< Go Back
Edendale, 1851-1930: farmers to townspeople, market to labour reserve
05 Nov 2009
Sheila Meintjes

Edendale is a sprawling black urban area bordering the Pietermaritzburg magisterial district, adjacent to the Swartkop location. Unlike most black urban areas, Edendale has freehold ownership of land. This has given the community a measure of freedom from state-controlled black urban development. The history of Edendale is that of the precarious but tenacious struggle of a mixed community to retain its independence in an increasingly hostile and coercive white South Africa.

In 1851, 100 Christian families of Griqua, Rolong, Sotho, Tlokwa, Hlubi and Swazi origin, some accompanied by non-Christian relatives or retainers, settled on the farm Welverdiend, renamed Edendale, lOkm from the colonial capital of Natal, Pietermaritzburg. They purchased the farm on a share basis with, and under the guidance of, their missionary, James Allison. There, they laid out a village in the Voortrekker grid pattern, and built their houses in the 'European style' - each in important respects pursuing a separate economic existence, but all united by an affiliation to the mission - the church, the school and the community.

Allison and the community had broken with the Wesleyan Missionary Society in 1851, and had moved from the mission they had established at Indaleni in 1847. At Edendale they built their own church and schools, and local preachers stumped the neighbouring homesteads preaching the Gospel that had brought them a new life. Perhaps most significant of all, though, was that the break with the Wesleyans ushered in a new experiment for the Edendale Christian community: that of land ownership. Land became a new symbol of wealth. Private land ownership was new to Africans in Natal, and its significance at first little understood. Without it, neither the development of capitalist agriculture, nor later, the growth of industry, could take place. At Edendale, farmers and artisans produced for profit, and within a very short time were the major suppliers of vegetables and maize for the Pietermaritzburg market.

Already the community had substantially transformed their lives in adopting Christianity, and moving away from their traditional beliefs and practices. Monogamy replaced polygamy, the plough replaced the hoe, and men applied themselves to cultivation, previously the realm of women. New kinds of socialization awaited boys and girls in the school and in the Church. The sexual division of labour, marriage, notions of the family and property, all found new definition on the mission.

Allison and his wife taught the three R's and skills suitable for artisanal occupations. Men and boys learned building, carpentering and gardening skills, women and girls, sewing and cooking skills requisite to their different stations in life as labouring men and women of colonial society. Indeed, many of the men and women who had moved with Allison to Natal had been brought up in the mission household, where they learned the values of Victorian Christianity.

The 6 120-acre farm was sub-divided into a central village with acre-sized plots and outlying arable fields, as well as large areas of commonage for grazing. Clear rules were established to manage local government, a headman was appointed, with a council of elders, all of whom were subject to the patriarchal authority of Allison. He was not only pastor, father and guardian, but also the legal owner of the farm. His rights were akin to those of a feudal lord in medieval times, or of a chief.

Conflicts between village members were solved in the customary court, ibandla, presided over by the headman chosen by the community. Job Kambule, an original convert, who had joined Allison on the Caledon in the 1830s, was the first headman and his successors used a combination of village rules and customary law to settle disputes. Customary law regulated marriage contracts, and lobola continued to be paid by the kholwa, the Christian converts, to cement familial connections. Heterogeneity best described the nature of the village community. Social distinction based on membership of the Church was probably the most significant at first. Even today in Edendale, the oNonhlevu, the first converts, hold a special place. Those with property, often members of the Church too, though not invariably, were socially superior to tenants and squatters. Economic success was not uniform, and wealth began to determine social and civic status in the village. Wealth was reflected above all in land but also in wagons, used for trade, and in stock. The well-to-do in Edendale also employed servants. Their existence was little different from that of white colonists.

As for all Natal settlers, the 1850s were years of struggle for the Edendale settlers. They were paying off land, trying out new crops like oats, and venturing into new trading areas to the north and south. Lung-sickness struck their cattle herds in 1854, curtailing ploughing and trade. The struggling mission received the support of Sir George Grey, after whom their village 'Georgetown' was named. By 1858 the farm was at last paid off, and the shareholders were in a position to acquire freehold title. This evoked such dissension that Allison was forced to resign. The landowners believed he had deceived them, and for the rest of his life, Allison was no longer welcome at Edendale.

The community felt a missionary presence was needed at Edendale, both to provide spiritual guidance and to act as intermediary between village interests and the colonial government. They approached the Wesleyan Missionary Society, who though initially cautious, agreed to accept the community, so long as the Society had security of tenure and the secular aspects of the mission station, such as local government and the management of the unallotted portions of the village and farm, were securely established in a Trust.

Above: Edendale Mission Station in the 19th century.

The Trust held the unallotted portions of the farm, and was responsible for the preservation of the commonage, graveyard, market place, streets, roads and paths. It also protected and controlled the use of timber and the waterways 'for the preservation of the rights of the said several co-tenants . . .' Three Trustees administered the terms of the Trust, and had the right to claim rates from the landowners. In practice their authority was limited for want of any legal executive force, in spite of the fact that the Trustees were prominent public figures, like the Superintendent of the Wesleyan Society in Natal, the Secretary for Native Affairs, and the Superintendent of Education.

Throughout its history Edendale would suffer for want of borough recognition. This was largely because a shortsighted colonial government refused to see even 'Christian and civilized' Africans as having the capacity to adopt colonial local government. Thus municipal status was refused in 1882, and again as late as 1930, a petition by the Edendale Vigilance Committee and civic guard was turned down. The struggle for municipal status is a central theme of Edendale's modern history. In the early 1860s the Edendale people began a fresh phase of expansion. This was a period of widespread speculative lending in Natal, to finance trade with the Transvaal and Orange River Sovereignty. Edendale entrepreneurs, eager for profit, took out mortgages to finance their trading ventures. One trading partnership of four entrepreneurs, H. Daniel & Company, borrowed as much as 8000, with security in the land of eight other leading villagers.

Edendale came to be acknowledged as one of the most advanced Christian communities in the Colony. One visitor described the landed proprietors of Edendale:

These people have their substantial stone dwellings, and well ploughed fields, with the power of buying or selling at pleasure. They have also erected a church, school-house, and watermill. Every day witnesses the arrival of waggon loads of Edendale produce at the Maritzburg market. It is quite a sight to see the waggons returning, on a summer's evening, packed with the wives and families of these Edendale Caffres; all clad in British manufactured goods, and carrying on their countenances an unmistakeable air of contentment and joyous prosperity.

Ominous signs were on the horizon, however. The speculative bubble in Natal was not based on real productive growth, but merely on mercantile potential. The Boer-Sotho war of 1865 burst the bubble, and trade came to a virtual standstill. For the first time the Edendale community experienced the reality of the vagaries of an international market economy. H. Daniel & Company went under, and their backers were faced with demands for payment or the loss of their land. This meant almost instant ruin and impoverishment, and the prospect of dependence on wage labour at a time when there were few jobs available. Rather than see the destruction of all that had been built up over the past fifteen years, a general meeting of village notables sought to save those on the brink of ruin, and took over 5 000 of the debt.

The ensuing depression affected everyone. The price of maize was very low, and trade so bad that at Edendale, 'wagons have almost nothing to do'. In 1868 the missionary reported:

With mealies at 3/- per muid less than they cost to grow, and Little work for the wagons which are falling to pieces from old age, the people are poorer than they have been for years and though there is plenty of food yet they have but little money to buy clothes with and many of the children go to school almost naked.

Many people began to leave Edendale, some to seek wage employment where they might, and others to hire land from absentee landlords, as at Cedara and Rietvlei. Few sold their land, most people left their properties in the hands of relatives or let them to tenants. Perhaps the most significant development, however, was the purchase of Driefontein, a farm in the Klip River District, 'in order to hide our heads in it' , as Johannes Kumalo explained. 'We bought this when we were in a state of poverty.' At Driefontein a Trust made the land inalienable and racially exclusive. The scheme was a new strategy to cope with the insecurities of colonial life, and prevent the disruption of individual speculation as experienced by the kholwa at Edendale. More than forty families moved to Driefontein from Edendale during the last years of the 1860s.

In the 1870s, the Edendale community became more transient. A few Griqua families joined Adam Kok at Kokstad, and new settlements of former Edendale inhabitants were established at Cedara, in the Biggarsberg at Telapi, and on the Umlaas River. It was not only the depression which caused this diaspora, for the second generation was beginning to have their own families, and Edendale was becoming too small to accommodate everyone's productive activity. Village life at Edendale began to lose some of its communal unity, although the oNonhlevu did not lose their dominance of social life in the village.

Respectability was the hallmark of social distinction. This involved strict rules of etiquette. Informal visits between friends were frowned upon as they fostered gossip. Women who indulged in this kind of thing were dubbed uyazula, or those with a 'long foot'. Instead the villagers met one another in church and at formal tea parties. On special occasions, such as holidays, a family might hold a party at which a sheep was slaughtered, and relatives and close friends would gather to share in the feast. The men would talk, and in later years they might have played cards. Women and children also attended these festivities. The children probably played such games as hide-and-seek. Weddings, christenings and funerals were occasions when the whole village might turn out to attend church. A more select group would later join the family at the party celebrations.

In the 1870s, Lady Barker, wife of the Colonial Secretary, was impressed by the comfort, decency and orderly fashion of life at Edendale . Her descriptions evoke a warmth and vitality amongst the villagers:

Sitting at the doors of their houses are tidy, comfortable looking men and women, the former busy plaiting, with deft and rapid movements of their little fingers, neat baskets of reeds and rushes; the latter either eating mealies, shelling them, or crushing them for market. Everywhere are mealies and children.

She described with vividness the cheerful interiors of Edendale homes, which contrast sharply with the conventional sombreness of English Victorian decoration:

As for the walls, they were the gayest I ever beheld. Originally white-washed, they had been absolutely covered with brilliant designs in vermilion, cobalt and yellow ockre, most correctly and symmetrically drawn in geometrical figures. A many-coloured star within a circle was a favourite pattern. The effect was as dazzling as though a kaleidoscope had been suddenly flung against a wall and its gay shapes fixed on it.

The life-style described by Lady Barker would have been familiar to many rural village dwellers in England, nor would colonial settlers have felt out of place in an Edendale home. It would, however, have been distinctly foreign to any non-Christian African unused to mission or town life.

A natural pride in their own advancement was buttressed by the colonial state's reliance on the Edendale Christians, and other mission communities, for support against recalcitrant chiefs. Whilst the Christians of Edendale, and elsewhere, had considerable grievances about their position in colonial society, there was no question of where their loyalty lay . During the 'Langalibalele rebellion' for instance, one of their most respected members, Elijah Kambule, was killed at Bushman's Neck. The Anglo-Zulu War was the occasion for loyal collaboration with the colonial and British forces and, indeed, for heroism in support of 'the Great White Queen'. However, neither their respectability nor their collaborative role won for the kholwa civil status in colonial society. Like all Africans in the Colony, the kholwa were subject to customary law, in spite of their opposition to it. Exemption was possible, but its terms were unpopular, because it allowed only individuals to apply when the kholwa wanted group exemption. In the 1890s, under responsible government, applications were anyway reluctantly granted. Discrimination did not deter the loyalty of the kholwa, nor of the Edendale community. They served as scouts during the Second Anglo-Boer War, took great risks, yet were unrewarded with even the War Medal. This turned some irrevocably against the administration, though most still believed in trying to negotiate improved social and political status. Collaboration against enemies of the colonial state did not mean that the kholwa were content with their lot. Indeed, there is some contradiction in their loyalty, the growing racialism of Natal settler domination and kholwa grievance.

In the 1870s, the Edendale community had begun to improve their economic position. The diamond-fields provided opportunities for wage labour and for trade which they were quick to seize. In Natal, the depression continued into the 1870s in spite of widening opportunities for individuals outside the Colony. The Government introduced measures to encourage African cultivators onto the labour market. The hut tax was doubled in 1876, and in the 1880s, pass laws were extensively used to limit the mobility of African stockowners. These measures affected the kholwa just as much as any other group. Petitions and evidence to government commissions show Edendale community notables pushing for recognition of their separateness from the rest of the African community. Many of them sought exemption. This was linked to demands for the franchise. But the colonial state, intent on control over all Africans, suspended exemptions from customary law in 1890, the year the Code of Native Law was promulgated. Urban registration and vagrancy laws were stringently applied, whilst fees for passes were introduced.

Edendale men took the lead in forming the Funamalungelo in 1888, the 'Society of those who seek rights', in an effort to press the Government to extend civil rights. This proved of little effect, particularly once the settlers assumed dominance after 1893, so in the early 1900s they formed a broader political movement, the Natal Native Congress. Edendale members were at the forefront of these developments.

Political disabilities were matched by economic restrictions. In the 1880s Crown Land was opened to all for purchase by public auction. Edendale village notables were prominent in taking up land all over Natal. However, because of Pass Law restrictions, their competitive edge diminished. Increasingly, African land-purchasers found it difficult to meet their periodic land repayments. At Edendale, social problems were beginning to manifest themselves more generally. Missionaries commented on the drinking problem. In the early 1880s drought and crop failure brought a change in the economic fortunes of many of the villagers. There were few wealthy men, and even the headman, Stephanus Mini, was unable to keep up with repayments on land he had purchased in the Polela district.

One trend in response to their difficulties was for landowners to let out their arable land and access to the commonage to Indian and white tenants. Ownership of land still provided a livelihood, but it was now through rents. By the 1900s tenants dominated market production in Edendale. They also tried to dominate village politics, which polarized tenant-landlord relations in the early 1890s. Landlords tenaciously clung to their political overlordship, even as they became poorer.

Changes in the economy were making black artisans redundant, and black trade carriers were losing trade to white competitors and the railways. Rinderpest in 1897 had devastated cattle herds, and in one fell swoop destroyed the carrying trade. This was preceded by drought and a plague of locusts, which had knocked the bottom out of commercial farming. The older generation of oNonhleuu who had made a modest living out of these activities found themselves in poverty. People were still able to feed themselves from their gardens, and from the stock they ran on the commonage. But there were few people who could claim to produce all their wants from agriculture or independent artisanal production. It was those with some education who were best able to straddle this change in fortune. Schoolteaching and clerical occupations became the new means of maintaining oNonhleuu respectability. But these professions took villagers away, many of them to the Transvaal and the widening opportunities offered by the mining towns. For the poor of Edendale, there was little alternative to migrant labour to the gold-mines.

Even in the 1920s, Edendale held its reputation as a respectable, Christian village. No non-Christian ventured into the village improperly clad. Concertina players did not walk through the streets playing their music, as they did in the hills and dales of the neighbouring Swartkop location. If there were festivities in the village, there was no stamping of feet, ukusina, as amongst the 'people outside', instead the more genteel shuffie, ukutamba, was associated with dancing at Edendale.

Right: A Christian wedding at Edendale in the 19th century: Jojo and Nomvuze, Hlalelwa and Payekiwe.

Only in the 1930s and 1940s did Edendale begin to lose its village character, as people from more distant rural areas moved in and the population grew to make it a peri-urban area, under control of Natal's provincial government. Overcrowding and slum conditions which were unknown in the nineteenth century developed. Clearly Edendale was the victim of state refusal to make provision for municipal government amongst constituted black communities.

The history of the Edendale community is a microcosm of the experience of large numbers of African people in South Africa. They were respectable, mission-educated Christians. They had helped to build the colonial town of Pietermaritzburg, both as labourers and as producers. But whilst their labour was greedily accepted by the colonial economy, they were not allowed to participate in the political life of colonial society except as second class citizens. Indeed, when the Edendale people, along with large numbers of African cultivators, became too competitive, legislative measures were introduced to block their advancement.

The story of the Edendale community is that of people striving for a place as profit-making farmers and entrepreneurs in the colonial economy, but whose competitiveness was increasingly seen as a threat to the success of the white colonial gentry. For the colonists, the destiny of all Africans was that of a labouring class. As far as the colonists were concerned, the Edendale Christians, with their education and skills, were to be the vanguard of a disciplined labour force . The history of Edendale shows how the community resisted this definition of its role, and constructed their own cultural world within colonial society.

SOURCE: Pietermaritzburg 18381988: a new portrait of an African city, edited by John Laband and Robert Haswell (Pietermaritzburg: University of Natal Press and Shuter & Shooter, 1988), pp. 669.

Comments: [Post a Comment]
Posted by John Deare on 04 Feb 2010
The area of Edenvale was so named as it was incredibly fertile and practically everything grew there. A veritable 'Garden of Eden'.
Search: Past Issues