Building the SS Good News, Part 2

Kavala Bay, looking toward the mainland with the SS Good News steaming in the background, from Hore’s book.

Reading this week;

  • Tropic of Capricorn by Henry Miller

Continuing our story from last week, we pick up with Swann’s description of building the SS Good News:

Major Dates:

  • Launched: December 1884
  • First Voyage: 5 May 1885
  • First Steam: 7 September 1885

Whilst I was lying on my back beneath the steamer, hammering up keel rivets, an inquisitive native edged up to me and asked:
“Is this vessel not all iron?”
“Yes,” I answered, “Why do you ask?”
Picking up a washer, he beckoned me to the river, and dropping it in, said: “Do you see that?”
“No! I don’t,” I replied. “How can I?—it’s out of sight.”
“Yes, it is; but what I meant was, do you see, it sinks”
“Of course it sank; it’s iron.”
“Well!” he exclaimed, pointing to the steamer. “If such a little piece of iron sinks, how do you expect that big lump will swim?”
He thought he had cornered me. “Look here, old chap,” I said, “just you wait until this moon dies, then come here and help us put her in the river, and you will see her swim; at present you must take my words and believe them, for they are true.”
He looked at me and whispered, “You are right. She will not sink, because if the whole tribe tried they could never carry her into the water; she’s too heavy! No, she will neither sink nor swim!”

With this parting shot he left me. He was soon to learn that necessary lesson which must be taught all primitive people—that a white man speaks the truth. Grease for the launching ways had to be procured from hippopotami, some of which will yield several bucketful’s of fat when in good condition. Many a day’s exciting sport was enjoyed hunting these valuable creatures, especially when the pursuit was followed in canoes, for you can never be certain their great carcasses won’t come up suddenly under the canoe, disturbing its equilibrium; and there was always the danger of crocodiles joining in the hunt… We were extremely glad to hammer up the last rivet and launch the Good News into Tanganyika.

I did not forget the old sceptic, who stood amongst the crowd of natives watching the iron vessel swimming. Making my way up to him and touching him on the shoulder, I asked, “What about the lump of iron swimming now?”
He was not to be cornered quite so easily as I imagined. Looking straight into my eyes, and scornfully pointing to the vessel, he answered: “You put medicine [magic] into it!”
The reply was extremely disappointing. I had hoped to impress on him, and others, the fact that our word could be relied upon. We wanted to win their confidence. “Look here, old man,” I said. “Never you mind whether there is medicine in it or not. I told you it would float. Does it?”
“Yes, it does,” he answered; “and I’ll believe anything you tell me after this!”

Edward Hore:

All the [Africa Lakes] Company’s stations, from Karonga’s to Quilimane, were choked with our Good News material and with necessaries for the F.C.S.M. stations. The missionaries on those stations were kept very short of supplies already, in consequence of our Good News business requiring all the Company’s transport capacity.

[In December 1884] the hull of the Good News was so far completed as to be ready for the launch.
At the shipbuilding yard in the Lofu River the combined technical skill and organising tact and determination of our brethren there had surmounted every difficulty, and made a brilliant success of the launch of the Good News on the 3rd March. On the 13th Mr. Swann arrived in the Morning Star [to the Missionary Station] to give us the details of that interesting and most important achievement, the floating of our vessel, the subsequent completion of which has enabled us literally to “take possession” in the Lord’s name of this beautiful inland sea, Tanganyika.

Now that the hull of the vessel was afloat, enabling her to be completed anywhere… this meant, of course, we might just as well be in the place selected as the permanent locality of our department, where we could at once complete the Good News, serve the stations, and secure proper shelter and comfort for ourselves. The place long before selected for that purpose was Kavala Island, where I had deposited my wife and child, and where, when the hull of our vessel was afloat, it was decided to remove her for completion and the establishment of a permanent station…

Kavala is one of a group of islands off Uguha, and about six miles from Mtowa in that country. It is about three miles long, and from half a mile to a mile across, with a fine deep bay on the landward side forming a harbour. In form it is a long irregular hill rising out of the lake, with deep water all round, and nearly a mile distant from the adjacent coast of Uguha. Its position in the length of the lake may be clearly seen on the map. Its form, and the nature of the soil, make it healthy, and it is well ventilated by the lake winds; being, in fact, at sea, whilst, being an island, it is free from the effects of warlike disturbances or attacks of wild beasts. Half an hour or an hour in a native canoe takes one to the mainland, where, in a richer but less healthy soil, the natives of the island have their larger plantations.

On the 18th April 1885, I sailed for the Lofu River, where I had the great joy of seeing our vessel afloat. Mr. Roxburgh, although really very ill, was in wonderful spirits at the successful issue of his work. Mr. Swann had packed all our property and prepared the Good News for her first trip. The vessel herself being the mere shell, without deck, fittings, or rigging, was now entirely under jury rig, consisting of two rough poles for masts secured by temporary framework: the big lateen sail forward, and another one aft. I also had sixteen long sweeps to work on poles temporarily fixed along the vessel’s sides, and stability was secured by a good load of the heavy stores and shipbuilding materials. Although temporary platforms were rigged over the vessel, she was still practically an open boat. I had confidence, however, in my knowledge of the lake, the nearly certain occurrence of strong fair winds to make a passage, and the paddles to put her into port, and was therefore, notwithstanding some anxiety, able with intense gratification to feel my beautiful vessel for the first time rise and fall upon the bosom of the lake, and “turning about whithersoever I listed.”

Bidding farewell to Messrs. Harris and Brooks, we sailed out of the Lofu River on the 5th May. Mr. Roxburgh was with me in the Good News, and Mr. Swann sailed the Morning Star as tender and escort. First giving us a tow out into deep water, he sailed away to make a call for mails at Karema, and then to proceed to Kavala, and there cruise about to give assistance or tow us into harbour. A strong fair breeze, however, gave us a quick and safe passage. At 5.30 P.M. on the 7th we were close to Kavala, and after a vigorous pull up with the paddles, anchored in our own harbour at 6. The arrival of the great white hull of the Good News was a great astonishment to the Kavala people; she was indeed “a big ship ” to them, and every one crowded to the shore to gaze… Mr. Roxburgh, however, was quite worn out with his rough life and continuous hard work; he had in no way spared himself, and now, the excitement over, he was suffering.

During the voyage he still kept up, but as soon as we reached Kavala he seemed much worse with decided dysentery. Rest, better accommodation and food, and all the assistance we could render, served only to prolong his life for a few more days, and on the 18th he died. We had at least the satisfaction of feeling that we had been able to make his last days a little more comfortable; all of us who knew him bore testimony to his faithful work, and felt assured that he had so lived that for him to die was gain. To his patient toil and superior skill the solid workmanship of the sides and frame of our good vessel is due, besides other good work about our boats and houses, wherever his skill could be applied. Over his grave we erected a fitting memorial made of one of the steel plates similar to those of which the Good News is built.


A few more days sufficed to rig up jury-masts on the Good News, as we had to sail her up north to home depot. Hore had now returned, and he took command, whilst I piloted the Morning Star. It was a grand race up the lake with the monsoon. In the darkness we parted company, and dropping mails at the French station of Karema, we bowled along, shaping a course for home. We were making a record passage, but on rounding the cape we saw the Good News had outrun us, having arrived some hours previously. James Roxburgh, our engineer, who before he came to Africa had turned the mighty shaft in Glasgow for the ocean liner Orient had completed his last task. Bravely he battled against fever month after month. The excitement of his work kept him going, but shortly after the Good News dropped her anchor in port for the first time, he “crossed the bar,” dysentery completing the mischief of malaria.


Two more voyages, having received the last lot of material from the African Lakes Company on 26th September, were made in bringing away our property; the Calabash, on the 17th November, being the last boat to arrive. Some of her crew had the smallpox, and we were obliged to put her in quarantine, in a little bay a mile off, until the men had recovered. The Calabash, no longer seaworthy, was beached; the last of her timbers coming apart as the Good News was ready for service.

We continued till July of 1886. The entire lining and internal fittings, the deck, upper works, and rigging, the boiler and machinery of the Good News still remained to be put together and attached to the hull; the masts were yet growing somewhere on the forest slopes of the lake shore. Some fittings (lost on the Nyassa route) were only now coming to us from Zanzibar. The last stores by Nyassa had only just arrived. Month after month Mr. Swann worked in the shed at the ironwork, while I worked on board, superintending, meantime, the erection of workshops, boat-sheds, and houses, and the making of roads; dropping our tools at intervals for a voyage to Ujiji with and for the mails, generally taking it in turns. Then the dry dock was built; trees were cut on the opposite shore for the masts and laid down to season, and gradually the Good News grew in beautiful detail.

On 7th June, the dry dock being completed, the vessel was placed in it and a good job made of cleaning her bottom and repainting; thus thoroughly testing also the efficiency of the dock. On the 28th the mainmast was put in, then the mizzen-mast, and by the end of the month the rigging was set up and the vessel practically complete as a sailing vessel. The cabin fittings and other things for comfort and appearance still left some months of work, thus short-handed and busy with many affairs. Mr. Swann had gone to Niumkolo in the Morning Star to fetch Mr. Carson, who came out by the Nyassa route. They arrived at Kavala on 4th July, and right glad we were to see and welcome our new colleague in such good condition as he arrived. A house was ready for him, and this was the case for each missionary who arrived at Kavala. Five days after, the riveting of the boiler commenced, Messrs. Carson and Swann working together for nearly two months at this, the heaviest of the work, made heavier and more difficult in that the dome part, originally riveted at home, had been separated at Nyassa for easy transport.

The Good News was afloat, decked, masted, and rigged; an ample engineer’s workshop erected, with shears and other arrangements all standing ready for manipulating the boiler, the plates and rivets of which were ready, but for which the technical skill of an engineer was so desirable in order to make a superior finish, when Mr. Carson arrived to us, who so ably and well completed this part of our vessel’s equipment.
Mr. Carson had finished refitting the engine, and now we had the very interesting if somewhat difficult work of putting the boiler into the vessel. Shears were made with trees we had cut on the mainland, and rigged up by help of the chain cable and anchor ; and by rendering the boiler buoyant with tight air space and other parts plugged with pithwood, it was floated to its place under the shears and safely hoisted on board. On the 7th September steam was got up, and with all our party on board we made a short trial-trip out into the straits. It was a time of great and thankful rejoicing with us as after many days we found ourselves steaming out on the waters of Tanganyika at last in our beautiful vessel, now practically complete in all essentials. Every plate and plank of her has a history, and every rivet a story of months and years of labour only known to a few. The complete and beautiful vessel herself has before her, we trust, a long and eventful life of useful service to the glory of God and the extension of His kingdom.With the completion of the work of my own special department—the building, equipment, and establishment of the Good News as our perfected means on the lake of support, transport, mails, and of intercommunication—I began to feel the effects in my own person of these years of work and anxiety.

On the 12th September we sailed in the Good News on her first voyage to Kigoma (a spacious harbour on the east side of Ujiji), where we met our caravan from the coast and loaded up. Visitors, both Arab and native, flocked to Kigoma to inspect this new wonder, and on this voyage I felt that the crowning event of ten years’ work was achieved; nor would I grudge one of those days of hardship or difficulty that might in any way have been instrumental to this end.

Another voyage to the south, taking back Mrs. Jones and the remainder of goods, and a voyage to Ujiji, completed in this year (1887) nineteen voyages made by our boats: altogether over 4500 miles, of which 1100 were done under steam.