Lost to history for 125 years

The African Choir 1891 Re-Imagined

Lost to history gathering dust for over 125 years, thirty portrait photographs lay hidden in the Hulton Archive. These extraordinary portraits chronicled the first tour of a small African choir to Victorian England between 1891-93. 

Etched into glass plate negatives by the London Stereoscopic Company, today the story is unearthed and re-told through a contemporary multimedia installation, created by Autograph ABP and Tshisa Boys Productions entitled: The African Choir 1891 Re-Imagined.

Excerpt of the song 'Cuius', from the sound-image installation The African Choir 1891 Re-imagined by South African composers Phillip Miller & Thuthuka Sibisi, curated by Renée Mussai at Autograph ABP, Rivington Place London.

The African Choir was drawn from various mission stations and church choirs in the Eastern Cape, including graduates from Lovedale College which had started as a mission station in 1824, on the Tyume River in Alice. The first principal of the college was Rev. William Govan, after whom Govan Mbeki, former leader of the African National Congress, was named.

The original sixteen-member ensemble included seven men and seven women, plus two children. The choir was led by Paul and Eleanor Xiniwe and included the famous human rights activist Charlotte Maxeke (née Manye) and her sister Katie Makanya.

They performed to large audiences in England, and before Queen Victoria in the summer of 1891. Their repertoire was divided into two halves: one comprised Christian hymns sung in English together with popular operatic arias and choruses; the other consisted of traditional African hymns, and some of the first originally composed hymns by South African composers: John Bokwe and the Rev. Tiyo Soga. The programme closed with God Save the Queen, which the choir performed on invitation to Queen Victoria at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight.

Photo: Eleanor Xiniwe, The African Choir, 1891 by London Stereoscopic Company. Courtesy of ©Hulton Archive/Getty Images - source

When Maxeke left SA as a 20-year-old, " she wanted to raise consciousness about the plight of miners and conditions in the mines. In London and Manchester, she associated with many of the radicals and suffragettes," says Jane Collins, a professor of theatre and performance at Wimbledon College of Arts, and author of the theatrical production Umuntu, Ngumuntu, Ngabantu: The Story of the African Choir. 

On the face of it the mission of the African Choir was to raise funds to build a technical college.  Evidently their goals were not achieved, as Collins explains. "They underestimated the inherent racism of the British establishment and the objectives of the imperial regime."

The Illustrated London News, August, 29, 1891, reports on the choir's visit. "Ten weeks have passed since the [African]1 singers landed in England, and they have, by performances of genuine merit, gained a position as first-class vocalists, stood the test of criticism, and are rapidly winning public favour. With remarkable intelligence, with sweet voices and weird expressive melody, with interesting looks, graceful manners and deportment, and with a set purpose of benefiting their country and their race, they have but to be seen and heard to command the sympathy of an English audience."

Johanna Jonkers,  one of the Zulu members of  The African Choir to tour England in 1981. - wiki commons.

Sound artist of  The African Choir 1891 Re-Imagined Phillip Miller was inspired by the story when reading the book, The Calling of Katie Makanya by Margaret McCord. He recalls how Makanya, the song bird of the African Choir, was invited to return to London on contract and flatly refused. "This speaks to questions of alienation, displacement and being looked at as the other. Their experiences abroad were complicated, good and bad, a real human story."

Choir members such as Charlotte Maxeke (née Manye), her sister Katie Makanya and Paul Xiniwe later became leading social activists and reformers in South Africa. Maxeke was the first black South African woman with a degree; a US university awarded her a BSc in 1901. In 1913, she led the women’s pass law marches. She was a founding member of the Bantu Women’s League and the AME Church’s Widow’s Mite Society, which contributed enormously to education. 

The African Choir 1891 Re-Imagined 

The African Choir 1891 Re-Imagined was first launched in Cape Town in December 2017 and there after at the Apartheid Museum on Wednesday 7 February 2018.

It connects the composers, Philip Miller and Thuthuka Sibisi (Tshisa Boys Productions) with the curatorial research led by Renée Mussai as part of Autograph ABP’s on-going Black Chronicles/The Missing Chapter archive research programme.

"It was amazing for me to work on; a dream project really. My musical education started at the Drakensberg Boys Choir, so I'm a choirboy as well. It became a way for to revisit my own personal history, and the greater history of my country, which needs to be retold." says Sibisi.

Together they form an artistic representation that humanises and gives voice to an important episode in both British and South African history, intimately linked to wider politics of empire, expansion and imperial narratives, and long unknown by contemporary audiences.

The Sound: The choir’s performances on tour were never recorded, although one of the concert programmes has survived. This has given freedom for the composers to re-imagine the repertoire. Working with fifteen young singers in a series of improvised and collaborative workshops in Cape Town in 2015, they recreated the original repertoire.

The reimagined choir work-shopped and recorded four songs from the original repertoire in a capella style. Rossini’s Cujus animam shifts across many genres, exploring the relationship of opera to choral music through barber-shop blues. A traditional Xhosa hymn juxtaposes male and female voices. Bokwe’s composition Ulo Tixo Mkulu is rendered and God Save the Queen shifts from a four-part harmony via a Norwegian improviser to a gospel and isicathamiya sound, with traces of imbongi praise poetry. A new soundscape called Footstamps was added.

"Our idea was to imagine a sound world of the voices for the choir which examines its relationship to the ‘silence’ of the photographs," says Miller.

The Photographs: The visual component comprises twenty large-scale framed photographic portraits of the original members of The African Choir, enlarged as modern silver gelatin prints from vintage nineteenth-century glass plates. Photographed in July 1891 by the London Stereoscopic Company, these glass-plates were recently re-discovered by Autograph ABP at the Hulton Archive (a division of Getty Images) after 125 years and first exhibited to critical acclaim in 2014.


This article is a compiled edited account based on the source material below.

Daily Dispatch 

University of the Western Cape - Centre for Humanities Research

The huffington Post

South Africa Today

Business Day

The Illustrated London News 29 August 1891

1.  Brackets have been employed to indicate offensive terminology and the appropriate word replacement.