William Wellington (Mbaba, Goba) Gqoba
1840 - 1888

Author, editor, teacher, catechist, interpreter and wagonmaker

William Wellington Gqoba was born in Gaba, near Alice, Eastern Cape in August 1840. He was the son of Gqoba of the Cirha clan, who was in turn the son of Peyi, a disciple and close associate of Ntsikana, a seminal figure in the conversion of the Xhosa to Christianity and in the history of Xhosa literature. During his final illness, Gqoba had a vision of Ntsikana and his congregation in bright clothing: 'While I did not know the famous Ntsikana,' he remarked, 'now I know him'. Gqoba's last public act was to officiate at the funeral of his Lovedale colleague Govan Koboka on 19 April 1888; ten days later, at his own funeral, the preachers were Elijah Makiwane and P.J. Mzimba. Gqoba attended the Mission School at Tyhume under William Chalmers before entering the junior class at Lovedale Institute in September 1853. In May 1856 he was indentured in the wagon-building trade, a profession he pursued after leaving Lovedale, first in King William's Town for a year under James Lawler, then independently at Brownlee Station.

In September 1858 four new elders were installed to supplement the existing four elders of Tiyo Soga's mission church at Mgwali. The original elders included Dukwana, son of Ntsikana and Festiri, Soga's brother; Gqoba was one of them newly installed elders. In 1859 Soga recorded that Gqoba had gone to the Kat River from Tyhume, 'when for long he held the post of Dutch interpreter to the Fingoes and Kaffirs, for the Messrs Read of Philipton', and that it was under the Reads (not Chalmers at Tyhume) that Gqoba had accepted Christianity. If Soga's information is correct, Gqoba must have held the responsible office of interpreter at Kat River as a mere child, for he entered the Lovedale junior class at the age of 13 and his subsequent career is well attested in Stewart's Lovedale past and present.

At Mgwali Gqoba commenced his career as a teacher, at the same time serving as interpreter. Under Richard Ross he taught at Lovedale for a year before returning to Mgwali at the end of 1868. He remained there until October 1870. Among his colleagues at Mgwali was Nkohla Falati, a prominent contributor to Xhosa newspapers and the biographer of Ntsikana, who was married to Dukwana's daughter, Mary. Gqoba then taught in King William's Town before taking service as pastor of the Native Church at Rabula from January 1873 until the outbreak of the last frontier war in 1877. In August 1878 he moved to the Peelton Mission Station, teaching and preaching as a substitute for Richard Birt. He returned to Rabula in January 1880. In February 1881 he left for Kimberley where he worked as a Post Office messenger for six months and then in the Kimberley Native Registry Office until the beginning of 1884. In his ultimate career-move he returned to Lovedale to succeed John Tengo Jabavu as editor of Lovedale's Xhosa newspaper Isigidimi samaXosa, and to teach in the 'translation classes'; Jabavu had left Lovedale after three years as editor of Isigidimi to establish his own newspaper, Imvo zabantsundu, in King William's Town.

Gqoba's death after a short illness was sudden and unexpected. Charles Brown-lee" rated him 'one or the most competent, if not the best Native translator from English into Xhosa in the country'. The obituaries in Isigidimi and Imvo were unstinting in their admiration of his qualities, hailing him as 'a great man of the Cirha clan, Xhosa of the Xhosa among the Xhosa, Hottentot of the Hottentots among the Hottentots, a white man among those who speak the white man's language, wise among the wise, eloquent among the eloquent, affable to friends and strangers alike, strong in debate, teacher among teachers, preacher among those who preach Christ's message, who stirred recollection of our ancestors' counsels'. At Lovedale Gqoba was active in education affairs (he was a prominent member of the Native Educational Association, founded in '1879, the first known African political organization) and a keen member of the Lovedale Literary Society. He was a lively editor of Isigidimi, free of the confrontation and controversy so characteristic of Jabavu, presiding over an unprecedented efflorescence of literary and ethnographic contributions, many of which he revoked by his editorial comments and is own writings. Imvo was an explicitly political journal, whereas Isigidimi, as a mission publication, was committed to a non-political stance.

Shortly after Gqoba's death at the end of 1888, in the face of competition from Imvo and escalating debts, Isigidimi ceased publication after a run of 18 years. It was the last of the nineteenth-century Xhosa mission newspapers. Despite these interests and activities, William Gqoba's reputation will rest on his achievements as a pioneering Xhosa poet, historian and ethnographer. Gqoba contributed two reports to Isigidimi in 1875 and 1880, but his literary career properly commenced after he assumed the editorship of Isigidimi. In his lifetime his Xhosa writings appeared only in Isigidimi; after his death, W.B. Rubusana included nine pieces by Gqoba in his anthology Zemk'inkomo magwalandini! (1906), and W.G. Bennie later used two of these in his anthology Imibengo (1935). Gqoba contributed religious poems (especially poems of consolation on the death of parishioners), humorous stories, historical articles on the Xhosa and Mfengu peoples and on the cattle-killing episode of 1856/7, explanations of Xhosa proverbs and two extended poems serialized in 1885 and 1888, that for a long time stood as the most sustained poetic efforts in Xhosa. The Christian Express also serialized the English text of a talk Gqoba had delivered to the Lovedale Literary Society in April 1885 entitled 'The native tribes: their laws, customs and beliefs'. Gqoba is one of the earliest authors of stature to emerge in the history of Xhosa literature, a fledgling literature he did much to raise to maturity. His two long debate poems on Christianity and on education present strong arguments for both sides, chronicling the divisions in Xhosa society over the response to European culture. He has a foot in both the past and the present, in both Xhosa and Christian tradition. Divided in loyalty, his writings reflect the spirit of age. He died on 26 April 1888 in Lovedale, Eastern Cape. Gqoba was survived by a son and two daughters, one of whom was named Maria.


Sonderling, N.E. (ed.) New Dictionary of South African Biography, v.2 , Pretoria: Vista.