Charlotte Kolbe

Dear Family and Friends,

It is thanks to painstaking research by Wilhelm Kolbe that I can tell you this very entertaining story tonight. Family history fascinated Dr. Kolbe from his youth, and listening to his grandfather talk about relatives who lived as missionaries in far away southern Africa started him on a life long quest to document their lives, culminating in the publication of a book in 2004. Stephen and I know well that he would give his back teeth to stand here himself to tell you the story, but progressing Alzheimer has put that, and in fact any contact with the world around him out of reach.

This is the story of his great grand aunt who is, at the same time, my great great grandmother and other family members who have left their mark on southern African history. The setting of the story is Inyati in 1861, when Margarethe Charlotte Kolbe, newly married to the Rev. William Sykes arrives. It is about the beginnings of our family history in southern Africa.

I would like to start Wilhelm Kolbe’s story with a quotation from a letter by German Schoolteacher Carl Mauch (1837-1875), discoverer of the Zimbabwe Ruins:

“The rivers Tchangani, Zangwe, Isilongwo and Inyati, which flow to the Zambezi, have sandy beds, but have water all the year round. The sand in the river beds is washed down from the surrounding metamorphic rock.

Beside the last mentioned river is situated the Inyati mission station, where Messrs. Sykes and Thomas have made it their life’s work to help the black people up. I will not comment on the successes they have achieved to date, except to say that missionary work is the most thankless I know, and I would rather relive my previous worst experiences as turn to become a missionary.”

 Inyati Mission

In a letter from Inyati to J.S. Unwin Emily Moffat wrote:

Mr. and Mrs. Sykes arrived at midday on the 11th of July 1861. We had news of their pending arrival the week before and sent oxen etc. out to meet them. It was a joyous meeting and a festive day for us all. Our little village was at its tidiest, in fact Mrs Thomas and I competed to present the prettiest homestead!

The Rev. and Mrs Sykes

In the afternoon we had tea together and met for prayer with brother Thomas.

Mr. Sykes brought us many things, but unfortunately no boots, which I need urgently. I am going to ask Mrs. Sykes if I could borrow a pair of her boots until mine arrive.

Mr. Sykes is loving and kind to us. He had a successful journey. His wife seems to be a pleasant and happy companion – a German. What little I have seen of her pleases me, but I sympathise greatly with her, as she can hardly imagine how rough our lives here are, and we simply have to smile about many things, conversely she must think us half-barbarians when she sees our un-ironed cotton fabrics. But I am also happy to report that a woman from Kuruman has accompanied them, to work as servant to us. She is a clever person, she can wash and iron well, so we will now make good appearances. Her husband is also here, at the moment with Sykes.

Old King Mzilikazi summoned Sykes, so he had the pleasure of visiting his majesty. They returned to us on Monday and have settled to tent life. Mr. Thomas has lent them his tent, so they have one as bedroom and one as living room. Mr. Sykes hopes to build a house before the rains start. Mr. Thomas has made himself comfortable in his workshop and offered this to Sykes, but he declined, and thought it better to have an independent laager as he has so many people. Mrs. Sykes has brought along a girl, who should remain with her.”

Another missionary, Rev. Roger Price wrote the following to Rev. John Moffat about the new arrival:

“Mr. and Mrs. Sykes arrived here a while ago from the colony. I am sure you will agree, that our brother Sykes should not only receive our congratulations, but also congratulate himself on his good fortune. Mrs. Sykes seems to me to be a good-tempered person suitable in every way to be the wife of a missionary, and I am sure that she will be an extremely valuable addition to your small circle.”

Who was Mrs Sykes?

Margarethe Charlotte Kolbe was born on the 27th December, 1828 in Gütersloh, only sister to 5 older Kolbe boys. She was baptised a protestant in the Church of St. Pancras in Gütersloh on January 16th, 1829.

  St. Pancras, Gütersloh (pre World War 2)

In order to understand why Margarethe left her home town, Wilhelm Kolbe tells us a little about the church history of the region.

The existence of St. Pancras parish can be traced back as far as 1201. In 1527 Conrad, Earl of Rheda, the region including the parish, converted to the protestant faith propagated by Martin Luther. More than a century of strife followed, during which the church building was frequently claimed and reclaimed by the catholic church. Only after the Westphalian Treaty was signed in 1648, ending a thirty year period of war, was the principle of “simultaneousness” accepted, and the church served as home to both the catholic and protestant congregations.

This was the status of the church right up to Margarethe’s time!

Only in 1887 did the catholic congregation move to a new church building, and St. Pancras was renamed “Church of the Apostles”. The triple nave construction of the Church of the Apostles was destroyed by a bomb during an allied air raid in 1944. After the war the church was rebuilt as a single nave construction.

  St. Pancras, Gütersloh (rebuilt after World War 2)

The following are the buildings around the church as Margarethe new them



Margarethe’s father, David Friedrich (Frederick) Kolbe, was a bookbinder who came from a long line of printers and bookbinders traceable to Marburg in Hesse in the 16th century. The Kolbe children obviously grew up in an atmosphere of learning, and Margarethe, as was her elder brother Friedrich Wilhelm (Frederick William), was undoubtedly influenced by a Christian revival movement in her youth. Both learnt English and Dutch, and were gripped by missionary zeal.

Margarethe lost her father at the age of seventeen, he died of typhus during the epidemic of 1844/45.

It is not known exactly when Margarethe left Gütersloh for Cape Town, as a register of shipping was kept in Cape Town only after 1860. According to Dorothy Camors, Margarethe arrived in Cape Town in 1853 from England.

It is recorded, however, that she was married to William Sykes on the 1st January, 1860 in Paarl by her brother, Frederick William Kolbe, priest of the Zion Church there. Frederick William was trained as missionary in the Barmer (Rhenish) Missionary Society, and arrived in Cape Town in November 1844. Initially sent as missionary to Damaraland, he converted to the congregational church of the London Missionary Society in 1853, and settled in Paarl with his family. In the days before the existence of railway transport, the vicarage and parish buildings there served as way station and refuge for numerous missionaries passing to and from their assigned regions. William Sykes was one of the missionaries who enjoyed the hospitality of the Kolbe family on more than one occasion.

Prior to her marriage to William Sykes, Margarethe Kolbe was Governess and Teacher in the employ of the Pocock family, apparently wealthy tobacco traders in Paarl.

Now, back to Inyati.

Rev. Sykes succeeded in building a house for himself and his wife with the help of a worker from Kuruman, in time for the start of the rains and the birth of the first child. In a letter to the director of the London Missionary Society, Rev. Dr. Tidman he wrote:

“I have the happiness to announce that a little boy was added to our family on 24th of October 1861. He was baptised Frederick William by the Rev. Moffat at the close of the Matabele Service yesterday.”

Fourteen months later Mary Margarethe was born, followed by the births of Arthur in 1864, Simon Joseph in 1867 and finally Theodore in 1871. Theodore died as an infant, Arthur died during his student days in England.

When Mary Margarethe was born, king Mzilikatse made the Sykes a gift of one cow and one calf. How significant for a nation in which wealth is measured in head of cattle!

Following a missionary’s calling in Matabeleland under King Mzilikatse was not easy. Rev. Sykes went to great lengths to learn Sindebele, the language of the Matabele perfectly. He reports in one of his letters that, once he was confident enough, he went to King Mzilikatse one Saturday.

“I went out today and sat a while with the aged king and told him, that the next day would be God’s day, and that I hoped to be able to tell his people about God tomorrow.”

After repeated requests, the king finally commanded his subjects to come and hear Rev. Sykes speak. About 300 to 400 turned up to the Sunday service and listened attentively.

“After the service about 200 came up to me to claim a reward for listening! I refused.”

In the villages, when he asked the villagers to attend a service, they replied “What will you give us?”

In a similar way, teaching the people to read and write was a difficult task. Although many were interested enough, when they realised it would take weeks and months, they gave up. Others asked how much he would pay them to learn.

Many Matabele were afraid to be killed if it became known that they were “People of the Word”. On Sunday after the service Rev. Sykes found some Matabele men sitting with their heads together discussing his sermon. He took the opportunity to urge them to learn to read and write. They replied that they feared to be killed by the king, who had commented: “You pay more attention to the teachers than to me, you love them more than you love me.”

Nevertheless, he was able to successfully found a school in which Ndebele was taught. Also, his worth as a preacher is documented. Rev. Robert Moffat wrote about him:

“W. Sykes has taken all the cautions to heart, which I have recommended to others, to first write a sermon, then to read it and reflect upon it, and, if necessary to then add something. As a result he could be well understood and he did not preach too long.”

Rev. Sykes developed substantial linguistic capabilities. It is said that, when he went up to preach, he took his Greek testament and read directly from it in Ndebele. He made a great contribution to the translation of the New Testament into Ndebele, he translated hymns and composed many more for the Ndebele. The Ndebele Hymn Book “Izihlabelo” contained more than 30 Hymns by Rev. Sykes.

Of all the missionaries sent to Inyati by the London Missionary Society, Rev. Sykes stayed the longest (28 years). This period spanned the reigns of two Matabele kings, Mzilikatse and Lobengula, who both had great reservations about the missionary activities, and if it were not for Rev. Sykes perseverance, Inyati would probably not have outlasted him as a mission station.

Rev. Sykes died on 22nd July 1887 aged 58 and was buried in the cemetery of Inyati.

Once his successor, Rev. Boven Rees was installed in Inyati, Margarethe Sykes travelled to England where her children were.

Her daughter Mary Margarethe, who spent her early childhood on Inyati, learned to speak Ndebele in addition to English and German. When she was 10 years old she was enrolled in a school for missionaries’ daughters in Walthamstowe near London. On 1st January 1885, 2 years before her father died, Mary married the Scottish missionary David Carnegie in Cape Town. The couple lived on the Hope Fountain mission near Bulawayo.

Margarethe Sykes returned to South Africa in 1890 and lived in Port Elisabeth with her son Frederick William, who had a printing and book binding business there. In 1907 she travelled to Bulawayo to live with Mary and David Carnegie on the Centenary Mission in Figtree until his death in 1910. After spending the next years with Frederic William in Port Elisabeth, she returned to Bulawayo aged 90 in 1919, and died there on 20th April 1920. She is buried in the cemetery of Hope Fountain.

Margarethe Sykes (front row left) with:
Back row, from left, Emily, Stella, Balfour, Arthur, Jessie and Alfred
Front Row, right, Mary Carnegie with Leonora and Bunnie
(Bulawayo 1919)

Mary Carnegie with Paddy and Jean (front row left) with:
From left, Bunny, Stella, David, Leonora and Arthur

The other Sykes children

As mentioned, Frederick William ran a printing and book binding business in Port Elisabeth.

Simon Joseph became Canon of the Cathedral of Liverpool

Margarethe Sykes’ brothers

Of the six Kolbe children, four Brothers remained in and around Gütersloh. One of them, Johann Heinrich (1826-1900) is the great-grandfather of Wilhelm Kolbe.

Margarethe’s older brother, Friedrich Wilhelm Kolbe (1821-1899), missionary for the Rhenish Mission in Damaraland, converted to the Congregational Church of the London Missionary Society and, after four years as priest in George, settled with his family in Paarl.


“Catophractes kolbeana”, a plant discovered near Okahandja and documented by Isabella Maria (b. Elliott, 1830-1893), Friedrich Wilhelm’s wife


Dr. Friedrich Carl Kolbe (1854-1936), son of Margarethe’s brother in Paarl, when at school in England fell in love with his headmaster’s daughter and, after finishing school, became engaged to her. She (Emmaetta Makepeace), however, was of weak constitution, and her parents sent her to a “milder climate” to gain strength, to her aunt, a nun in the Benedictine Abbey in Meaux near Paris. Emmaetta decided to join the order and broke off her engagement to Friedrich Carl, who himself sought consolation with monks of the Benedictine Order. Here he experienced his calling to become a priest, and converted to the catholic faith.

It is interesting to note, that F.C. Kolbe was infected with Malaria while a student of theology in Rome. At that time, around 1879, Malaria was widespread in southern Italy, and F.C. Kolbe suffered from the effects of the disease for the rest of his life.

He became well known as academic and theologian in South Africa, and was made a prelate of the Catholic Church in 1920, giving him the title of “Monsignore”.


F.C. Kolbe amassed an extensive collection of botanical samples during his extensive travels in southern Africa. “Amphiglossa kolbei” and “Lichtensteinia kolbeana” are two species named after him.

The Catholic Student Community of the University of Cape Town named a house used as student lodgings after him.

Dr. Friedrich Carl Kolbe published numerous academic and religious works.

I would like to end my talk with a very pertinent quotation from one of Emily Moffat’s letters:

“If Africa is meant to be Christianized and civilized at ox wagon pace, the end of the world cannot be as close as some people fear!”
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