The Portuguese and the Missionaries: A Battle for the soul of Nyasaland

This entry is part 5 of 9 in the series History of Malawi

With the withdrawal of the ill fated Universities Mission to Central Africa, a curtain of silence fell over the Lakes region behind which the work of the slave trade was left to proceed largely unmolested. Livingstone’s appeals against the trade had not gone unheard in Britain, but ten years would pass before he would be replaced as a British Consul in Moçambique, and twenty years more before the last line of captives would be marched to the coast from the Lake. In the interim the region belonged almost exclusively to the Portuguese and the Arabs.

In the case of the Arabs, by the closing decades of the 19th century their purely commercial empire was drawing to a close. There had never been any particular effort made during their centuries long involvement in the Indian Ocean trading axis to conquer or claim territory for its own sake, and Islam remained largely a phenomenon of the coast and coastal people, and to some small degree inland along the main routes of commerce.

The Portuguese, on the other hand, although they did not appear on the surface to differ much in this regard, felt in their interest in east Africa a soaring imperial ambition. For want of opportunity and capital, however, this tended to remain theoretical. Its nature, broadly speaking, took the form of a desire to link the two principal Portuguese African possessions of Angola and Moçambique into a single, vast protectorate that would. This in effect would throw a collar around the girth of the continent and would prevent any British movement north from the Cape, or indeed south from the equator. Thereafter the Portuguese could, at their leisure, select what they wanted of the continent, which, in the idle muse of this gargantuan dream, was probably all of it.

The first blow to this gargantuan dream came with the 1652 landing at the Cape of a small flotilla of three Dutch Ships under the command of Jan Van Riebeeck. This  rather small but nonetheless defining event signalled the beginning of the Anglo/Dutch occupation of South Africa. It also brought to a sudden end a long held but idle Portuguese notion that, since it had been Portuguese mariners that had pioneered a route round the Cape, the entire southern extremity of the continent belonged to Portugal. From that point on Portugal would be disabused of many similar assumptions, culminating in a crisis between London and Lisbon over the territorial boundary between Moçambique and, in the first instance, Rhodesia, and in the second Nyasaland.

During what was termed the ‘romantic period’ of European involvement in Africa – that being the age of exploration that belonged to such giants as Livingstone himself, the great central African rivals Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke, and others such as Henry Morton Stanley and the great Franco/Italian Pierre Savorgnan Brazza – the principal interest in Africa had been commercial, and the principal commercial interests tended to take the form of slaving depots and forts that did not venture to claim territory or penetrate too deeply into the interior. This static situation was enlivened by the activities of explorers who lived and died, usually the latter, in a quest for personal glory, an almost pathological patriotism and a desire to lay national claim to important geographic discoveries. Less self serving were the many missionaries who died in equal numbers pressing the case of humanitarianism in the midst of the humanitarian catastrophe that was the slave trade.

The event that more than any other brought the romantic period to an end was the first claim to a significant colonial territory in central Africa on the part of Belgium King Leopold II. Portugal contested this claim, which led in part to the Berlin Conference of 1885, where a series of quid pro quo agreements were reached between other European rivals who had become also caught up in the monstrous land grab later to be known as the Scramble for Africa. In 1875 only about a tenth of Africa lay under European rule, but 25 years later far less than a tenth of it was not. Much of this land grab was in pursuit of prestige colonies taken to enhance national standing and to ensure that other competing powers did not. While Portugal withered on the rump of Europe, and could compete neither in militancy, capital or bombast, she lacked none of the hankering for prestige, and became suddenly aware that the cherished ambition of centuries to dominate Africa was about to be crushed in the mad rush after 1985 for African territory.

It was a source of some irritation to the Portuguese when Dr. David Livingstone appeared in Quelimane in 1856, having completed his epic crossing of the continent from east to west, but more importantly claiming to be the first ‘European’ to have done so. In fact the journey had been completed between 1802 and 1811 by two Portuguese half cast pombeiros who, as bona fide Portuguese citizens, claimed the right to be regarded as European explorers. Livingstone’s haughty rejection of this claim was an attitude that was not uncommon in regard to Portuguese enterprise in Africa, and was one of many reasons why the Portuguese were particularly sensitive to the fact that what they lacked in imperial power they more than compensated for in seniority. Livingstone was seen, on behalf of the British,  as attempting rob the Portuguese  of territory and trade, which was not an altogether unjust suspicion. As a consequence Livingstone made very few friends amongst the Portuguese, and generally held them in very poor regard. He was nonetheless bound to retain a certain diplomatic peace for the sake of free access in an out of the Zambezi mouth.

In fairness it was not by the 1850s obvious to anyone the extent to which the Portuguese had already defined and abandoned many of their administrative boundaries in east and west Africa in an age when other European powers where still wholly absent from Africa. The Portuguese had penetrated from Moçambique and Angola throughout the entire region of Zambezia, and in the matter of undocumented commercial, religious or military expeditions, they where without doubt the masters of African exploration. As Livingstone took his first steps into history during the mid 1850s, he could not have known, and could scarcely have believed if he had been told, that the Portuguese had already been there and beyond long before he was born.

Whatever else the Portuguese might have thought, and however deep Livingstone’s personal delusion, the Doctor’s wonderings through Africa were attracting attention, and served to alert the Portuguese to the fact that their days of considering coastal occupation as tantamount to territorial possession where fast coming to an end. By the close of the 1870s it had become clear that Portugal was required to either develop her colonies, and thus clearly define her spheres of influence, or stand to loose most of her African hinterland to other emerging powers.

This in part introduces into the narrative one of the great African explorers of the period, whose name, Alexandre Alberto da Rocha de Serpa Pinto, is in itself evidence of the grand but impoverished nobility that Portugal sought to protect. Serpa Pinto, as he was more commonly known, was a youthful alumni of the prestigious Colégio Militar of Lisbon, and later officer of the Portuguese Army. After his involvement in a series of military campaigns in the Zambezi valley during the late 1860s he conducted a detailed exploration of the catchment, and later another that led a party from Benguela in Angola to the Congo basin and the headwaters of the Zambezi River. Then, partly in response to the general lack of recognition offered to Portugal in the field of African exploration, the Sociedade de Geografia de Lisboa was formed in 1875, and through a special Africa committee, the task of invigorating Portuguese interest in Africa was undertaken and a series of exploratory expeditions to Moçambique and Angola were sponsored.

The most famous of these was the Capelo-Ivens-Serpa Expedition, which, although not entirely defined in purpose, set off in 1877 with a white manpower compliment of Major Serpa Pinto himself along with two naval captains, Hermenigildo Capelo and Roberto Ivens, to explore, and no doubt to lay moral claim to, the territory lying between Angola and Moçambique. Serpa Pinto, however, was a individualistic character and did not fare well in the company of his fellow explorers. In due course he parted company from his companions for reasons never wholly explained, and instead of the proposed exploration, followed the course of the Zambezi River until he reached the Victoria Falls, and then, turning south, continued through Matabeleland and South Africa until he eventually ended up at the South African sea port of Durban. This was an unassisted journey of some  3 500km, a spectacular achievement, that won him rousing acclaim in Portugal, but some circumspection elsewhere. David Livingstone, it was said, had conducted the same journey through the wilds of Africa, and not through the relative civilization of South Africa, as Serpa Pinto had during the last, and in fairness, the inconsequential leg of his journey.

Capelo and Ivens, meanwhile, remained in the shady hinterland lying between Moçambique and Angola, that area currently straddling the borderland of Zambia and Angola, and conducted a thorough survey that was well received for its geographic data if not for the heroism that the Portuguese were starved for. The two later completed the by now familiar continental crossing, confirming, it was hoped, a route between the two colonies that would even further reinforce Portugal’s claim. In the meanwhile Serpa Pinto was engaged on the east coast in attempting to define the boundaries of Moçambique as far west as was practical. Later he was commissioned to enter the southeast Niassa region for the purpose of securing treaties and signatures of fealty from as many local chiefs as possible.

Meanwhile, and despite stringent decrees issued by the metropolitan government, the slave trade continued almost unabated in Moçambique, both as a social and as an economic institution. In both instances the matter remained largely in the hands of the Prazieros, another institution peculiar to Moçambique, and one which was by its proliferation something of an admission that effective administration of the ill-defined colony had, and remained, beyond the capacity of the authorities in Lisbon to achieve.

Mainly operating within the Zambezi Valley, Prazieros where in effect feudal estate owners who, although paying superficial obedience to the Crown, in reality existed largely beyond the recall of Imperial authority. The practice can trace its origins to the late 16th century when individual Portuguese soldiers and merchants infiltrated into the interior via the conduit of the Zambezi River, finding as they did opportunity to extend and exert private influence through sub-rulers and vassals of the paramount leader, the Mwane Mutapa. The subsequent accumulation of land grants and the acquisitions of slaves tended to translate in this simple economy into personal power. In the absence of any defining administration to shape and contain this, the Prazo fraternity developed a code of ethics and a series of individual power bases that allowed them to exist and function independent of both imperial and native government.

By the time the metropolitan authorities in Lisbon did attempt to establish an effective administration over the territory it was found that the Prazieros had become a significant power unto themselves. Collectively they dominated both the native political leadership and the colonial administration, the latter being forced to accept their existence, and indeed their rise to power, more or less as a fait accompli. Prazieros were empowered to impose and collect taxes and tribute, usually in the form of ivory or gold, but often also in the form of slaves. Occasionally they raised armed levies that where employed to influence many of the petty wars and uprisings that afflicted local and paramount leaders. By the dawn of the 1800s there were very few amongst the Prazieros who maintained any definitive Portuguese identity, with most appearing to be of Indian, Goan and black extraction, with varying limited amounts of European blood evident here and there.

Various attempts were made during the 18th century to bring the Prazieros to heel, all of which failed, and perhaps in no small way because the Imperial Government periodically found it necessary to enlist Prazo influence and force of arms in the settlement of native disputes or to put down invasions and uprisings. It was not until the 1890s that the Prazo system, reduced somewhat by time and circumstances, and although hardly broken, was modified to better serve the proposes of a contemporary and developing provincial economy. It goes without saying that even at that late stage that economy, and thanks in large part to the effective commercial factoring of the Prazieros, was in the business of slaves.

The slave trade in its humdrum, day-to-day, industrial nature was both morbid and morally atrophying to those people who lived and worked with it, and certainly by the mid to late 19th century this had become the case in Moçambique. Any perception that the routine of slave factoring was conducted by automatons who were characterised by a general lack of feeling punctuated by savage cruelty and violence is probably wrong. In any instance where a captive population falls under the unregulated influence of simple people, and in particular those accustomed to applying terror as a tool of control, instances of  sociopathic behaviour are inevitable, but in the main all that can be expected is a certain dehumanisation and a moral apathy that ultimately will result in a greater degradation being absorbed by the oppressor than the victim. After several hundred years of this it is hardly surprising that, overwhelming the few aristocrats who tried to maintain their own social standards as one might expect, the majority of colonists had given up the search for gold or silver inland and had settled for a life on the coast clearing and processing slaves. These slaves were brought in from who knows where, and by any who cared to, be they black, white, mixed or Arab.

Thus much was said and written about the complete and utter moral vacuum that seemed to characterise the Portuguese colonial character. One whose pen composed despatches and observations of particular vilification was David Livingstone. In the matter of his particular bête noire, the Portuguese involvement in the by then illegal slave trade, Livingstone was merciless. It was this general perception of a debased and morally bankrupt Portuguese colonial administration that served the purposes of many besides Livingstone who sought to rob the Portuguese of any claim, genuine or not, to  territorial influence over areas that for centuries they had with good reason assumed was theirs.

Obviously the Portuguese did not introduce slavery to the east coast, and certainly they were not the only Europeans to profit from it. The phenomenon predated them by many hundreds of years. It was simply that they were unable to wean themselves off the habit once the colony had developed an economic dependence on it, and in this regard Portuguese administrators at the time, and historians since, have tended to be quite sympathetic.

These were people who had often been in the territory for a very long time, particularly in the case of the Prazieros, and who felt that they were simply responding to the realities of African life. Even Livingstone was forced to admit on occasions that there were no foreign power more integrated with the local people on a sexual and familial level than the Portuguese, hence the fact that pure Portuguese blood tended not to survive very long in the colonies. Slavery in the area also had some very curious anomalies, and again it was Livingstone who recalled one particular instance that muddied the moral definition of slavery and caused him to scratch his head in a state of considerable vexation. A certain slave whom Livingstone met in the settlement of Tete told he and his companions that:

…he [had] sold himself to Major Sicard, [Governor of Tete] a notoriously kind master whose slaves had little to do, and plenty to eat. ‘And how much did you get for yourself? They asked ‘Three thirty yard pieces of cotton cloth,’ he replied: ‘and I forthwith bought a man, a woman, and a child who cost me two of the pieces and I had one piece left.’[1]

Whatever Livingstone may have felt about the slave trade, in a lifetime of toil he was unable to stop it. His consistent prescription was for the combined forces of Christianity and commerce to enter the region in order to undercut and introduce a viable alternative to the dominant trade in humanity. It had been this that had underscored his plea to the Cambridge Union, that had in turn then set in motion the melancholy enterprises of the Zambezi Expedition and the Universities Mission to Central Africa. With the deaths of the main members of the Mission, and the recall of the Zambezi Expedition, it seemed that a tacit understanding had been reached by all involved that total eradication was simply not possible. The inherent unreliability of the natives to act in accordance with their own best interests, the dangers to a white man’s health of the natural environment, and the sheer logistical difficulties of effective penetration seemed to render the notion moot before it had really been tested. Above all else, the turpitude of the Portuguese seemed to prove that nothing could be achieved by the white man in central Africa but his own moral decay.

This did not mean that the matter was closed. Far from it. A much more powerful momentum than the entreaties of a lonely missionary were building over the horizon. This had much to do with the internal competition within Europe, and the pressure for markets, and indeed for the moral and intellectual expression nurtured by the Industrial Revolution. Livingstone’s legacy was not irrelevant to this, far from it. Moral justification was then as now the catalyst for much temporal endeavour, and if there were many in Victorian England genuinely fulminating on the past and present misuse of the natives of the world, there were many others who saw this as an ideal pretext to throw many more under the yoke, and to exact a system of exploitation that was legal, but no less damaging and pervasive than the slave trade.

The UMCA had not died on the banks of the Shire River. It had simply withdrawn from the  Highlands to the island of Zanzibar from where it based a number of probing ventures inland to try and reclaim the lake from the east. After the bitter collapse of the Zambezi Expedition Livingstone learned the lesson that the Lord moved in mysterious ways, and from that he drew the conclusion that his work was to open the way for others to follow, and not to build structures and create monuments the purpose and motivations for which stood to be misconstrued. The remaining years of his life were lived exploring the inner reaches of Africa in the company of a handful of native retainers, and without the support or interference from the countrymen and peers that he had tolerated so poorly. In the great tradition of his times he seemed to do best in solitary endeavour, armed with the weight of his own belief and unchallenged by any who could claim to be his equal. He had been derided in the years since the debacle, and had cried out in response that he never courted fame. All he had wished was that his faith and righteousness inspire his fellow man to come forth and strike down that malignant evil that was eating at the heart of Africa. In the uniquely unforgiving way of a media consuming public, meanwhile, the accolades that had been heaped on him as the greatest living explorer were withdrawn, and he was now being seen and portrayed as eccentric, self serving, deeply anti-social and somewhat untrustworthy. ‘We were promised cotton, sugar and indigo,’ vented the Times, ‘…and of course we got none. We were promised trade, and there is no trade.’[2]

In the order of things, however, and as a means more than anything to get back to Africa, he accepted a commission to search in his particular region for the source of the Nile. He drifted into delusion and sought answers to biblical conundrums that only by happenstance answered one or two geographical questions. By the time he died he was the subject of more great adventure than he undertook. Henry Morton Stanley, Welsh/American journalist and self-publicist, established his reputation as an explorer in his search for Livingstone, after which the great doctor was largely forgotten until his body suddenly appeared on the coast of east Africa. From there it was reverently transported by sea to England. The legendary Doctor was again remembered for all the good that he had done, and was interned in the floor of Westminster Abby on 18 April 1874, with the best that British pomp and ceremony could muster. Thereafter the Victorian public began to publicly ponder his achievements, after which it sought at last to give substantive recognition to them by the continuation of his work.

It followed then that the region of the Lake and Shiré Highlands found itself once more at the centre of public debate in Britain. The times were perhaps more accommodating of great adventure overseas than they had been in the decade prior, since by then the age of exploration was drawing to a close, and the last blank areas of the map of Africa were being filled. Slowly matters of control and administration were taking over from the lonely voyages of men like Livingstone, and the industrial revolution was backing up a steady emigration of adventurers and pioneers to the colonies. The first to take up the baton was an erstwhile bitter detractor of Dr. Livingstone, and one whose visit during the closing stages of the Zambezi Expedition had done more than any other to reveal its staggering implosion and its ultimate irrelevance.

Towards the end of the Zambezi Expedition the Rev. Dr. James Steward, a weather beaten and sinewy man, with features pinched and narrow, but open and kind also, had arrived on the Zambezi on board the Hetty Ellen. His role had been that of escort to Mary Livingstone and the other ladies who had arrived to take up their positions alongside husbands and brothers at Magomero. In the weeks that followed he remained a fervent admirer of Livingstone, but after a short while, with the Doctor at his wits end, and moreover at his most abusive and truculent, Stewart returned to the Cape muttering that he hoped he would never have the misfortune of meeting Livingstone again. And yet, less than a decade later, and after the sombre spectacle of Livingstone’s funeral had imprinted itself on his mind, it was Stewart who was to be found most earnestly petitioning the General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland to re-establish a mission on the shores of Lake Nyasa.

The matter was adopted and discussed at some length in the Assembly before being agreed upon with one proviso: that the man chosen to undertake the work be one in every respect familiar with the region. Thus it was that the first steam vessel to enter on to the great lake arrived in October of 1976 under the command of a certain Lieutenant Edward .D. Young, and also under fair omens it seems. ‘It was a lovely morning,’ Lieutenant Young later recalled, ‘…and with a gentle breeze our beautiful craft rode over the swell as the great blue waters of Nyasa received the first steam vessel that had ever entered into an African lake.’[3]

Young, the former captain of the Pioneer, a Livingstone loyalist, and perhaps the only man available at that time with the will, skill and experience to fulfil the requirements of the job, travelled in the company of a certain young cleric and doctor by the name of Robert Laws. Laws was on loan from the United Presbyterian Church, and was destined to become one of the leading figures in the strange secular/spiritual administration of faith that would pass for government in the highlands for the next two decades. The ‘beautiful craft’ was the Ilala, a steamer named after the district in present-day northern Zambia, in the region of Lake Bangwelu, where David Livingstone had died.

The Livingstonia Mission was rather hastily sited on the western shore of Cape Maclear, slightly west of the point of drainage of the Shiré River, and in an area one supposes attracted the attention of men mainly looking for a population in need. Despite the promising initial aspect of wooded hills, a sandy beach, and not least, accommodating natives, the site was to prove unhealthy, and in due course would be moved to Bandawe, midway up the western shore, and then finally, some 20 years after the initial siting, to its present day site of Livingstonia on the north-western shore of the lake. The two missionaries then set about a comprehensive exploration of the inland sea, for although during his earlier voyage Livingstone had believed that he had as good as plotted the position of the north shore, he calculations proved to be shy by some distance. Now, with the facility of the Ilala, and the necessity to gauge the degree of pastoral need on either shore, the two arrivals set off to complete Livingstone’s work.

In the meanwhile others with a similar interest in colonising the spiritual vacuum of Nyasa were preparing to plant the seeds of a second mission in the vicinity of the Lake. It was co-incidental that the Ilala, as it slowly made its way north up the east shore, passed within 70 miles of the third UMCA Bishop, Edward Steere, who was attempting to make his way east from Zanzibar along the line of the Rovuma River. Steere did not succeed, however, but turned back at the slave-ridden village of Mataka, forestalled by conditions, and by the duplicity of local leaders who had no interest in the economic decline that the suppression of slavery would precipitate. He died shortly thereafter in the midst of a secondary exploration.

In the interim, approaching more conventionally up the Shiré River, came a party from the Established Church of Scotland. These newcomers avoided the obvious mistake made by Young and Laws, and positioned their mission in a more populated area of the Shiré Highlands near Chiradzulu, and named their site Blantyre in recognition of the place of David Livingstone’s birth. It was this mission, under the leadership of the Reverend Duff Macdonald, that set the tone for the brief ecclesiastical administration of the area, which occurred by default, and in the absence of any secular administration that could be deemed functional or acceptable.

All this considered, it is curios that a culture of intolerance and brutality seemed to take root at Blantyre very quickly, explained usually by those with a charitable reason for doing so as a reaction to the brutality all around, and the necessity no doubt to act in accordance with local custom. Little effort was made to proselytise among, or administer medical care to the predominately Muslim Yao. And in the maintenance of law and order Macdonald tried and imprisoned natives accused of murder or theft, flogging many, and, in at least one incident, ordering the execution of an accused native, without thorough investigation.[4] This raised many questions regarding the pacifism of the Christian message, further undermined by the interdenominational bickering of the very few whites in the district who could hardly, by dint of their colour, escape general scrutiny.

Nine years later the third of the triumvirate of Christian missions made its late appearance. The attempts of the UMCA to strike directly west from its base in Zanzibar had delayed its arrival on the lake, but it did position it midway up the east shore and in the direct line of passage of the slave carriers heading east. After a punishing journey inland from the coast, two young clerics by the names of William Percival Johnson and Charles Jansen climbed the series of low ridges that form the leading catchment of the Rovuma River, and separate the lake from the coastal plain and near the little shore town of Lupilichi strolled out of the cover of low deciduous woodland, down the wide sandy beach, and to the warm waters of the lake itself. The moment was a triumphant one, not least because it rewarded with success a gruelling six month march from the coast, but because it signified a return to the lake of Mackenzie’s pioneers, and a vindication of the work and deaths of the men and women whose graves lay scattered along the banks of the Shiré and Zambezi Rivers.

On 9 February 1882 the two companions flopped down on a shady patch of sand and opened a bottle of champagne that they had carried inland to celebrate this moment. Jansen had been ill with dysentery for some time, and was weakening, and the omens were ill too when the bottle was uncorked found to be spoiled. The pair had set off from the coast in March in the midst of the rains, and although by September the weather was cooler and dryer, the damage had been done. Although Jansen lived to see the waters of the lake, he died within a few weeks of depletion and fever and was buried on the shores of the lake.

There is value here in a brief scrutiny of the missionary experience of his surviving companion for the light that it sheds on the trials and difficulties of life in the isolation and uncertainty of wild Africa. It without doubt took a rare breed of individual to detach him or herself from life in the civilised quarters of Europe, or such domains as the Cape, where Anglo/Saxon Christian values had been successfully grafted, and where there existed as much predictability as Victorian life could offer.

Those like Livingstone could be accused of vanity in desiring to work ‘beyond another man’s line of things’, and their eccentricity and individualism found them deserving of the unpleasant fates of hardship and disease. But for others who did not seek fame or glory, or to lay to rest questions of geography, but merely travelled in the simple faith of mission to improve the lives of a race that they knew nothing about, and owed even less, these were remarkable people. It could be said of the planters and capitalists that followed later that they came in search of wealth, but this could not at all be said of the missionaries of the likes of William Johnson.

The journey west from Zanzibar that had claimed the life of Johnson’s only white companion was in itself was not unusual for the time. These missions, and African travel in general, carried with it an astonishing mortality rate. Longevity was not a fact of life in the field of African endeavour, and in fact it was expected that newly arrived convict colonists on the coast of Moçambique had on average a nine month to a year life expectancy. Malaria had yet to associated with the anopheles mosquito, and although quinine was the accepted panacea, no one knew exactly why, and neither was it universally effective. Jansen had been suffering miserably for some time, and weakened by the journey, it seems that he simply faded away. ‘Our brother fell asleep…’ wrote Johnson piously, ‘…on Shrove Tuesday at noon.’[5]

The stoic courage with which Johnson faced this setback can be explained by more than just the fortification of the spirit of God. It was also that sense of patriotic endeavour that flavoured much of the momentum of the times, and was evident in many instances of blind courage in the face of rationale, in futile but heroic death, and in the routine acceptance of phenomenal risk for the sake of uncertain returns. Men like Livingstone, who through his life suffered bouts of malaria numbered in the hundreds, or Bishop Mackenzie, who suffered far fewer, but died a lonely and isolated death with as few real converts to show for his life as had Livingstone. It was a highly capricious undertaking, slipping beyond the Pale in trackless Africa, at the mercy of natives of uncertain temper, and at times a man might even subject his family to this uncertainty. On less direct level, even some of the great capital adventures of the times were underpinned by a subtle vein of social awareness. For example in the life’s work of Cecil John Rhodes of British South Africa Company fame, or that of Sir George Goldie who founded the Royal Niger Company, was evident a philosophy that transcended mere commerce, epitomised by Rhodes himself who defined it admirably as ‘philanthropy plus five percent’.

So naturally Johnson did not allow himself to be diverted, but took the death of his companion in his stride, and turned to face the lake alone. A thing of great beauty it was without doubt, but more potently it was the vision given to him by a God whose existence he did not doubt, and whose bidding, be it life or death, had a meaning both profound and inescapable.

An odd character by all accounts, Johnson was not by any means physically attractive, with a bird like appearance, and even more so a stork like manner that gave him the deliberate air of a creature in contemplation of something in the shallow depths. As described by colonial historian Dr. Oliver Ransford, he was: ‘…mystical still in his attitudes, pellucid in his simplicity, and sometimes reciting his bemused wonder at finding himself a legend in his own lifetime.’[6]

That legend would mature only after some 40 years of toil in the service of the UMCA, for the time being, however, he set about the business of isolating a site for the new mission, and after two years or more of tramping up and down the lakeshore he finally came to the conclusion that he would conduct his mission from a boat. This, he reasoned, could be kept aloof from the malodorous airs of the shore and from the wild Angoni who still  represented a real threat. He could moreover reach more people from a boat in the initial phase of introducing the population to the gospels of Christ, with a view later to drawing them into a life of Christian devotion and education.

Upon this he left the region and made his way to England where he put his proposal to the UMCA Committee, and in due course was on his way back with a steamer packed up and stowed in sections for later portage and assembly on the lake. At the mouth of the Zambezi the craft was unpacked and re-stowed on a river steamer for transport to the foot of the Shiré Cataracts, and from where it was to be carried in sections to the lake. En route, however, Johnson contracted a kind of virulent conjunctivitis that he ignored until such time as he was blinded and forced to leave others in charge of the conveyance of the steamer in order to return home. After several months confined to a dark room, and an operation to construct an artificial pupil that restored very limited vision to one eye, he returned to the lake, took command of the Charles Jansen, and commenced the ministry that would consume the remainder of his long life. In the high blown language of the time the official history of the UMCA heralded the moment thus:

Verily the powers of evil had fought hard for the possession of this land, but in vain; and on January 31, the twenty-fourth anniversary of Mackenzie’s death Mr. Bellingham wrote from Likoma to say, ‘We have the good news to tell you that the Charles Jansen arrived safe with all on board on the 22nd.’[7]

In due course Johnson’s mission found a permanent home on the island of Likoma, situated a few miles off the east shore, and midway up the lake. There the fourth Bishop of the UMCA, Bishop Charles Alan Smythies, and the Reverend G.H. Swinny established the second permanent Universities Mission to Central Africa. Johnson himself died in 1928, Archdeacon of Nyasa, and after 52 years of selfless service to the UMCA.


[1] Mackenzie, Rob. David Livingstone: The Truth behind the Legend, (Fig Tree, Chinoyi, 1993), p207

[2] White, Landeg. Magomero: Portrait of an African Village, (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1987), p74

[3] Ibid. p133.

[4] Rotberg, Robert I. The Rise of Nationalism in Central Africa. The Making if Malawi and Zambia, 1873-1964, (Harvard University Press, Cambridge MS., 1972) p7

[5] Anderson Morshead, A.E.M. A History of the Universities Mission to Central Africa : 1859 – 1896, 1897, p148

[6] Ransford, Oliver. Livingstone’s Lake, 1966, p149

[7] Ibid. p152

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