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John William Colenso PDF Print E-mail

John William Colenso (1814-1883) was born in St. Austell, Cornwall England. He received a degree in Mathematics from Cambridge. After teaching in an English public school called Harrow, he then entered the ministry and in 1853, after eight years in a parish in Norfolk, he was appointed as the bishop of the newly created Anglican mission of Natal. He was later ordained the Anglican archbishop of Natal from 1853 onwards, during the age of British imperial expansion. He was a militant champion of justice for the Zulu people and their traditional rulers, but was also at the center of theological controversy because of his nonconformist views; a tradition carried on after his death by equally outspoken children. His daughter, Frances Ellen Colenso (1849 -1887), published two books on the relations of the Zulus to the British (History of the Zulu War and Its Origin in 1880 and The Ruin of Zululand in 1885) that explained events in Zululand at the time, from a pro- Zulu perspective. His oldest daughter, Harriet E. Colenso took up  Colenso’s mantle as advocate for the Zulus in opposition to their treatment by the authorities appointed by Natal, especially in the case of Dinizulu in 1888- 1889 and in 1908 -1909.

Colenso dedicated himself to missionary work and lived among the Zulu people where he mastered the Zulu language and, within a few years, compiled a Zulu dictionary and grammar textbook, as well as a translation of the New Testament and other portions of the scripture. He shocked his contemporaries by publishing a theological work entitled the Pentateuch Critically Examined (1862-79) which questioned the High Church and cast doubt on accepted beliefs about the authorship of the Pentateuch. When the archbishop of Cape Town attempted to have Colenso removed in 1862, he was faced thereafter with hostility from other church authorities, as well as from many colonists who did not agree with his liberal humanitarian approach on questions of British policy concerning Africans. Although a new bishop was appointed in his place in 1860, he remained at his post despite diminishing support from his countrymen.

When colonial authorities singled out the rebellious Zulu chief Langalibalele for suppression in 1874, Colenso carried the chief’s case to the British parliament and press. With the help of his formidable daughters, Harriet and Frances, he continued, by preaching and in writing, to crusade against Britain’s subjugation of the Zulus, both before and after the Anglo-Zulu war of 1879. The Zulus named him “Sobantu,” which means “friend of the people.” Colenso died in Durban on the 20th of June 1883. His body lies buried at the altar of St Peters Church in Pietermaritzburg, KwaZulu-Natal.

During a commemoration of the Battle of Isandlwana in 2016, KwaZulu-Natal Premier Senzo Mchunu paid tribute to Colenso for his work in translating the New Testament and Bible into isiZulu and his firm stance against racism and injustices committed against Africans.

Excerpt from 10 weeks in Natal (30 November 1853)

Monday 30th January 1854. As the sun rose…the mist and rain cleared away; and when I next mounted the deck the coast was before me, green as an emerald, and the hills so beautifully sloped that I can only compare the scenery with that of Devonshire and Cornwall, except that here in Natal, as in Kafraria (sic), the green heights go down to the very edge of the white beach, which margins the shore all along for miles. What surprised us most was the greenness of everything, in the very midst of the hot season; whereas at the Cape we had left everything burnt up, and brown, and dusty…But this difference, it appears, arises from the fact that, in these eastern parts of South Africa, the summer season is also the rainy season, and therefore perpetual verdure covers the land, except, of course, where the natives burn the grass.



John William Colenso (1855). Ten weeks in Natal: A journal of a first tour of visitation among the colonists and Zulu Kafirs of Natal.

John William Colenso (1866). Natal sermons.  (The 1st and 2nd series of the Natal Sermons have been re-printed, but the 3rd and 4th series, published only in South Africa and extremely rare, have not yet been reprinted.)

Frances Bunyon Colenso (1958). Colenso Letters from Natal.

John William Colenso (1876). Lectures on the Pentateuch and the Moabite Stone.