James Hemans

Reading this week:

  • Ted Hood: Through Hand and Eye: An Autobiography by Ted Hood and Michael Levitt

One of my current pet projects is going through the Chronicle of the London Missionary Society and transcribing all of their articles relevant to the Central African mission. I realize that this blog is becoming more and more “interesting things I found in the Chronicle” (saving us, at the very least, from becoming exclusively a 3D-printing blog), but I think this project has a purpose. All the back issues of the Chronicle are in various places on the internet, and if you search the right terms various things will pop up on Google Books, but they aren’t really accessible to a casual internet search. This is especially true of the pictures, and I think it is important to put that stuff out there.

While that project is progressing (it’s gonna take a long time), I wanted to put some stuff out there about James Hemans and his wife, Maria. I have mentioned Mr. Hemans before, noting that I should do a deeper dive into that. This is draft #1 of that deeper dive. I went through all the issues of the Chronicle from 1887, when the Hemans are recorded as arriving in England from Jamaica, until 1908, when the Chronicle reported his death. This version is crude; I just did a search for “Hemans” in the PDFs, a technique that fails to capture each and every mention of them. This is why I’m doing the longer project and scrolling through all the issues by hand, to try to capture every mention and put ’em in a more easily searchable document.

Anyways, some background. James Hemans and his wife are notable for being Black missionaries sent to the Central African mission of the London Missionary Society. There is a short biography of Mr. and Mrs. Hemans here, which notes that they were not well treated by their fellow missionaries. The most significant chunk of biographical information on Mr. Hemans in the Chronicle (women in the Chronicle are largely ignored except as the wives of their husbands) comes from the June 1901 issue, which noted that he was “a son of West Indian negro slaves, and a child of the Society’s mission in Jamaica” (I want to make an aside to note I’m not endorsing the language or views of any of the quotes I present). The book Jamaica Congregational Churches provides some more background:

In September of the same year [1887] Mr. J.H.E. Hemans and Mrs. Hemans sailed from England on their way to Central Africa, Mr. Hemans having been appointed a missionary schoolmaster in connection with the L.M.S. mission on the shores of Lake Tanganyika. Mr. Hemans from early youth had a strong desire to go to Africa to labor for the salvation and enlightenment of his own race in its fatherland, but his way did not open until he had been trained and has served for several years as a teacher. This training and experience proved to be the best preparation for the important and successful work which, by the blessing of God, Mr. and Mrs. Hemans have done in Africa. Mr. Hemans was brought up in connection with the Davyton Church, and Mrs. Hemans with Four Paths, and they were married while Mr. Hemans was teacher at Porus, where he labored for four years previous to going to Africa. Our friends had a well-earned furlough in 1896, a few months of which they spent in Jamaica visiting the churches and telling the story of their life and work in the Dark Continent. They spent some time in England on their way back, and when Mr. Hemans wrote to our late beloved Queen and told her that he and his wife were children of slaves, whom Her Majesty had emancipated in Jamaica at the commencement of her reign, and that they were now engaged in mission-work among the natives of the extreme part of Her Majesty’s dominion in Central Africa, the good Queen could not refuse their request for an interview. She received them very graciously, and presented them with a large framed portrait of herself to take to Africa with them.

Jamaica Congregational Churches, pgs 14-15

A later passage from the same book notes:

For a long time Mr. Hemans had felt a strong desire to be a missionary in the African fatherland, and Providence opened the way for the realization of this longing. In the year 1887, the L.M.S. having communicated to our Union the willingness to accept one of our Jamaica colored young men for the post of missionary teacher in Central Africa, the Union felt no hesitation in selecting Mr. Hemans – the more so as Mrs. Hemans was a woman in every way likely to be helpful to her husband in this great work. They accordingly proceeded to England, followed by the earnest prayers of our churches. They were cordially received by the directors, and after a few months’ special training in educational methods were sent to the Dark Continent. We are glad to record that their career has been one of great usefulness and success. They are still laboring at Niamkolo, Lake Tanganyika, and it is our hope that they may spend many years of happy and successful toil. Would that more from our churches would arise to follow in their steps.

Jamaica Congregational Churches, pgs 82-83

There’s clearly a lot more to be learned about the Hemans if we dive into the Jamaica records, but that is far outside my wheelhouse, so I’ll have to leave that to others. Let’s dive into what the Chronicle has to say about the Hemans:

The first mention of the Hemans that I found was in November 1887 (pg 495), noting “Mr. J.H.E. Hemans, and Mrs. Hemans, from Jamaica, per steamer Don, at Southampton, October 15th.” Then, in May 1888, Mr. Hemans attended a prayer meeting. Finally, the first substantial chunk of info on them comes in the July 1888 issue (pg 341), where “welcomes and valedictions” were noted during a board meeting of the Society:

The Central Africa party was a strong one… special interest was attached to the departure of Mr. and Mrs. Hemans, negroes from Jamaica, who have volunteered for the work. They go out, having, it is hoped, as African by descent and constitution, special qualifications for the field. They will fill a responsible position, and upon the success or otherwise of the experiment thus tried much will depend. The Directors will follow them with great interest, not a little anxiety, and with much prayerfulness, and trust that the new departure will prove a wise and successful step…

They departed with the rest of the Central Africa-bound missionaries on the steamer Goorkha on June 2nd of that year. Mr. Hemans would have been 31. The next news, from the March 1889 issue (pg 83), relays the story of the group’s overland crossing to the lake, with a brief mention of Mrs. Hemans:

A letter from the Rev. T.F. Shaw tells of his safe arrival at Urambo on November 2nd. Mr. Draper and himself were in excellent health. Mrs. Shaw, during the latter part of the journey, had suffered much, but on reaching their destination at once began to improve. Mr. A.J. Swann also reports that on October 18th, he, and the party he had conducted from the coast, had reached Ujiji in health and peace. Dr. Mather, though still far from strong, was very much better. The journey was accomplished in three months and two days, and without the loss of a single package. The chairs for Mrs. Swann and Mrs. Hemans answered admirably, and proved an economical mode of transport. Both the ladies were as well as when they left the coast. The Arabs were glad to see him back again. No news of Stanley had reached them. The party were to cross to Kavala Island in the Alfigiri. Mr. Carson and Mr. Wright both send cheering news from Kavala Island. They were well, and, by medical work, teaching, and public services, were trying to commend the Gospel to the natives.

An update in June 1889 noted that the Hemans were bound for the Mission at Fwambo, and that “On the new station (Fwambo) Mr. Jones has carried on worship with his men, and has sought to make known the Gospel to the people of the neighboring towns. After the arrival of Mr. Hemans the erection of a school-house was at once begun.” In July it was noted (pg 234) that “The party of missionaries at Fwambo, the new station in the highlands, were all in excellent health. Mr. and Mrs. Hemans were delighted with the invigorating, yet balmy, air which, they say, resembles their native air of Jamaica.”

The Hemans’ aren’t pictured, but I think he might have helped build this house.

Having settled in, it seems to me that Mr. and Mrs. Hemans quickly became the most successful missionaries that the Central Africa Mission would see for some time. James seemed especially industrious, doing in his early days a whole lot of building, especially I think of schoolhouses, being a schoolteacher and all. Reading through the various reports, they were extremely popular and well-liked among the people the Mission was trying to convert, and their pupils were by far the best. The two would wind up in Africa for 18 years or so, a remarkable feat in and of itself when most of their Missionary fellows lasted a few years at most. In light of that, it makes it all the sadder that they were apparently poorly treated by the other missionaries. Strikes me as jealousy through and through.

At any rate, part of a letter from Mr. Hemans was published in the January 1892 edition (pg 12):

“In February, 1890,” says Mr. Hemans, of Fwambo, “I planted four quarts of wheat, which yielded about a bushel. The whole was again sown last February. The field was reaped two weeks ago, and we have got about 7 cwts. of clean wheat ready for use. Should a mill be sent out for the use of this station, the missionaries would, I believe, have no need of ordering flour. In fact the two stations could, without any difficulty, be supplied with the required quantity of flour. Wheat and potatoes thrive remarkably. Here, they seem to be in their element.”

I think that Kawimbi and Fwambo are the same place, though there is reason to doubt that.

By 1892, the Hemans had been transferred to Niamkolo, as part of a consolidation of missionary activities towards the southern end of Lake Tanganyika. A lengthy report in the October edition of that year (pg 228) mentions the work of Mr. Hemans a few times:

Niamkolo is of course on the borders of the lake. Some sixty miles south of the lake, on the highlands of the interior, is our newest Central African station. This is called Fwambo, or, since the permanent site of the Mission has been selected, Kawimbi. There again, in consequence of the shifting of the station a few miles to a more commodious site, the work has been to some extent checked, and building necessities have overridden everything else, but the missionaries have secured what bids fair to become a strong center. The Rev. D.P. Jones, who is in charge of the station, reports as follows:-

“The outdoor work of the station has been carried on chiefly by Mr. Hemans. We have done extensive building during the year, and I think I may venture to say that, both in strength and appearance, they are rather superior to any buildings put up by us hitherto, excepting, of course, as such as have been made of brick or stone.

“Including cattle sheds, outhouses, etc, as many as seven blocks have been erectred since January, each block of dimensions not less than 40 feet by 12 feet.

“Wheat-growing was also undertaken by us on a small scale, and with perfect success.”

Some particular praise for the work of Mr. Hemans, from the January 1893 issue (pg 15):

At Fwambo, the Rev. D.P. Jones has been examining his school, and found that only one scholar was able to give intelligent answers to Scripture questions, all the rest having a confused idea that the first man was made of a bone and found by the daughter of Pharaoh in the reeds, and that when he was a youth he killed a giant with a stone.

School work at Niamkolo, under the care of Mr. Hemans, is very encouraging. All the boys in the village are attending the school, and are now having three hours’ teaching every day instead of one hour only as formerly. On August 10th, Mr. Jones examined the school, and was exceedingly pleased with the result. The scholars gave ample proof that learning had become a pleasure to them.

In July a Sunday-school was started for “all comers,” and more than 150 put in an appearance. One night three lads called on Mr. Hemans and told him “that they found out that they were sitting down as fools, notwithstanding that they had been hearing of the love of Jesus; but they have decided to be so no longer, and wish to make known publicly that they are followers of Jesus.”

In November of 1894 (pg 264), there is a report about the missionaries’ attempts to make inroads with the Bemba people (here spelled “Awemba). A famine had struck, and the missionaries were hoping that an offer of aid would open up diplomatic relations. It didn’t go quite as planned, but the presence of Black missionaries intrigued Chief Ponde:

Under the dispensation of famine in the Aemba country, the missionaries at Niamkolo have been seeking entrance through a hitherto closed door. The Rev. W. Thomas and Mr. Hemans agreed to send relief and a promise of abundance of food if the people would send for it. The principal natives at Niamkolo entered eagerly into the proposal, and early in June a number of men started for Luemba with food. In going to Kitimkuru’s they would first have to propitiate his nephew, Ponde. The messengers returned just before the end of the month, accompanied by twelve of Ponde’s men, including his son and his headman or minister of war. The messengers reported that they had been very warmly received and kindly treated by Ponde and his people. He would not, however, allow them to go on to his uncle, on the ground that he had not been well pleased with the white men, though he went himself to show his uncle the presents he had received, to tell him about the missionaries, and of their desire to visit him. He was highly pleased to hear that two of the mission band (Mr. and Mrs. Hemans) were colored people like himself, and sent a direct invitation to them. The Rev. W. Thomas was absent on a visit to Ponde when Mr. Hemans wrote, and we trust he has had a successful journey.

In March of 1895 (pg 78), the Chronicle reports that the Hemans were transferred back to Fwambo as part of a shuffling of missionaries, but that his schooling efforts were going as well as ever:

The removal of Mr. Nutt to the new station has necessitated the transference of Mr. and Mrs. Hemans from Niamkolo to Fwambo. Mr. Hemans opened a school at Fwambo’s village with ninety-three children in attendance, and the number has daily increased, as has also been the case with the school at the head station. Upon the day on which he wrote (November 2nd) there had been 287 children at the former school and 153 (boys only) at the latter.

Also in 1895, the Hemans returned to England for a well-deserved furlough, arriving per steamer Tartar, at Southampton, October 16th. They were welcomed back at a board meeting on November 12th (December issue, pg 324), where “The Directors welcomed the Rev. E.S. Oakley, from Almora; Mr. and Mrs. J.H.E. Hemans, from Lake Tanganyika (accepting at the same time some of the first copy-books used in the Mission, and specimens of needlework).” Also that month, the Chronicle published a letter that had been addressed to the Foreign Secretary (pg 330):

“A Letter from Tanganyika School Boys”

When Mr. and Mrs. Hemans (whose reception by the Board is referred to on page 324) were about to leave their station the scholars at Kawimbe were greatly troubled. These colored missionaries had completely won their affection and confidence, and very earnestly did the lads plead that a substitute might soon be sent. In reply to their request Mr. Hemans suggested that they should write down what they wanted to say and address it to the Foreign Secretary of the London Missionary Society. At once they accepted the suggestion, and, retiring to the end of the school-house drew up the following petition, which we give in facsimile with a translation appended. Evidently Young Central Africa is getting on!

“Kawimbe, 5th January, 1895

“Master, – We want a person who knows to teach well like Hemans. We love Hemans because he generally tells good things to people and teaches well. We want a cheerful, loving, and faithful person. In days past we were in darkness alone, but now we are greatly thanking God, who has brought him, and in our hearts we are rejoicing.

“We are not angry with anyone – we love all; but we want a person who should come from Jamaica, like Hemans.

“We write these words on behalf of all the school children.”

(Signed) Kipapa. Ngolwe. Mwamba. Mauluki. Ndalambo. Mutale. Makiende. Kisimba. Kimvyamuti. Kisama. Kilalu. Musatwe. Kombe. Manyika. Kito. Simbwa. Mulinda. Kamimbi. Maliwanda. Tungo. Kizyemu. Swepa.

The Hemans were busy during their furlough, participating in various London Missionary Society events. They participated in a “Children’s Demonstration” (June 1896 issue, pg 126):

Favored by the sunniest Sunday for many weeks past, the Children’s Demonstration at Exeter Hall, on the afternoon of May 9th, was a record gathering in point of attendance. The large hall began to fill soon after three, and the young people waited patiently for the arrival of “notabilities,” just before four o’clock. A warm welcome was accorded the gaily-dressed missionaries, representative of nearly all parts of the Society’s field of operations; and the missionaries’ children, similarly arrayed, were voted prettier than ever. Very conspicuous and popular also were our friends, Mr. and Mrs. Hemans, from Lake Tanganyika. The huge map used at the September Convention was suspended from the roof, near the organ.

They also got to spend some time in Jamaica, where they did numerous fund-raising events (March 1897, pg 65):

It may be remembered that Mr. and Mrs. Hemans, who have done good service as school master and mistress at Fwambo, left England for Jamaica last May, to spend part of their furlough in their native land. While there they have been hard at work amongst the churches, not having indeed one free Sunday during their visit, which terminated at Christmas. Mr. and Mrs. Hemans have given numerous lectures on their work in Central Africa, illustrated by lantern slides, the proceeds of which have resulted in the sum of £22 7s. 2d. for the funds of the Society. Much interest and enthusiasm have been evoked by the visit of our friends, and they have been the recipients of several addresses, both of welcome and farewell. One of these from the Old Scholars of Whitefield School, Porus, with some forty signatures, stated, amidst many other sympathetic and congratulatory words, that “while England is proud of her Moffat and her Livingstone, Jamaica is proud of her Hemans.”

During that trip, Mr. Hemans got to visit his father, who unfortunately died three months afterwards. Also in 1897 (June, pg 137) was published an article about a Young Men’s meeting where the Hemans are mentioned. It says “Dr. Parker referred to Mr. and Mrs. Hemans, who were seated on the platform, as living illustrations of what the Gospel can do for the world, and added a humorous reference to their audience with the Queen two days before.” I just wanted to say that sounds like Dr. Parker was a bit of a dick to the Hemans right in front of everybody, with at the very least a backhanded compliment.

By May of 1897 they were getting ready to head home. A report of a May 25th board meeting published in July (pg 148) notes “Mr. J.H.E. and Mrs. Hemans, who are returning to Central Africa to resume school work, which they have already done so thoroughly well.” During their second stay in Central Africa, the Hemans’ garnered less mentions (that I found) in the pages of the Chronicle, though it does note some nice things. After mentioning in the 1898 issue (February, pg 46) that the latest batch of missionaries had arrived safely, another newly arrived missionary was making a favorable note in the February 1901 issue (pg 41):

Mr. Draper and Mr. MacKendrick reached Kawimbi on September 22nd, and received a very hearty welcome. At the Sunday morning service, conducted by Mr. Hemans, there were over six hundred natives present. Mr. MacKendrick was appointed to work at Niamkolo. After being there for more than a week, he writes: “The more I see of Niamkolo the surer I am that good and lasting work can be done here. I have been much impressed with the work of Mr. and Mrs. Hemans. Indeed, so far as my experience goes, I have no hesitation in saying that this is the best mission station I have visited since coming to Africa. The school is attended by about 120 children at present, and some of the work I have seen would be no disgrace to any of our English schools up to the third or fourth standard. On the first Sunday, although the people were packed like herrings in a box inside the church, there were over two hundred left outside. The following Sunday it was just the same. In the afternoon I baptized four women, and there are others waiting for baptism.”

The final substantial note came later that same year in the June issue (pg 131), with the mention (partially quoted in the beginning):

Mr. Thompson went on to say that the Directors regarded the development of industries as a matter of very great importance among such people. It had, therefore, been a very great satisfaction to get from men quite unconnected with the mission most kindly expressions of satisfaction with their efforts in this direction, and to find that a number of native youths were already useful and profitably employed as carpenters, sawyers, bricklayers, etc. Mr. Hemans, a son of West Indian negro slaves, and a child of the Society’s mission in Jamaica, had given special attention to agriculture, and had rendered great service to the community at large by introducing improved and new varieties of vegetables and fruit. The Foreign Secretary stated that on the previous Friday he had received from Mr. Hemans an excellent sample of raw sugar produced by the mission. “I hope we have heard that last of giving up the Central African Mission. The new century has begun under the shadow of death, but the prospects of the work are brighter than they have ever been.”

In 1906 (April, Pg 96), the Chronicle notes under its departure announcements: “Mr. J.H.E. Hemans and Mrs. Hemans, returning to Jamaica, on their retirement from work in Central Africa, embarked at Bristol, per steamer Port Kingston, February 23rd.” Then, in 1908 (October, Pg 200), again under announcements: “Deaths – Hemans. -At Hampton, Jamaica, James H.E. Hemans, late of Central African Mission, in his 52nd year. (By cable dated September 4th.)”

That marked the end of the mentions of Mr. and Mrs. J.H.E. Hemans that I could find in the Chronicle. As I go through my project of transcribing the Chronicle, I’ll find more, and I skipped a lot of mentions of regular monetary contributions that the Hemans’ made to the Society. They were really dedicated to their work, and remarkably effective, spending over a third of their lives in Africa. As reflected back in my Mama Meli update, they seem kind and beloved by the people they worked with. If their colleagues mistreated them, that is a helluva stain on their record. Maybe some of this information is useful to other researchers trying to tell their story. Thanks!