Classic DACB Collection

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

Soga, Tiyo (B)

South Africa

Tiyo Soga

Tiyo Soga was the first African minister to be ordained into the ministry of the Presbyterian Church in South Africa. He was born in Gwali in 1829, at the time that Chief Makoma was expelled from the Kat River. He was the son of Jotello, one of the chief councillors of Chief Ngqika, and Nosuthu, Soga’s ‘great wife’. C. L. Stretch, a member of the Legislative Council, relates how he taught Old Soga to cultivate crops to feed his family and livestock. He became the first Xhosa to use a plough and irrigate his crops with running water and was soon able to sell produce to the military at Fort Cox (Cousins 1899, 14).

Nosuthu became a Christian and, after much thought and prayer, asked Jotello, who had eight wives, to release her from the marriage. She wanted her son Tiyo to grow up a Christian. She also refused to allow Tiyo to be circumcised. This would later prove to be a stumbling block where cultural matters were concerned as he was not considered by traditionalists to have passed the test of manhood. Nosuthu took Tiyo to Chumie Mission which had been founded in 1818 by the Rev. John Brownlee. Old Soga had been instructed by Ngqika to promote the interests of the mission. A few years earlier Ngqika had sent him to visit Ntsikana to hear what the Christian message was about. Ngqika was not a Christian but was willing to allow the missionaries to work in his area. Here, at Chumie, Tiyo grew up and attended the school of the Rev. Chalmers.

In 1844 Tiyo Soga was given a free scholarship to Lovedale, about thirteen kilometers from Chumie. Two years later, during the ‘War of the Axe’, Lovedale was closed and the military took over the buildings. Tiyo and his mother were among the refugees at Fort Armstrong. He kept his schoolbooks with him and continued to study, often at night, by the light of the sneezewood fire lit by his mother. The Rev. William Govan, principal of Lovedale, decided to return to Scotland. Two of the other missionaries asked him to take their sons with him for higher education. Govan decided to ask whether Tiyo could accompany them and paid all his expenses out of his own pocket. His mother did not know whether she would see her son again, but she let him go with the words: ‘My son belongs to God; wherever he goes God is with him … he is as much in God’s care in Scotland as he is here with me’ (MacGregor 1978, 72).

Soga attended the Normal School in Glasgow. During this time he was ‘adopted’ by the John Street United Presbyterian Church. While he was in Scotland he made a profession of faith and was baptized in May 1848. Little is known of his school years, but his time in Scotland gave him a sympathy for both the white and the black races which was to last him throughout his life.

He returned to the Eastern Cape, and from 1849 worked as a catechist and evangelist in Chumie. He found that the people in the area were enthralled by the power of a sorcerer called Mlanjeni. At this time Soga was asked by the Rev. Robert Niven to help open a new mission station in the Amatole mountains - the Uniondale Mission in Keiskammahoek. Here, for the first time, he experienced problems when scholars of the school were withdrawn because of his lack of circumcision.

During this time Soga began to compose sacred songs. When Soga preached it was to a congregation that identified religion with the colonial authorities with whom they were at war. On Christmas day 1850 Uniondale Mission was burnt to the ground and Soga narrowly escaped with his life. He refused to take the side of the chief in the war. He then declined a government offer of employment as an interpreter. Instead, he accompanied the Rev. Niven back to Scotland to embark on theological studies so that he might ‘learn better how to preach Christ as my known Saviour to my countrymen who know Him not’ (Christian Express 1878).

He studied at the Theological Hall, Glasgow, and on 10 December 1856 was licensed as a minister of the United Presbyterian Church. When he left the college his fellow students presented him with a gift of books. Two months later he married a Scot, Janet Burnside, and they returned to South Africa. She was to prove herself ‘a most honourable, thrifty, frugal and devoted woman who marched heroically and faithfully by her husband’s side through all the chequered scenes of his short life’ (Cousins 1899, 59). She soon learned what it meant to be married to an African in colonial South Africa. Soga recorded that when they landed in Port Elizabeth ‘you should have seen the wonder and amazement with which a black man with a white lady leaning on his arm seemed to be viewed by all classes’ (Cousins 1899, 67). Poor Janet Burnside was viewed with suspicion by both black and white! Soga had to put up with accusations of trying to become a ‘black Englishman ‘.

1857 was the year of the ‘Cattle Killing’ and, as the Sogas travelled through the Eastern Cape, their eyes were met with signs of the starvation that the people were facing. Soga started his ministry in Peelton near King William’s Town, a mission of the London Missionary Society, but soon moved to Emgwali. In March 1857 Soga received a letter from the Glasgow Missionary Society saying that according to the rules of the Society he was now an ‘ordained Caffre missionary’, even though his training had been the same as the white missionaries. His salary would be 100 pounds a year, with thirty pounds for incidental expenses, and his life was insured for 300 pounds. He was also given a grant to buy a horse, saddle and bridle (MS 7640 1857: 650).

The site for Emgwali Mission was given to the society by Sandile and Soga was to work among his own people, the Ngqikas. Permission to start the mission had also been given by Sir George Grey, the governor. Soga had to negotiate with the chiefs and then supervise the erection of the mission buildings (MS 7640 1857: 681).

Soga was often sick and fell behind with his correspondence. He received letters from the Rev. Somerville requesting news and reports of his work. During the years in Emgwali the Sogas had seven children - four sons and three daughters. Janet Soga returned to England for the births of her children. For example, in 1864, Somerville wrote to her saying that he was ‘glad to hear that she had been safely delivered of a daughter’ and could now return home to Emgwali. He asked after John, their first son, who had a crippled leg (MS 7645 1864: 592). John’s medical care would entail a number of trips to England.

Soga worked in Emgwali but travelled extensively so that the influence of the Presbyterian Church spread throughout Sandile’s country. In 1866 he was unable to work for a time because of ill health. During this time he translated tihe Pilgrim’s Progress into Xhosa. Two years later he was on the board to revise the Xhosa Bible.

Towards the end of his life he was sent to open a new mission station in Tutuka (Somerville) in Kreli’s country. The burden of work was too much for so frail a man. The Christian Express noted in 1878 that ‘one cannot help lamenting his removal from Emgwali … It hastened his end as difficult ground had to be broken.’ He wanted his boys to be educated in Scotland as he had been. Before he died he instructed his sons: ‘For your own sakes never appear ashamed that your father was a “Kaffir” and that you inherit some African blood. It is every whit as good and as pure as that which flows in the veins of my fairer brethren … You will ever cherish the memory of your mother as that of an upright, conscientious, thrifty, Christian Scots woman. You will ever be thankful for your connection by this tie with the white race’ (Cousins 1899, 146).

His older brother, Festiri, came to help him as an evangelist, but Soga had tuberculosis and was very weak. In August 1871 the Rev. Cummings wrote to the Missionary Board and told them that Soga was ‘suffering from injury sustained by exposure to rain during a lengthened journey on horseback’ (MS 7651 1871: 765). The secretary of the board wrote back to Janet Soga suggesting that he ‘remove for a time to a suitable place for a change and rest’ at their expense. But the letter came too late and Soga was already dead. He died in the arms of his friend, the missionary Richard Ross, with his mother, Nosuthu, at his side.

After his death numerous tributes were made to his memory. The Board wrote that they had always had a ‘high estimate of his character as a Christian missionary and a man of God’ (MS 7651). They recommended that Janet Soga and her four youngest children should return to Scotland on a full allowance.

His epitaph was drawn up by Dr. Anderson in Scotland and the gravestone reads: Sacred to the memory of the Rev. Tiyo Soga the first ordained preacher of the Caffre race. He was a friend of God, a lover of His Son, inspired by His Spirit, a disciple of His holy Word. A zealous churchman, an ardent patriot, a large-hearted philanthropist, a dutiful son, an affectionate brother, a tender husband, a loving father, a faithful friend, a learned scholar, an eloquent orator and in manners a gentleman. A model Caffrarian for the imitation and inspiration of his countrymen (MS 7652 1872: 13). The words were written in Xhosa and English and are a fitting memorial to his ministry.

J. A. Millard


The Christian Express. “Tiyo Soga: a Page of South African Mission Work.” (1 February 1878).

Cousins, H. T. From Kaffir Kraal to Pulpit: The Story of Tiyo Soga. London: S. W. Partridge, 1899.

MS 7652. Epitaph, Tiyo Soga. National Library of Scotland.

MS 7640. Letters from W. Somerville to Tiyo Soga dated 10 March and 7 April 1857. National Library of Scotland.

MS 7645. Letter from W. Somerville to Janet Soga dated 30 June 1864. National Library of Scotland.

MS 7651. Letter from H. MacGill to Janet Soga dated 9 December 1871. National Library of Scotland.

McGregor, A. “Missionary Women.” Annals of the Grahamstone Historical Society, 2 (4), (1978).

MS 7651. Minutes of the Foreign Missions Committee. National Library of Scotland.

Skota, T. D. M., ed. The African Yearly Register: Being an Illustrated, National, Biographical Dictionary (Who’s Who) of Black Folks in Africa. Johannesburg: R. Esson, 1933.

Williams, D. Umfundisi : A Biography of Tiyo Soga 1829~1871. Lovedale: Lovedale Press, 1978.

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

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.