From the Archives


From the Archives: 1900 and the first arrivals in Malawi

Front Cover of The South African Pioneer of October 1900

Having discovered a rich treasure trove in the SIM International archive, Malawi Amoto will have a regular feature ‘From the Archives’ looking at some of the work and personalities from our early days in this country. We start with the first arrivals, in 1900.

If there was a ‘family tree’ of SIM Malawi we would see that the modern-day organisation is the great-grandchild of the Cape General Mission (CGM) founded in Cape Town, South Africa in 1889 by Martha Osborn, Spencer Walton and Andrew Murray. CGM started to expand, and soon its name changed to South Africa General Mission (SAGM) until, 11 years after its foundation, it had around 100 workers in most sub-equatorial African countries.

Most, that is, except for Malawi. It was in 1900 that the first pioneers from SAGM arrived in Malawi – Nyasaland as it was then – to start their work.

Nyasaland had been ‘discovered’ some 20 or so years before CGM was founded, thanks to Dr David Livingstone. In the intervening years, several major towns, such as Blantyre (named after his birthplace in Scotland), had been established, and so had missionary work.

River steamer on the Chinde River used by the early missionaries

Knowing that there was already such work in place, SAGM had been waiting for the right opportunity to move ‘north of the Zambezi’. In 1900 the opportunity arrived and three pioneers, Dr D Kidd, Mr E Faithful and a Mr Raney, set off from South Africa by sea and river to reach the Shire River.

Over three months in ‘The South African Pioneer’ – the magazine of SAGM (great-grandfather of Malawi Amoto?) - Dr Kidd outlined the background to the operation and also something of the early set-up and development of the new mission.

In the edition published in October 1900, Dr Kidd said: “For years we [SAGM] had been thinking of working on the Shire River, but did not wish to seem to compete with the various agencies at work in that sphere. Rumours had reached us that the old-established missions had resented the way in which the younger societies had ignored the customary etiquette existing between different missions and had started stations immediately close to old stations – leaving utterly neglected areas still uncared for. We were therefore anxious not to repeat the blunder which caused heart-burnings, and waited for the door to open before us.

A native pilot (left) on the river steamer

“When Mr Anderson offered his station to us we felt that the hour had struck. His station was some five-days’ journey from the nearest Mission Station, we were told; the sphere he worked in had not been annexed by any other society; the language he used – Senna – was hardly reduced to writing. Mr Anderson had been working alone and was not attached to any society, but was on friendly terms with all. So when he offered his work to us we felt that the door had indeed opened. All that was left was for us to go and possess the land.”

Sadly, Dr Kidd does not explain who the ‘Mr Anderson’ was but his generous offer led to the establishment of the SAGM – thence ultimately the SIM Malawi – work in Nyasaland, later Malawi.

But there was much to be done, not least to travel from South Africa to the Shire River. This was done by boat from Cape Town to modern-day Mozambique, then a Portuguese territory, and then by various river steamers along the Chinde and Zambezi Rivers until they reached the Shire and Port Herald, today known as Nsanje in the south of Malawi.

Dr Dudley Kidd, one of the pioneers who opened up what today is Malawi

Unlike today, when we jet around the globe and arrive in the field, Dr Kidd and his team had a more leisurely trip, although not without its alarms, and this is illustrated by his description of the river passage from Chinde to Port Herald: “Life on the river steamer is quite luxurious; many of the boats are well fitted up, far better than we had anticipated. Meals were all served on deck and so the four days’ journey from Chinde to Port Herald was a sort of picnic.

“At night time we had a glorious moon, and so we did not tie up on the bank until late. After a night’s rest we would wake up to a dense river fog which would not clear until about nine o’clock. However, the steamer would not wait on the whims of the fog and so we ran the risk of sticking on some sand banks.”

Dr Kidd quite graphically talks about how the steamer captain left more of the navigating to ‘native pilots’, as he described them, and to some of the ‘adventures’ with the sand banks to which this led: “Sometimes these native pilots try short cuts, or get confused and miss the right channel. Suddenly you hear the engine telegraph at work; jumping to your feet, expecting something to break the monotony of the hot and sultry hours, you are half knocked over by the sudden stop of the steamer on a sand bank. Then begins the trouble. The first thing, seemingly, is for the Captain to smack his pilot. This is supposed to work wonders. It does not hurt the dull-nerved native, but does humiliate him. But for all that it does not take the boat off the sand bank.”

So our pioneers are closing in on their goal, the Shire River. In the next issue we shall take things further as Dr Kidd and his team reach Port Herald and thereafter their new Mission Station by a most interesting mode of transport!