Classic DACB Collection

All articles created or submitted in the first twenty years of the project, from 1995 to 2015.

Merensky, Alexander (A)

Berlin Missionary Society
South Africa

Alexander Anton Berchthold Merensky (June 8, 1837-May 22, 1918) was a missionary responsible for extensive station foundation in all of South Africa. Merensky came from a lower middleclass family, and spent most of his childhood in the Schindler Orphanage in Berlin. Under the influence of the famous Rev. Gustav Knak, Merensky decided to become a missionary. He joined the Berlin Missionary Society (BMS) and after a three year period of study, including study of surgery and nursing, left for South Africa in 1858.

On his arrival Merensky and the Rev. Heinrich Grützner were instructed to establish a mission station in eswatini. Due to the hostile attitude of the Swazi king, Mswati, the two missionaries were forced to leave a very promising field of labor. However, they received permission from the Transvaal Republic to commence mission work among the Bakapa of Chief Maleo. In 1860 they founded the station Gerlachshoopthe, first mission station of the Berlin Society north of the Vaal River.

A year later Merensky obtained the permission of Chief Sekwati, paramount chief of the Bapedi, to commence with mission work in his territory. Between 1861 and 1865 the stations Khalathlolu, Patemetsane and XaRatu were founded. Systematic mission work among a major African tribe was getting well under way when Sekwati’s successor, chief Sekhukhuni I, turned against his converted subjects. Merensky decided to leave the territory taking his 130 converts with him.

In the beginning of 1865 he founded another station, near Middleburg in the Transvaal known as Botshabelo (City of Refuge). Botshabelo became a small state within a state, and although Merensky’s converts had to obey the laws of the Transvaal government in Pretoria they also had to obey the local laws of Botshabelo. By 1876 Botshabelo was the biggest and most flourishing station in the Transvaal. Due to the importance of the station Merensky was appointed the first superintendent of BMS. Merensky found himself shortly thereafter in the role of mediator, overseeing negotiations between the Transvaal and Sekhukhuni in 1876-1877.

The Berlin Society, like Merensky, had a strict, paternalistic attitude towards the Africans and suppressed all forms of African autonomy in church matters. Botshabelo later became a model for German missionary endeavors in the African colonies. After the British annexation of the Transvaal in 1877 Merensky’s pro-British attitude angered the Boers. This coupled with his autocratic behavior towards his fellow missionaries resulted in the Berlin Society recalling him to Germany in 1882. In Germany Merensky played a leading role in the opening phases of German colonialism. In 1891 he returned to Africa and under his guidance the first German mission station in German East Africa was founded. Alexander Merensky played important roles not just as a missionary, but as a physician, diplomat, a geographer and author.

Werner van der Merwe


A. Merensky, Erinnerungeg aus dem Missionsleben in Sud-Ost-Afrika (Transvaal), Bielefeld, 1888; T.H. Wangemann, Maleo und Sekukuni, Berlin, 1868; K.W. Smith, The Campaigns against the Bapedi of Sekhukhuni, Archives Year Book for S.A. History, 1967. Vol. 11.

This article was reprinted from The Encyclopaedia Africana Dictionary of African Biography (In 20 Volumes). Volume Three: South Africa- Botswana-Lesotho-eswatini. Ed. Keith Irvine. Algonac, Michigan: Reference Publications Inc., 1995. All rights reserved.