John Tengo Jabavu to Frederick Chesson, May 6 1880, C139/1

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Jabavu, John Tengo


Indigenous person




Somerset East


Cape Colony

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MSS. Brit. Emp. S. 18 / C139-1


Somerset East, Cape Colony
May 6th 1880

F.W. Chesson Esq

My dear sir,

Some months ago I fell in with a copy of the Aborigines’ Friend, and journal of the proceedings of the Aborigines Protection Society, which I was very pleased to find, as I was offered an opportunity of becoming acquainted the Society’s raison d’etre of which I was ignorant previously. I have read many a speech by prominent politicians and many an article in colonial journals in which the Society was abused and denounced in unmeasured terms, till the monotony of these diatribes caused me to adopt the denunciations of these politicians and journals as my own in respect of the Society. Aborigines, at that time, was a term whose meaning I never stopped to examine. I really thought a society such as the one which never ceased to be a perpetual sore in the hearts of our rulers was a scandal to the English name.

Now, sir, I am a native brought up, I may say, under exceptional circumstances. From a provincial newspaper office I have been fortunate to acquire some knowledge of constitutional government and, since, I have felt a great anxiety for the incapability of numerous of my countrymen to use their constitutional rights which have, all the time they were granted by Her Majesty, been assumed by their white fellowmen. I have felt a very deep interest in every measure which lends to further their material advancement and have tried, as far as it laid in my power, to bring, following constitutional usage, their grievances before the government which has, I am sorry to say, proved itself a sort of a political Baal to the entreaties of the natives.

I read the copy of the Friend, therefore, with much interest, as I considered myself fortunate in falling in with a report of the transactions of a Society which enjoyed such universal notoriety in the aims of our eminent men. Reading it with a prejudiced mind, you may well image the sensation which overtook me when, after a short perusal, to my utter confusion, I discovered that the work of the Society was to see the justice was extended to the natives in Her Majesty’s colonial empire, and that the report was characterized with much anxiety consequent on the disquietude among them occasioned by our rulers’ policy of harassing the natives with the hollow and fictitious pretensions of raising them. We have persistently protested, but in vain, against a policy which continually ‘gives shocks to confidence which is the life of enterprise.’

I was most feelingly moved by the pathetic and sympathetic sentence, in the election address to the members of the Society, to the effect that ‘there never was a time when it was more desirable that the members should remember the claims of the unrepresented populations.’ We take this statement as a spark to lighten up the darkness of disgust at misrepresentation in which we have been groaning – God forbid we should groan again. The statement is too true to be controverted, and South Africa is rightly pointed to by the Committee as the correct object of such a benevolent remembrance.

The violent hurricane of a ‘rigorous native policy,’ as it is termed by the government, has swept and garnished homesteads of loyal and rebel alike. I need not recapitulate to you the most oppressive measures enforced among the natives, of which the indiscriminate disarmament act, the vagrancy, the cattle branding and the confiscation fever are among the prominent, but I intend to present the other side of the humiliating and hopeless oppression carried on by the existing administration, in darker colours: To crown the pernicious and perplexing effects of these high-handed acts, the thought that there is no course of appeal has acted as a torture to the native heart. The measures have been carried on by a ministry which is well known in the colony to be a mere tool in the hands of Sir Bartle Frere, who is the source of this mischevous policy. Sir Michael Hicks-Beach cannot be depended upon as a functionary to whom an appeal from Sir Bartle Frere, in such a matter could be addressed as he himself depends on being guided by him, for he (Sir M H-Beach) is no master of colonial affairs at all. Thus the anxiety of those natives who, in the midst of oppressive measures, consoled themselves and their countrymen in a prospect of appeal has been aggravated, and they have had to give the business up for a hopeless task. We knew that our remedy then was with the Liberal party in England and that so long as the Conservative Secretary of State for the Colonies remained in office we would ever be the victims of a policy which seek honor and glory by cheap victories, dishonorable means and oppression of subject races.

The Fingoes, Basutos and Kama’s Kaffirs are nations which, not only never engaged in war against the British government (but on the contrary have ever been its staunch allies), but have made such unparalleled strides in civilization, that they have never been a source of anxiety to South African rulers. But in spite of humble and important protests their arms were causelessly remanded by the government and they have been now, for the first times in their career as British subjects, made to learn that loyalty availeth nothing amongst Englishmen. That there has been no course to appeal the incidents of the development of the question of Basuto disarmament are a proof more than complete. The question was first moved in a Pipo, an annual assembly, held two years ago; the evidence given during the sitting of a Select Committee on the Morosi rebellioin, remanded by the late Hon A Stockenstrom, unravelled that fact that the announcement of the intentions of the government was received with much disfavour through the length and breadth of the land. Mr Sprigg last year visited the country to continue the announcement. It would be well to note here that he did so in the teeth of the expressed disapproval of Parliament which had just been prorogued. It remains to be seen how that body will visit Mr Gordon Sprigg for his headlong course. But in his face the Basutos protested in solid arguments until he was forced to leave the question to their consideration and to hold out a specific promise that he would do nothing against their will.

On his way back, however, in a town a days journey from Basutoland, he took occasion to contradict what had appeared in the telegraphic summaries of newspapers to the effect that he held out of promise with which he is, by everyone present that day, accredited. Arriven in Cape Town, after some considerable ballancing he sent word to the governor’s agent to demand the guns from the Basutos. Following a constitutional course Letsea petitioned the High Commissioner and the Queen against the action the Gordon Sprigg ministry was taking towards him. Sir Bertle Frere submitted the petition to his ministers, who, as might have been expected, turned a deaf ear to its prayer. As Sir Bartle is in one with his ministers there was no prospect of the ministerial minute being …. We have, as yet, heard nothing of the reply to the petition sent to Her Majesty the Queen, though judging from the reply of Sir Michael Hicks-Beach to Mr Justin McCarthy’s question in the House of Commons there is all probability that it will see the same fate. It may be urged that the Basutos have the Colonial Parliament to appeal to, but Parliaments in which the ministries of the day have unthinking majorities are worse than useless, and it is very likely that as the Fingo petitions fell flat on the House last session the same agency will secure the like for the unfortunate Basutos. There is thus no course of appeal, and the natives under the circumstances can do nothing but accept Hobson’s choice. We have reason to believe that amongst all these authorities disarmament is a fore-gone determination, and any arguments against it however solid are as vain as the air.

To sum up, we hold Sir Bartle Frere and his ministry cannot sit as judges over the prayers of the aggrieved natives, since the former is the fons et origo of the policy, and the latter, according to their own showing, are mere tools in his hand. The colonial parliament and the secretary of state for the colonies (Sir M. H-Beach) then, are the only authorities we can look to, but the former body by its deaf and dumb majority, it as good or worse then Sir Bartle Frere and the ministry, and the latter, as I have already observed, cannot form a judgement without resorting to dispatches which are nothing else than Sir Bartle’s and his ministry’s provictions. To all this is to be added the misrepresentations of the majority of the press which has not been slow in contributing its quota to our oppressive burden by misrepresentation in England; acts outrageous have been trimmed with euphemistic epithets before transmission to England and by this means we have been disarmed of the only means of appeal to the honor, the dignity, the love of justice, of happiness and of freedom to mankind – qualities well known to be inherent amongst Englishmen.

Thus, then, all these things well known that they exist in South Africa, the words of the address are heartily echoed by one, and, I am sure, all the aborigines in this part of Her Majesty’s empire, and no less would we rejoice if a Royal Commission – though it is dreaded by those who carry on the oppression – were appointed to investigate the manner in which the natives have been treated.

While writing this I learned with extreme pleasure that Mr Chamberlain, the gentlemen, who, I heard, had consented to bring forward in the House of Commons the question of Native Policy in South Africa, is appointed a member of the imperial ministry. This news will give a feeling of relief to our minds for we know the Rt. Ho. Gentlemen will now be offered an opportunity to use his influence on behalf of natives in a higher sphere.

I remain
My dear sir,
Very truly yours
J Tengo-Jabavu

Dear Sir
You may publish the above in the Daily News if you think it would be of some material value.