DURING November 2003 the Anglican Diocese of Natal marked its 150th anniversary. Inevitably many of the celebrations focused on its first bishop, John William Colenso (1818−1883), who lived at the Ekukhanyeni mission just outside Pietermaritzburg for thirty years. It is a remarkable fact that this city, although consistently the butt of jokes about ‘sleepy hollow’, has significant links with towering intellectual figures such as Colenso and Alan Paton and, more remotely, with Mohandas Gandhi.

Colenso’s life and work is not simply one of historical interest, but of direct relevance to the modern world. He was a product, of course, of his age, that of imperialism. His greatest flaw, perhaps, was that he supported it and explained its deficiencies and crimes as the result of human failings rather than the system itself. Nevertheless, he may be considered a forefather of South Africa’s post-liberation Constitution and a distant patron of the civil rights groups that played such a key role in South Africa after the Soweto Uprising.

The bishop’s belief in worthiness and godliness revealed in all humanity was not reflected in the South African body politic until the post-apartheid Constitution was unveiled and universal suffrage achieved. His Victorian opponents, with their pessimistic view of humankind and their belief in religious and racial superiority, created a frame of mind that led straight down a path to the tragedy of apartheid. The exploited and dispossessed were conquered, heathen and black. He preached mercy, humility and justice and his belief, and actions based on it, was a warning to (and about) those who regard themselves as specially chosen. History is replete with outrages based on exclusivity and the zealotry that it encourages. Colenso’s riposte was humanism and universalism.

His view of the world and opposition to dogma were a fundamental challenge to the power structures and social order of the day. The reaction of the church authorities was to try him for heresy, a taste of the political trials for treason that were to come in South Africa. As a mathematician and theologian living in an age of significant scientific discovery he married logic with courage and pointed out that some of what appears in the Old Testament could not possibly be the literal truth. For this he was deprived of his bishopric and excommunicated in a rigged trial arranged by his opponents, a laughable travesty of justice.

The logical consequence of his religious belief and personal experiences was to become involved in colonial politics. In 1874 he protested against the treatment of Chief Langalibalele and the Hlubi, drawing attention to the importance of the rule of law and principles of justice, qualities starkly lacking in the grubby little colony of Natal. For his pains he earned the enmity of the colonists and the abuse of the authorities in an attempt to discredit him. In this, the press of the day played a dishonourable part. Colenso achieved some success − censure of the Natal government and the recall of Lieutenant-Governor Benjamin Pine − but in the long run he failed to prevent the dismemberment of the Zulu kingdom. After the Anglo-Zulu War he acted as spokesperson for King Cetshwayo and his meticulous collecting and reading of documents was a key factor in establishing the truth and countering government propaganda.

Historical caution prevents us seeing Colenso, the ascetic nineteenth century clergyman and imperialist, as one of Pietermaritzburg’s first human rights campaigners. What he would have made of the culture of the liberation movement in the Emergency years of the 1980s is an intriguing question, but almost certainly he would have enjoyed a spell as an involuntary guest of the security police. This eminent Victorian was a thoroughly modern man, unafraid to confront the powerful with uncomfortable truth. For this he suffered at the hands of a legal system that lacked any semblance of justice, a political trial designed to re-establish the authority of power. The consequences, and an ongoing campaign of vilification from all quarters, amounted to systematic censorship. His response was research and documentation and the establishment of an effective channel of communication with the world outside Natal.

Colenso was a prophetic figure in the historical sense. His courageous communication of his viewpoint was rewarded by outrageous victimisation and the obstruction of his message. To this he responded with a spirited promotion of what he regarded as truth in defence of justice and moral authority, its effectiveness compounded by his contacts in England. This was a pattern that was to be repeated almost exactly during the years of the Emergency. It may not be possible to link directly the Victorian imperialist churchman with the anti-apartheid movement of the late twentieth century, but there is little doubt that he acted as a role model for confrontation with abusive power and tyranny. Yet his only secular memorial in Pietermaritzburg is a suburb named Sobantu.

This article was first published in The Witness on 6 January 2004 and entitled ‘Confronting tyranny’.

Further reading: Jonathan Draper (ed.), The Eye of the Storm: Bishop John William Colenso and the Crisis of Biblical Inspiration (Pietermaritzburg: Cluster Publications, 2003); Jeff Guy, The Heretic: A Study of the Life of John William Colenso, 1814−1883 (Pietermaritzburg: University of Natal Press, 1983).