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  • A Living Man from Africa: Jan Tzatzoe, Xhosa Chief and Missionary, and the Making of Nineteenth-Century South Africa
  • Fiona Vernal
A Living Man from Africa: Jan Tzatzoe, Xhosa Chief and Missionary, and the Making of Nineteenth-Century South Africa. By Roger S. Levine. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2010. 328 pp. $30.00 (cloth and e-book).

In the annals of colonial and mission history, the cultural intermediary features prominently as an ambivalent, embattled, and overlooked figure. In what will become the definitive work on Jan Tzatzoe, Roger Levine recreates the life of a South African intermediary in his multiple, conflicting roles as an African chief, missionary, diplomat, [End Page 725] translator, protégé, and culture broker. One contemporary newspaper and mouthpiece of the white settler community, The Graham’s Town Journal, impugned his character and caricatured him as a semiliterate, disingenuous marionette of missionary negrophiles throughout the 1830s. While some of his missionary colleagues defended him against such calumnies, others questioned both his piety and his ability to balance his secular and spiritual duties. Jan Tzatzoe thus remained an elusive, obscure, and misunderstood figure. Good that neither his contemporaries nor the Graham’s Town Journal had the final word!

Jan Tzatzoe was born in 1792 into a minor amaNtinde lineage of the amaXhosa aristocracy in the Eastern Cape, the same decade when the London Missionary Society (LMS) commenced evangelical work in South Africa. The paths of this lineage and missionary society would cross in 1804 when, in a brave, perspicacious move, the patriarch Kote Tzatzoe “entrusted” the missionaries with his son, Jan (p. 6). Tzatzoe returned to his family in the formative years of his adolescence and underwent the initiation and circumcision ceremonies that ushered Xhosa youth into manhood. By 1810 the young Tzatzoe’s life again becomes intertwined with the LMS in the form of missionary James Read’s personal request for Jan to join him at the nascent Bethelsdorp mission station. Kote Tzatzoe assents but also tries to leverage (unsuccessfully) this moment into securing a missionary for his own people. Jan makes a hasty departure with Read, blazing trails as the first Xhosa aristocrat “to live voluntarily among the encroaching Europeans . . . . the first to learn Dutch . . . and to be trained in the construction of wagons, wheels, and wood-framed houses (pp. 19–20) . . . . the first Xhosa to own a wagon and a plough in Xhosaland” (p. 82). There will be many other “firsts” in Tzatzoe’s life given his chiefly lineage, and while other Xhosa in the ensuing decades will experiment, as Tzatzoe does, with what the European civilizing and evangelizing mission have on offer (literacy, diplomatic ties, new forms of dress, respectability, womanhood, manhood, marriage, consciousness, access to new supernatural forces) his particular responses will be taken as a barometer of his people’s and race’s potential (pp. 35, 77,153). Tzatzoe bears the burden of his individual status as a Christian convert, but the LMS also grafted the entire hope of a nation onto him. Everyone weighed his decisions publicly; his failures or shortcomings were not his own to bemoan in private; his detractors deemed his writings inauthentic and watched carefully for any missteps (pp. 95–97, 138). Within his own private sphere, his missionary colleagues raised questions about his commitment to evangelism, his inability to prevent his son from undergoing the circumcision ritual missionaries deemed a “heathen” [End Page 726] practice, and his difficulties in maintaining a standard of living commensurate with his status as a “civilized” African Christian (pp. 168– 169, 173).

LMS missionaries came to rely on Tzatzoe in his capacity as an African Christian: to itinerate beyond the mission, preach, teach, translate, and debate the tenets of Christianity with his congregants and countrymen. The European and Xhosa beneficiaries of these intellectual and physical labors, Levine asserts, took Tzatzoe for granted and certainly underappreciated his efforts. Tzatzoe, also, “will give himself far too little credit” (p. 56). In his role as interpreter, Tzatzoe’s most powerful weapon was his mother tongue as well as his knowledge of the Dutch lingua franca. He translated scriptures, made Christian teachings and sermons intelligible to Xhosa audiences, and sought to appropriate...


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