The Little Prancing Proconsul…

The precarious state of occupation of the east coast by the Portuguese was acutely observed by the incoming British Consul to Moçambique Sir Harry Johnson (at that time Moçambique was defined by the Island of Moçambique, the administrative capital of Portuguese East Africa, and not necessarily the greater area of what later became the colony/nation of Moçambique). According to Sir Harry:

In 1889 the power of the Portuguese over the mainland and the Makua tribe was so non-existent that their soldiers dared not land opposite Moçambique [Island], and the only point north was the town of Ibo, also on an island, in about 13º of S. latitude. South of Moçambique they held no landing place to you came to Quelimane which was situated on the northern extremity of the Zambezian (sic) Delta. Then again, south of the Zambezi there was little or no sign of Portuguese occupation or civilisation till you came to Inyambane (sic). South of the Limpopo mouth there was Delagoa Bay. But the town of Lourenço Marquez (sic) on the shores of that inlet was only marked by one or two ramshackle houses, prior to 1870.[i]

The introduction of Sir Harry Hamilton Johnston into the story of east and central Africa marks the point at which the three way balance of power in the region began to shift in the direction of the British, and away from the Portuguese and the petty sultans of the Swahili/Arab slave trade. At some point during 1888 the British Government, led by Lord Robert Cecil, Viscount Cranborne and the 3rd Marquis of Salisbury, known generally as Lord Salisbury, came to a decision regarding the exact nature of British interest in Africa. While Salisbury shared none of the grand delusions of a crimson swathe from Cape to Cairo, he did find himself of the opinion that what mattered most  to the Empire was south and east Africa. A free hand was to be given to the French in the west in the hope that their interest would be diverted from Egypt. Thereafter the Portuguese, a force hardly to be reckoned with, would have to live with the reality that the rose coloured map was dead. Obviously this would be done with as much courtesy as the situation would allow, certainly enough, it was hoped, not precipitate the collapse of the noble but impoverished Portuguese House of Braganza. Still in existence was the 1386 Treaty of Windsor, the oldest diplomatic agreement in history, binding Britain to Portugal as ancient allies. However, Britain’s oldest ally did not count much in real terms against the restive Scottish voter, brooding sullenly over the fate of David Livingstone, and indeed the balance of the legacy of the great Scottish Doctor/Explorer now narrowly surviving in the wilds of central Africa.

Harry Johnston is one of the enduring characters of British colonial Africa, an imperialist to the marrow of his bones, an artist, writer, philosopher, explorer, naturalist, anthologists…the list is almost endless. He was a polymath in the true sense of the word, but also a man of unimpressive stature, measuring little more than five feet. He was understandably, for a man of both great accomplishment and significant responsibility, a little over-sensitive about his height and inclined as a consequence to exaggerate his abilities and performance. This must have made him an insufferable braggart, because even without hyperbole the work of his life was impressive, and would have satisfied the aspirations of half a dozen ordinary men.

As a writer Johnston published over 20 books, some fictional, some biographical and others narrative and historic, exploring his interest and accomplishments in the territories that he came to know intimately. A Comparative Study of the Bantu and Semi-Bantu Languages competed in the busy mind of this little man with Mrs. Warren’s Daughter, an authorised sequel to Mrs. Warren’s Profession by George Bernard Shaw. He wrote perhaps the first definitive study of the River Congo, led and documented on behalf of the Royal Geographic Society the 1884 Kilema-Njaro (Kilimanjaro) Expedition, and between 1886 and 1888 he served as vice-Consul in Cameroon and the Niger Delta, returning home to England on leave that year to be drawn into the personal circles of British Prime Minister Lord Salisbury, and offered the Consulate of Moçambique with a view to bringing to an end the disputes and uncertainty surrounding the administrative future of the Shiré Highlands and the Lake region.

Johnston, however, was not the only wunderkind on the London social circuit in the spring of 1888. At 30 years old he was five years younger than the celestial Cecil John Rhodes who, from the position of a self made millionaire diamond magnate, was embarking on his own quest to rewrite the map of Africa to the advantage of Britannia. Rhodes was another of the great architects and personalities of British Africa, without whom, and perhaps not for the worse, the map of Africa would have today been configured very differently.

Rhodes was hardly Johnston’s equal as a renaissance man, for he never wrote anything of consequence, travelled very little for its own sake, and was educated to a very limited degree, and with great difficulty. He had two advantages, however, that fuelled his meteoric rise to prominence, and these were a profound belief in the merits of the British Empire and an ability to make money. No matter what might have been the social disadvantages of being born one of 11 children to an unremarkable country parson, then, as now, the most effective means of achieving greatness was wealth, and that Rhodes had in abundance.

Rhodes was positioned in the Cape. His wealth had been accumulated on the diamond fields of Kimberly, and he still stood among the most dominant capitalists in the capital rich environment of South Africa. Of greater direct interest to him at that time, however, were his political aspirations. These he pursued from the platform of the Cape Colonial Parliament. His interest was in the annexation of Matabeleland, an area of supreme strategic importance to all the major players in the Scramble for Africa. The Germans hoped to acquire it in order to link their growing interests in east and south west Africa, the Portuguese, of course, regarded it as yet another extension of their historic claim to the interior, and integral to their dream to unite their east and west coast territories. The Boer, in their search for a homeland free of British interference, sought the territory as an extension to the Transvaal, while for the British, and Cecil Rhodes in particular, it was vital to facilitate the drive north from the Cape, that, if Rhodes’ vision ever was to achieve realisation, would run all the way to Cairo.

To this end Rhodes had already won a vital relay in the race. He had, largely by sleight of hand, secured a concession from the Matabele monarch for limited mining activity in Matabeleland and the subject territory of Mashonaland. The Rudd Concession, as it was known, was the subject of considerable controversy. This was thanks to the generally grubby manner in which it had been acquired, and the machinations of competing powers who had seen Rhodes snatch success from under their noses, and moreover dash off with it to London before the smell of it could catch up with him. In London Rhodes hoped to use the Rudd Concession to apply for a Royal Charter, after which his British South Africa Company would move to occupy the territory, positioning Rhodes to continue his drive into Central Africa, and the territories soon to be nominally under the jurisdiction of Harry Johnston.

It was fortunate then for both men that each happened to be in London that spring. They met by happenstance at a dinner party as Rhodes was junketing furiously to win over to his side a dubious press, and an even more dubious aristocracy. The two were introduced by the Rev. John Verschoyle, sub-editor of the Fortnightly Review, one of the most influential journals of it’s day, and the kind of liberal platform that was traditionally unfriendly to the unfettered capitalist endeavour that Rhodes epitomised, and that which he was most earnestly seeking to woo in pursuit of his Royal Charter.

The two men experienced an instantaneous meeting of  minds, and the single biggest obstacle to a British political initiative in Nyasaland – finance – was overcome. Although his immediate objective was to empower his British South Africa Company to occupy Mashonaland, Rhodes’ ambitions did not stop at the Zambezi, and already he was forming a strategy to extend the influence of his Company into the shady hinterland beyond the Zambezi. In Johnson, and in particular in the light of Johnston’s recent appointment, he saw an ideal vehicle to begin that process.

Almost there and then Rhodes wrote out a check for £2000 to cover the expenses of an expedition into the region west of Nyasaland and north of the Zambezi. Rhodes was also not slow to enquire as to the status of Nyasaland itself, seeing no limit to the potential of his Charter. However, when Johnston cleared the matter with Lord Salisbury, who at that stage did not know much about Rhodes, Salisbury suggested that Company domination of the lands west of the Lake was all very well, but current British interests on the lake precluded any such solution being applied to Nyasaland itself. Musing upon the treaties acquired by the African Lakes Company, Salisbury suggested that matters needed to make due progress through the departments of state.

As Johnston  set sail for Moçambique in the spring of 1889 – Rhodes had by then received his Royal Charter and incorporated the British South Africa Company – it seemed that at last the Imperial Government was determined to act to bring the un-alienated portions of central Africa and Nyasaland finally into the British sphere of influence. This fact was not lost on the Portuguese, now confronting British pressure on both her mid and northern flank in Moçambique, who then decided to seize the initiative and launch an armed expedition to take command of the situation beyond the Ruo confluence of the Shiré. In due course Colonel Serpa Pinto, in command of a force of 1 200 natives armed with guns, a further 2 000 followers, and three Portuguese officers, set off up the Shiré River with this purpose in mind.

Johnston, meanwhile, after a leisurely journey south, took occupation of the consular dwelling on Moçambique Island and set about preparing his expedition inland. It had recently been established that the Zambezi mouth in the area of Chinde could accommodate a ships draught of between 17 and 20 feet, significantly more than any channel previously sounded, which allowed Johnston’s expedition to bypass Portuguese control and steam up the Zambezi with a minimum of hindrance. He arrived at the Ruo confluence where Pinto was camped with the bulk of his force, and requested and interview with the Portuguese colonel. Pinto obliged, and the two sat down to a cup of tea and mixed biscuits and discussed the matter in hand. Pinto had been forestalled by a rebellious Makololo chief who, apart from desiring to be recognised as a paramount, felt his nation’s distaste for the Portuguese, Threatening Pinto with force if he approached any closer. This was not a situation that boded well for an army intent on the occupation of the highlands, and  moreover it left Pinto himself in a less than advantageous negotiating position. It took only Johnston pondering out loud the wisdom of provoking an open conflict with the British for Pinto to feel sufficiently unsure of his ground to temporarily leave his army to travel south once again to consult with his superiors.

Johnston, meanwhile, continued north upriver, pausing only briefly in the area of the Elephant March to stroll with his rifle and a sketchpad. There, by pure happenstance, he met up with Alfred Sharpe, a venturesome London solicitor who was on an extended journey in the tropics. He had recently offered his services to the Lakes Company in its struggle with Mlozi, receiving a bullet wound in the leg for his troubles. After a brief sojourn for medical treatment in the Natal, Sharpe was on his way back to the Highlands, and had stopped in the vicinity of the marshes to hunt when he stumbled upon Johnston absorbed in his momentary muse.

The two had tea, and to Sharpe Johnston shared the schemes afoot, including Rhodes’ plans for the interior, and his own objective to gather as many treaties as possible in the furtherance of the British South Africa Company’s ambitions, as well as the necessity to frustrate the two threats against Nyasaland posed by the Arabs in the north and the Portuguese in the south. Sharpe was nearing the end of his tour. He had gathered enough ivory to turn a handsome profit and had a month or two to spare before returning to England. He agreed to take temporary service as Johnston’s vice-Consul and the two parted company on the understanding that Sharpe would undertake the task to secure by treaty as much of the area to the west of Nyasaland as could be practically achieved. This was a very easy instruction that in practice required Sharpe to march overland to the central Zambezi, and from there cover almost the entirety of modern day Zambia in a quest for treaties, attempting, if possible, to wrest from under the noses of the Belgians the mineral rich region of Katanga.

Johnston now had to consider carefully the matter of the ongoing confrontation in the north between the  Nyasa Arabs  under Mlozi and the Lakes Company officials. With scant resources it was his objective now to achieve the general pacification of a sizeable territory that was still fundamentally in the grip of the slave trade, that itself was still concentrated in the hands of the Arabs up the east and west flanks of the lake, and in the Shiré highlands in the hands of the Moslem Yao and their coastal Arab allies. While a steady influx of whites into the region had eased the almost total isolation of the early missionaries and traders, Europeans still represented a minimal force on the landscape, and were in the main preoccupied with their own pursuits either of commercial planting and the acquisition by various means of large tracts of land, or indeed the quest for the souls of the population into one or other of the missionary denominations.

Recognising his relative weakness Johnston was forced to adopt diplomacy as a means to relieve the stalemate that had come into being in Karonga. To there Johnston despatched Lakes Company employee John Nicholl, with whom he had travelled upriver from Quelimane, to let it be known to Mlozi that Johnston was on his way north, and that terms of peace was his objective. Before following Nicholl, Johnston despatched acting Consul John Buchanan back from Blantyre to the Shiré River to conclude treaties with the Makololo, and, entirely without authority, to declare a British protectorate if the Portuguese crossed the Ruo.

This was followed by an uncertain mission to the Arab settlement of Kota Kota. This settlement eas situated a third of the way up the lake on the west shore, and was an established entrepót for the mustering of captive slaves prior to the dhow journey across the lake to Losefa, and then on to the coast. Tawakadi Sudi, the ‘Jumbe’, or Prince of Kota Kota, had held sway in the region for more than 30 years, and could remember the first sighting of  David Livingstone on the lake in 1863, and all the permutations since. He appeared  to be willing to conceded to changing circumstances and to treat with Johnston.

As unprepossessing as Johnston was, he was fluent in Swahili, the lingua franca of the trade arteries of central Africa, and was able to conduct his interview with the ageing doyen of the central lakes trade in his own language. A shrewder man perhaps than Mlozi, Tawakadi Sudi agreed to provide a militia to bolster Johnston’s planned approach to Karonga, he also agreed to limitations placed on the extent of his territory and to the abolishment of the slave trade. In exchange he was promised an annual stipend of £200 and a bottle of Chartreuse liquor for his asthma after which he allowed the Union Jack to be hoisted at Kota Kota.[ii]

Nicholl had in the meanwhile negotiated a truce with Mlozi, which it seems came as much as a relief to Mlozi as it did to Fotheringham, who had  steadfastly remained at his post as others had come and gone. The conflict between them had begun to take on the character of a personal feud, although neither party seemed aggrieved at the terms of the peace. When Johnston finally arrived at the north end of the lake all that remained was for the matter to be ratified. In the middle of October 1889 he appeared at Karonga to find Fotheringham in a state of numbed exhaustion. Reports suggested a similar state of war fatigue at the Arab stockade where Mlozi and his two henchmen Msalema and  Kota-Kota waited with apprehension to hear the word of Her Majesty’s Consul.

While the substance of the peace may have been agreed upon, the fact of it was not established without a certain amount of theatrical power-play. Johnston agreed to meet Mlozi in person in the no-mans land between the two fortifications. There Johnston waited accompanied only by a handful of Atonga tribesmen. he maintained an outward calm, but inwardly he seethed with anxiety. Presently there appeared a handful of Arab musketeers, followed by Mlozi himself. Rugs had been laid fro Mlozi some distance from Johnston, and there he settled down with his entourage to ponder the rather unimpressive but poised spectacle of Her Majesty’s Consul. In due course a conversation began, but it was strained, and complaints were aired about Arab women held hostage in the fortifications at Karonga. However, despite outward appearances, the tenuous line of communication held. Johnston was at his most melodic and persuasive, and neither party at this stage wished in truth to see the parley collapse.

After a day or two both sides accepted a treaty that in fact did little more than establish the status quo. The African Lakes Company would continue to trade unmolested on the lake, while Mlozi would be free to continue his trade in various commodities, including slaves. Contrary to what might have been expected the signing ceremony, complete with a slaughtered bull and the facing of Mecca, was not followed by howls of outrage from the likes of Fotheringham, John Nicholl or any of the missionaries. For this there were a number reasons. Mainly each man felt he had out manoeuvred the other, buying for himself valuable breathing space with a treaty neither had the slightest intention of honouring for any longer than it suited them. The facts of the situation were prosaic.

The ‘war’, such as it was, had already degenerated into a status quo, and if Johnston was, with almost no force of arms, to attempt to dislodge Mlozi he would have lost, and such would have been the precedent set on the eve of the British occupation of the territory. For the Company’s part, the war had almost exhausted its funds, Portuguese obstruction had held up the movement of arms, and in 1889 it was on the verge of bankruptcy. On the other hand, wider events had a momentum of their own, and Mlozi was an anachronism, and whatever form the future might take, there was no room within in for a medieval slave trader fighting to maintain his rights of chattel in an emancipated world. Mlozi’s particular world was closing in on him, whether he was able to see it or not, and with regards to the pacification of the black tribes circling the lake, those who without doubt had some sort of a long term future in the region, Johnston had his priorities clearly outlined.

In the order of things, however, Johnston was obliged not only to Cecil Rhodes in terms of his promised undertaking to gather treaties north of the lake, and as far into Tanganyika territory as he could, complimenting Sharpe who was likewise engaged in the territories north of the Limpopo, but also to his own sense of the urgency of claiming as much of the un-alienated territory currently being encroached upon by Belgium and German as he could. Johnston, in his many musing and writings on the question of Africa, laid claim to the Cape to Cairo notion himself, and whether it was he or Rhodes who first mooted the gargantuan imperial scheme that it represented, it hardly mattered, for each man was as equally committed to the global predominance of the pax Britannia as the other.

Johnston thereafter immediately set off northwards of the lake in the company of John Nicholl and missionary Dr. Kerr Cross whose Chirenje Mission was situated some 65 miles north of Karonga on what was known as the Stevenson Road. This was the the road that had been constructed to link the two lakes Nyasa and Tanganyika. It had been commissioned and built by the African Lakes Company.

It is here that the modern day traveller can only imagine the sublime experience that it was the lot of men like Johnston to enjoy in moments when season, geography and climate coincide to permit easy and safe travel through the Garden of Eden that pre-colonial Africa often was. Running roughly along the line of the current frontier between Zambia and Tanzania, the Stevenson Road linked the northern tip of Lake Nyasa with the southern tip of Lake Tanganyika, and in his gathering of treaties from local chiefs and potentates, Johnson was often distracted by the unspoilt charm of the landscape through which he made his way north. Climbing initially over the lake watershed, passing west of the dormant volcano of Mount Rungwe, and at 5000 ft on the Nyasa/Tanganyika plateau, the climate was at the very least accommodating:

We climbed the Nyasa-Tanganyika plateau, passed through the enchantingly lovely country of Bundale with the climate of and English June, rounded the shoulder of mighty Mt. Rungwe with frost at night…this was the valley or depression of the long Lake Rukwa, which Dr. Kerr Cross and I found extended much further northeast than was suspected. Only its western plateau hitherto had been discovered by Joseph Thomson.a We scrambled down the edges of the plateau through mountain gorges by a winding, constricted path, set on either side with clumps of spotted aloes, with blood-red flowers on blood-red stalks and sharp-pointed, fleshy leaves.’[iii]

With his sketchpad and notebook Johnston, in typical style, made a record of the botany, the landscapes and languages, the peculiarities of race and appearance, culture, religion, fetish and morality. All this in in due course contributed to his astonishingly detailed description of Nyasaland, entitled British Central Africa, and later his A comparative Study of Bantu and Semi-Bantu Languages. He sojourned briefly with the missionaries of the London Missionary Society Station on the southern tip of the lake, gathered copious treaties from local chiefs, observing as he did that: ‘One feels at this distance of time that to readers of a new generation this treaty-making in Africa must seem a farce. Great European States would meet at conferences to partition Africa, Asia, Papuasia, Melanesia into spheres of influence between themselves: why should we have bothered to negotiate with Negroes Arabs, Afghans, Siamese, Malays, or Papuans?[iv]

Despite thier illiteracy, Johnston went on to explain, native chiefs and councilmen submitted to memory the terms of any agreement made, placed great value on those terms, and in the main were faithful to them as the lower forms of European diplomacy attempted to play one off against the other for political or territorial gain. In fact most of these treaties were standardised and in effect did little more than indicate that ‘peace’ existed between a certain tribe and the Queen of England. The local leader, whatever rank he might of held, and whatever authority he may have commanded, was bound over to alienate no territory or sovereignty to any other European power without Her Majesty’s approval. He was furthermore obliged to freely admit British citizens, and to accord Her Majesty consular jurisdiction over all disputes that might arise between the indigenous inhabitants and those citizens. Despite what might be said or offered in negotiations for the various signatures that held these treaties legal, no specific protection was given, promised nor offered.[v]

In the meanwhile Johnston was poised to sail up Lake Tanganyika in the LMS sailing boat to treaty-gather in the Rwanda region, but was returned to reality abruptly by news that the Portuguese had resumed their aggressive approaches to the Shiré Highlands, and were in fact situated in force at the southern end of the lake. This meant in effect that war between Portugal and Britain was imminent.

In an astonishing nine day journey Johnston was back at Karonga, where fortunately he found a steamer waiting for him, and in another five days he was back in the Shiré Highlands. There he found no sign of the Portuguese at all. He and Nicholl  acquired two donkeys and set off for Blantyre, but still saw no sign of an imminent invasion. It was not until Chiromo, the traditional point of conflict on the Ruo/ Shiré confluence, that Johnston and Nicholl encountered a certain Lieutenant Coutinho, who, while handing Johnston his mailbags brought up from Moçambique, assured the British Consul in the friendliest terms that no war existed. Matters of international boundaries were under discussion between their respective governments, and there they would be best left. It is interesting to note that an earlier description of Coutinho by Johnston had invited a comparison with Lady Macbeth in terms of his relationship with his commanding officer, Colonel Serpa Pinto; ‘Infirm of purpose. Give me the dagger![vi]

With the dagger in his hand Coutinho surged forward, attacked the Makololo, but was soon stopped in his tracks by frenzied orders from Lisbon. Johnston speculated that the actions of the hot blooded Lieutenant were symptomatic of differing policies in Lisbon and Moçambique, the former desiring not to upset international relations, the latter preferring a bolder policy.

It seemed that matters on the international stage, meanwhile, had indeed come to a head in the weeks and months that Johnston had been drifting through the unsullied wilderness of the Nyasa/Tanganyika Plateau. The two main flashpoints where Mashonaland and Nyasaland, the former being as a result of pioneers of Cecil John Rhodes’ British South Africa Company staging a successful occupation. Thereafter Rhodes attempted to raise the stakes by occupying the adjacent Manicaland, a region that once again the Portuguese had long been accustomed to regarding as within their own sphere of influence. Furthermore Rhodes sought to provoke some sort of a confrontation that he calculated would be sufficient to justify a drive to the east coast, but would be insufficient to draw Britain into an open conflict with Portugal.

In Nyasaland, meanwhile, a minor skirmish between the Portuguese and the Makololo on the Ruo frontier gave John Buchanan his casus belli for declaring a protectorate, which he did on 25 September 1889. Two months later Colonel Serpa Pinto authorised an armed expedition across the Ruo in pursuance of the same campaign, news of which reached London in mid-December. Sensing his opportunity Lord Salisbury was quick to respond. Removing himself from his sick bed, and after the customary diplomatic preamble, and moreover ahead of a chorus of patriot furore from the British Protestant majority, he issued an ultimatum on January 11 1890. This was reinforced by the deployment of the Channel Fleet to the mouth of the Tagus with sealed orders, and squadron from Zanzibar to Mozambique. In the face of such a virile response Portugal had no choice but to effect a climb down.

This, and Rhodes’ shenanigans over the possession of Manicaland, and the ultimate loss to Portugal of both territory and prestige, was a deeply scarring experience that, although relatively quickly forgotten in Britain, was arguably never forgotten, nor forgiven, in Portugal. The Lisbon Government fell, the windows of the British consulate were stoned, and members of the British expatriate community in the northern city of Oporto were insulted and jostled in the streets. Black Crepe was draped over the statue of Luís de Camões, epic poet whose masterpiece Os Lusíadas celebrated the voyages of discovery of the golden period of the 15th and 16th centuries. Although many months would elapse before a final settlement of the matter was submitted to treaty, to Portugal this was the end of a long cherished dream, and moreover the first real forced indication that she was not to be among the principal power brokers in the new world order.

The Anglo/Portuguese Convention was formally ratified by both powers on 3 July 1891.[vii] In it Portugal conceded Manicaland to the British South Africa Company, recognised the right of free navigation on the Zambezi and the Shiré, and accepted a boundary that did not include the Shiré Highlands, and most forlornly they accepted finally the end of the quixotic rose coloured map, and the treasured union across central Africa of their two coastal territories of Angola and Moçambique.

With the parameters of Portuguese influence on the continent now firmly in place it then became a matter of establishing how Nyasaland was to find her permanent status. Declaring a protectorate in the interests of confronting the Portuguese was one thing, Her Majesty rising to the challenge of protecting the territory was another, and yet another the Treasury consenting to financially support yet another burdensome overseas liability. The fact that Lord Salisbury had made it clear to Johnston that the British South Africa Company would not, in the short term at least, win authorisation to administer the territory as one of its own, did not imply an automatic willingness on the part of the Crown to do so itself.

No northern limit had been placed by the Royal Charter on the activities of the British South Africa Company, which was in essence empowered by the Charter to trade with African rulers, to form banks, manage and grant or distribute land, and to raise a police force. In exchange the Company undertook to develop the territory under its control, to respect existing African laws, to allow free trade within its territory and to respect all religions. This Rhodes was quite willing to subscribe to for the single vital proviso that the Company controlled all the actual and projected mineral rights within all these territories. Its presumed rights over the land was at that stage of marginal interest, since the vital issues at play at that time where territorial expansion in the interests of imperial influence and the acquisition of what easily obtainable wealth any given territory had to offer. Long term settlement, and the less temporal aspects of the pax Britannia most certainly played a large part in Cecil Rhodes’ objectives, but it was not these that underwrote the public subscription, and certainly it was not they that secured the vast amount of private capital that was being poured into the region.

With Portugal largely out of the picture, the three main players in the sphere had been reduced to the British, the Germans and Belgians. Germany was spreading east from the coast of Tanganyika territory, Belgium was spreading south from her stronghold of the Congo Free State, while the British were surging north from South Africa largely under the power of Rhodes and the British South Africa Company. At stake was central Africa, and most specifically the copper rich region of Katanga, situated more or less equidistant from each node of power, and in theory an open game to each. However, as was well established by then, neither Rhodes nor any other could take possession unless and until some evidence of effective occupation could be shown.

Harry Johnston’s brief but very important journey north to the Nyasa/Tanganyika Plateau had successfully forestalled a German advance through the narrow straits between the two great lakes, effectively defining the German sphere of influence in the region to north of 10º of south, and roughly east of 33º of east. He had almost reached Lake Mweru when he was recalled to Nyasaland to attend to the Portuguese incursions. A vital concession, meanwhile, was also gained on Rhodes’ behalf covering the area of Barotseland under the paramount leader Lewanika in June of 1890. This was achieved by a young ex-officer of the Bechuanaland Police, F.E. Lochner, who, after an epic voyage, 900 miles by wagon, and a further 300 by dugout canoe in the worst of the central African wet season, reached the area situated on the east bank of the upper Zambezi, and necessary to permanently block any further advance east from Angola by the Portuguese.

Alfred Sharpe, meanwhile, after another one of the great and unreported epics of African travel, had succeeded in securing by treaty the country west of the Nyasaland between the Zambezi and the Luangwa Rivers, and in doing so took it upon himself to further declare the whole area west of the Luangwa and north of the Zambezi under British Protection. This effectively secured the the entire region for the British South Africa Company, but did not, vitally, draw into the British sphere of influence the copper rich area of Katanga, at that time under the suzerainty of the Yeke Kingdom. This was the most powerful political entity in south-central Africa at that time, and ruled by Msiri, an intractable, uncompromising and cruel paramount who held sway of the territory south of the Congo rainforest and west of the Great Lakes. Msiri’s wealth was largely founded on copper, and it was this copper that Rhodes was determined to bring under British control.

This objective was naturally shared by Harry Johnston, who despatched Alfred Sharpe back in the direction of the central African wilds almost the moment that he reappeared. At the same time, on the direct instruction of Cecil Rhodes, another notable African explorer by the name of Joseph Thomson left from Kota Kota heading west to the Luapula River, linking Lake Bangweulu to Lake Mweru, where he hoped to meet Sharpe at the court of Msiri with the trade goods and gifts necessary to secure any kind of cooperation for an African chief. He was diverted by a smallpox epidemic raging through the region, and instead continued east towards the headwaters of the Kafue River, failing to intercept Sharpe, but nonetheless continuing with the accumulation of treaties while traversing and exploring large areas of territory previously unvisited.

Sharpe, meanwhile, and after a second harrowing expedition, failed to impress Msiri, secluded within a stockade decorated with the rotting heads of decapitated victims, and was rebuffed. This was an area infinitely less pleasant than the Nyasa/Tanganyika plateau that had so enchanted Johnston, and was at the junction of the territories of several armed and aggressive factions, including the notorious gentleman Swahili/Zanzibari slave trader Tippu Tip (so named for a nervous tic). Tippu Tip controlled a portion of the interior  running up the western quadrant of the Great Rift Valley to within reach of the Kingdom of Buganda (Uganda), necessitating Msiri to be extremely alert, violently defensive and suspicious of any power he supposed might be equal or greater than his own.

Weary, sick and demoralised, Sharpe turned around and began to make his way back to Nyasaland, writing ahead to Johnston that he did not place much importance on his failure, believing that Msiri would be unlikely to concede to the demands of any other power if he had rejected the British, and professing satisfaction with what had been achieved. Meanwhile, suspecting that he might have been mistaken in rejecting Sharpe’s advances, Msiri sent a despatch after him begging his return. The story then follows that this letter was intercepted by yet another of the many wandering international agents drifting through the vast region, this time serving the Katanga Company, an international syndicate with a charter issued by the Congo Free State, or Leopold II of Belgium, whose personal property the Free State was.

Captain William Grant Stairs, British Army officer of Canadian origin, marched with 400 troops, and under the unambiguous instruction to take Katanga for Belgium by whatever means were necessary. Having thwarted Sharpe, Stairs then hurried to Msiri’s court and immediately commenced negotiations of his own. Recognising perhaps the inevitability of annexation, and himself in the midst of a revolt of his subjects, Msiri indicated that he might consider conceding to a treaty with Belgium if supplied with gunpowder. Negotiations reached a stalemate, however, and Stairs issued an ultimatum, raised the CFS (Congo Free State) flag, and dared Msiri to react. Msiri reacted by taking refuge in a fortified camp, to which Stairs sent his second-in-command to effect Msiri’s arrest. In a skirmish that followed Msiri was shot and killed. This in effect brought Katanga into the Belgian sphere of influence, occasioning the bizarre extrusion into Northern Rhodesia territory that would later cause the  wasp’s waist configuration of present day Zambia.

Rhodes, meanwhile, in is uniquely vindictive way, never forgave Stairs, a Briton of the most debased and treacherous kind. Stairs died of an attack of malaria, a common fate of men of his time, and is buried in the European cemetery in Chinde. While Rhodes cursed his memory, the fact is that the matter of the delineation of Belgian and British spheres of influence in the region had already been more or less decided by the Berlin Treaty of 1884. Lord Salisbury would have been unlikely to have countenanced any blatant breach of this treaty, quite as he had been unwilling to sanction Rhodes’ filibuster in the matter of claiming a large slice of the eastern seaboard as an appendage to Mashonaland.

By the middle of 1891 the fate of central Africa as far as foreign states were concerned had been effectively decided, all that remained to be ascertained was the practical allocation of authority. If money was ultimately to be the deciding factor the British South Africa Company would have little to fear in regard to the territories west of Nyasaland. However, in the lakes region, complicated in no small way by the demands of the Scottish missionaries, arguably only slightly less perturbed by the prospect of rule by the BSAC than the Portuguese, the matter was a great deal more difficult to dispose.

The solution seemed to be a temporary agreement between Rhodes and the African Lakes Company, that in exchange for an annual grant of £9 000 the Lakes Company would administer the protectorate pending an amalgamation of the two entities, after which the territory would be administered by the Lakes Company Board headquartered in Glasgow. This, however, was deemed illegal by the Foreign Office on the grounds that the Lakes Company did not possess a Royal Charter empowering it to administer anything other than itself, and instead it was suggested that the BSAC, rather than subsidise an entity that enjoyed no power, subsidise the British Government, that had the power to govern the territory but in all probability would fail to extract funding from parliament to do so.

To this Rhodes agreed in principal, but upon an important quid pro quo. Although the northern limit of his charter had not been defined, explicit authority from the Imperial Government for him to assume administrative responsibility for those areas north of the Zambezi that he had brought into the British Sphere of influence did not yet exist. It was understood thereafter that in exchange for a generous subsidy this permission would be granted. Rhodes and Harry Johnston then hurried north to London early in February 1891 to ratify this agreement, and after much hard bargaining this was done. An agreement with the foreign office was secured whereby Nyasaland, with frontiers defined broadly as they exist today, would become a British Protectorate administered by the Foreign Office (to the immense relief of the Scottish missionaries), while everything west of that, defined by the plethora of treaties gathered in the months and years previous, would come under the British South Africa Company’s Charter. Based in Nyasaland Johnston would administer both territories with the status of Commissioner.

Thus, just a few weeks before the long dispute between Portugal and Britain was concluded, and almost two years after John Buchanan had first informed the Portuguese on the banks of the Shiré River that the territory had been taken under the Her Majesty’s protection, the matter was formally resolved. With a BSAC subsidy increased to £10 000 Johnston, answerable only to the Foreign Office, was at last able to contemplate the pacification of Nyasaland with the armed force that he proposed that money now pay for. The agreement was to last until the end of 1893, and for a further two years if the British Government so desired.

Notwithstanding all the work done, and all the lives so far lost, when Harry Johnston arrived in Nyasaland in the summer of 1891 as the Protectorate’s first substantive Imperial Administrator he inherited a territory in an extremely primitive state of development. Although thickly populated by a variety of indigenous peoples, among whom here and there were settled a handful of missionaries and few pioneering planters, it was still essentially a lawless wildness indisputably held under the grip of warlords and slave traders, and civilized in the European sense of the word in only a few small and vulnerable centres. In the words of later colonial administrator Hector Duff, ‘Sir Harry Johnston’s administration (from 1890 to 18960), while it records many notable civil achievements, is yet in its more salient features is a history of successive military expeditions.’[viii]

Duff, with a degree of candour permitted only during his period, also gave some indication of why matters were as they were in the Protectorate.

It would, I think, be scarcely accurate to describe the natives of Nyasaland and the Shiré Highlands as essentially warlike. The reckless courage and strong military instinct of the Zulu, for instance, are certainly not possessed by any of them, except perhaps in a minor degree by some of the Angoni, who are themselves of Zulu descent. Yet at the same time, these Central African natives, like most primitive races, are or were animated by a certain love of bloodshed for its own sake, and by a still stronger aversion to any settled form of government tending to deprive them of the opportunities for raiding and looting their weaker neighbours.[ix]

It is therefore not surprising that, with the possible exception of Tawakadi Sudi, the ‘Jumbe’ of Kota Kota, no chief or tribal leader of any particular consequence from the Songwe River at the northern extremity of the lake to the Ruo was prepared to submit to the authority of the new government without recourse to arms. To combat this Johnston brought with him into the country a small contingent of Sikh and Moslem Troops provided through an arrangement made with the Government of India, and under the command of Captain Cecil  Maguire of the Hyderabad Contingent.

Since the flogging of John Buchanan at the hands of an irrational and feared Yao chieftain by the name of Makanjira no substantive action had been taken to redeem either British honour or British control. As had been the case when Bishop Mackenzie and the militant members of the UMCA confronted the Yao slave traders, a strongly fortified area of operation was around Mount Mulanje. There, as had been the case previously, the local Mang’anja were held under the sway of predatory Moslem Yao, and it was there that Johnston focused his first operation.

The casus belli came with complaints from the handful of Scottish planters who had established themselves in region and appealed to Johnston at more or less the moment of his arrival to intervene on their behalf. Apart from being subject to belligerence on part of the Yao par amounts, they were also finding it increasingly difficult to induce the fearful and subjugated Mang’anja to work for them. Maguire led his force Sikhs alongside a handful of local recruits and after a brief and largely bloodless action put the Yao to flight after which little was heard from them for some time.

The small force was then directed to the south end of the lake where another substantive Yao leader by the name of Mponda who was interfering with, and attempting to tariff steamer traffic moving in and out of the lake. This was clearly untenable, and a force of 50 armed Sikhs, as well as Johnston himself, was brought to bear against Mponda just as the Yao chief was attempting to induce by force the surrounding Mang’anja population to feed a large slave caravan preparing to cross the river and continue on towards the coast. Some of these were rescued , but others carried off, and in the meanwhile Johnston demanded the surrender of all the Arabs taking refuge in the village. This was refused after which Johnston ordered an artillery bombardment that needless to say came as a tremendous shock to the Yao. Terms of peace were quickly arranged, and although a good many slaves were killed in the fight, Johnston secured an undertaking that Mponda would eradicate the slave trade in his area, and upon that rather unbelievable note the new Commissioner with his Indian army moved on.

In the meanwhile Fort Johnston was constructed in the vicinity of Mponda’s to monitor his activities and protect the movement of traffic to and from the lake, which relegated an unfortunate garrison to one of the most unhealthy situations in the region. After handful of minor campaigns that followed this, Maguire and his small force set off up the southeast shore on a tour of inspection, promising Johnston that he would be back at the new Residency in Zomba by Christmas. He did not meet this appointment. Landing with a partial force in pursuit of a slave caravan, and to destroy two save dhows lying at anchor, Captain Maguire was surprised by a large Yao force loyal to the notorious Makanjira, and shot dead as he waded through the water. Several of his men similarly killed, with a handful of Punjabis captured, but to their inexpressible relief released shortly afterwards in recognition of their Islamic religion. Two more were later killed under a flag or truce in an attempt to retrieve Maguire’s body. The Lakes Company steamer had run aground during the action, but was freed under cover of darkness, and sailed out of harms reach by the surviving Sikhs.

Once again Makanjira had bloodied the British nose and trampled on their honour, but this time Johnston would not let it pass. The matter laid dormant as the somewhat reduced force of Sikhs and local levies dealt with an ongoing campaign that flared and died in various quarters as a general peace remained elusive. By 1893, however, a large force of reinforcements had arrived from India under the command of a Captain Edwards, and with Johnston and Alfred Sharpe, then Johnston’s Deputy Commissioner, in tow, a sustained campaign was launched against Makanjira that within a few days had established control of the southeast quarter of the lake controlled by Makanjira, who had himself fled into Portuguese territory, where he died anonymously and disempowered a few years later.

No sooner was this action concluded, and a garrison fort named after Maguire established, that Johnston and the Indian force steamed north towards Kota Kota to put down a rising against the Jumbe that had driven he and his forces out of the countryside and into Kota Kota where something of a last stand was being staged. Innocent thus far of the potential of artillery, Jumbe was amazed, as were his enemies, at what a handful of modest field pieces could achieve on his behalf. At the cost of the life of one Sikh the uprising was put down, the Jumbe re-established, and rather sensible to the value of British protection that he been previously, upon which Johnston set sail for Britain and India. The Commissioner was briefly satisfied at the current state of peace in the Protectorate, but needing to rearm and reinforce in preparation for his showdown with Mlozi, he placed the affairs of government in the hands of his deputy and took a short holiday.

While briefly in London, as was his custom, Harry Johnston wrote a book on the facts of Nyasaland, a mere Blue Booka as he describes it, that caused a minor sensation, as again in his modesty he was prepared to admit, and designed a coat of arms for the new protectorate that was equally modest in its scope.

The newspapers, beginning on the morrow of publication by the Times, held the Blue Book up as a new event; foreign government clamoured for copies; there were several reprints; and I believe H.M. Stationary Office actually made a small profit out of the publication.[x]

Thereafter, after a flurry of name dropping and enviable social engagements, the purchase of a fire engine for Zomba, a driving tour through Switzerland and a visit to Lord Kitchener in Cairo, Johnston informs us that he set off for India to recruit new members for his colonial militia. From Bombay he travelled overland to Calcutta to see the Viceroy, and then on to Lahore for the business of selecting troops for the Protectorate. In Lahore he found ‘much to be studied, and much to be drawn and painted’, and in Amritsar he purchase a selection of carpets. From there he made a whistle stop visit to Kashmir, for a glance at the Himalayas and the Khyber Pass, then on to Peshwar, Multan, Rajputana, Ajmir and Bombay. A few weeks later he was back at Zomba, where he relieved Alfred Sharpe, himself due a holiday, after which it was anticipated that the pair would attempt what they both regarded as the final conquest of Nyasaland.

Johnston and Sharpe, with the help of Captain Edwards and the freshly arrived Sikhs, where somewhat disadvantaged in the matter of lake transport, having two gunboats supplied by the Royal Navy, neither of which in the opinion of the Commissioner were of much use, the English firm that designed and built the craft being of the opinion that lake Nyasa was very like the River Thames, if a little broader, rendering their draft too weak to serve much as either transports or troop carriers.[xi] The request was then made to the Germans, whose identification with British interests at that time could never be guaranteed, to loan the attacking force the use of their steamer, the Wissmann, which request was agreed to with apparently genuine interest, upon which a force of some 500 men at arms – black, white and yellow as Johnston put it –set sail on the lake towards the north shore.

With a view to utilising the element of surprise Johnston wasted little time with preamble, and although an ultimatum was delivered, an attack was pressed home the moment that the landed troops were in a position to mobilise. Fortune initially favoured the Arabs as a sudden downpour doused the fires in Mlozi’s stockade caused by the incendiary artillery shells, and made troop movement around the perimeter difficult for his attackers, while Captain Edwards went down with blackwater fever, leaving Johnston in effective command. After a drenching three days of siege the weather cleared, and a flag of truce appeared above the walls of Mlozi’s camp. Suspecting treachery Johnston kept his distance, and wisely attempted a shouting parley which Mlozi abandoned almost immediately, suggesting that indeed he had intended to try and seize Johnston if the Commissioner had been as ill advised as to approach him.

The siege recommenced, and continued until Johnston received word of an incoming force of Arabs marching towards Karonga with an uncertain purpose. Fearing that perhaps Mlozi had summoned reinforcements Johnston decided to press home an attack. Shelling was recommenced in earnest, and when the walls were breached, and an attack poised, Johnston’s small force was suddenly overrun by surge of Arabs, Swahilis and auxiliaries, apparently in frenzied attack, but in reality in panicked surrender. In the confusion many were killed, but within a short time the stockade was taken and some measure of sanity returned to the situation. There was no immediate sign of Mlozi himself, however, although the bodies of 70 or more local chiefs and headmen who had been held hostage in the stockade gave evidence of an unnecessarily bloody conclusion to the affair. Mlozi was eventually found and dragged out of a hidden compartment set in the floor of his stone house in the middle of the stockade, and brought out into the sunshine where he defiantly confronted the victorious Johnston.

Still conscious of the advancing force of Arabs, Johnston came to the conclusion that whatever was to be done with Mlozi, it had to be done quickly. A hastily assembled court then heard a case against h of murder for the deaths of the 70 local hostages, and although Mlozi did and said nothing during the proceedings, recognising that his reign was over and his death imminent no matter what was said, he remained defiant and, according to Johnston, confronted the end with both dignity and courage. He was sentenced to death, and given two hours in the company of two of his former followers who seemed to be holy men of sorts, after which he was summarily hanged.

This incident more than any other marked the end of a long period of violence and uncertainty in the history of the lake region. The incoming force of Arabs, whether because of Mlozi’s defeat, or because of a general recognition of the state of things, declared themselves supplicant and not involved in the slave trade. This became the pattern, and what hostilities and animosity against the settled administration existed amongst the Yao in the south, it amounted to very little, and was in due course extinguished. Besides the Yao, no indigenous group offered any particular resistance, with the possible exception of very limited discontent expressed by certain Angoni groups, the native people of Nyasaland settled under the yoke of colonialism, which in the beginning was a yoke much lighter than the goree sticks and kubash whips from which they had so recently been liberated, and whatever might lie in the future, the majority where glad of the peace that came alongside the arrival of the white man.


a Joseph Thomson. Scottish Geologist and Explorer.

a A Production of the Foreign Office, akin to a report, and circulated internally to those with an interest, occasionally wider, and at times, as in this case, being published in whole or in part by the press.


[i] Johnston, Harry H. The Story of My Life, (Bobbs-Merrill Company, Indianapolis,1923), p229

[ii] Ibid. p224

[iii] Ibid. p248

[iv] Ibid. p258

[v] Rotberg, Robert I. The Rise of Nationalism in Central Africa. The Making of Malawi and Zambia. (Harvard University Press, Cambridge Ms., 1972 p14/15

[vi] Johnston, Harry, Hamilton, Sir. British Central Africa : an attempt to give some account of a portion of the territories under British influence north of the Zambezi, (Arnold, New York, 1897,) p87

[vii] Blake, Robert. A History of Rhodesia, (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1978) p89

[viii] Duff, Hector L. Nyasaland Under the Foreign Office, (George Bell & Sons, London, 1903) p17

[ix] Ibid. p19

[x] Johnston, Harry, Hamilton, Sir. British Central Africa : an attempt to give some account of a portion of the territories under British influence north of the Zambezi, (Arnold, New York, 1897), p286

[xi] Johnston, Harry H. The Story of My Life, (Bobbs-Merrill Company, Indianapolis,1923), p299