Jacob Links is remembered as one of the first Christian martyrs in South Africa. He was also the first indigenous convert and church leader to write to the Board of the Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society in London. He wrote in Dutch and told them about the Namaqua mission of which he was a part.
He was born in about 1799, one of the sons of Keudo Links, a man of influence in his Namaqua tribe. Among his brothers and sisters were Peter, Jan, Timotheus, Gert and Martha. In 1816 the Rev. Barnabas Shaw, a missionary of the Wesleyan Methodist Church, came to live among the Namaqua people. Shaw had been invited by a group of Namaquas who met him as he traveled north from Cape Town. He settled in Little Namaqualand at what became Lilyfountain Mission. The Links family moved to live at the mission too. Jacob was about seventeen years old when he arrived at Lilyfountain.
In 1819 he wrote to the Board of the Mission in London. The letter was published in the ‘Notices’ ~ the letters from missionaries which reported on their work. The secretary noted that the letter was written in Dutch in ‘a very good hand’ (Notices 1820, 264). Links told them that he had first heard of the Gospel from converts of the Rev. Albrecht. He listened; but did not understand. Then he thought that by eating the leaves of a Dutch prayer book belonging to his mother he might be able to have the new religion. He tried getting on to the roof of the house to pray, thinking that God would surely hear him there, but to no avail. He then heard that he must give ‘his cause to Jesus’, which he did. But then he was persecuted by both ‘black and white’. The farmers resented the teaching given by the missionaries. People told him he was mad and his mother cried over him. Then the captain of the clan and four men went to find a teacher. They returned with Barnabas Shaw and his wife, Jane.
Links said that he now ‘found that Christ is the way and the sinner’s friend’. Whereas before the people had lived in fear of the farmers who threatened them with death if they became Christians, Lilyfountain became a center for missionary work, both by Shaw and the Namaquas themselves. Jacob Links became a teacher, interpreter and evangelist. Many of the rest of the family also became Christians.
Shaw taught Links and others how to read. He had no school books but used Dutch religious tracts, of which he had a plentiful supply. Jacob’s new-found skill was put to the test when he accompanied Shaw to the farm of a Dutch farmer. At first the farmer mocked the Namaquas, but Links and his brother Jan told the farmer about the book of life and that Christ had said that people must be born again. The farmer realized that the Links brothers could both read and write better than he could (Shaw 1970, 81).
On one occasion Links offered to travel into the interior as a missionary. He was away for several weeks preaching to the people he met. In 1822 Links was accepted as a ‘native assistant missionary’. He accompanied the missionary James Archbell on a journey into Greater Namaqualand. He also accompanied Archbell to Cape Town and then sailed up the coast with him to Walvish (sic) Bay. When Archbell was sent to the Bechuanas, Links returned to Lilyfountain.
At the end of 1824 the Rev. William Threlfall visited Lilyfountain. He had been ill for some time and had come to recuperate. On 2 January 1825 Shaw held a ‘love feast’ or communion service. At the service a man named Johannes Jager from the Karee country, a barren land between Garies and Van Rhynsdorp, told how he had heard the Gospel from a Namaqua woman called Delia. A week later permission came from the governor for Shaw and the mission to own the land on which Lilyfountain was built. Barnabas and Jane Shaw took advantage of Threlfall’s presence and spent some time in Cape Town. Jager remained at the mission, still hoping for a missionary for his clan.
Shaw, Threlfall and Links had often spoken of traveling to the Fish River to see if the people there still wanted a teacher. Because of Threlfall’s frequent illness, Links had chosen a friend who would go with them and remain until a missionary could be found. This was Johannes Jager. In the end it was Threlfall, Links and Jager that embarked on the fateful trip. The first letter from the group, which was first read to the wives of Jacob and Johannes and then to the rest of the people at Lilyfountain, brought good news. The expedition was going well and they had found a guide, Tsaumaap, to take then further.
On 16 October Shaw received a message from Brother Wimmer of Steinkopf saying that he had heard that the party had been murdered. The same report was again brought to the mission a few weeks later, but it was only in March 1826 that the Rev. Schmelen of the London Missionary Society was able to confirm what had happened. Their new guide, a man called Nauwghaap, had stoned them to death for their cattle and few possessions. He was caught still wearing Threlfall’s clothes (Birtwhistle 1966, 137).
Although Links, with his potential, was gone, his family did not leave the Christian faith and continued as leaders in the Methodist Church in Lilyfountain.
J. A. Millard
Birtwhistle, N. William Threlfall. London: Oliphants, 1966.
Moister, W. Heralds of Salvation Sent Forth by the WMMS. London: Wesleyan Conference Office, 1878.
Notices of the Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society 1820, 1826.
Shaw, B. Memorials of South Africa. Cape Town: C. Struik, 1970.
This article is reproduced, with permission, from Malihambe - Let the Word Spread, copyright © 1999, by J. A. Millard, Unisa Press, Pretoria, South Africa. All rights reserved.