Office messenger, editor and wagon-maker
Like many pioneers of the 19th and 20th centuries, William Wellington Gqoba was a jack of many trades, working as a newspaperman, a clerk and a wagon-maker.
William Wellington Gqoba was born in Gaga near Alice, Eastern Cape in August 1840, to Peyi Gqoba of the Circha clan, a protégé of Ntsikana, one of the early Christian African converts and the influential figure in the history of Xhosa literature.
William went to a mission school in Tyhume area in the Eastern Cape in the late 1850s, and by the age of 13, he was enrolled in a junior class at Lovedale Institution. Three years later he was contracted to work as a wagon maker. When he gained enough experience he became a freelance wagon maker at Brownlee Station.
About five years later, in 1859, Gqoba, at the age of 19, held a Dutch interpreter’s post. This is according to Tiyo Soga who briefly recorded the life and times of Gqoba. The latter is well represented in Reverend Dr James Stewart’s book, Lovedale past and present.
He juggled both professions well – first as an interpreter and second as a teacher. He taught at Mgwali. Within three years, he continued to learn from others in every new position he took and in this case he left Mgwali to be mentored by Richard Ross while teaching at Lovedale. A year later, in 1868, he returned to Mgwali. But two years later, in October1870, he left for King Williams Town for a teaching post.
Three years later, in January 1873, The Native Church in Rabula welcomed him as their preacher, who would stay there for four years until the last frontier war of 1877. A year later, he would move to Peelton Mission Station in King Williams Town – both teaching and preaching as a substitute for Richard Birt. But he made his way back to Rabula, in January 1880, after two years spent at Peelton Mission Station.
As itinerant as he was, a year later in February, he went to Kimberley to work as a Post Office messenger for half a year, a position he would occupy until the start of 1884.
Upon returning to the Eastern Cape, he went to Lovedale and succeeded John Tengo Jabavu as editor of Isigidimi samaXhosa and as a teacher in the translation classes held at the Institution.
He would go on to contribute two reports in 1875 and 1880 as a historian and ethnographer. As a literary giant, that part of his career took off when he started working for Isigidimi.
Walter Rubusana honoured him posthumously by including nine of his poems in his anthology Zemk’inkomo magwalandini published in 1906. And so did WG Bennie who used two of Gqoba’s poems in his anthology Imibengo published 29 years later in 1935.
When death conquered Gqoba, on 26 April 1888, the lifespan of Isigidimi came to an end soon after. Due to financial challenges and strong competition, the paper became defunct after 18 years of solid administration. It became the last 19th century missionary paper for Xhosa nation. He died young, at the age of 48.