Reverend John Philip was a highly controversial Scottish missionary who championed the rights of Africans and was a strong advocate of direct British rule.
A self-assured man who started working at he age of 11, Philip had a stern moral sense. In 1794 he quit a good job in protest against child labor and eventually became a Congregational minister in Aberdeen. Philip took an active interest in the London Missionary Society. (LMS), which invited him to visit South Africa in 1818 for an investigation of mission conditions. He found the mission stations neglected and the local peoples oppressed by the settlers. His report to the LMS condemned the Society in the harshest terms. The LMS responded by establishing a central mission house in Cape Town and appointing Philip superintendent for South Africa.
Philip returned to his new post in 1822 and built a chapel in Cape Town, from which he traveled throughout the colony. Because the LMS missionaries were often the only Europeans in outlying areas, Philip’s access to information on current conditions made him influential in Cape Town. His earlier criticisms did not abate; if anything, they became stronger. His censures resulted in considerable improvement in the legal status of the Khoikhoi, the original indigenous people, after he published Researches in South Africa (1828) to plead their cause. He used this tract to lobby the British Parliament into passing an act supporting his recommendations. When he returned to Cape Town, he encountered a hostile reception. A prominent settler whom he criticized sued him for libel, and Philip lost. Friends paid his fine, but even they found him to be shrill in his criticisms. He clashed with Robert MOFFAT, who thought Philip vain and too sure of the benefits of mission stations for British trade.
Philip was more resourceful and effective on behalf of African rights in Parliament than in Cape Town, where he was resented and disliked. His frequent trips to England, lecture tours, and lobbying efforts produced the policies he sought but also alienated the settler community. He had close contacts with the Clapham Sect, an evangelical band of reformist parliamentarians who were instrumental in ending the slave trade. Philip shared their moralistic zeal and sense of righteousness. In 1836 his campaigning brought about the removal of Cape Town’s governor, and for some years after, Philip became the arbiter of Cape policy regarding African affairs. His pet project was the establishment of a series of small African states along the frontier of South Africa to prevent Afrikaner expansion. He negotiated with several African chiefs, but in 1846 the Xhosa War brought an end to his dreams and his influence. In 1848 a further frontier war dashed any remaining hopes of a peaceful belt of African states in the borderlands. Philip resigned the following year and retired.
To those who admired him, Philip was a noble defender of the oppressed, a humanitarian, and a progressive. His opponents regarded him as a master of intrigue and manipulation, not above dishonesty in his self-willed drive for control. He was the most powerful political figure in the Cape Colony for over 30 years.
Norbert C. Brockman
Lipschutz, Mark R., and R. Kent Rasmussen. Dictionary of African Historical Biography. 2nd edition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.
Dictionary of National Biography. London: Oxford University Press, 27 volumes, 1921-1959.
The New Encyclopedia Britannica. 15th edition. Chicago, IL, 1988.
This article is reproduced, with permission, from *An African Biographical Dictionary, *copyright © 1994, edited by Norbert C. Brockman, Santa Barbara, California. All rights reserved.