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.

Building the SS Good News

The Good News in Lake Tanganyika, from Hore’s book.

Reading this Week:

  • The Log from the Sea of Cortez by John Steinbeck and E.F. Ricketts
  • Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Important Dates:

  • Keel Laid – 21st October 1883

As I alluded to in last week’s post, my latest obsession is researching the SS Good News. To that end, I downloaded two books from the Internet Archive: Tanganyika: Eleven Years in Central Africa by Edward C. Hore (1892), and Fighting the Slave Hunters in Central Africa by Alfred J. Swann (1910). These two men describe the construction and launch of the SS Good News. Edward Hore was the master mariner in charge, having been employed by the London Missionary Society in Africa for some time. Swann was hired to help with the Good News along with the Morning Star, a sail lifeboat they transported overland from Zanzibar to Ujiji (meanwhile the parts of the Good News were shipped via the Shire river and Lake Nyasa [Malawi] with the African Lakes Company). Hore provides the best description of the Good News:

The design for our missionary vessel was on a liberal scale. The ample funds provided, and the liberal donation by Mr. G. S. Goodwin of Liverpool of his services as marine architect in the design and building, secured to us a first-class vessel of best material and form, and specially suited to the service. The Habari Ngevia (Good News), built of the best mild steel, with deck and all woodwork of Indian teak, is an auxiliary screw steam yacht 54 feet long by 12 feet beam, strongly built and fitted as for sea service. Two masts, with rigging and sails ketch rigged, make her a complete sailing vessel, and the internal fittings secure safety and comfort. The whole material, fittings, machinery, and outfit, in small pieces suitable for overland transport, and marked and numbered for re-erection,—a mass of material weighing altogether about fourteen tons,—was delivered to the care of the African Lakes Company for dispatch to the south end of Tanganyika by their Quilimane and Nyassa route.

Hore and Swann had to locate a suitable place to build the steam ship. In their original choice of location, raids from neighboring tribes and Arab slave traders had caused all the local Lungu people to flee. This sent Hore and Swann to the Lofu (or Lofubu) river in search of a place suitable for construction a boat, including people they could hire to assist. From Hore’s account:

In sixteen days we reached the south end. In vain I looked for the many well-to-do villages of my old acquaintances, the prosperous and lively Walungu; of some of them all vestige was gone, the sites overgrown with jungle, of others nothing remained but the blackened ruins. Of the people we saw nothing, until, coming upon a solitary fisherman in his little canoe, we heard something of the sad story. The neighbourhood we thus examined was that of Niamkolo and the surrounding district. Niamkolo was the place we intended to settle at to build the Good News, and was in every way a desirable locality. But the disturbed condition of the country made it unsuitable at that time for our purpose; for, for some months at least, we must concentrate on the building of the Good News at some place where food and native labour were to be had. Sailing on round the south end, we found the same signs of destruction everywhere, until we made the Lofu River, where I judged, if anywhere, the remnant of the tribe would be collected.

Here we found—some of them on a little floating island just within the river mouth, some on a sandy spit which had formerly been its bar—a number of refugees, mostly women and children, several of whom were evidently dying of starvation. That night we gave a supper of hot porridge to the poor women and children, by cooking what meal we had in the boat. The news spread fast that the wazungit (white men) had come—news of old friends come back—news of work for food supplies—of protection from their enemies—hope of brighter things all round… All this, as giving opportunity for befriending the natives, had great weight with us; and although somewhat away from direct communication with Nyassa, the neighbourhood otherwise suited us, and was soon decided upon. Moving up river to explore on 27th July, we came to at a bend of the river, and by next day we settled on this spot as the site of our “temporary marine depot.” The natives, advised us to go farther up river; but I knew its treacherous nature.

On the 28th the boats were moored alongside the river bank, and we began clearing the ground; native labourers were engaged, and a tariff arranged of prices for poles and other building materials. The next fortnight was indeed a busy time. Two houses of three compartments each quickly grew into shape: at either end a dormitory—in the centre, in one case, a store in the other a general living- room. At the river bank a jetty was run out as a landing-place, and a little village of grass huts at one side accommodated our men.

As soon as the houses were built, the ship-building shed was commenced near the river bank, abreast of the spot chosen for the launch. It was a large building, 60 feet by 20 feet, high enough to give space for work both above and below the vessel as it came into shape; the blocks were laid down the centre, and one side extended as a workshop.

Swann’s account of choosing a location:

At the south end we sailed up the Lofu River, having taken sixteen days from Eavala Island. The river, which drains the great valley, was nearly blocked up by sud. Numerous hippopotami gave us to understand we were interlopers by raising their enormous heads uncomfortably near the boat. Ugly crocodiles, in large numbers, slid off the sandbanks as we drew near. Storks, cranes, ibis, cormorants, and egrets adorned every creek, whilst thousands of wild geese and duck of many kinds stood closely packed together on the mud-flats; never having been shot at, they took no notice of us until we passed within a few yards of where they stood. It was fortunate for us they lived here in such numbers, as eventually they became our food-supply during famine. We were now amongst the Walungu, who owned nearly the whole of the southern end of the lake. Formerly a numerous tribe, at this time they were a scattered people, exposed to the Arab raids on one hand and to the fierce Awemba on the other… Small groups of villages were built on the floating sud, which was banked in mid-stream, forming small islands, thus affording protection from enemies on the mainland. They were naturally suspicious; only one old fisherman ventured to paddle out to sell fish, but of course he was in reality spying on us. He said that the whole country was at war, and that we were not safe from attack anywhere up the river. A mile or two ahead a broad valley opened out, on which could be seen several villages surrounded by stockades. Near this we formed a permanent camp, and prepared ground on which to lay the keel of the S.S. Good News, which was expected to arrive at any time.

We had not long to wait; for whilst sitting at breakfast, a stranger suddenly appeared in our camp, and without form or ceremony introduced himself as “Lieut. Pulley, of her Majesty’s Navy.” He had accompanied Mr. Fred Moir from Lake Nyasa with the first consignment of our vessel. In a few days we were surrounded with steel frames, keel-plates, tools, etc. The cheerful society of these strangers acted as a tonic. They told us of their exciting journey across country, of war on the Shire River, where, unfortunately, brass bearings had been cut out of our cylinders, brass steam-cocks chopped off to make ornaments, angle-irons bent double, and rod-iron stolen to make spears. Chapter after chapter of such misfortunes to our vessel followed in succession, until one wondered which end of the ship to attempt to construct first.

The most amusing of all was to find that the great iron rudder could not be traced. It must be borne in mind into what a multitude of pieces a steam vessel has to be divided in order to permit of its being carried by porters; also that the whole had to pass up the Zambezi and Shire Rivers in barges, then through the Shire Highlands and up Lake Nyasa, and finally across the Plateau to Tanganyika, a journey of nearly 1000 miles. War against the white man was raging at the time, and these thousands of loads of metal presented great temptation to the half-savage tribes through whose country they were transported by the African Lakes Corporation. The departure of Hore for Zanzibar left but three of us to build the vessel. It was slow work. Those thousands of rivets haunted my dreams. Fever was sapping our constitutions, and the task at times seemed too great. Day by day plate was added to plate; but, as the structure neared completion, it was obvious to me that one more of my comrades would not long survive the physical strain of such hard work and fever combined.

Hore again:

News had also come to us (not long indeed before his arrival on the scene) of a very valuable accession to our staff in the shape of an engineer, Mr. Roxburgh, whose services were to be specially devoted to the erection of the Good News. When we arrived at the south end of the lake in July, and were looking for the Walungu, we were also looking for the African Lakes Company; we almost expected, from what we had heard, to find a station erected—at least we expected to see, or hear of, an extensive expedition bringing us the material of the Good News. No sign or news of any such were to be obtained, and at once on settling on our site parties of messengers were despatched Nyassa-wards to inquire after them, but still no news.

On 29th September our settlement was all astir with the cry, “A white man is coming,” and in a few minutes he appeared, in the shape of Lieutenant Pulley, R.N., who had accompanied Mr. F. Moir from Nyassa, and on reaching the lake near Niumkorlo had followed the coast round and thus found us here. Mr. Roxburgh was with them, and the loads they were conveying were coming along by relays. This was on Saturday night… Mr. Roxburgh soon made himself at home with us; he had had a long and trying journey of many shifts and changes, and had already done a lot of work in looking after the goods and vastly accelerating their arrival to us. On 21st October the first two pieces of keel were laid—the Good News was commenced.

And for the next sixteen months, except for the intervals, alas, in which we were waiting for materials, the wild banks of the Lofu River resounded to the noise of the anvil and riveting, as the skeleton, and then the shell, of the vessel slowly rose into shape. Three weeks sufficed for all that could be done with the materials now on hand, and Mr. Roxburgh sailed with me on a voyage to Uguha and Ujiji. And so the whole year was spent in voyages and spells of shipbuilding as materials arrived. And all through the stay in the Lofu River we were gradually laying the foundation of eventual Christian teaching amongst the people by making their acquaintance and making known our errand, while our native sailors and workmen and two or three Uguha boys were serving a sort of apprenticeship to civilisation and industrial work which has resulted in many able helpers on our stations and boats ever since.

The shell of the vessel was now rapidly coming into shape. Everybody took part in the riveting; but Mr. Roxburgh, whose whole time was devoted to it, had the hardest and most continued manual labour, resulting in the best of work upon our vessel, but, sadly to him, in the eventual failure of his health and strength.