Books and Religion


Mphuthumi Ntabeni examines the shared bicentenary of the National Library of South Africa and the Roman Catholic Church. He looks at the role the church has played in South Africa – and throughout history in various parts of the world – in preserving knowledge and promoting literacy. He describes how the Roman Catholic Church had an important role in the foundation of libraries in South Africa and looks at her chequered relationship with books: at times conserving, and at other times, burning them. Why is it that the Church was so concerned about books?

The National Library of South Africa (NLSA) and the Roman Catholic (RC) Church in Southern Africa are both celebrating two hundred years in the country. They also share the history of religious association with the beginnings of preserving learning through books. I wish to explore this from the historical perspective below.

On 20 March 1818 Lord Charles Somerset, the Governor of the Cape Colony, signed a proclamation instituting the gauging of casks of wine, brandy and vinegar brought into Cape Town. The proclamation directed that the charge of one fix[ed] dollar in respect of each cask measured be used to create a fund for the formation of [a] public library, after paying the amount of the gauger's salary and his incident expense.[1]

This was probably the first recorded good use of 'sin tax' by a South African government. Subsequently, a double-story building was built to accommodate the public library in Cape Town. When the building was completed in September 1820 the Von Dessin Collection was added to the library. This collection was bequeathed on his death by the Secretary of the Orphan Chamber, Joachim von Dessin, to the Dutch Reformed Church in 1761. Rev. G. Hough and the Rev. F.R. Kaufman were appointed, in an honorary non-executive capacity, to the unpaid posts of librarians in 1821. The renowned Scottish poet, Thomas Pringle, who was part of the 1820 British Settlers in Port Elizabeth, became the first sub-librarian and did much to establishing its first book catalogue. Though it hosted what was then 'the best ancient and most recent modern publications in religion, in the classics, in history, poetry, geography, chemistry and political economy…’[2] it lacked readership and conducive reading space while still located across two rooms in the current Slave Lodge building. It bought and employed slaves as cleaners which might have been the cause of Pringle’s initial unease with the situation before politics saw him discredited from the position – Pringle was to become a staunch abolitionist when he returned to the UK.

The South African Public Library (SAPL), now the NLSA, was opened to the public for reading and consulting books (not borrowing) on 7 January 1822. Around that time the Roman Catholic church officially established herself at the height of Protestant anti papal sentiment within the majority Dutch, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Anglican (Wesleyan Methodist later) and the rest of the Huguenot settlers. The RC church was regarded as a parish among the early missionaries, although some of its furloughed priests – Jesuits – reported her presence as early as the 18th century  when they docked in the Cape habour during their natural exploration and astronomy studies. They seized the opportunity to visit the Catholic religious around Leebsway water settlements, in particular, to secretly administer rites despite being precluded by law to do so.

Although the SAPL is famed for being the first public library in SA there were a few parish libraries around SA even then. In his seminal book on Pringle’s life, Randolph Vigne mentions how Pringle – on his way to assume his librarianship duties in Cape Town – serendipitously met Faure, a descendant of a Dutch Huguenot official who had come to the Cape with Governor de Chavonnes in 1715. Faure ran SA’s first recorded church library in Graaff-Reinet. Pringle and Faure were kindred spirits who shared abolitionist sentiments and had deep sympathy for the mistreated indigenous people of SA, especially the KhoiKhoi. They also established a bimonthly and alter lingual literal journal, The South African Journal and Het Nederduitsch Zuid Afrikaansche Tijdschrif, the beginnings of what eventually became the current Bulletin of the National Library of South Africa.

The tradition of parish schools and libraries goes back to the epoch of Alcuin, when the RC church began preserving the western culture tools of intellectual learning just before the Dark Ages. Alcuin was an Anglo-Saxon ecclesiastical historian who is regarded as the champion of what became known as the Carolingian Renaissance. The Frankish king, Charlemagne (r.768-814), working closely with the RC church, encouraged both education and the arts, calling on bishops to organise schools around their parishes. The resultant boom of education for ordinary citizens from this is what came to be known as the Carolingian Renaissance, and Alcuin, the headmaster of the cathedral school in York, was its greatest intellectual, himself having studied under the Venerable Bede. He later served as the abbot of the monastery of St Martin at Tours. These monks developed what became known as the Carolingian miniscule script, crucial for ease of reading, print and eventually book production.

There’s little doubt that the first libraries, in the West, belonged to monasteries. This made it relatively easy to transmit knowledge even when monks died, or were killed, during times of war. Many would come to acquire the knowledge, preserved in book form, to continue the learning that became the basis for technological and scientific learning eventually regarded as the first means of civilisation. Monasteries made it possible for literacy to survive political and social catastrophes, and laid foundations for the universities, in the West, that taught metallurgy, agriculture, the arts, astronomy, navigation and eventually all other disciplines. They were, of course, master-brewers and viticulturists who also discovered champagne and other creature-comforts we regard as symptoms of sophistication today.

From the beginning, the rulers of the world were aware of the subversive powers of rapid knowledge sharing in book form. Qin Shin Having, the first emperor of China, burnt written canons as a means of reserving literary power to himself (he kept copies for his own library). The Nineveh library, where the first copy of the oldest book (The Gilgamesh) was discovered testify to similar practices. The RC church, though instrumental in founding the first mass-producing printing process – the Gutenberg Press – was outmaneuvered by Luther who used the same press during the Reformation period. Historical evidence points to Luther, with the help of his students in Wittenberg, being the first to burn books, especially canon law ones used to condemn him. But the RC church also succumbed to the lure of power in trying to banish Luther’s influence by staging public burning of his writings. This was a strange turn of events for the institution whose founding influence was based on the spread of the Word in written form. But in the new world of print, the pen was mightier than just mere papal infallibility. So Protestantism flared and flourished.

Those who flew from the religious persecution of the old world in Europe crossed seas to discover the new worlds in the mother continent, Africa, and the Americas. Sometimes, during their explorations and whilst serving the Catholic monarchs, the RC representatives preceded others in search for the new worlds. They sometimes tried to destroy other book cultures (by burning books) in their misguided zeal for the Lord, and in their imperialism (triumph of Western Civilisation), like with the Maya civilisation in Mexico. But because she came late, and operated mostly as a pariah among religious institutions in early SA, the RC church as an institution was spared from being associated with the British imperialism that eventually evolved into the racist system of apartheid.

The legacy of the RC church where books are concerned is chequered. But it cannot be disputed that they were at the centre of its foundations and preservation, including the spreading of its values into other cultures and parts of the world. Certainly in Africa the RC church, as an institution, in particular, and Christian missionaries in general, has been at the forefront of educating the black child. Most of Africa’s black leaders, from Mandela to Mugabe, were, at some stage in their lives, educated by Christian missionaries. And at the time when the apartheid regime thought black people had no need for real education beyond the Bantu one, many, including the present author, received a modicum of real education from the RC schools.

Many of us have also had the privilege of seeking source material from the rich archives of the NLSA. With the exception of the Cory library in Grahamstown at Rhodes University, I found no place richer in material when I was researching my book on the 19th century Xhosa chief, Maqoma. He resisted British land invasion in the Eastern Cape during what became known as the hundred year Frontier Wars. My book, entitled The Broken River Tent, shall be published at the end of April 2018 by Black Bird Books (Jacana Media imprint).

[1] Tyrrell-Glynn, W.H.P.A, The History Of The South African Public Library

[2] Thomas Pringle: South African Pioneer, Poet & Abolitionist, Randolph Vigne.

Images: Mphuthumi Ntabeni

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* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.


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Books and Religion

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