Isaac Williams Wauchope: 1852 to 1917

Church Minister, Historian, poet

Isaac Williams Wauchope was a leading intellectual of the time who encouraged his fellow citizens to “fight with the pen”.

Isaac Williams was born in 1852 in Doornhoek near Uitenhage. He would become a member of the Western Cape African elite of the 19th century. He made his mark as a prominent congregational minister, political activist, historian and poet.

When he was 36, in 1816, Joseph Williams, a Scottish missionary, set up a mission station closer to the home of Isaac’s grandfather and then gave the family the surname of Wauchope. It is drawn from a location in the Scottish Borders area of Scotland, near Southdean. The original family name was Citashe.

Despite this, he was committed to preserving his African identity. He heard of the pioneer missionary of the Xhosa people, Dr. J.T. van der Kemp and would also learn about notable events in the history of Xhosa people such as the death of Rharhabe at Xuka, the battle of Amalinde as well as the preaching of Makhanda at Gompo and the attack on Grahamstown. His great-grandmother, Tse, and grandmother, Mina, were Van der Kemp’s disciples. All of these experiences shaped his worldview.

At the age of 24, in 1876, Wauchope became one of the four learners from Lovedale to travel with a missionary party to Malawi and was, five months into his stay, sent back home due to fever.

Community builder

Upon his return he taught at Uitenhage and one of his learners was the well-known activist Charlotte Maxeke. When he was 26, in September 1882, he gave birth to, headed and administered one the earliest political associations for Africans, Imbumba Yamanyama. The party would become an arch-rival of the Afrikaner Bond which was established in 1879.

He also led the Independent Order of True Templars (IOTT) for five years between 1893 and 1898. Wauchope also worked side by side with John Tengo Jabavu in the campaign for the establishment of Fort Hare University.

The wordsmith

For over four decades, from 1874, aged 22, until 1916, aged 64, Wauchope would pen numerous literary works – royal praise poems, hymns, travelogues, sermons, translations, poetry, announcements, comments, news, history and biographies.

In May 1882, he contributed his first poem: “a rousing exhortation to his readers to transfer the heroic resistance of their forefathers from war to rational argument”, said Sonderling. It was titled, “Fight with the pen!”.

Your cattle are gone, my countrymen!
Go rescue them! Go rescue them!
Leave the breechloader alone
And turn to the pen.
Take paper and ink,
For that is your shield.
Your rights are going!
So pick up your pen.
Load it, load it with ink.
Sit on a chair.
Repair not your Hoho
But fire with pen.

In 1891 and 1892, Wauchope would advance the debate around Xhosa proverbs and hymns and historical events, and would contribute these to Imvo Zabatsundu. Twenty years later, in 1912, Imvo Zabatsundu published a series of his poems under the collective title, Ingcamango ebunzimeni (Reflections in darkness). He composed a set of six poems while he was jailed at Tokai Convict Prison for almost 24 months. These series of poems became the earliest prison literature in Xhosa.

He used nom de plume Silwangangubo, Dyoba wo Daka and Ngingi and published The Natives and their Missionaries in 1908.

Sonderling describes Wauchope as the one who was “…outspoken in his insistence on the rights and dignity of black South Africans”. His contemporaries were the likes of Elijah Makiwane, John Knox Bokwe and John Tengo Jabavu. He was regarded as one of the leading Xhosa poets of his age together with William Gqoba, Samuel Edward Krune Mqhayi, MK Mtakati and Jonas Ntsiko.

Wauchope died on 27 February 1917 when the ship he was travelling in was involved in an accident in the English Channel.

References

Mkhize, K. 2008. Carrying the Cross: Isaac Williams Wauchope’s Ingcamango Ebunzimeni. MA Thesis, University of the Witwatersrand, pp.4-5.

Opland, J. and Nyamende, A. ed. 2008. Isaac Williams Wauchope Selected Writings. S.l: Van Riebeeck Society, p.xvii.

Sonderling, N.E. ed. 1999. New Dictionary of South African Biography Volume 2. Pretoria: Vista University, pp. 237-239.

Image of Isaac Williams Wauchope is sourced from Opland, J. and Nyamende, A. ed. 2008. Isaac Williams Wauchope Selected Writings and Van Riebeeck Society’s website. Available at: http://www.vanriebeecksociety.co.za/docs/ISAAC%20WILLIAMS%20WAUCHOPE.htm.

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