Johannes Theodorus van der Kemp (b. May 17, 1747, Rotterdam – d. December 15, 1811, Cape Town) was a military officer, doctor and philosopher who became a missionary in South Africa.
The second son of Cornelius van der Kemp, Rotterdam's leading reformed clergyman, and Anna Maria van Teylingen, he attended the Latin schools of Rotterdam and Dordrecht. He subsequently enrolled at the University of Leiden in 1763 where he studied medicine, but when his elder brother Didericus was appointed as professor of church history he abandoned his studies.
Van der Kemp joined the dragoon guards and fathered an illegitimate child, Johanna (‘Antje’), whom he brought up himself. In 1778 he fell in love with Christina (‘Stijntje’) Frank (d. 1791). He lived with her for a year before being reprimanded by the Prince of Orange on this irregular state of affairs. As a result he both married Stijntje, on 29 May 1779, and quit the army.
Returning to his medical studies again, this time in Edinburgh, he completed his Medical Doctorate within two years. He also prepared for publication a treatise in Latin on cosmology, entitled Parmenides which was published in 1781. He returned to the Netherlands, where he practiced as a doctor first in Middelburg and then near Dordrecht. On June 27, 1791, his wife and daughter Antje were drowned in a yachting accident from which he only just escaped. As a result of this incident he experienced an emotional conversion back to the reformed Christianity of his family.
Van der Kemp served as a medical officer during the revolutionary campaigns in Flanders and then as hospital superintendent at Zwijndrecht, near Dordrecht. Whilst there in 1797 he came to hear of the formation of the London Missionary Society.
After making contact with the London Missionary Society, Van der Kemp helped found the Dutch version, Nederlandsche Zendinggenootschap. He was ordained in London in November 1798 and began recruiting men for the society. He sailed from London in December 1798 as one of the first three agents sent by the society to the Cape colony in South Africa, arriving in March 1799.
Whilst there in 1799, Van der Kemp published the first work in book-form in South Africa, which was an 8-page translation, into Dutch, of the London Missionary Society's letter that he brought out to the inhabitants of the Cape. Printed by V.A. Schoonberg most likely on J.C. Ritters press.
Once in South Africa, after working at Gaika's Kraal near King William's Town he journeyed beyond the eastern frontier of the colony to work among the Xhosa under Chief Ngqika. From the Xhosa he received the name Jank' hanna (‘the bald man’). War between Cape Colony and the Xhosa soon drove him back and from 1801 onwards he worked exclusively within the colony, mainly with dispossessed Khoikhoi. In 1803, he established a mission settlement for vagrant Khoikhoi at Bethelsdorp where local farmers accused him of harboring lawless elements. He countered with a list of alleged ill-treatment of the Khoikhoi by local farmers, but the evidence proved unsatisfactory and the farmers were acquitted.
On April 7, 1806, Van der Kemp married Sara Janse, a freed slave 45 years his junior, and had four children with her. This situation and his attitudes caused great opposition from within the colony, and he was for a time ordered by the government to leave Bethelsdorp.
Armed with a background in European and classical philology, he pioneered in the study of Xhosa and Khoikhoi languages.
Van der Kemp was recalled to Cape Town by the Governor in 1811 and died soon afterwards.
Sarah Millin, one of the most popular English-language novelists in South Africa during her lifetime wrote The Burning Man about the life of van der Kemp. The life of Johannes van der Kemp during his mission in Bethelsdorp is included in the novel Praying Mantis by André Brink.