An Anglicised African Ranji
The colonial authorities imprisoned his father on Robben Island on trumped up charges and so 15 year old Nathaniel Cyril Umhalla had to grow up fast. An intellectual of his time, he also dabbled in newspapers and was one of the finest cricketers of that era.
At the young age of 15, Nathaniel Cyril Umhalla(born Mhala) had to mature fast. While studying at the Zonnebloem College – a former wine farm – in District Six, he could see Robben Island in the distance – his father’s place of incarceration.
According to Odendaal, the colonial authorities imprisoned his father, traditional Chief Mhala of the Ndlambe branch of the Xhosa people, on trumped up charges.
But the young Umhalla, born around 1843, had the capacity to keep his head held up high as he suckled intellect from the very best. His teachers would often describe him as “someone who had inherited considerable intellectual ability from his father”.
The very colonialists who had sent his father to the gaol provided him with missionary education. He was amongst a group of 35 “princes and princesses” transported to Cape Town in the 1850s as part of a scheme by a British governor Sir George Grey to enrol them in a school to “civilise” and “assimilate” them into the colonial economy and structures.
The institution to which Grey transported the 35 youngsters was Zonnebloem College which was specifically established for the children of African Chiefs and other tribal leaders.
While there, Umhalla showed such ‘exceptional talent’ that he was even permitted to attend a drawing class at the Cape Town School of Art.
Umhalla would spend the latter part of 1858 through to 1866 studying at Zonnebloem and Cape Town School of Art, and it was during this time that he became completely anglicised and even changed his name from Mhala to Umhalla.
He would return home during the holidays for a short stopover before moving on to St Augustine’s Anglican Missionary College in Canterbury, to further his British education. The new Nathaniel Cyril Umhalla who, after undergoing British education, arrived home literate, having adopted Christianity as his religion, and defiant of his father’s request to stay home and not leave for Britain.
Mhala senior even offered him chieftaincy, which he further rejected. During the two years he spent in Canterbury his highlights would include visits to St Paul’s Cathedral and House of Commons and he became very impressed by ‘British democracy’ and debating skills displayed by British politicians, a skill he would later use in his professional life.
Upon his return home in December 1868 he worked as a ‘catechist-teacher’ while being a protégé of Reverend Waters who was the head of the St Mark’s mission in Cofimvaba district of Queenstown.
The English missionaries had about 50 outposts and 30 schools, some up to 80 miles from its main location. Umhalla was a respected figure in that area and was the headmaster and would stand in to teach English and Xhosa classes in Waters’ absence.
He was referred to as the ‘enlightened native’ in the Cofimvaba district but his white colleagues saw him as a ‘defect which deterred him from being an earnest missionary to his breathen,’ says Odendaal. They thought he was a government official calibre because of his diplomacy. Odendaal wrote that in 1890, as a ‘literate native’, Umhalla helped establish the South African Native Congress (SANC), which was founded 22 years before the modern day ANC, its successor.
In 1897, Umhlalla became the first editor of one of the seven Xhosa newspapers Izwi La Bantu (Voice of the People) in what is today known as the Eastern Cape. His long-time friends Walter Rubusana and Allan Kirkland Soga were the newspaper’s founders.
Umhalla became one of the first black citizens of the Cape Colony to be charged with treason for refusing to favour the colonial war against the Ngqika Xhosa of Ngcayecibi in 1877-1878. The Cape Town newspaper reported, ‘deeper than his civilisation is his genuine Kaffir nature,’ says Odendaal. As racist as it was, the newspaper highlighted the fact that the emerging class of literate Africans which began in the middle of the 19th century were loyal to their native identities despite being westernised.
After being charged with treason he moved to King William’s Town to work as an interpreter at the Magistrate’s court.
Umhalla was given the descriptive of the ‘African Ranji’ for his phenomenal cricket ability. The epithet was derived from the Prince Kumar Sheri Ranjitsinhji, the Jam Sahib of Nawanagar who owned four castles. He was the greatest batsman of the game, nicknamed Ranji. Umhalla, the ‘prince’ of the Ndlambe branch of the Xhosa people was to inherit this nickname. His love and dedication for cricket led him to being a pioneer of black cricket in the colonial mission-school system.
On 24 May, in Victoria Day of 1883 he captained the Champion Cricket Club (CC) from King Williams Town, in the opening inter-town match versus Ngqika CC based in East London. On Christmas day his team became champions of the inter-town competition for black clubs in the Cape Colony. Upon returning home, Champions CC locked horns with the local Alberts CC and emerged victorious. Alberts CC was also one of the earliest and well known white clubs in the Cape colony.
In the second leg with Alberts CC, Umhalla top scored with 46 (run out) as Champions CC upset Alberts CC with 142 for four in just 90 minutes, in a Champion Bat Tournament. This tournament was a major competition in South Africa during that time. A newspaper report in 1889 described Umhalla as one of the best players and the best candidate for the proposed Anglo-African team to tour England. In the middle of 1890s, 30 years after first his debut, he became involved in the game as an administrator.
Umhalla had a full life, he was an interpreter, cricketer, politician, pedagogue, community leader and newspaperman – an interesting blend of talents that is not far from his teachers’ earlier description.
Odendaal, A. 2003. The Story of an African Game: Black Cricketers and Unmasking of One of the Cricket’s Greatest Myths, South Africa, 1850-2003. Cape Town: David Phillip, pp.27-29