Imvubu Newsletter

'Famous Firsts' - The Soga family

© Hirst, M. 2004 Imvubu 16:2, 7 – 8.

Tiyo Soga was born in May 1829, at Gwali in the Tyhume valley, when Maqoma, the Right Hand Son of Ngqika, was expelled by the British from Shokoshele in the Kat River valley in the Ceded Territory. Tiyo’s father, Old Soga, was the son of Jotello and a leading councillor of Ngqika. Old Soga, by virtue of his rank, was a polygynist, who had eight wives and thirty-nine children. Tiyo’s mother, Nosuthu, the daughter of Ngayi, of the amaNtinde, was a Christian and the Great Wife of Old Soga. Tiyo was the fifth-born of Nosuthu’s six children.

Charles Lennox Stretch gives a vivid description of Old Soga in his diary. “One of the visiting group (which included Maqoma, Sandile, their councillors and Sandile’s mother, Suthu), named Soga, attracted my notice on this and on former occasions. If external appearance indicates talent I should say he evidently stands out, from his countrymen at least, as a …warrior, possessing a finely developed frame with a brilliant eye and acute glance. When it pleased him to communicate his hunting or war stories, it was well to listen and learn ….” Though undoubtedly a traditionalist who consulted traditional healers (amagqirha), Old Soga was nevertheless an agricultural innovator. On 9 June 1836 Stretch was called to inspect an irrigation furrow, “the first attempt of the kind … by which many acres of land can be cultivated … and irrigated,”constructed by Old Soga on the Tyhume River. As a result, Old Soga was apparently the first to obtain a new plough from the colonial authorities, with instruction from Messrs Classens, Muller and Buise on how to use it, “to plough the lands he had lately cleared”.

There is some speculation as to why Old Soga, a nominal Christian at best, should have decided not to circumcise his son, Tiyo, and thereby to earmark him for a career in the Christian ministry, as the first ordained Xhosa minister and missionary. Perhaps, he was complying with the wishes of his Great Wife, who was a practising Christian. However, it is also possible that Old Soga recognised that Tiyo was a delicate boy, who was infected with tuberculosis, which was endemic to the Soga family and at least two of his siblings were mortally infected with the disease, from which he eventually died on 12 August 1871 at Tuturha, the mission he founded in 1868 in Transkei. During the decade (1857-67) Tiyo Soga spent at Mgwali, the mission he founded near present-day Stutterheim, he suffered from bouts of ‘preacher’s throat’. In 1865 his medical doctor advised him to resign, but he felt his vocation too strongly to comply. His recurring ill-health also generated bouts of morbid introspection.

During Tiyo Soga’s student years in Scotland (1850-57), he read widely, including the works of Prescott, Macaulay and Boswell. He was particularly attracted to Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress Part I, a work he was later to translate into Xhosa being the first of its kind to appear in print under the title, Uhambo Lomhambi. At least seven hymns written by Tiyo Soga were published in INCWADI YAMACULO (1864). He also published eight articles in Indaba.

John Aitken Chalmers, later to be Tiyo Soga’s biographer, disillusioned by years of unrewarding missionary work, published an article in Indaba in March 1865, which was later reprinted in the King William’s Town Gazette on 3 April. Referring to the Xhosa, Chalmers bluntly stated: “Either this people are to rise in the scale of civilisation, and play an important part in the history of this Colony, or else every year must witness their extinction until at last they pass away, and be forgotten forever.” He considered that the Xhosa were doomed to extinction because of their ‘indolent habits,’ which were a ‘barrier to their progress’. Tiyo Soga immediately disputed the twin assumptions that Africans would wither and die, and that they could be shunted round at colonial behest. The result was a statement in his journal dated 25 April, followed by a letter in the King William’s Town Gazette on 11 May. In Tiyo Soga’s view, based on the Bible, God had given Africa to the sons of Ham, and He would retain them in ‘his Southern portion of it’. The foregoing two texts, together with an extract from his now lost notebook, reprinted in Chalmers’ Tiyo Soga (1878), constitute the core of his philosophy of Black consciousness and negritude. Tiyo Soga advised his children when they left to be educated in Scotland: “Take your place in the world as coloured, not as white men; as Kafirs, not as Englishmen …. For your own sakes never appear ashamed that your father was a Kafir, and that you inherit some African blood.”

On 27 February 1857 Tiyo Soga married Janet Burnside, an attractive Scots lady 28 years old who hailed from Craignestock in Glasgow, at Ibroxholm, Glasgow. Little is known about her, except that her mother was dead and her father was a ‘warper’. They had four gifted sons, who had distinguished professional careers. William Anderson (1858-1916), a qualified medical doctor, was the first person of colour to practise as a medical missionary in Transkei. His son, Alexander R. B., a contemporary and golfing companion of Donald Woods’ father, was a surgeon at Idutywa. John Henderson (1860-1941), who was born with a lame leg and consequently walked with a limp, succeeded William Anderson as missionary at Elliotdale. He became the first Xhosa historian publishing two works on the subject, The South-Eastern Bantu (1930) and The Ama-Xosa: Life and Customs (1931). He also completed the Xhosa translation of the second half of Pilgrim’s Progress in 1929. He, his wife and their youngest son William died at Southampton in March 1941 during a German air-raid. Alan Kirkland (1862-1938) entered the Cape Civil Service in 1893 and served as an assistant labour agent and Acting Resident Magistrate in Transkei until 1898. He was the editor of Izwi La Bantu (‘Voice of the People’), took an interest in politics and was the protagonist of Black rights. Jotello Festiri (1865-1906) was the first South African veterinary surgeon, whose efforts in helping to stem the outbreaks of lung-sickness and rinderpest during the late 1880s and 1890s in the Eastern Cape and Transvaal were largely unrecognised at the time. All Tiyo Soga’s sons were educated in Scotland and married Scots wives. Predictably, less is known about his daughters. Bella, the eldest, died in 1880. Francis, the second daughter, engaged in mission work in Transkei. Jesse Margaret went to Scotland with her mother at an early age and never returned to South Africa.


Chalmers, J. A. 1878. TIYO SOGA: A Page Of South African Mission Work. London: Hodder & Stoughton.

Daily Dispatch

Dictionary Of South African Biography. Vols. I, II and III. Cape Town: Tafelberg Ltd.

Gutsche, T. 1979. There Was A Man: The Life and Times of Sir Arnold Theiler K. C. M. G. of Onderstepoort. Cape Town: Howard Timmins.

Williams, D. 1978. UMFUNDISI: A Biography of TIYO SOGA 1829-1871. Lovedale Press.

Williams, D. 1983. The Journal and Selected Writings of The Reverend Tiyo Soga. Cape Town: Balkema.

Photo Caption:

Dr. J. F. Soga, the popular gentleman and veterinarian, who died from an overdose of laudanum on 6 December 1906. The original photograph is in the collection of MuseumAfrica, Johannesburg.