Christian mission stations became an integral part of South Africa’s history over the last two centuries, and nowhere more so than in the arid Northern Cape. Today a number of these mission stations and their beautiful churches survive, where the missionaries left their indelible footprints. Experience the sanctuary and unusual sight of the imposing cathedral at Pella, rising from a flat semi-desert plain, surrounded by a circle of tall date palms, like a scene straight from the Bible. Visit more mission stations at Leliefontein, Komaggas, Matjieskloof, Concordia, Kuruman and Steinkopf, each with their own unique history. And many more.
Travelling across the Northern Cape, a flat and mostly arid landscape, interspersed by rocky outcrops, boulders and rugged mountains, stretches in every direction as far as the eye can see. It is harsh country scorched by an unforgiving sun and with little water. Today there are many oasis-like towns connected by tarred roads, although mostly great distances apart.
This, without the towns and tarred roads but with many dangers that included wild animals, lack of water, heat stroke, and law-breakers who fled into the interior, and unknown indigenous people, is what awaited the first European Christian missionaries who travelled here from the Cape of Good Hope in the early 19th century to establish their mission stations. They were true adventurers, courageous and hardy. Not only did they survive, but they built homes, churches, schools and clinics that survive to this day. To the Nama and other people who lived here, and who mostly warmly welcomed them into their midst, they brought literacy, medicine and their Christian scriptures and values.
But their role in the history and affairs of the region has come to be seen as ambiguous by some historians. On the one hand they genuinely desired to serve humanity and improve the quality of life of the indigenous people, but on the other hand their moral self-righteousness often led them to make uninformed judgements upon the mores, norms and values of these people.
Nonetheless, their legacy in the form of many beautiful churches are still found across this wide open and beguiling land. Among them are the mission stations and churches at places such as Leliefontein, Komaggas, Matjieskloof, Concordia, Kuruman, Kuboes, Carnarvon and Steinkopf, and the imposing cathedral at Pella. The latter is an extraordinary sight as it rises from a flat semi-desert plain, surrounded by a circle of tall date palms, like a scene straight from the Bible.
The mission station at Pella was founded in 1814 by a missionary called Christian Albrecht who had moved with his assistants and converts to Cammas Fonteyn, having left Namibia where the Orlam Chief, Jager Afrikaner, had been persecuting them. Over the years missionaries such as the Reverend John Campbell, Heinrich Schmelen and Robert Moffat would visit here. The missionaries of the London Missionary Society at Pella abandoned the place on numerous occasions due to hardships and also after being attacked by San raiders, abandoning it permanently in 1872. The station was reoccupied in 1878 when the French Father Godelle, a Roman Catholic missionary from the Society of the Holy Ghost, settled at Pella. But he, and several other priests after him, also abandoned the station, until the arrival of Brother Leo Wolf in 1885, who remained here and served the community for the next 50 years until his death.
Further west, close to the Atlantic Ocean and the town of Springbok, lies Steinkopf, another town that started life as a mission station established by the London Missionary Society. It was later taken over by the Rhenish Mission and named after the Reverend Dr Steinkopf.
Today, there are still a number of these mission stations operating in the Namakwa region, but also elsewhere in the province, with the Moffat Mission Station in Kuruman being one of the most famous and historically significant. At Barkley West you can visit the Parish Church of St Mary the Virgin, the first Anglican Church to be built on the Diamond Fields in 1871.
At the small town of Campbell a beautiful red-roofed church known as Bartlett’s Church, and built in 1831, survives. The town was named after the Reverend John Campbell, while it is said the renowned missionaries Moffat and David Livingstone once preached from the pulpit of this little church.
Campbell lies on the province’s ‘missionary route’ that runs between Kimberley and Upington and cuts through the territory that once belonged to the Griqua people. In Griekwastad (Griqua Town) the Mary Moffat Museum reveals more about this era when missionaries like Moffat, Livingston and Campbell were active here. Livingston of course later left the area to travel north and became one of the most famous European explorers in Africa.
There is much else to do and see in the area, such as the Magersfontein battle site where the British High Command was once stationed during the Anglo-Boer War; or a tour of Griekwastad where Andries Waterboer had once settled his people; visiting the historic diamond digging sites of Barkley West where “President” Stafford Parker once led the short-lived Diamond Diggers Republic declared by the diggers before colonial rule and the law extended here; or find something to drink at the ironically-named town of Putsonderwater (well without water). And if you find nothing to drink at Putsonderwater, you could always try your luck some 75km north at the town of Grootdrink (Big Drink). If all else fails, retire to one of the mission churches and summon help from above. (To find out more about things to do in this province, see our feature article elsewhere in this edition).