Monday, May 27, 2013

Missionaries: William Threlfall 1799-1825

William Threlfall, born 6 June 1799 at Hollowforth, near Preston, Lancashire, was an extraordinary man. His father, Richard Threlfall, was a tanner like his forebears; the family had lived on the same estate for several generations and were in comfortable circumstances. William found his religious calling at the age of seventeen, and, passionately believing he was needed by God in the mission field in Madagascar, began to study the French language. In March 1820 he was accepted into the Methodist ministry. In the following September he went to London to be examined by the Missionary Committee, and after some months he heard that it wasn't to Madagascar he would be sent, but to South Africa: the proposed mission to Madagascar had been abandoned for lack of funds.

Threlfall left England on 10 December 1821and arrived at Cape Town 4 April 1822. After six weeks in Cape Town, Threlfall left for Algoa Bay (Port Elizabeth), reaching it on 28 May after a stormy passage. It had been decided that he should labour under the Rev William Shaw in the Albany District and travelled there by ox-wagon arriving on 6 June, his 23rd birthday. He worked among the scattered immigrants of Albany and Kaffraria, and preached for the first time at Somerset East on 1 September 1822, having ridden from Salem, a distance of a hundred miles. On the following day he went to Graaff-Reinet to visit Rev Samuel Broadbent who had been ill, remaining with him for a week, and applying himself to learning the Dutch language from his host.
The call soon came to leave the Albany District for the greater perils of Delagoa Bay, but as this took him nearer to Madagascar which he still believed should be his true destination, he responded with alacrity.

Remarkably, Threlfall became involved in a historic expedition which had been sent by the
British Government to survey the East Coast of Africa and the coast of Madagascar and to collect scientific information. The frigate HMS Leven, commanded by Captain Owen, R.N., accompanied by the smaller vessel, Baracouta, were to undertake the journey. In May 1823, the Leven called at Simon's Bay, having been in the Mozambique channel and about to return there to continue the survey. Captain Owen offered free passage to a missionary who would volunteer to labour among the tribes of the coast of Delagoa Bay. Despite the hazardous nature of the expedition, Threlfall regarded this as a heaven-sent opportunity, and he duly embarked on the Leven on 21 June 1823, arriving at Delagoa Bay on 22 July.

Here he was welcomed by the local chief and escorted to a hut at the village of Stengelly: his new dwelling had neither chimney nor window and for furniture it contained 'a few spears, two shields and a rush basket'. The language barrier was all too apparent: he asked for a fire and they brought a bedstead, which, Threlfall observed 'was quite as useful'. He was brought a live fowl and some rice and while the meal was prepared twenty of the local people crowded into the tiny Mission house, singing and clapping. Threlfall, ever the optimist, was touched by this evidence of friendliness and found the people a fine race, though many of them suffered from leprosy. Undaunted, he had his baggage removed from the Leven to his new home, and settled down to a lonely existence in a savage land, five hundred miles from the nearest missionary. He had heard that some Portuguese settlers had been murdered nearby a few years before, but seemed to feel no fear and his positive outlook was reflected in his writings: 'I do not think that I was ever in my life situated more to my mind than at present. I have but few conveniences of a temporal kind, and am sometimes tempted to think that I shall suffer want; but I am happy ... I now desire a knowledge of the language ... then I would fly everywhere and preach …'

He went up the Maputa river, thirty miles from the bay, on the Jane, to interview one of the tribal kings; the river was swarming with hundreds of hippos which crowded round the boat. He spent some days in the neighbourhood of the king's residence and while there met some people of splendid physique who said the name of their king was Tshaka [sic] and that this ruler lived not too far away.

When he returned to his hut on the coast, fatigued after his journey, he developed a fever and sank into a delirium which lasted for several days: 'I wrote a note to anybody on board the English vessels in the river to come and see me ... Pray sir do come on shore and bury me, for I died last night'.

Captain Church of the Orange Grove responded to the missionary's appeal bringing some medicine which probably saved Threlfall's life, but after a few weeks the illness returned. In a weakened condition, Threlfall managed to crawl on board the Orange Grove, hoping to get away from the coast and regain his strength at sea. A British frigate, the Andromache, cast anchor in the river, which seemed providential, as the Orange Grove wasn't likely to sail for some time, and Threlfall turned to the captain of the frigate for assistance. This help was denied him, however, and Threlfall was forced to return to shore, and seek asylum from Tiexero, a native of Goa, and from the Portuguese Governor, both of whom showed more compassion for the sick missionary than his fellow countrymen had done. In spite of his weak condition, Threlfall managed to influence for good the Portuguese and natives alike, and to inspire a wholesome respect for himself; at one point he was able to prevent a rising of the local tribes against the Portuguese. Though the attacks of malaria from which Threlfall suffered had so reduced his strength that he was scarcely able to stand, he acted as mediator between the contending parties, and secured a treaty of peace. This was only a temporary measure, and when Captain Owen of the Leven later called at Delagoa Bay after Threlfall's departure he found that 'very few inhabitants were left, and the country was strewed with human bones' - which gives some idea of the perils which had surrounded Threlfall during his time at the Bay.

Five months then elapsed during which time the missionary had repeated attacks of fever. Then, in February 1824, South Sea whaler, the Nereid, called at Delagoa Bay to take on water and vegetables. Threlfall had no hope of recovery while he remained in that climate and hiring two servants prevailed on the captain to allow him to embark on the ship, asking to be landed at the first inhabited shore to be sighted after the vessel had put to sea, thinking that this was likely to be Port Natal or St Augustine's Bay, Madagascar. But fate was against him once again: 150 miles off Madagascar the crew were struck down by an epidemic of the dreaded East Coast fever and the captain put about and steered for the Cape of Good Hope, so that his men would be cured and also in order to obtain replacement crew.

The voyage was terrible: out of a crew of 30, 13, including the first and third mates, succumbed to the epidemic, Threlfall reading the funeral services as each was committed to the deep. The captain became sick and the second mate was no navigator. Threlfall himself had to take over the management of the ship which eventually reached the Cape, the weather having been the only thing in her favour. A notice was posted at Table Bay as follows:

Ship Nereid, South Sea whaler, arrived in Table Bay in distress. Twenty days at sea, from Delagoa Bay; called there for water; caught the fever; took the Rev W Threlfall on board sick. All hands down. Ship unmanageable; lost fifteen hands (actually thirteen) among whom are the first and third mates. The captain is delirious and the Reverend gentleman is dying. Seen at sea in distress and brought into port.
That was on 12 April 1824. The Nereid's arrival caused much excitement at Cape Town. There were fears that the plague on board would spread and endanger the local populace. Rev James Whitworth was at Cape Town and had intended joining Threlfall at Delagoa Bay, and when he heard the news hastened to engage a surgeon to attend his fellow missionary. The authorities, however, made it a condition anyone who visited the fever-stricken vessel would not be allowed to disembark as long as she was in quarantine. Whitworth, who had his own medical supplies and knew something of fevers, voluntarily went on board to attempt to save Threlfall, whose emaciated frame came as a shock. Various measures were taken to clean the ship, with the help of the two men whom Threlfall had employed at Delagoa Bay and who had accompanied him on the voyage; with treatment Threlfall and the remainder of the crew began to recover. The Nereid lay at anchor for 30 days, after which the quarantine was brought to an end and all were landed. Soon, with the help of Dr Roberts on shore, Threlfall gradually became able to walk and ride a horse, though it took several months and at times he despaired of ever being well again.

Threlfall had brought the two servants with him hoping to train them as interpreters for the Mission and on going ashore took the precaution, so necessary in those days, of introducing them to the Colonial Secretary and obtaining certificates to show that they were British subjects and free men – not slaves. He also sent them, at his own expense, to a school in Cape Town, where they remained for several years. One of these men was baptized in the Christian faith, receiving the name Ransom Threlfall.

In July 1824, William Threlfall was invited by Rev Barnabas Shaw, then stationed at Kamiesberg, to be his guest and have an opportunity to recover his strength, and Threlfall made the long journey overland from Cape Town, a distance of over six hundred miles by ox-wagon in slow stages. The isolated mission house at Lilyfountain (Leliefontein) was a simple place with mud floors, mat ceilings and rough whitewashed walls. Here Threlfall was to spend the next few months, and with his usual optimism he wrote to the Missionary Committee on 1 January 1825 to say that the 'salubrious air of this elevated station' was already effecting an improvement in his health, and not forgetting a reminder to the Committee as to his continued willingness to proceed to Madagascar.

Kamiesberg M S
While at the Kamiesberg Threlfall was involved in gardening and building, taught in the day school, visited the sick, dispensed medicines and learnt about the people among whom he laboured. He became closely acquainted with the baptized Christian Jacob Links, Shaw's interpreter, who was literate, spoke Namaqua and Hottentot, as well as having a working knowledge of English and Dutch, and who often gave sermons at the mission. His brother Peter Links was also a powerful preacher of the gospel, and another man, Johannes Jager, from the Karree Mountains who was brought to Christianity at Lilyfountain, was also among Threlfall's new-found acquaintances. Jager and Jacob Links became friends, both had a thirst for knowledge and it wasn't long before Jager was able to read the Scriptures.

In June 1825, Threlfall, with Jacob Links and Johannes Jager, left Lilyfountain for Great Namaqualand; they hoped to reach the Fish River and discover whether the people of that region were in need of a missionary. On 4 July, Threlfall wrote a letter to the Lilyfountain station from Korasse, showing that they were still on the south side of the Orange River and that all was well. A further few lines were received from Warm Bath, about 200 miles from Lilyfountain. It was a long journey from Warm Bath to the Fish River but it was evident that the three companions intended to continue until their destination was reached. After this, many weeks passed with no news of the three men. On 16 October, Shaw received a letter from Rev Wimmer, of Steinkopf, saying that he had heard that Brother Threlfall and his party had been murdered. Shaw was disinclined to believe the rumour, but months went by with no communication from Threlfall. The truth of what had happened eventually reached Lilyfountain.

At Warm Bath, Threlfall found nobody willing to assist him in getting to the Fish River. It may be that it was their way of saving him from what they regarded as a hazardous enterprise. There was famine in the land, and the people were against parting with diminishing supplies. Game would also be scarce, so hunting for the pot would be difficult. But Threlfall was determined to go on, and started from Warm Bath with Jacob and Johannes, without a guide. After travelling four days northwards they lost an ox because they had failed to find water. They thought it advisable to return to Warm Bath fearing that they might be stranded in the desert without transport if they lost more oxen. Even after the purchase of fresh animals, Threlfall, as he thought of the long trek ahead through the desert, doubted their ability to bring him home for the animals would have next to nothing to eat. But if his worst fears were realized, Johannes and another man might be sent to Shaw for oxen to bring him and Jacob back to Lilyfontein. Here we see Threlfall's indomitable perseverance in action; the circumstances of the country, the condition of the people, all indicated that the time to retire had come.

Nevertheless, Threlfall left Warm Bath for the second time on 9 or 10 August. A guide had been secured, in the person of one Nauwghaap, probably a Namaqua, Possibly Nauwghaap was tempted by the sight of the little property which Threlfall carried with him. As the party proceeded, the guide was joined by several other men, one at least of whom had been on a hunting expedition and was carrying a gun. Threlfall offered some objection to the hunter joining the party, but Nauwghaap insisted and Threlfall reluctantly submitted.
On the first or second night after their departure from Warm Bath, Threlfall, Jacob and Johannes, were conducted to a kraal, a small enclosure of bushes in the open air. A fire was lit and the evening meal prepared. Threlfall and his companions were left alone. The three men sang a hymn, read the Bible and prayed, and then wrapped in their karosses went to sleep. At midnight Threlfall was aroused by a gunshot. Bushmen, led by the guide Nauwghaap, and armed with their bows and arrows, had invaded the kraal. Jacob had been shot, a bullet penetrating his spine. Johannes was already dead, killed by arrows. Threlfall, seeing dark figures creeping stealthily about the kraal, arose and went towards his baggage where he knelt in prayer. He was pursued with relentless cruelty until the end. The bodies were left unburied for the vultures and hyenas, while the assassins divided the spoils and fled.

Nauwghaap was later captured and executed. Threlfall’s loss sent a shock wave through the Cape Colony and beyond, and was related from missionary platforms worldwide.

In Memory of
The Rev William Threlfall 
Wesleyan Missionary in South Africa 
Who - with two native converts, devoted to the same Service and 
Sacrifice for the sake of their countrymen - was treacherously 
Murdered by their guide and his accomplices, on their way 
To carry the Gospel into Great Namaqualand 
August 1825

He was 26 years old when he died.


Steve Hayes said...

Interesting story. I've been trying to find our more about Leliefontein at a slightly later period, from 1840 onwards. I think at that time there was a missionary called Jackson there.

Do you know if there is a list of missionaries at Leliefontein and when they were there?

Mole said...

Hello Steve. I haven't found a list of Methodist missionaries at Leliefontein, unfortunately, any decade. Mole

Anatswanashe said...

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Unknown said...

My husband is the gt.x3 grandson of Rev Wimmer referred to in this piece. I have managed to read some of his papers: life was harsh.

Mole said...

Thanks for your comment. Yes life was indeed harsh for these early missionaries. Best wishes,Mole

Unknown said...

Where was William Threlfall buried?

Mole said...

Tilman Dedering stated that the murders (of Threlfall and two other missionaries) occurred at what was latterly called Dakakabis. The remains of the three missionaries were buried in 1835 by the Wesleyan missionary, Edward Cook. Their remains were discovered again in 1986 and a memorial was erected on a farm, Allgemeine Zeitung, Windhoek, Namibia on September 14, 1987.

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