The above link will let you download the first installment of a project where I might have bitten off a great deal more than I can reasonably chew. As the title suggests, it is a transcription of every article in The Chronicle of the London Missionary Society relating to their Central African Mission from the years 1876-1880.
The Chronicle is of course a particular favorite of this blog. As you may be aware at this point, I served as Peace Corps Volunteer in Zambia’s Mbala District from 2017-2019. I find the history of that area absolutely fascinating. A huge part of that is probably of course my personal connection to the area, but it also represents a crossroads of a complex array of different historical crossroads that I love to uncover. I’ve only come across it (relatively) recently, but The Chronicle of the London Missionary Society has been a really interesting resource to learn about a lot of the history of the area.
As you’ve gleaned from the title, The Chronicle was the monthly publication of the London Missionary Society, detailing its missionary efforts around the world. One of those worldwide efforts was what they dubbed their Central African Mission. There were a lot of different missionaries in a lot of different locations in Africa, but the missionaries in the area that would become Mbala District were representatives of the LMS. As The Chronicle documented the efforts of the Central African Mission for the benefit of its readers and the patrons of the LMS, it provides a glimpse into the area as the first Western missionaries and colonialists arrived, usually with first-hand reports. Therefore, it provides some of the earliest accounts of the people and areas that I would live in nearly a century and a half later.
One of the advantages of The Chronicle is that it is all available online, via Hathitrust, Google Books, and the Internet Archive. However, those resources can be hard to use. Despite the power of text recognition these days, the automatic text recognition in the files you can download online is not great. This makes it hard to search for things within them. Also, despite the power of the various search engines, the pictures from The Chronicle don’t show up when you search for the topics. This keeps a lot of really interesting information buried unless you painstakingly scroll through every issue.
What I therefore wanted to do is painstakingly scroll through every issue, extract all the pictures, and transcribe the text by hand. My goal here is to make the information far more easily available online to the casual researcher, like I was back when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer living in a mud hut just trying to learn more about the history that surrounded me. When I got the bright idea to do this, I pondered idly how far I should go. Should I stop at WWI? WWII? But then I got started.
I haven’t exactly been working on it full-time, but doing the first five years has taken me months. And these people were wordy. My end goal is to have a final consolidated document, ideally with some useful timelines and an index and a table of contents, but I have decided in the interim to release the results in five-year chunks. This is to make the project more manageable and to start getting things out there in the world. If or when I get the final version out into the world, it is going to be massive. The first five years, 1876-1880, have clocked in at 138 pages and over 81,000 words already. It’s supposed to be impressive that Hunter S. Thompson typed out The Great Gatsby, but that novel is only 47,000 words.
Despite my enthusiasm for getting out these first five years, I want to warn readers that it will not be a perfect document. I tried to be constantly proof-read as I typed it out, but I didn’t go back and check my work or anything, so there are probably errors. I was also in the process of making some editorial decisions I haven’t settled on yet. In the final document, I think I would like to standardize and modernize all the names, to again make it easily searchable for the casual researcher. Even in these five years the editors at The Chronicle had a few different spellings for some of the same people and places. That would still be a monumental undertaking once this thing is all done, again just because how long it is. One decision I have already made is that I Americanized all the spellings, but only because I am American and couldn’t be bothered to change the version of English on my spell-checker.
There is also some necessary editorializing to just pick out the articles relevant to Central Africa. Some articles are only tangentially related to Central Africa, and sometimes I left those out, but sometimes I added extra when there were interesting details about the Society’s finances, for example. They also have (tautologically) every year their Annual Report, which is both generally incredibly wordy and also only specific passages will pertain to Central Africa, so when I include those passages they’ll seem potentially disjointed. I also always skipped the individual donations noted in The Chronicle, though sometimes if you read into them they contain hints of very interesting stories. Despite trying to be painstaking, I might have missed something that could be important.
I am comfortable making these changes because I don’t intend this to be authoritative; my vision is that it will allow people to find articles and pictures useful to their research, and then they can use the year, month, and page numbers that I noted to go back to the source material and pull their information from there. If you find this document useful, I would be absolutely delighted if you let me know by uh, I can’t think of a less cringey thing to say than “by posting a comment below.”
It is important to say that I don’t endorse what the missionaries were trying to do. Missionaries and colonialism are big complicated topics, and fundamentally these people were going to Africa with the goal of totally upending a people’s religion and way of life. I value this resource because they do try to document a lot of the life there, even if their perspective is biased. Clearly, their language is going to sometimes be far from kosher, and even as they refer to some of the people they meet as friends their default assumption is that the people they are coming to proselytize to are “dark and degraded.” However, we are intelligent historians, and it is possible to understand the missionaries from their perspective without endorsing their beliefs as our own.
That is the project I am trying to undertake. But in the first five years of the London Missionary Society’s Central African Mission, what happened? There may have been earlier mention of the idea in The Chronicle, but I started in 1876 because that was when the earliest serious rumblings about a mission started. The most important impetuous was a conditional donation by one Mr. Robert Arthington of £5,000 (about $800,000 today) if the LMS would undertake a mission on Lake Tanganyika. From the start he wanted them to put a steamer on the lake, but that would still take a while to come.
The Directors of the LMS decided to undertake the mission and sent out Rev. Roger Price to investigate what would be required. Reading between the lines of The Chronicle, I think the LMS had a few mixed motivations for undertaking the mission. As a non-profit organization, they were always looking for funds, and the offer of £5,000 could not be turned down lightly (though the organization would feel a squeeze within a few years due to the expense of supporting their new mission). There was of course also a keen missionary zeal. It’s an organization run by and for people who liked to go out to the far corners of the world and preach, and so any new field held an enticement for them. I also think there was a bit of a missionary scramble for Africa, with the LMS winding up on Lake Tanganyika because choicer spots on Lake Malawi (then Nyassa) and closer to Zanzibar had already been taken. Nonetheless, out they went.
With a favorable report from Rev. Price, they soon dispatched the newly minted Rev. Arthur W. Dodgshun along with Revs. J.B. Thomson, and E.S. Clarke. They also sent lay members Edward C. Hore and Walter Hutley. They departed England from March to May of 1877. The next longest chunk of time would be spent just getting to where they were going. The Chronicle details in uh, detail, the monumental trials to get themselves and all their stuff overland to the Lake. Their vision was to set up a mission station about halfway between Zanzibar and Lake Tanganyika and another on the Lake itself. By the time they realized the beginnings of that vision, Revs. Thomson and Dodgshun would be dead. Central Africa was stunningly deadly for the missionaries that went there. At one point, in a crunch for missionaries willing to reinforce the remaining men after the losses, the Society’s Foreign Secretary Dr. Joseph Mullens volunteered himself to go. The Directors were reluctant to let him go, but I think this was a case of a man wanting to relive his glory days. As it was, he too died before ever seeing Lake Tanganyika.
By the end of 1880, however, they had successfully set up mission stations at Urambo, Ujiji, and across Lake Tanganyika at Uguha. Apart from the original cohort, the mission had been supplemented by Revs. William Griffith, A.J. Wookey, and David Williams, along with Dr. Walter Palmer and Dr. E.J. Southon. For me, the story really gets exciting towards the end of 1880, because our favorite mariner Edward C. Hore had taken an excursion to the southern end of Lake Tanganyika, where he talks about my main man Tafuna and my good friend Chief Zombe. There were also further rumbles from our mysterious man behind the scenes, Mr. Robert Arthington, who was offering another £3,000 to accelerate the project of putting a steamer on the Lake.
Disappointingly, only two pictures relating to the Central African Mission were published in The Chronicle during these five years. The first is at the top, depicting the grave of Dr. Mullens. The second was a map showing where the various missionary societies had staked their claim. It’s included in the PDF, but the best map I’ve found so far comes from another pamphlet published in March 1879 by the London Missionary Society succinctly titled “The Mission in Central Africa, from the Letters and Journals of the Revs. J.B. Thomson and A.W. Dodgshun, and Messrs. E.C. Hore and W. Hutley.” I have included a crudely cropped version below (to save myself some filespace here on WordPress, but click to embiggen) with some of the most oft-mentioned placed highlighted, but the full version is available here (on Page 3 of the scan, and you get the best version if you download the jpg of the page). The scan could be better, but when I went to check if there were any copies for sale the only one I found was for £350, so I won’t be adding it to my personal collection anytime soon. The map is from 1879, so there are plenty of white spaces, but it highlights the route the missionaries took to get to Ujiji:
And so that’s the first five years of the Central African Mission, as told in the pages of The Chronicle of the London Missionary Society. I hope someone else finds this project useful and good research comes out of it. The area is sadly lacking in scholarship, and maybe we can help rectify that. I tried to summarize the major points above, but despite being wordy at times this saga is full of twists and turns and hope and despair and triumphs and failures, and sheds light into some of the earliest interactions in an area that would help shape world events, and so there’s little way I could have done it justice. I’m not the first person to discover The Chronicle, but hopefully now more people will, and help tell the stories of the people of Central Africa.