The first mission to the Thlaping, at Ga-Mopedi
Ga-Mopedi is located about 35 north-west of Kuruman, on the Maruping-Tsineng Road. This was the very first mission to the Tswana, in 1801. It was led by Jan Kok and William Edwards, of the recently-established South African Missionary Society. Jan Kok was a farmer, of mixed origin, with a white father and a Khoi mother.
These missionaries were not very effective. They were not properly ordained, and therefore could not serve the sacraments. Also, they were negotiating with Serakotwe, living at nearby Phataneng. Serakotwe was the brother of Chief Molehabangwe, who remained sceptical about the Christian faith. Kok and Edwards therefore never received proper political sanction for their ministry.
When Chief Molehabangwe met the Truter-Somerville exhibition in 1801, expressed his suspicions of missionaries. "The Bechauanas’ greatest pleasure is to pour melted fat and red ochre upon our heads till it runs down our faces, but we are told that these people (missionaries) forbid the Hottentots to smear themselves with fat, and if this man will come amongst us and rob us of the greatest pleasure we have in the world, he must leave us (Bechuanas) to work the ground peaceably and plant our corn and pour fat upon our heads as our fathers did”, wrote Somerville.
The early missionaries (including Kok, Edwards, and even Robert Moffat) tended to be very critical of the Tswana's culture. They worked to undermine cultural elements such as polygamy, initiation, the inferior status of women, and the use of sibilo as a cosmetic. This made the missionary task much more difficult.
In 1801, William Somerville found Edwards and his wife at Ga-Mopedi, in dire straits: “His habitation was a small hut of reeds, furnished with a couple of wooden boxes, a few camp chairs, and a table; his bed was a mat on the ground; his wagon worn out; his span of oxen looked poor”. Edwards had been abandoned by his Bushman servants, and did not appear to have close relationships with the nearby Tswana. He had to rely for food on his gun, and they lived on biltong. Mrs Edwards was expecting a baby. “Oh, how thankful were these poor people for the small quantity of provisions, powder, lead and other little things we could spare. We parted amid best wishes, and Mrs Edwards appeared much affected”, wrote Somerville.
They were joined later by a further three missionaries, Aart Anhonie van der Lingen (1803-1805) and Willem Koster and Lambert Jansz (1805). But even this could not save the early mission, partly because of disagreements amongst the missionaries.
These missionaries had no resources from their mission society. So they had to engage in hunting and trade to make a living. Due to their trading activities, Kok was involved in a dispute with some Thlaping traders, and they shot him dead in an argument. He was buried near The Eye of Kuruman.
Because of these growing concerns for their safety, Mr and Mrs Edwards left the mission field and went farming in the Cape Colony.
The early missionaries
The first missionary organisation to set up a base in the region, was the London Missionary Society (LMS). By 1805, the missionaries Kicherer, Kramer and Anderson were established among Barend Barends' Griqua people at Klaarwater (today called Griquatown).
James Read - the first missionary to Chief Mothibi
In 1816, Kgosi Mothibi allowed Rev James Read to live and work at the Tswana capital, Dithakong. Read was an unusual missionary at the time. Read had a new approach to mission work - he did not believe in whites' cultural superiority, and he did not try to undermine Tswana culture. His main focus was to teach local people agricultural skills, carpentry and smithing work. Read was assisted by Griqua and Khoi helpers and translators, creating an effective non-racial mission team. He also married a Khoi woman, Sara. Read was patient, egalitarian and tolerant. He a
During Read's residence among the Tswana, Chief Mothibi decided to move to a new site - called "New Dithakong", on the Kuruman River, about 15 km north-west of the current town of Kuruman (today called Maropeng). Read and his team accompanied Mothibi's community to the new site, where there was more water, and they could focus on crop production. They built a water mill, made ploughs, and helped the Tlhaping to improve their tools.
But Read became unpopular with certain leaders of the London Missionary Society, who thought that his ideas were too radical. He also faced a scandal because of an extramarital affair with a San girl - an issue which was used by his conservative opponents to discredit him. He was recalled from the Tswana kingdom in 1820, and sent to Bethelsdorp, near Port Elizabeth, to continue his work there. Kgoshi Mothibi was very unhappy about losing James Read. In future, he would engage with missionaries primarily to obtain firearms, and not to listen to their religiou message.
In 1823, Read was replaced at New Dithakong by Robert Moffat - a man with a much more judgemental temperament.
A long friendship
In 1817, the BaThlaping Chief Mothibi allowed two missionaries from the London Missionary Society to settle at their new principal site, Maruping (15 km north-west of Kuruman; Kuruman was established much later, in the 1890s).
The first missionary was James Read, in 1817, but he was replaced (date??) by the very evangelistic Reverend Robert Moffat and his wife, Mary.
The missionaries called Maruping "New Lattakoo" (based on their pronunciation of the old capital, Dithakong, as "Lattakoo"). The name "Lattakoo" became known across the British empire as an important site of Christian work.
In due course, Robert Moffat learned Setswana, the language of the BaTlhaping. It took him seven years, and only then did he make his first converts - in 1829. By 1830, Moffat had translated the Bible into Setswana, and had acquired a printing press on which he published Christian tracts and hymns. This steadily increased the missionaries' influence.
Sketched by Guillermo Farini
The fountain of Christianity in the Kalahari
The Moffats converted the Batlhaping to Christianity, and started a school in 1829.
The Moffats baptised their first converts in 1829, and regular services are still conducted in this old church. The church seats up to 1 000 people and is remarkable for its excellent acoustics.
The missionaries printed the Tswana Bibles on their own printing press, which is still on display at the Moffat Mission There are also numerous other historical artefacts like an ox wagon, a sundial from 1831 and a bronze relief of Robert Moffat. A small conference venue has recently been built on the property, which is used for community functions, education and religious meetings.
The mission has been described as filled with “an atmosphere and a character of calm confidence and tranquility; all is still, as though the place is set in a dream world” (TV Bulpin). The Moffatt Museum has recently been renovated by the Lotto fund.
The mission became a famous staging point for explorers and missionaries heading further into Africa.The Moffats’ daughter, Mary, married David Livingstone in the mission church.
Contact number: (053) 712 1352, or (053) 712 2645.
Trusting in miracles
Building trust was not easy. Rev Robert Moffat was critical of some of the local practices. In December 1822, there was a terrible drought, and the BaThlhaping were very frustrated by their current rainmaker. They believed that she should be put to death. Moffat objected strongly, and there was a standoff, with some local people blaming Moffat for the drought. Moffat replied that he would die rather than face expulsion from the country, pleading only that the women and children of the mission be spared. His courage and passion greatly impressed Kgosi Mothibi, and he spared the life of Moffat and the mission. That very day, there was a sprinkling of rain.