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  • Writer's pictureMary Allen

Fr Augustus Law SJ and the Zambezi Mission

Sepia photograph of a large building with bushes in front
St Aidan's College, Grahamstown

This year marks the 140th anniversary of the completion of St Aidan’s College in South Africa. At its opening, 31 January 1867, the community consisted of three Jesuit priests and three Jesuit brothers. In this blog post we remember the life of Fr Augustus Law, one of those founding Fathers.

Black and white image of a young man in clerical collar and gown standing with a book held slightly open in his hands at his front. He looks at the camera with a severe expression.
Fr Augustus Law (1833-1880)

Augustus Law was born 21 October 1833 and entered the Society 15 January 1854 after a career in the navy, during which he converted to Catholicism. In the ten years between entering the noviceship and his ordination, Law’s longing to be sent abroad on the mission grew, and in September 1875, he was sent to Grahamstown in South Africa. On the 21st of that month, he set sail with Dr Ricards, Bishop of Grahamstown, for the distant land from which he would never return. There they founded St Aidan’s College, which was to serve as a base of radiating missionary enterprise as well as a suitable place for Catholics to send their children for education.

Fr Law spent much of his spare time at St Aidan’s studying the Zulu language and remained there until 1879 when, to his joy, he learned that he would join the first band of missioners to move further inland towards the Zambezi. Fr Depelchin of the Belgian Province was chosen to be the expedition’s organiser and superior. The party consisted of Depelchin, Law, Fathers Terörde, Croonenberghs, and Fuchs, and Brothers Nigg, Hedley and de Sadeleer. They travelled from Grahamstown to Kimberley to Shoshong, a journey of over 900 miles. At Shoshong they were refused permission to settle, and so they pushed on to Gubuluwayo, about 250 miles north east.

It was during their stay at Gubuluwayo that Fr Law made the decision that would seal his fate: rather than continue with Fr Depelchin to the Zambezi, he would travel to King Umzila’s territory some 300 miles east to introduce their mission there. He took with him Fr Charles Wehl and Brothers Hedley and de Sadeleer, and set off 28 March 1880.

Manuscript letter on bluish paper with a pen sketch of scenery at top under date before.
Letter 28 July 1879 (Ref: TQ/6)

Throughout the journey Fr Law kept a full and accurate diary in which he recorded what happened each day, sketched his surroundings and companions, and charted their progress. It was a perilous journey with the natives becoming increasingly hostile, and at one stage a river, stream or marsh having to be crossed almost every mile. On 6 August, Law reports that Fr Wehl, who often walked ahead, had gone missing. After waiting for three days, it was decided they must go on without him.

They eventually reached Umzila’s village 31 August, weakened by the journey and lack of nourishment, where he and Br Hedley were given a small hut to share with two of their guides, while Br de Sadeleer returned for their wagon which had been left some distance behind. De Sadeleer never made it back to them, and with little to eat their health continued to deteriorate. Law continued to say Mass as long as he was able, wrote two poignant letters, one to a fellow missioner and one to his father, and continued to write in his diary until 13 October. After three months of fever and starvation, Fr Law passed away 25 November 1880. Br Hedley was eventually taken to a village where he met Fr Wehl and Br de Sadeleer, and it was not until May 1881 that news of Fr Law’s death reached his father.

Pen sketch on lightly squared paper plotting route with sketch drawing of trees labelled Koppies
Route 11 June 1880 (Ref: TR/7)
Manuscript on three sheets of paper
Collage of Law's last diary entry

The early progress of St Aidan’s, opened only four years previously, can be measured from the fact that from the College these first missionaries to southeast Africa set out. It continued as a boys’ school run by Jesuits for almost 100 years until its closure in 1973. Fr Law was just one of several Fathers, Brothers, and no doubt natives, who lost their lives through illness or accident on the arduous journeys to introduce their mission.

If you would like to find out more about the history of the Zambezi Mission, the Jesuits in Britain Archives holds a run of the Zambezi Mission Record covering 1898-1934, which contains a detailed history of the Mission across a number of issues. The diaries of Fr Law held by the Archives, including early ones from his days in the Navy, and the volumes of letters compiled by his father, provide a fascinating read and insight into the life of a Jesuit and Missioner.

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