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Blantyre Mission

Cape Maclear History – Part 1

Robert Laws handwriting can be seen on this 1891 map of the mission grounds – Cape Maclear by PA Cole-King

Cape Maclear has played an interesting part in the history of Malawi. In September this year it will be 150 years from the time that David Livingstone first saw and named Cape Maclear.

The best book to read, that I am aware of, for a quick history, is ‘Cape Maclear’ by PA Cole-King. There may still be a copy for sale in Mandala House upstairs in the library. Otherwise you can turn to the much longer and weightier ‘Laws of Livingstonia’ and ‘Livingstone’s Lake’.

Robert Laws, possibly the greatest missionary to set foot in Malawi and the leader of the Livingstonia mission, set up base at Old Livingstonia (Cape Maclear) before moving on to Bandawe and Livingstonia.

These three books are my main sources for this blog post.

David Livingstone first set foot on the shores of Lake Malawi in 1859, 150 years to the day before I last stood on the shores of Lake Malawi before my last return to the UK. It was also 150 years to the day before Ian Tallach and his new bride Carrie began their honeymoon on Lake Malawi. [I was only on their honeymoon for just over 24 hours].

Like me, David Livingstone decided that he needed to spend more time exploring the Lake and returned two years later. So now, two years later is the time of my exploration and 150 years from the time when David Livingstone was looking for a natural harbour from where a mission on the Lake could be based. On his return to Britain Livingstone says “we rounded the grand mountainous promontory, which we named Cape Maclear, after our excellent friend Sir Thomas Maclear the Astronomer Royal..” and he further refers to “the great harbour to the west of Cape Maclear” which would “form a magnificent harbour.”

David Livingstone’s brother was there and he refers to burying grounds that in some way impressed him and the people of a neighbouring village who were friendly and brought food for sale. The interesting point about that is that the first Europeans to make a base there fourteen years later found no villagers but did find the burial grounds.

Southern Lake Malawi Map today – Cape Maclear in light green

David Livingstone never returned to Cape Maclear but did see it from higher ground in 1863 and in his last great journey in 1866 he passed the ‘base’ of Cape Maclear (I presume that that means the part of the Cape Maclear peninsula attached to the ‘mainland’ – to the west of Monkey Bay on the way to Salima?).

It was when passing Cape Maclear for the last time that Livingstone met an Arab slaver with slaves. It was this Arab who spread fear among Livingstone’s followers over the danger of the Ngoni. It was that day that some of Livingstone’s followers left him and returned to Zanzibar with the false and self serving story that Livingstone had been murdered.

In 1867 a search party sponsored by the Royal Geographical Society stopped at Cape Maclear just after they had established that the reports of David Livingstone’s murder nearby were false. Faulkner describes meeting a crocodile on the beach and says of the hills behind which he attempted and failed to climb saying “I never saw such huge masses of rock piled up in the way they are here.” He describes the “magnificent” lake and the smooth and blue waters within the natural harbour in contrast to the “fury” along the western shore. From as high as he could get on the hill he describes watching his ship ‘The Search’ attempting, and failing, to sail out of the calm waters in the narrow gap between the mainland and Domwe island. How did he know that they were not trying to leave without him? Also on the search party Young said “for a settlement nothing more could be desired” and Faulkner regretted that “…we were to leave this beautiful lake, perhaps for ever.”

After this search mission the next foreign (foreign European that is) visitors arrived eight years later. Without doubt Arab visitors would have continued to pass that way ‘on business’.

The next group of Scottish visitors came to stay, at least for a while. They included former slaves freed by David Livingstone. This was the group, inspired after the real death of Livingstone, who contained the first members of the two great missions – Livingstonia (from the Free Church of Scotland) and Blantyre (from the Church of Scotland). These two groups began modern health, education and (non slave trade) industry in Malawi. They played the crucial roles in defeating the slave trade, halting Portuguese colonial ambitions, dragging the British in (largely against their will) to provide protection from slavers and Portugal, and in bringing peace between waring genocidal tribes. These elements, including much more comprehensive education than practiced by other missions brought about the beginning of a Malawian national consciousness. Of course, it is much more complicated than that. There were a lot of failures, setbacks, scandals and mistakes. On the whole, and learning the lessons of the Anglican mission failures, they refused to do the job of fighting the slavers directly or applying political control and administration. They were however a constant thorn in the side of the Foreign Office and later the colonial authorites.

Many early missionaries paid a high price without seeing the fruit of their labours

I almost forgot – the missionaries also translated the bible and brought Christianity to Malawi. That and the defeat of the slave trade were their primary motivations.

Now, I can’t be bothered to write anymore just now so will just have to stop here – for now. As I say, you really need to buy the books.

If I continue with further installments you will read about….

The curious price paid for the land by the mission
A mauling by a leopard
The Roman Catholic on the presbyterian mission
The English… on a Scottish outpost
Death and disease – the personal prices paid by the missionaries
The first convert – and his achievements
The first circumnavigation of the Lake
The Elephant on Elephant Island (Mumbo Island)
The first Roman Catholic to die a violent death in Malawi
How Robert Laws nearly walked all the way ‘downstream’ to the coast for the post (only to be passed by ‘the postman’ on the other side of the Zambezi).
Bad news from Blantyre
Rules of engagement with slave drivers
The moving away of the mission and the arrival of tourists
The price paid by the government for the purchase of the land – and why
The flying boat service from the UK to Cape Maclear
The new Irish clinic at Cape Maclear opening decades after the Scottish one closed
The origins of Chembe village
Hiccups Bar

and much much more – of course.

Elephant and Thumbi Islands Sunset – that’s enough history for tonight

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