Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Philip, John (1775-1851)

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PHILIP, JOHN (1775–1851), South African missionary, was the son of a schoolmaster of Kirkcaldy, Fife, where he was born on 14 April 1775. At an early age he was apprenticed to a linen manufacturer in Leven. For three years, from 1794, he filled a clerkship in Dundee. Acquiring some repute as a speaker, he decided to enter the congregational ministry, and was admitted to Hoxton Theological College, where he studied for three years.

After assisting the Rev. Mr. Winter at Newbury, Berkshire, he was appointed in 1804 to the first Scottish congregational chapel in Great George Street, Aberdeen. He remained there until 1818, when, at the invitation of the London Missionary Society, in whose work he had already taken an active interest, he joined John Campbell in conducting an inquiry into the state of the South African missions. The deputation landed at Cape Town on 26 Feb. 1819, and found the mission stations much neglected and colonial opinion strongly opposed to the gentle methods favoured by the missionaries in dealing with the natives. Philip asserted that the native races were oppressed by the settlers, and in 1820 set forth a policy of conciliation in a memorial to Acting-governor Donkin on behalf of the Griquas; while Campbell and he furnished to the society in 1822 a report which painted the situation in the darkest colours. The directors of the London Missionary Society resolved to establish a central mission-house at Cape Town, and appointed Philip the first superintendent of their South African stations. At the same time he undertook the pastorate of the new Union chapel at Cape Town, which was opened in December 1822. For the rest of his working life he made this a centre of agitation on behalf of the native races, travelling a great deal through the borders of the colony to inspect the mission-stations and to collect evidence in support of his theories. He supplied the commissioners, who visited the Cape in 1823, with statistics of barbarities alleged to have been committed by the settlers; issued in 1824 ‘Distressed Settlers in Cape Town;’ and in 1826 visited England to excite English philanthropic opinion in behalf of the Hottentots and Kaffirs. During his stay he wrote and published (April 1828) his well-known ‘Researches in South Africa,’ a diffuse account of the Cape mission, containing a bitter attack upon the colonial government. The House of Commons, on the motion of Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton [q. v.], supported by Sir George Murray, colonial secretary, resolved, on 19 July 1828, that the Cape government be instructed to carry out Philip's recommendations. Armed with this official sanction of his policy, he returned to Africa in October 1829 to find his unpopularity increased. William Mackay, land-drost of Somerset, one of the incriminated officials, sued Philip for libel. The trial, which caused immense excitement throughout the colony, ended, on 16 July 1830, in a unanimous verdict for Mackay. Philip's supporters at home raised a large fund to indemnify him against costs, amounting to 1,100l.; but colonial opinion supported the verdict.

With the advent of a whig government at home in 1831, Philip's friends were able to control the policy of the colonial office. The new governor, Sir Benjamin D'Urban, who assumed office in January 1834, sympathised with Philip's aims. But a Kaffir war followed in December of the same year, and on its termination a British protectorate was extended over the Transkei. Philip, supported by a very few followers, denounced this settlement, although even the missionaries stationed among the Kaffirs approved of it. Failing to retain the sympathies of the governor, Philip left for England on 28 Feb. 1836, with the Messrs. Read, Jan Tshatshu (a Kaffir), and Andries Stoffle (a Hottentot), in whose company he made several lecturing tours in Great Britain, to rouse public opinion against the Cape government. All three appeared in the same year before a parliamentary committee of inquiry, presided over by Fowell Buxton, and Philip himself was mainly responsible, with the chairman, for the voluminous report issued in 1837 by the committee, who adopted his views against a preponderating weight of evidence. Lord Glenelg, colonial secretary, dismissed Governor D'Urban, who was replaced by Major-general Napier in January 1838, and Philip returned a month later to act as unofficial adviser to the new governor in all questions relating to the treatment of the natives. He advocated the establishment of a belt of native states to the north and east of the colony, and he undertook prolonged tours in 1839 and 1842 to promote this object. But fresh troubles soon occurred on the borders, and the Kaffir war of 1846 finally proved the futility of his schemes. Even Mr. Fairbairn, editor of the ‘Commercial Advertiser,’ who had supported his policy from the first, now declared for war. Jan Tshatshu, once the companion of his English tour, had joined the invading Kaffir bands. From this time Philip took little part in public affairs. His eldest son, William, a missionary of some promise, had been accidentally drowned in the Gamtoos river, near Hankey, on 1 July 1845, and this loss greatly affected his health. In 1847 his wife died (23 Oct.). The outbreak of hostilities in the Orange River territory in 1848 completely destroyed his hopes of maintaining independent native states against colonial aggression, and in 1849 he severed his connection with politics. He resigned his post at Cape Town, and retired to Hankey, where he died on 27 Aug. 1851.

Philip was a man of good physique and of much energy. A powerful and convincing speaker, he was well fitted to champion his cause in England, although in the colony he never led more than a very small minority. His friends were constrained to admit that he was somewhat arbitrary and self-willed (Wardlaw, p. 31; Missionary Magazine, 1851, pp. 186–7). He did much useful work in promoting the interests of education, both among the colonists and the natives; although his more ambitious plans failed, he was the most prominent politician in Cape Colony for thirty years.

He was survived by a son, the Rev. Thomas Durant Philip, also a missionary at Hankey, and two daughters.

[Theal's History of South Africa, vols. iii. iv.; Ralph Wardlaw's Funeral Sermon with Appendix, 8vo, 1852; Robert Philip's The Elijah of South Africa, or the Character of the late John Philip, 8vo, London, 1851; Missionary Magazine for 1836 to 1851; Missionary Register for 1819, &c.]

E. G. H.