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Among the Wild Ngoni
Chapter X. In Memoriam: James Sutherland


ALTHOUGH less closely connected with the work in Ngoniland than William Koyi, it is fitting that the name and work of James Sutherland should be had in remembrance also, for he was the first European missionary to reside among the Ngoni, having been sent to be with Mr Koyi in 1882, and along with him had to bear the trials of those early days.

I write not merely as a fellow-worker but as a close friend, and having had much to do with his choice of foreign mission service. Born in Wick in 1856, he was converted, when a youth of eighteen, about the time of Moody’s visit to Scotland in 1874, and became a Sabbath School teacher, and “Monthly Visitor” tract distributor in his native town.

In 1876 I went to Wick as missionary to the fisher population. I gathered around me a band of young men, young in years like myself, and young in the Christian life. They became my best helpers, and along with me took part in open-air and in-door meetings. We formed a class for the study of the Bible, Christian Evidences, Butler’s “Analogy,” and such-like subjects, as well as for reading in the English classics. The friendship then formed lasted to the end. As I then looked forward to foreign mission work myself, the subject of missions was well discussed, and it turned out that I, who had fostered the desire in his mind, was beaten in the race to Livingstonia by four years.

Following his father’s trade—that of a shoemaker—he was a great reader and worked steadily to improve his education with mind bent on higher spheres. He was particularly drawn to scientific studies, and gaining a bursary he entered Edinburgh University along with one of his companions (a member of my class), who, like him, had been fighting his own way in the world. It is characteristic of their thirst for knowledge under difficulties, that, both being shorthand writers, they each took a different class outside the line of their special studies, and by interchanging their note-books had practically the benefit of both classes for one fee each. After two Sessions at Edinburgh, in 1880 a man who understood agriculture was wanted for Livingstonia. The advertisement was eagerly read by the two students, and as agriculture was one of the subjects they had been studying, each determined, unknown to the other, to apply. A late member of the Mission, studying medicine along with me, was deputed to see the candidates, and by the same mail I received letters from them both asking for a recommendation. James Sutherland was chosen, and the other went to India to a commercial life, but was no less a missionary. Both died within a few months of each other.

Leaving home in the middle of 1880 he was for some time engaged in the work of the Mission at Bandawe under Dr Laws. He had been appointed to fill the post of agriculturist, rendered vacant by the death of his predecessor when on the point of leaving for home at the end of his engagement. But while nominally agriculturist, he was, like all the others on the staff, everything by turns, as was rendered necessary by the conditions of work in the beginning which was being made at Bandawe. He was engaged in the erection of manse and school; in the laying out of the station and garden ; in testing the capabilities of the soil at and around Bandawe for the development of agricultural work ; and at times had to take his turn at school and meeting.

He saw Bandawe founded, and it was there he was permitted to do most evangelistic work for which he was eminently suited. His close contact with the people every day while in charge of out-door labour enabled him speedily to master the Tonga language. He gained the affection of the poor down-trodden Tonga people by his happy disposition, and sowed much seed of the Word, which has no doubt helped towards the success of the work there since. Whatever his hand found to do was done with all his might. His sympathies were broad, and with the various phases of mission life and experience he was in harmony, keeping ever before him the great end for which he was sent out. He felt the troubles and anxieties consequent on the Ngoni raids long ere he was sent to be among that people. On one occasion he was lying helpless in fever when an Ngoni army was reported to be marching on the station. The sudden change from the quiet of the neighbourhood to the tumult and cries of the frightened natives, and the hasty preparations for flight of the Mission party, was a great strain on Sutherland in his w'eak state, and in a single night his hair began to turn grey. But he never regretted having given himself to the work, and it would be difficult to picture the harmony, happiness, and at times the mirth of the three youths who lived in “Bachelors’ Hall” as they named their house. In those days the conditions of health were not very good, and long periods passed without a mail or news from the outer world, but he and the others lived and laboured as if all depended on their exertions.

When, in 1882, he was sent to Ngoniland as co-worker with Mr Koyi, he set himself to learn the language of the people, but by means of Tonga he was at once at work among those slaves of the Ngoni who spoke that language. There, as at Bandawe, his influence was chiefly among the common people, and many in bondage to the Ngoni had a new feeling aroused by his kindly words and the telling of the story of Christ’s love. He spent much of his time in the neighbouring villages, and gathered under his influence a number of young men, many of whom have since become members of the Church, and some are now respectable members of society, who were, before he took them up, wild reckless youths bent on following the ways of the Ngoni. At Njuyu he erected the brick dwelling-house. It was no light matter to begin such an undertaking, where, with the exception of brick-mould and trowel, everything else requisite had to be got by the labour of natives. The natives had probably never before seen a brick, much less moulded one. They knew to set a few sticks in the ground in a circle and tie over them a few wattles and some grass, which served them as a house. Besides, the people had no inclination for work, they lived, not by the sweat of their brow, but by stealing the things of others. With such a set of helpers Mr Sutherland had to start to build a house of several rooms, which, according to the frequently expressed view of the natives, when finished, was a village under one roof. The clay had to be dug and puddled, then, by means of moulds made of disused provision cases, shaped into bricks and laid down in the shade to dry. For a long time it was extremely irritating work to spend a whole forenoon in teaching two or three to mould bricks, or others to lay them down flat in rows in the shade, and find when the bell rang for mid-day rest the whole squad of workers demand their pay, saying they had now worked a great deal and needed to rest for a time. How could a hundred and twenty thousand bricks be made at that rate? But Sutherland struggled on, and erected a noble house. Although only of sun-dried bricks, which are easily dug into by white ants, it stands today a monument of taste and thoroughly honest work.

It is a common experience in many Missions, that some men with special handicrafts engaged to do special work in the mission, develop the idea that mission-work is only preaching and teaching; they despise their position and misjudge their influence, and in time throw up the work, or remain and are a source of trouble to their colleagues. Sutherland was not one of those. He made all his work true missionary work by his consecration to the service of Christ. Often did he turn up the pages of his shorthand note-book and read over a sermon preached by Dr Laws on Zecli. xiv. 20, “Holiness to the Lord,” treating of the ideal and possible in even the manual labour which might be engaged in for the Mission. “Let the spirit of every one impress even on the bricks he makes the motto,“ Holiness unto the Lord! ”Such was Sutherland’s aim in all his work, and was that which enabled him to live a tranquil life amid many worries. He could have answered the speaker, who, at a meeting of the Anthropological Institute reproached the missionaries as do-nothings, and called the natives imitative brutes, in the words of Zimmerman,“ Did I not put tools into the hands of the natives, and teach them to fell timber, to saw boards, and to make them into doors and window-frames? Did not I myself dig the clay and make the first hundred bricks, in order that the imitative brutes might do the same? Did not I dig the ground and build the foundation walls of brick and mortar, until I could trust these brutes to proceed by themselves? Yes! I have now a house which shelters me, and compared with the sheds of the natives, is more like a palace. You say the African is like the ape, an animal gifted with the power of imitation. Well! Only his power of imitation goes a little beyond that of the brute.”

Ten years have made a great change on the working habits of the people, and it is even yet not an easy matter or one conducing to equanimity of temper, to have to superintend natives at work, and what it must have cost those who laid the foundations of the present progress may be imagined. Sutherland had a sweet disposition, and was the right man in the right place. No one who knew him will forget his quiet behaviour under great provocation, and he had the happy knack of stimulating the native to honest work, not by fear, but by a powerful personal influence.

He was much respected by Mombera, and his happy manner made him attractive to many of the Ngoni. His life at Njuyu was too circumscribed for his ardent spirits. When building work was over, and as no schools were permitted, while it was unsafe to move to a distance from the station, he felt the hardship of not having his hands full of work. Added to this there were the frequent rumours of war, and excitement over the ill-concealed bad intentions of the Ngoni towards the Mission, and what was a daily annoyance almost past endurance — the begging of the people, from the chief and his wife down wards. It was not the polite request by one in need, but the insolent demand, and a volley of abuse if the request was not granted. One could scarcely name a thing that was not coveted and demanded. From early morning all through the day till near sunset there were people begging. There was no privacy, for they forced themselves into the house, there being only reed doors at first. On one occasion, in order to let a sick member have privacy and quiet, his bed had to be set behind the door to block the entrance. Mombera was often impudent and unbecoming in his behaviour, and so all the people were encouraged in the same manner of treating the mission-party when their demands were not satisfied. There was one good quality in the Ngoni character. If the missionaries were absent there was no attempt to enter the house. Their own laws were severe on that point, and death was the penalty for house-entering—it could not be called house-breaking, where the only lock to a native door is a cross stick outside, to which the door is fastened by a string.

Acting on the knowledge of this, when Mombera and his retinue, or a bevy of his wives—an impudent, drunken set of beings—were seen ascending from the river to the station, Sutherland and Koyi would hastily pocket some food, and putting up the reed doors, slip out at the back and scramble up Njuyu hill, behind which, in peace with a good book, they looked down on the begging visitors finding their journey in vain. Time was nothing to them, and they could as comfortably smoke, snuff, and talk gossip on the mission-house verandah as at home, and sometimes they remained a whole forenoon. It was an experience which could not have been avoided. The people were eager to get cloth and beads, but as for desiring the Gospel there was no evidence they did so, but much to show they were utterly opposed to it. In such circumstances it required tact and consecration to do as much Christian work as was done. While the prospect was of the most unpromising nature, Sutherland never lost hope or faith, and it was a solace in his many worries and unsuccessful efforts to reach the people, to gather the few house-boys round him every day and teach them to read the Word of God for themselves. In the early stage of such a mission, what people at home imagine is mission work may have but a small place. The foundation builders have as arduous a task, and of them is required as great faith and earnest work, though all they do will be hid by the superstructure raised by those who come after them, as those who, like myself and others, have been able, on what they achieved, to go forth to sow and to reap—to do such work as some are pleased to count as alone mission work.

The circumstances under which Koyi and Sutherland laboured were such that very little opportunity was given for, and little dependence could be placed on, oral teaching. Many a young, vigorous missionary, fresh from home, full of his own perceptions of the truth and his new duty, goes from village to village “bearing witness,” and returns home feeling he has fulfilled his mission. But real missionary work in the early stage of a mission to such a grossly sensual, barbarously cruel people as the Ngoni, or their even more degraded slaves, the Tumbuka, more frequently consists in a consistent, loving life, than in sermons or addresses however eloquent. Such work is harder than preaching, and such work was well done by the departed brethren.

Like his fellow-worker, Mr Koyi, he was called to the higher service above ere the fruit of his toils in Ngoniland was gathered, but to-day, as I scan the faces of those who sit at the Table of the Lord in the church at Njuyu, I see one and another who recall Sutherland to my mind, and I can trace their spiritual history and meet him in his dealings with them far back in 1885. The worker may fall but the work goes on. So determined was he to cling to Ngoniland and live a missionary’s life, if he were not permitted to do a missionary’s work, that in 1885 when trouble for us was abroad, and it seemed as if we would indeed be driven from the country, Mr Sutherland was prepared to become a slave to them in order to be allowed to remain. He even went and chose his owner—an old and much respected Swazi woman, the widow of Chipatula.

He packed up his goods, and on August 10th left for Bandawe. On September 29th, 1885, he died of haematuric fever within a week or two of the expiry of his first five years’ service. When the news of his death reached Njuyu, the natives came in large numbers to express their sorrow, for Sutherland^, as they called him, had won their affection. Mombera also sent messengers to speak his sorrow. As this was the first death of a mission member he had known, he sent also to ask if we believed people died by witchcraft, and if we thought our friend had been killed by the Tonga at Bandawe, he would set the matter right for us by sending down a war-party. It gave us an opportunity of speaking plainly to Mombera on the lesson for them of the life of Sutherland, and thus in his death as well as in his life he preached to the people.


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