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A writer, blogger, historian, and web designer born in New York, educated in Argentina, Scotland, and South Africa, and now based in London. read more
F.C. Kolbe and
the Tulbagh Drostdy

Poet, Polemicist, Polymath, and Priest

Relic and emblem of a storied past.
Thrice happy they whose lines in thee are cast
Thy records summon all in thy embrace
To emulate the virtues of the race.
Thy stately halls of courtly manners tell,
Where only Ladies Bountiful should dwell.
Thy solid frame is pledge of future glory,
And links our doings with our country’s story.

‘To the Drostdy at Tulbagh’, F.C. Kolbe (1909)

Work on the Drostdy (magistrate’s house) at Tulbagh in the Western Cape began late in 1804 but progressed rather slowly and expensively. This is probably because — after construction commenced — the plans by Bletterman, the landdrost at Stellenbosch, were torn up by the architect Louis Michel Thibault and replaced by his own design.

This meant part of the work already completed had to be demolished and re-done, which Bletterman only went along with assuming Thibault’s plan had the approval of the Batavian Republic’s governor of the Cape, Jan Willem Janssens. As it happens, they did not, and when Bletterman found out he was none too pleased.

Francis Masey, a partner at Herbert Baker’s firm, noted that “[w]hilst it proved to be the last building begun upon Dutch soil in South Africa, it was destined to be the first completed upon the passing of the Cape into the hands of the British.”

This brief ode was written by Frederick Charles Kolbe (right) in 1909. The great-great-grandson of the magistrate (or landdrost) at Stellenbosch, F.C. Kolbe was the son of a Congregational missionary in Paarl who studied law at the Inner Temple in London. There, in 1876, he was received into the Catholic Church and continued on to study in Rome where he was ordained a priest in 1882.

While his poetry was tended towards the middling, Kolbe was a distinctive polymath. In addition to catechetical writings, he published a number of works on Shakespeare, and lectured on Socrates not long after his 1882 return to the Cape. Eventually he was appointed Reader in Aesthetics at the University of Cape Town.

Kolbe also wrote a Catholic criticism of the 1926 book Holism and Evolution by the statesman General Smuts. (Not many people realise that the word ‘holistic’ was donated to the English language by a son of Stellenbosch.) The general and the priest had corresponded as early as 1915 when Smuts was Minister for Defence, and Smuts was so taken with Kolbe’s critique that he wrote a foreword to a later edition of it.

In a 1935 letter to “Dr. Kolbe”, the General wrote:

Although I am not acquainted with the Catholic prayers, I am deeply versed in the Psalms of the Old Testament, which seem to me the greatest and noblest outpourings of the human spirit ever put into language. The inexpressible finds expression there. Emotions almost too deep for utterance somehow find an outlet there. …

I also agree with you as to the nobility of the language which Catholic Christianity has evolved. What could match the beauty of De Imitatione Christi? Somehow it breathes a spirit which is beyond all language. It is curious how in such a case the human soul sets on fire its own earthly vesture, and language becomes a blaze of glory…

From Smuts’ letters to others we know that he actually read more works by Kolbe, in particular his Up the slopes of Mount Sion: or, A progress from Puritanism to Catholicism.

Disputation and discussion were also among Kolbe’s talents. He used the pages of South Africa’s Catholic Magazine to counter the accusations of what he called a “narrow clique” of anti-Romish ministers of the Dutch Reformed Church.

One of Kolbe’s most lasting legacies was the effect of his writing on the young Afrikaner philosopher Marthinus Versfeld (1909–1995) who converted to Catholicism under the late Monsignor’s influence. (Kolbe had died in 1936.) Versfeld’s familiarity with Augustine and Aquinas helped him launch intellectual attacks against the so-called “Christian-national” thinking behind apartheid, particularly in his first book Oor gode en afgode (“Of Gods and Idols”, 1948 & republished 2010).

Kolbe, according to Versfeld, “lived out a certain apprehension of the presence of the universal in the particular, just as Newman lived out his vision of the Catholic Church in the material of English circumstances.”

An Afrikaner Newman, perhaps? Worth reading more about.

This post was published on Wednesday, September 27th, 2017 1:00 pm. It has been categorised under Church History South Africa and been tagged under , , .
Comments
Ashley Ritchie
30 Oct 2017 8:21 pm

Hello, thank you for a fascinating article about such a great man. Alas, he and his thought are so little known, but it is difficult to find information about him. Might I enquire as to where you gathered this information? I am trying to order some of his works online- but his works are scarce (and expensive!).

Kind regards,

Rev A G Ritchie



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