Uncovering the story of John Nzipo, the Zulu man who spent 3 years at a residential school

In the student register of the Shingwauk residential school in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., from 1892, one word breaks the sequence of “Ojibway,” “Delaware” and “Iroquois” listed beneath the heading for tribal affiliation:


The word is found in the entry for a 22-year-old student from Africa named John Nzipo.

Nzipo was likely the only non-North American Indigenous person ever enrolled at a residential school in Canada, according to researcher Edward Sadowski, who has been trying to piece together Nzipo’s story.

The Zulu are the largest Indigenous group in South Africa. The Zulu Kingdom battled the British in 1879 in what is known as the Anglo-Zulu War. The British eventually won the war and broke the Zulu nation, helping to strengthen the colonial power’s dominance in the region.

Nzipo’s journey from South Africa to London, and then to northern Ontario, is scattered across residential school records, Anglican Church newsletters, and in the writings of philanthropist Thomas Barnardo, the founder of the London-based charity Barnardo Homes, which sent Nzipo to Canada.

A photo of John Nzipo published in 1898 in Up and Down magazine, which was published by the Barnardo charity’s Toronto branch. (Library and Archives Canada)

Sadowski said these fragments tell part of the story of a young man who ended up destitute on the streets of London after leaving his home in Africa, and whose charm led him to a residential school across the Atlantic.

Nzipo’s story is part of the history of residential schools that has been shrouded by the passage of time. Piecing the story together is part of the effort to get a clear view of one of the darkest chapters in Canadian history, Sadowski said.

“It’s part of the reconciliation process currently underway in Canada. It’s just another step.”

‘I was shocked’

Sadowski said word that a Zulu student had attended Shingwauk had been floating around since the late 1970s, but little was really known about Nzipo.

Sadowski, a former political science professor at Algoma University in Sault Ste. Marie, first came across Nzipo’s name in residential school records in the early 1990s. He was working with the Shingwauk Project, a cross-cultural research initiative headed by the Children of Shingwauk Alumni Association and Algoma University that sought to collect and preserve the history of residential schools.

His research with the Shingwauk Project unearthed residential school documents that helped many survivors obtain compensation under the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement by proving they attended the schools.

Sadowski said he felt a personal connection to his past in Nzipo’s story.

He’d worked for the Mozambique Press Agency in the mid-1980s and was selected by Ottawa to be part of a UN electoral observer team in Mozambique in 1994.

During his time working in the southern part of the continent, he travelled throughout South Africa. As the team prepared there for its monitoring work in neighbouring Mozambique, South African President Nelson Mandela stopped by to offer words of encouragement.

“That’s why it stuck with me. I was possibly in some of the places where John was in South Africa,” said Sadowski, who lives near Sault Ste. Marie.

He has been collecting records from the Anglican Church archives and Library and Archives Canada to build a picture, though still incomplete, of Nzipo’s journey across the ocean and back again.

Edward Sadowski looks at the Shingwauk school register in Bishop Fauquier Chapel on the school site in Sault Ste. Marie, now part of Algoma University. (CBC)

South African High Commissioner to Canada Sibongiseni Dlamini-Mntambo, herself a Zulu, said she was surprised to find out about Nzipo.

“My first impression was, ‘Oh, there was a Zulu person here.’ I was shocked. I was really shocked.”

Based on Sadowski’s research, it appears Nzipo was taken in by Thomas Barnardo’s charity in March 1887. Barnardo wrote in his charity’s magazine, Night and Day, that Nzipo arrived in London with several other young people from abroad.

“Any destitute boy and girl, of whatever nationality, who finds itself upon the streets of London without a home may apply to our doors for help,” Barnardo wrote. “During the month of March 1887 three boys from Constantinople were admitted … together with an interesting Christian lad from Syria; with John Nzipo, a Zulu, and Thomas Watt, a half-caste from St. Helena.”

Bernardo set up his first home for destitute boys in London in 1870 and it grew into a network of homes in the U.K. The charity had approximately 300,000 children pass through its doors during the first 100 years of its existence. It is still operational in the U.K.

During his stay, Nzipo impressed his caretakers. His conduct was described as “exemplary.”

They were so impressed, in fact, that in August of the same year “he was allowed to volunteer for emigration and was included in the party then leaving for Canada,” according to an 1898 profile of Nzipo in Up and Down magazine, which was published by the Barnardo charity’s Toronto branch.

Nzipo was among roughly 30,000 children and young people sent by Barnardo’s charity to Canada — primarily to institutions linked with the charity in Toronto — between the 1880s and the late 1930s. Many of them ended up working on farms or as domestic help, while others were adopted by families.

Nzipo ended up in Gravenhurst, Ont., about 180 kilometres north of Toronto, where “he became well known to the Clergyman of Gravenhurst and through him to the Bishop of Algoma,” according to the profile in Up and Down magazine.

The Bishop of Algoma arranged to have Nzipo attend Shingwauk, which would have required the approval of the Indian agent, Sadowski said.

Indian agents were powerful bureaucrats who had control and authority over all government programs dealing with Indigenous Peoples.

3 years at Shingwauk

Nzipo entered Shingwauk on Sept. 13, 1892. He spoke English and was able to read at a Grade 4 level, according to the student register. Residential schools sent their register to the federal government in order to secure operating grants and clothing allowances for students.

Nzipo’s home was listed as Zululand, Africa. The 22-year-old’s entry was found below that of a 10-year-old boy named Arthur Noah from Moraviantown, Ont., whose tribal affiliation was Delaware.

An excerpt from the Shingwauk school’s register from 1892. (CBC)

While there are few details available of Nzipo’s time at the school, Sadowski said he would have attended chapel several times a week and twice on Sunday, along with the other students.

Sadowski suspects Nzipo also would have dug the graves for students who died while at the school, because Ottawa wouldn’t pay for burials.

“According to the record, there were three students that died while he was here,” he said. “He would have helped out digging the graves because he was a young man at the time.”

There are few first-hand accounts from residential school survivors who attended the institutions during the era Nzipo was enrolled at Shingwauk. However, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which was created to delve into the history of the institution, found that the existing record from that time did reveal strong themes of “the loneliness, the isolation, the hunger … the harsh discipline … disease, and death that haunted many schools.”

Anglican missionary E. F. Wilson, who led fundraising efforts to found the Shingwauk school and became its principal, included a chapter on “Runaway Boys” in his memoirs and mentioned three boys who tried to escape by boat, only to be found 10 days later stranded on an island in Lake Huron. After 1894, children enrolled at residential schools who ran away or refused to attend were considered “truant” and could be forced to return to the institutions under the Indian Act of the day, according to the TRC.

‘A musical voice’

The TRC report released in 2015 found that most first-hand accounts from the era came from memoirs, magazine articles and biographies. In Nzipo’s case, a report in Algoma Missionary News provides a brief snapshot of one particular night in his life at the school.

Nzipo was a leading performer during an “Indian Concert” held at Shingwauk that was described in detail by the Algoma Missionary News, the “official organ of the Diocese of Algoma,” on Jan. 13, 1894.

“John Nzipo, the Zulu, gave ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade‘ in full uniform, which he had collected piece by piece from the various wardrobes of the Shingwauk,” Kathleen Sullivan wrote. “Nzipo has a musical voice and recited with much expression, retiring amid thunders of applause.”

The Charge of the Light Brigade was a poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson about a famed and failed British military manoeuvre during the Crimean War in 1854.

John’s story is the story of a person who was a victim of cultural genocide.– Researcher Edward Sadowski

Nzipo also performed a duet with an Ojibway girl named Josie Matthews, singing The Spanish Cavalier and Bye and Bye, You Will Forget Me.

“It was a queer combination, Ojibbewa and the Zulu, but their voices blended harmoniously and quite brought down the house,” Sullivan wrote.

Nzipo also performed in a play that served as the final act of the concert.

“It had no beginning and, apparently, no end. Nzipo was evidently a schoolmaster and for him entered various grotesque figures and Nzipo proceeded to call the roll which consisted of such names as, ‘Stovepipe, Turnip, Monkey, and Muski,’ the boys’ name for muscle,” wrote Sullivan.

“They went for a long time. But it ‘took,’ and the applause that rolled up to the roof would have satisfied the most exacting tragedian. Then ‘God Save the Queen’ was played.”

Letter from home

In a student register from 1895, Nzipo is listed among the students who left the school that year. It noted that Nzipo was 25, attended the school for three years, was sponsored by the Church of Ascension, an Anglican church in Toronto, and that his home was Matikula Kraal, Zululand

There were several 20-somethings who left the school that year, including Joseph Sampson, 25, a Potawatomi man from Walpole Island First Nation in southern Ontario, who attended the school for 9 ½ years, and James Fox, 23, a Delaware man from Middlemiss, Ont., who was supported by St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, Ont.

In 1898, three years after he’d left Shingwauk, Nzipo returned home to do missionary work in what is known today as the province of KwaZulu-Natal. He was sponsored by “mission workers” in Toronto, according to the 120-year-old profile in Up and Down magazine.

The profile was titled, An Old Friend in a New Light, and included a letter Nzipo had written from Isandlwana in April 1898. This was the area where the British had suffered their worst defeat during the Anglo-Zulu War in 1879.

In his published letter, Nzipo said he spent some time in Chicago, where he’d suffered from rheumatism, before travelling home, landing first in Durban.

“I not very much like Zululand for the present time, but my heart is great faith in the people [sic],” he wrote.

Nzipo wrote that his mother had died four years earlier and that his father was also dead. He said he had brothers and sisters in the area and had sent someone to tell them that he was home, but he had yet to see them.

He wrote that he was teaching children basic school subjects like reading, math and geography at the “Isandhluana College.”

“My head is aching every day since I began teach in Isandhluana, on cause of the boys’ dullness; when I teach the Indians, I not find such a difficult [sic],” he wrote.

Nzipo complained that he wasn’t being paid for his teaching and had confronted the bishop about it. He wrote that the bishop told him the work was not about money, but about God.

“All people work for their society; they work for God [sic],” he wrote.

Nzipo said the bishop was considering sending him to teach in Swaziland.

“But I not settled about it,” he wrote.

This is the last record of Nzipo that Sadowski has discovered.

“His record sort of dies at this point,” he said.

‘Cultural genocide’

Sadowski said one of the things that intrigues him about Nzipo is that he experienced colonial systems designed to eradicate Indigenous culture on two continents. In both places, in broad terms, colonial powers subjugated the Indigenous population and used the education system as a means of control and assimilation.

“It would be important [for Nzipo’s family] to understand what happened to John,” he said. “John’s story is the story of a person who was a victim of cultural genocide.”

Dlamini-Mntambo said mission schools run by the Anglican and Catholic churches, like the one where Nzipo taught, were the first to set up Western-style education in South Africa, as part of the colonization process.

South African High Commissioner to Canada Sibongiseni Dlamini-Mntambo, herself a Zulu, said she was surprised to find out about John Nzipo’s story. (CBC)

During her travels in Canada, Dlamini-Mntambo has spoken to Indigenous representatives who described Canada’s treatment of Indigenous peoples as a form of apartheid and believed South Africa copied Canada’s reserve system when it set up its Bantustan system in the mid-20th century, she said. However, she’s unsure you could make a direct link.

“In South Africa, it became its own monster,” she said.

She was particularly struck by Nzipo’s description of teaching First Nations children compared to Zulu children. She said that Nzipo returned home and appeared to reflect the attitudes he likely experienced from his superiors at Shingwauk onto his own students.

“What makes me curious … why would he make that comparison? What made him think it was more difficult to teach back home?” said Dlamini-Mntambo

Sadowski said he plans to travel to South Africa this year to meet with former colleagues and try to track down Nzipo’s family in hopes of learning more about him.

He also wants to give them a photo of Nzipo and share the documents he’s gathered.

Dlamini-Mntambo said the last name “Nzipo,” which means “nail,” isn’t a common Zulu name, so it might be fairly easy to track down his descendants — many of whom could be concentrated in a specific region.

“Once you find someone who has an idea, they may be able to point you in the right direction.”

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