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The first novel in the Xhosa language, USamson, written by the greatest figure in the history of Xhosa literature, S. E. K. Mqhayi (1875-1945), and published in 1907, is now lost. It was produced at a time when black people in South Africa were becoming bolder in their demand for human rights, forming independent black churches and political organizations. It appeared after a period of gestation for Xhosa literature in newspapers, at a time when missionaries were discussing the publication of books in Xhosa, but Mqhayi paid for its printing and organized its distribution. The novelette added details of setting and characterization to the biblical story to encourage the youth to gather behind black leaders who lacked support. Caught in the social tension between Xhosa and Mfengu, USamson was heavily criticized by I. W Wauchope for departing from biblical narrative, but more generally defended by readers, who looked forward to the further publication of Xhosa literature in books.
Writing and literacy were introduced to the Xhosa-speaking peoples on the Eastern Cape frontier of South Africa by English and Scottish missionaries at the start of the nineteenth century. Printing was initially intended to aid the process of conversion, and early publications in and on the Xhosa language (isiXhosa) were designed to serve the mission community. As literacy and schooling spread, the need was felt for reading material for the converts after they left school, so as from 1837 mission journals and newspapers were established. Ending in 1888, a succession of mission newspapers increasingly attracted Xhosa contributions from native speakers, until an emergent African elite perceived the power of the press and in 1884 began to publish secular newspapers of their own (see Opland, "Fighting with the Pen" and "Nineteenth-Century Xhosa Literature"). These early newspapers fostered a literary cadre from whose ranks were drawn the authors of Xhosa creative writing in books, which appeared in the first decade of the twentieth century. The first novel in Xhosa, entitled USamson (Samson), was published in 1907 Its author, Samuel Edward Krune Mqhayi (1875-1945), was throughout his life actively involved in oral tradition as a praise poet (imbongi), for nearly 50 years between 1896 and 1944 he was a prolific contributor to Xhosa newspapers, and is widely acknowledged to be the pre-eminent figure in the history of Xhosa literature.
It is by no means agreed among scholars that Mghayi's twenty-five-page booklet was the first Xhosa novel, but then again the history of Xhosa literature has not yet been satisfactorily described. Those who write on the subject offer a wide diversity of opinion. Harold Scheub claims that H. M. Ndawo's Uhambo lukaGgoboka (Convert's Journey, 1909) was "the first Xhosa novel" (573). Albert G6rard says that USamson, "an adaptation of the Bible story of Samson," was Mghayi's first published work but that Ityala lamawele (The Trial of the Twins, 1914) was his "first original work" (54); H. M. Ndawo, however, "should be considered the founder of the Xhosa novel" (63). R. H. W. Shepherd, subsequently editor of the Lovedale Press, which had printed USamson, refers to it as a pamphlet: "A few years afterwards he published a pamphlet entitled Samson. The edition was soon sold out, and people spoke in high terms of it" (Shepherd 113). A. C. Jordan, who himself owned a copy of the book, correctly identified it as "a novelette" (104). Jordan's copy has now gone missing from his collection of papers at the University of Fort Hare, and I have been unsuccessful in my attempts to obtain a copy anywhere, but Wandile Kuse, who read Jordans copy in Wisconsin in the course of research for his PhD dissertation on Mqhayi, is now quite firm in his recollection that USamson is a novel and not merely a retelling of the biblical story (personal communication). With Kuse's confirmation, and despite its disappearance, USamson can be firmly established as the first novel in Xhosa, it can be located within a historical and literary context, and some aspects of its content can be reconstructed from the correspondence columns of contemporary Xhosa newspapers.
In his autobiography, UMghayi waseNtab'ozuko (Mghayi of Mount Glory), Mqhayi establishes briefly the social and political context for the publication of the book. Of his early career, at about the turn of the century, he writes:
Ngeli xesha ke sasimi ngezantya, sizama umzi oNtsundu ukuba umanyane, uthethe izwi elinye, ukhale ngesikhalo esinye embusweni. Intoni? Akukho nto yakha yawungabela umzi oNtsundu njengaloo nto! Yaye impatho ophethwe ngayo ziidolophu ingeyiyo; ibe yanele ukuba ibamanye abantu babe yimbumba, kodwa hayi. Abafundisi nabo baye bephelelwa bubuhlobo nathi, ngenxa yeenkqekeko zaMabandla. URulumente usingene yena ngembumbulu enkulu yobuhlanga, ubuMfengu nobuXhosa. (66-67) At this time we were busy organizing the people in order to be able to speak in one voice in political affairs, but found that nothing was more difficult for the Black races. Even the hard rule of some Municipalities failed to unite them. European ministers were losing confidence in us, as a result of secessions in the Churches, while the government seemed to be playing off one tribe of Natives against another. (Scott 28)
It was a time of political mobility among blacks, ineffective because of black disunity fostered by the ruling whites; and a time of ecclesiastical secession and the formation of independent African churches (see Odendaal on early black political mobilization, and Pretorius and Jafta on the African initiated churches). Mghayi's autobiography was translated for Dietrich Westermann (and published in German in 1938 as a chapter of Westermann's Afrikaner erzahlen ihr Leben a year before Mqhayi's autobiography itself was published) by the prominent educationist W. G. Bennie, the translation quoted above. Crucially, Bennie, the son and grandson of missionary teachers, who was educated at Lovedale and in time became Mghayi's literary mentor, blunted the reference in Mghayi's last sentence Me government pierced us with that great bullet aimed at nationality, Mfengu and Xhosa ethnicity"), probably because Xhosa-Mfengu divisions were still too intense, an enduring sore point in mission circles. The tension between the Mfengu and Xhosa communities dominated social interaction on the Eastern Cape frontier, and constituted a major factor in the reception of USamson. Mqhayi referred to the rift in the community as a "demon" in a later characterization of Chief Nathaniel Cyril Mhala, the first editor of the East London newspaper Izwi labantu, as "u-Sobantu obengenayo konke naledemoni yobu Xosa-Mfengu edungudelisa umzi" 'a Father of the People who was never affected by this Xhosa-Mfengu demon that causes dissension in the community' (Mghayi, U So-Gqumahashe 20). The ill-feeling between Xhosa and Mfengu derived from white missionary interference in black affairs in the first half of the nineteenth century.
In the eighteenth century, Xhosa-speaking pastoralists moving southwards down the eastern seaboard of southern Africa came into contact--occasionally violent--with Europeans of Dutch descent moving up the same coastal seaboard from the southwest. Clashes between black and white on this eastern frontier persisted throughout the nineteenth century, especially after the British occupied the Cape for the second time in 1806 and some 5,000 British settlers were located along the frontier in 1820: open hostilities broke out in Hintsa's War of 1834-35, the War of the Axe (1846-47), Mlanjeni's War (1850-53), and the final War of Ngcayechibi (1878-79) (see Milton; Mostert; Peires, The House of Phalo). In response to the gradual territorial dispossession of the Xhosa-speaking peoples, and their increasing subjugation to white control, millenarian prophets arose, inciting war (Nxele in 1819, Mlanjeni in 1850) or the catastrophic slaughter of cattle in 1856-57 occasioned by the visions of the teenage girl Nongqawuse. The cattle-killing (see Peires, The Dead Will Arise) was seized upon as an opportunity to integrate frontier blacks into the white farming economy; economic integration was rapidly furthered by migrant black labor essential to the inland mining industry following the discovery of diamonds in 1867 and gold in 1885.
Warfare was not confined to European and Xhosa. Bhaca fought Thembu, Ngqika fought Ndlambe; the northeasternmost of the Xhosa-speaking peoples were disrupted by an influx of refugees fleeing the Zulu king Shaka's territorial expansion early in the nineteenth century. These refugees came to be known collectively as the amaMfengu. On the pretext that they had become the slaves of the Gcaleka, the Methodist missionary John Ayliff gathered and moved them in 1835 after Hintsa's War, resettling them as a buffer between the Gcaleka to the east and the British settlers to the west. The Mfengu thereafter tended to side with their white patrons in the frontier wars, and were deeply resented by the Xhosa. The Mfengu proclaimed loyalty to the British crown and attended mission schools, which were initially viewed with suspicion by the Xhosa chiefs. Tension and rivalry between Xhosa and Mfengu persisted. The Mfengu tended to be assimilationist, the Xhosa nationalist, political strategies reflected in the first two independent Xhosa newspapers, Imvo zabantsundu (Black Opinions) and Izwi labantu (The Voice of the People).
The history of Xhosa newspapers in the nineteenth century has been set out elsewhere (see Opland, Xhosa Poets and Poetry ch. 11, and "Nineteenth-Century Xhosa Literature"). Initially, these periodicals served as an extension of the mission enterprise, increasingly through the agency of the Lovedale Institution, founded in 1841. As R. H. W. Shepherd subsequently put it:
In all its efforts for the spread of literature Lovedale recognized that there was a danger lest the missionary agencies, having in their schools taught vast numbers to read, should leave non-Christian and even anti-religious elements to supply the reading matter. [...] Great numbers were being taught to read. While in school and when they left it it was imperative that they find within their reach literature suited to their every need, in order that they might have an understanding grasp of Christian life …