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Important People

Robert Moffat – 1795-1883

Title: Robert Moffat - 1795-1883
Reviewed by Admin on Jul 3

Robert Moffat, missionary was born on 21 December 1795. His father was a custom house officer; the family of his mother, Ann Gardiner, had lived for several generations at Ormiston. In 1797, the Moffat’s moved to Portsay, near Banff, and in 1806 to Carronshore, nearFalkirk. Robert went at an early age to the parish school, and when he was eleven was sent, with an elder brother, to Mr. Paton’s school at Falkirk. In 1809, he was apprenticed to a gardener, John Robertson of Parkhill, Polmont. During his apprenticeship he attended evening classes, learned to play a little on the violin, and took some lessons at the anvil. In 1811, his father was transferred to Inverkeithing, and the following year, on the expiration of his apprenticeship, Robert obtained a situation at Donibristle, Lord Moray’s seat near Aberdour, Fifeshire. At the end of 1813 he was engaged as under-gardener by Mr. Leigh of High Leigh, Cheshire. He had received much religious training at home, and while in Leigh’s service he came under the influence of some earnest Wesleyan Methodists, which determined him to devote his life to religious work. After attending a missionary meeting atWarrington, held by William Roby of Manchester, he decided, if possible, to be a missionary. On 23 Dec. 1815 he left Leigh’s service for the nursery garden of James Smith, a pious nonconformist Scotsman from Perthshire, who had settled at Dukinfield, near Manchester. There Moffat contrived to study under the guidance of Roby, who interested himself on his behalf with the directors of the London Missionary Society. His master had married in 1792 Mary Gray of York, a member of the church of England, and two of their sons became missionaries. During his stay at Dukinfield Moffat became engaged to their only daughter, Mary, who, born in 1795 at New Windsor, now part of Salford, had been educated at the Moravian school atFairfield, and had formed strong religious convictions. But her parents at this time objected to the match.

In the summer of 1816 Moffat was accepted by the society as a missionary, and on 30 Sept. was set apart for the ministry in the Surrey Chapel,London. On 18 Oct. he embarked in the ship Alacrity, Captain Findlay, forSouth Africa, and arrived atCape Townon 13 Jan. 1817. Moffat was destined forNamaqualand, beyond the border of the colony, but permission to go thither was temporarily refused by the governor for political reasons, and Moffat went to Stellenbooch to learn Dutch. On 22 Sept. permission to cross the frontier was given, and Moffat started for the interior with some other missionaries. Moffat went to the chief Afrikaner’s kraal at Vredeburg. He stayed in Namaqualanda little over a year, living like a native. A long expedition with Afrikaner to the north convinced Moffat that there was no hope of forming a missionary settlement in that quarter. He also made a journey to the eastward, across the great Kalahari Desert, as far as Griquatown and Lattakoo. On his return he found himself the only European in Namaqualand, as Mr. Ebner, a missionary who had accompanied him to Vredeburg from Cape Town, and was the only other European north of theOrange river, was leaving the country.

At the beginning of 1819 Moffat determined to take Afrikaner, who had become a true convert, toCape Town. A few years before a price had been set by the government on Afrikaner’s head; his conversion brought home to the authorities that the mission had solved a political difficulty, and did something to enlist their sympathy. In December 1819 Mary Smith, who had overcome her parents’ objection to her marriage with Moffat, arrived atCape Townand married him on 27 Dec. 1819 inSt. George’schurch,Cape Town. For fifty years Mary Moffat shared all her husband’s hardships and trials, and her name must be associated with his among the pioneers of South African mission work.

A deputation from the London Missionary Society, consisting of Dr. Philip and John Campbell, arrived atCape Townat the close of 1819. They appointed Moffat superintendent at Lattakoo, and he set out early in 1820 with his wife, arriving at Lattakoo, about one hundred miles from Griquatown, at the end of March. Shortly after their arrival they made an expedition to the westward, along the bed of the Kuruman river, among the villages of theBotswanas. On their return to Lattakoo they were informed by letter fromCape Townthat permission had not been granted for them to remain there, and they went to Griquatown, then inhabited by a mixed multitude of Griquas, Korannas, Hottentots, Bakwanas, and Bushmen, to assist Mr. Helm in organising the mission there. On permission arriving fromCape Townthe Moffat’s returned to Lattakoo 17 May 1821, and devoted themselves to mission work and to acquiring a knowledge of the language.

Troubles, however, soon began. The warlike Matabele tribe, under Mosilikatse, climbed the Kwathlamba range and drove out many of the Bapedi and Bakwana tribes, the fugitives pouring down on the western Bakwanas. Moffat, who had heard only vague rumours of what was going on, made a reconnaissance to the north-east. On arriving at Mosite, after some days of travel, he learnt that the Mantatees, as the fugitive tribes were called, were in actual possession of the Baralong towns close to the eastward of the mission, and were on their way to Lattakoo. Moffat hurried home, warned his own people, and hastened to Griquatown to seek the aid of the Griquas. By the time the government commissioner, Mr. Melville, and the Griqua chief Waterboer, with one hundred men, reached the station, the Mantatees had occupied Letakong, only thirty-six miles away. The two Europeans, Moffat and Melville, with Waterboer and his men, met them halfway at the Matlwaring river, and after vain attempts to get speech with them were driven back, and obliged in self-defence to fight. About five hundred Mantatees were killed, and some thousands put to flight. The mission was saved, the invaders retiring never to return. Moffat had distinguished himself by his devotion to the wounded and the women and children, and he gained a personal ascendency which he never lost over the tribes that he had protected.

Circumstances, however, still appeared so threatening that Moffat sent his wife and children for a time to Griquatown, and towards the end of the year (1823) he took them a two months’ journey toCape Town, where he obtained supplies, and conferred with Dr. Philip about the removal of the mission from Lattakoo to Kuruman. They returned to their station in May (1824). Moffat went on 1 July on a long-promised visit to Makaba, the chief of the Bangwaketsi, at Kwakwe. During his absence his wife was in a position of great anxiety. A horde of evil characters, marauding runaways of mixed blood, from theCapeColony, with Korannas, Bushmen, and Namaquas, had established themselves in the mountains to the westward of Griquatown, and had been joined by renegade Griquas, mounted and armed with guns, who resented the discipline of Waterboer and the other Griqua chiefs. So great was the disquiet and the fear of an attack on Lattakoo that a second time Moffat and his family took refuge at Griquatown.

Early in 1825, the western banditti having retired, the Moffats commenced to lay out the new station at Kuruman, to which they had been ordered to remove from Lattakoo. They raised three temporary dwellings, when again a band of armed and mounted marauders made their appearance. The natives at the old station gave way before them, losing nearly all their cattle, and could not be persuaded to return, but drifted away eastward to the Hart or Kolong river. With a dwindled population the work of the missionaries was less onerous, and Moffat commenced his first regular effort to lay the foundation of a Sechwana literature. A spelling-book was prepared and sent toCape Townto be printed. In 1826 steady progress was made in the erection of the mission buildings, and Moffat devoted all his spare time to manual labour. In 1827 the station at Kuruman was sufficiently advanced to permit Moffat to perfect himself in the Sechwana language, by spending a couple of months in the encampment of Bogacho, a chief of the Baralongs, on the border of theKalahari desert. On his return the marauders again appeared, and the missionaries had a third time to retire temporarily to Griquatown.

From the commencement stolid indifference to the work had reigned among the natives. But the missionaries worked on, mainly encouraged by the sanguine temper of Mary Moffat. In 1829 the desired awakening came. The services were crowded, the schools flourished, and gradually and with much caution some of the natives were admitted to baptism, and a permanent church and a schoolhouse were erected by the natives without cost to the society. Moffat at length enjoyed sufficient leisure to translate into Sechwana the Gospel of St. Luke and a selection of other scriptures. The same year Mosilikatse, chief of the Matabele, sent messengers to inquire into the manners and teaching of the white men at Kuruman. Moffat showed them every attention, and when difficulties arose as to their return through a country occupied by tribes who both feared and hated Mosilikatse, he escorted them home to the banks of the Oori, a long journey through a country which, although it had once contained a dense population, had been so ravaged that it had become the home of wild beasts and venomous reptiles. Moffat stayed eight days with Mosilikatse, by whom he was received with many tokens of friendship; he returned to Kuruman after an absence of two months.

In June 1830, the Moffat’s visited Grahamstown to put their elder children to school, and, leaving his wife to follow by sea, Moffat hurried to Cape Town, riding some four hundred miles in nine days, to start the printing of such parts of the New Testament as had been translated. At Cape Town, he could find no printing office able to undertake the work. But the government put at their disposal their own printing office, although unable to supply workmen, and Moffat and another missionary, Mr. Edwards, with such guidance as the man in charge could give them, performed the work themselves. The exertion, however, brought on an illness, and Moffat had to be carried on board ship on his return journey toAlgoaBay. He and his wife reached Kuruman at the end of June 1831, taking with them a printing press.

Early in 1835 a scientific expedition, headed by Dr. Andrew Smith, arrived from Cape Colony, and Moffat accompanied them in May to Mosilikatse’s headquarters, to open a way for mission work among the chief’s people, and to obtain timber to roof in the church at Kuruman. In 1836 Moffat, after seeing his wife across the Vaal river on her way to pay a visit in Cape Town, made a detour on his return to Kuruman to visit Mothibi, the old chief of the Batlaping. His journey was well timed, and he was cheered by the interest taken in his teaching. Some American missionaries arrived, who were sent to Mosilikatse, and a volume of 443 pages of translation of scripture lessons into Sechwana was completed before his wife’s return in July.

In 1837, the emigration of Dutch farmers disaffected to British rule commenced, and a party of them came into collision with Mosilikatse and the Matabele. The American mission station was destroyed, and a great booty in cattle swept away. Mosilikatse and his people disappeared the following year into the unknown region south of the Zambesi, and missionary work was greatly retarded. Towards the end of 1838 Moffat went toCape Townwith his family, taking with him the complete translation of the New Testament into the Sechwana langage, and, sailing forEngland, arrived inLondonin June 1839. While the translation was in the press, Moffat commenced a translation of the Psalms, and stayed inEnglandto complete it. It was printed and bound up with the New Testament. He also revised the scripture lessons, of which an edition of six thousand was printed, and wrote “Labours and Scenes inSouth Africa,” which was published in the spring of 1842, and met with a very favourable reception. In addition to his literary labours, Moffat was much engaged in preaching and lecturing all over the country on behalf of the London Missionary Society. In 1840 Moffat met David Livingstone inLondon, and was the means of securing his services for the Bakwana mission. On 30 Jan. 1843, after valedictory services, addresses, and presentations, the Moffat’s sailed again forSouth Africa. While waiting at Bethelsdorp in April for their heavy baggage, Moffat made a journey on horseback to Kaffraria, and visited all the eastern stations of the Missionary Society. The Moffats and their party were met by Livingstone at theVaalriver, and reached Kuruman in December.

The mission staff having been increased, the younger missionaries were sent some two or three hundred miles further inland, to various tribes of the Bakwanas. Livingstone, who went to Mabotsa, returned to Kuruman after an accident, was nursed by the Moffat’s, and married their eldest daughter Mary in 1844. The Livingstone’s then went to Chonwane, and to this and the other distant stations Kuruman was a centre of administration from which supplies and assistance were drawn. For several years subsequent to 1845 Moffat was hard at work translating into Sechwana the book of Isaiah, and other parts of the Old Testament, and the “Pilgrim’s Progress,” which were published in the colony. He also visited some of the Bakwana tribes. In May 1854, accompanied by two young Englishmen — James Chapman and Samuel Edwards — Moffat crossed the edge of the Kalahari desert, found Sechele and his people among the precipices of Lethubaruba, passed over 120 miles of desert to Shoshong, the residence of Sekhomi, chief of the Bamangwato tribe, then by compass over an unknown and uninhabited country in a northeasterly direction for eighteen days, until he reached Mosilikatse and the Matabele. The chief was almost helpless with dropsy, but accompanied Moffat in a further journey to the outposts of the tribe, in the hope of hearing news of Livingstone. The obstacles at last proved insuperable, and Moffat had to content himself with an undertaking from the chief, which he kept, that he would take charge of the supplies for Livingstone, and deliver them to the Makololo. Moffat made his return journey of seven hundred miles to Kuruman without incident.

In 1857, the translation of the Old Testament was finished, and the whole bible in the Sechwana language was printed and distributed. In the same year, by order of the home authorities of the mission, Moffat returned to the Matabeles and obtained the chief’s consent to establish a station among them. There followed a meeting with Livingstone at the Cape to define their spheres of labour, and after some delay at Kuruman, owing to quarrels between the Boers and the natives, during which Moffat printed a new hymn-book, he, with three companions, including his younger son, reached the headquarters of the Matabele chief Mosilikatse at the end of October 1859. The chief was at first far from cordial, having heard of the doings of the Transvaal Boers, who so often followed in the wake of the missionaries. Eventually, however, in December a station was formed at Inyati, and Moffat worked hard at the forge and the bench to help forward the necessary buildings, until in June the mission was sufficiently established for him to leave it to itself.

Failing health and domestic troubles led Moffat to finally leave Africa forEnglandon 10 June 1870. He was most warmly received. His wife died at Brixton in January 1871, and Moffat subsequently until his death travelled about theUnited Kingdompreaching and advocating the cause of missions. He also revised the Sechwana translation of the Old Testament. In 1872 he was made a D.D. of Edinburgh. In 1873 he settled in Knowle Road, Brixton,South London, and was presented with upwards of £5,000 by his friends. In 1874, he went to Southampton to meet and identify the remains of Livingstone, and was present at the funeral in Westminster Abbey. In August 1876, he was present at the unveiling of the statue of Livingstone inEdinburgh, when the queen, who was at Holyrood, sent for him and gave him a short interview. In April 1877, at the invitation of the French Missionary Society, he visitedParis, and through Theodore Monod addressed four thousand French children. In November 1879, he removed to Leigh, near Tunbridge. He was deeply interested in theTransvaalwar, and, believing in the advantages of British rule for the natives, he was greatly shocked at the triumph of the Boers and the acquiescence of the English government in defeat. On 7 May 1881 he was entertained at the Mansion House,London, at a dinner given by the lord mayor in his honour, which the Archbishop of Canterbury, representatives of both houses of parliament, and all the leading men of the religious and philanthropic world attended. In 1882, he visited the Zulu chief Ketchwayo, then inEngland, and was able to converse with one of his attendants in the Sechwana language. Moffat died peacefully at Leigh on 8 Aug. 1883, and was buried atNorwoodcemetery beside the remains of his wife. A monument was erected to his memory at Ormiston, his birthplace inEast Lothian.

Moffat’s eldest son Robert, and his daughter, Mrs. Livingstone, both died in 1862. Another daughter Bessie married in October 1861 the African missionary, Roger Price. His second daughter married Jean Fredoux, a French missionary, who was killed in 1866, leaving his widow and seven children unprovided for.

Tall and manly, with shaggy hair and beard, clear cut features and piercing eyes, Moffat’s exterior was one to impress native races, while his childlike spirit and modest and unselfish nature insured a commanding influence. He was the father and pioneer of South African mission work, and will be remembered as a staunch friend of the natives, an industrious translator, a persevering teacher, and a skilful organiser.

Moffat was the author of: 1. “Translation of the Gospel of St. Luke into Sechwana,” 12mo, 1830. 2. “Translation into Sechwana of parts of the Old Testament,” 8vo, 1831. 3. “A Book of Hymns in Sechwana, Schlapi dialect, 80 pages,” Mission Press, Kuruman, 2nd edition, 1838, 4. “Africa, or Gospel Light shining in the midst of Heathen Darkness, a Sermon on Isaiah ix. 2, preached before the Directors of the London Missionary Society, &c., with Notes,” 8vo,London, 1840. 5. “Missionary Labours and Scenes in Southern Africa,” 4th edition,London, 8vo, 1842; 11th thousand, with portrait, 8vo,London, 1846. 6. “Mr. Moffat and the Bechwanas,” 32mo, 1842. 7. “Visit to the Children ofManchester,” 32mo, 1842. 8. “Hymns in the Sechwana Language,” Religious Tract Society, 12mo,London, 1843. 9. “Rivers of Waters in Dry Places; an Account of the Introduction of Christianity into South Africa, and of Mr. Moffat’s Missionary Labours,” 8vo, 1863 ; new edition, 1867; Philadelphia, 1869. 10. “New Testament translated into Sechwana,” 8vo, 1872. 11. “The Bible translated into Sechwana,” 8vo, 1872.

[The Lives of Robert and Mary Moffat, by their son, John Smith Moffat, with Portraits, Maps, and Illustrations, 8vo, London, 1885; new edition, 1886; popular edition, 1889; Heroes of the Desert; The Story of the Lives and Labours of Moffat and Livingstone, by Miss A. Manning, 8vo, 1875; new and enlarged edition, 1885; The Farewell Services of Robert Moffat, &c., by Dr. John Campbell, 12mo, London, 1843; Life of Robert Moffat, by J. Marrat; Life by D. J. Deane; Life by E. F. Cherry; A Life’s Labour in South Africa, the Story of the Life Work of Robert Moffat, with Portrait, London, Aylesbury, 8vo, printed 1871 ; Moffat the Missionary, &c., 8vo, London, 1846; Robert Moffat, an Example of Missionary Heroism, 8vo, London, 1878.]

Source: Dictionary of National Biography.London: Smith, Elder, & Co., 1894. vol. 38.

The above information is provided kindly with thanks to Stephen Ross.

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