The Stevenson Road

Crudely Cropped Map

A crudely cropped (sorry Lake Rukwa) map of the Nyasa-Tanganyika Plateau and the Stevenson Road (in black); better version available here.

The Stevenson Road is a neat little piece of history that is pretty intimate with the overall history of Mbala. The Stevenson Road was a road that ran from the north end of Lake Malawi (then Lake Nyasa) to the southern end of Lake Tanganyika. It went through Mbala (then Abercorn), helping to make Mbala the major center in the north of British southern Africa.

The intrigue behind the construction of the Stevenson Road is detailed in the paper “Commerce, Christianity, and the Creation of the Stevenson Road,” and the history of the road is intimately tied with the London Missionary Society and of course my favorite ship from the area, the SS Good News. The road was the brainchild of James Stevenson and James Stewart. Stevenson was a Glasgow manufacturer and a donor for church activities in Africa. Stewart was a civil engineer working in Africa at the time. At the time, the main route to get to Lake Tanganyika was to travel overland from Dar Es Salaam on the coast to Ujiji, a town towards the north end of the lake. This route was controlled by the Arab traders (in this area, really Muslims of African descent). One of the major tasks of the London Missionary Society was to combat the slave trade controlled by these traders, though this was also the major route for ivory in this area. The major impetus for Stevenson and Stewart, however, was to create a route free from Arab control with which they could steal away the ivory trade.

Stewart and Stevenson approached the London Missionary Society in order to secure early customers for their road until they could take over the ivory trade from the Arab traders to the north. Stevenson offered the Society a large donation in exchange for help building the road and an exclusive contract to carry Society goods to their missions in the Lake Tanganyika area. The London Missionary Society was reluctant to agree to give up the Dar-Ujiji route because they had a successful mission along that route. However, another potential donor, Robert Arthington, had offered a donation contingent on the Society launching a steamship on Lake Tanganyika. The Society was a bit fed up with all these donations that came with conditions, they saw a solution to both their problems by agreeing to launch a steamship, and telling Stevenson that they would transport the ship via the new Nyasa-Tanganyika road. This ship was, of course, the SS Good News. With an early cargo guaranteed over the road, Stewart and Stevenson began construction.

The Stevenson road route, besides drawing business away from the Arab traders, had some other advantages. From the mouth of the Shire river on the Indian Ocean to the top of Lake Tanganyika, it was possible to traverse 1400 miles into Africa with only 275 miles of it overland via the Stevenson Road. This route was plied by the Livingstonia Trading Company of Central Africa (who’s first chairman was James Stevenson), which changed its name to the African Lakes Company when construction of the road commenced.


The Dove, a ship of the African Lakes Company that plied Lake Nyasa and the Shire River; picture from Rhodesiana Vol 33.

The route, as far as overland central Africa travel went in those days, was pretty okay. As described in “The Nyasa-Tanganyika Plateau,” the plateau is covered with a thin scrub jungle, with grass 4 or 5 feet high growing between trees 12 to 15 feet high. It is not sufficiently thick to prevent walking in any direction” (this is still pretty true). The plateau was usually billed as having less disease than more low-lying areas, and the reviews on this are mixed, with that same article noting more sickness than usual when the author went through (1899), but also noted that several Europeans had lived there for many years without suffering too much for it. The big advantage of the plateau was the lack of tsetse fly. On the Dar-Ujiji route, the presence of tsetse fly prevented the use of draft animals, therefore requiring the use of porters.

Stevenson Road 1899.jpg

Stevenson Road near Saisi, from “The Nyasa-Tanganyika Plateau.”


Modern-day look at one of the better preserved stretches of the road near Mbala.

The history of the Stevenson Road seems pretty short. The Good News was the first major cargo over the road, transported in 1884. Ten years later, in 1894 it was still (as detailed in “Commerce”) in large chunks hypothetical, but had helped determine the northern border of Rhodesia, which paralleled the road to the north. Around that same time the British South Africa company was laying a telegraph line across the entire length of the African continent, following the Stevenson Road for part of its route (Rhodesiana Vol 33). There’s no solid timeline for its disappearance, though it seems it fell out of use when the British South Africa company managed to connect its holdings to the south to the holdings in this area.

Not a whole lot of the road still remains today. The general route is still in use from Lake Malawi to Lake Tanganyika, so portions of modern-day roads probably go over or parallel portions of the original road. According to the director of the Moto Moto Museum in Mbala, the best-preserved stretch of the road near Mbala is a portion that leads to the Mutabilike Cemetary just north of the town (this stretch pictured above). Mpulungu has taken over from Kituta Bay (the bays are next to each other) as the major port on the south end of Lake Tanganika. The upswing of that is although there is a modern, paved road leading into Mpulungu, the road into Kituta Bay is still, I suspect, the same dirt road that was the end of the Stevenson Road back in 1884. Since Kituta Bay is the modern-day resting place of the Good News, I think it all ties together quite nicely.


End of the Stevenson Road at Kituta Bay, Lake Tanganyika.