had gone to these lectures. Yes, he had, Antill replied, and he ‘took considerable interest in them’ which was why he’d put out the placard to advertise them to others.

The magistrate told him he’d committed an offence by ‘exposing such a blasphemous’ notice. It was ‘not at all respectable for a tradesman to allow it, and more especially an undertaker’.

Mr Antill apologised and said he would not put it out again in the future and left with a warning that if he did he could expect to be punished for it. The unnamed ‘Scottish gentleman’ thanked the magistrate and left the court, his mission accomplished. One wonder what he would have made of Darwin’s Origins of Species, which had been published just 4 years earlier in 1859. Religion and science were locked in an intellectual debate throughout the second half of the nineteenth century with evolution and God’s role in it firmly at the heart of that debate.

That debate continues still, as does the question of racial equality and the rights of peoples. Colenso was a friend of the Zulu people and supposedly argued against the war that broke between Cetshwayo and the British state in 1877. After the Zulu’s had been defeated Colenso agitated on the defeated kings behalf and successfully got Cetshwayo released from imprisonment on Robben Island. His continued challenge to authority and exposure of racism at the heart of the imperial project did nothing to endear him to politicians and senior clergy at home but it earned him the title of Sobantu (father of the people) amongst native Africans in Natal. He died in Durban in 1883, aged 69.

[from The Morning Post , Friday, April 24, 1863]

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