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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


The Cape Maclear Road

For miles around you see nothing but hills like this

When we were on our way to Cape Maclear we observed something which appears to contradict economic theory.

Cape Maclear is on Lake Malawi. It is at the end of a large peninsula towards the southern end of the Lake. It is also the place where there was the first settlement by Scottish missionaries in Malawi. The first missionaries after David Livingstone chose Cape Maclear as it has a natural harbour caused by the shape of the islands at the end of the peninsula. They had brought a ‘self assembly’ steam boat at Millwall in London and assembled this boat at the mouth of the Zambezi River on the Indian Ocean after being dropped off by a larger ship.

They steamed up the Zambezi and then up the Shire River until they reached the waterfalls where they had to unassemble the boat and hire a large number of people to help them carry the boat a long way up river. Again they assembled it and proceeded up the Upper Shire through Lake Malombe and then into what is now Lake Malawi (previously named Lake Nyasa by Livingstone).

Now Cape Maclear is ‘backpacker-central’ in Malawi and most of those traveling through probably know nothing of it’s history. As well as seeing the start of modern medicine and education in Malawi Cape Maclear has had a varied history. It was once a playground for expats during colonial time and there was even a direct flight from London to Cape Maclear in the 1950’s – in a flying boat. Now there are no direct flights between the UK and Malawi at all. The BBC team who were doing a documentary on David Livingstone were gobsmacked when I told them of the London-Cape Maclear flying boat service.

...Cape Maclear is at the northern end of the peninsula in the middleThese days getting to Cape Maclear involves an approximately 10 mile journey along a lonely dirt road through the peninsula after turning off the main road near Monkey Bay. You are surrounded by hills, rocks and vegetation on all sides and have the feeling that you are far from human settlement. The road itself is a bit rough. It is not that there are huge holes or deep gulleys – instead there are small regular ruts lying at right angles to your direction of travel. So your car, you and your engine and being rattled.

While driving along in the middle of this we passed two young guys who enthusiastically waved us down to stop. I could see a bucket and (wet?) earth with which they seemed to be fixing the road. We quickly concluded that they were either fixing the road on their own initiative and hoping to be paid by the occasional grateful motorist – it is not an area with heavy traffic… – or they were pretending to fix the road and were tricking motorists into coughing up some cash.

Map of Cape Maclear and Lake Malawi National Park

At first we were suspicious but thought that they were probably genuine. It looked genuine.

On the way back a few days later we met the same people and this time were far more convinced that they really were fixing the road. We made a small contribution – but they were very happy. I asked if all / most / some / few drivers contribute to their work and they seemed to be saying that almost all drivers contribute something.

I regret not taking a photograph of them – we were in a rush to get on. All I have is a photo of some of the tops of the hills in that area.

The route not taken by either steamer or flying boat

I thought it was interesting because in economics work that is done which benefits anyone around and which cannot be restricted only to those who pay – is not supposed to work. The classic example is the lighthouse. The lighthouse cannot charge ships for using it’s service as everyone who is at sea can see the lighthouse and there is no way that the lighthouse keepers can compel the ships to pay for the service. Therefore, the theory goes that the shipping companies will not pay for the lighthouse service, because they can all be ‘free-riders’ on someone else’s work. Therefore the lighthouse has to be paid for by the government and cannot survive in the private sector.

So, it seems as those these enterprising road-fixers have not read their economic textbooks. They should have been pessimistic about the prospects of being paid. Instead they seemed to be doing quite well, if their mood and enthusiasm was anything to go by.

So how come this private business works if economic theory says that it should not? Well, firstly there has to be some degree of trust – the motorists have to trust that these guys are genuine – in some societies I am sure that there would be some doubt about this. Certainly I was a bit suspicious at first. Second there has to be some goodwill or some feeling that one would like to contribute a fair price to a service that one is receiving – even though the motorist is under no compulsion to do so. Perhaps the motorist feels some social or moral obligation or perhaps because the voluntary donation is small compared with the means of anyone who can afford to drive a car means that there is a desire to contribute.

Lengwe National Park: Part II

There was a long 'stare-out'

Having been invited to a BBQ at Nyala Lodge (and having seen the ridiculous film ‘Yes’ (where you always say ‘yes’ in response to a question or suggestion)) we decided to head down to Lengwe National Park for a serious meat feast on Saturday night.

It was the first time I had dared take the family into the Shire Valley overnight (given the fearsome mosquito and malaria reputation down there). However, Lengwe is a very dry area and I was easily (and correctly) convinced that we would have less of a problem there than in Blantyre.

Fellow Road User

We headed off early on Saturday so that we could do something else while down there and I thought we would try out Nyala Park. Nyala Park is not really ‘the wild’ as it is an area within one of the huge sugar growing areas owned by a large sugar company. However, it is a large area that is in most ways a bit like the wild except for the perimeter fence. We were given a map at the entrance. I did not count the number of ‘roads’ but I guess it would have been thirty – I am trying to quantify in some way how big the place is. Let’s say it is huge or massive or colossal on the scale of a zoo (and there is only one animal pen and you are in it with your car) but it is miniscule on the scale of a National Park or wildlife reserve. I suppose it is something like the shape of a square with a few miles (not many) from one side to another.


We drove around for a while (after I had secretly discussed with the wildlife staff where the best places for spotting animals might be) and after a bit we spotted (or Amelia spotted and I identified) two sable! That was quite a surprise as I did not think that there were many of those in these parts. Amelia was very impressed and thought that they looked like something out of Narnia. Next there was a moment that I have been waiting for – the first sighting of a giraffe. We were in a heavily wooded area with a great deal of leaves and tree cover overhead when and round a corner and there is was. I think Amelia saw the other two or three giraffes several meters away to our right while next to the car on the left towered a quite awe inspiring sight. These are impressive creatures – there is something extraordinary about them. They stared down on us for a long while – clearly deep in thought.

From then we quickly saw a lot of zebra, nyala and other giraffes including the young of all three. It was a good trip but not, of course, as satisfying as seeing them in a real national park – but still quite impressive.

Before long we were in Lengwe for lunch. We had a very good deal for full board (three meals) and a night in (to me) very nice accommodation.

Brian, who we had met on the previous Easter Monday, met us and was again friendly, helpful and full of information and conversation. We soaked in the pool waiting for a late afternoon drive (Amelia was determined to see Buffalo – even if she has to imagine seeing them).

"Mr and Mrs Warthog and family did not join us for the BBQ....I don't think."

We set off on a different route to the one we had taken on Monday. I knew it would be less fruitful but it was interesting never-the-less. Brian warned us not too be too late as he would have to come looking for us otherwise and his vehicle was low on diesel. Of course I pushed my luck and as the light was failing we were delayed by the very fortunate sighting of a python. As I was driving along I thought to myself that the tree lying across the road looked quite like a snake – not for a minute believing of course. There are leopards in Lengwe but the idea of actually seeing one to me was just a joke – finding a python was in approximately the same category. (The great thing about seeing wildlife in Malawi is that there is a certain amount of unpredictability about it all – you get a sense of satisfaction from the accomplishment of seeing certain species.

Unfortunately the light was very dim and the serpent began to withdraw from the road. Taking a photo was a rushed job and we have two very bad photos of it and another taken speculatively with flash into the bush once it had escaped the car headlights.

Impala are better than pythons when it comes to posing

The dinner was good and some of the slabs of meat very well sized. Joining us for the BBQ were five southern Baptist missionaries – one in the country long term and the others here for a week. At the other end of the table were a south African couple in mining in Mozambique (Tete) who had come to escape to the comparative paradise of Malawi for the weekend.

Later the American missionary told me his tale of fishing (wading in) in the Shire River when he was new to Malawi. My hair stood on end – I would not go near that river. A Malawian said ‘there is a crocodile coming’ and he and his family looked through the raging current to see a twenty foot crocodile speeding towards them. They all got away but were too terrified to collect their abandoned fishing equipment.

Early morning light in Lengwe

Next day I rose at five for my own sunrise drive (wife and kids more sensible) – it feels different and lonely at that time of day. I was determined to scout out a waterhole somewhere away from the road that Brian had told me about. I was nervous as I drove through the bush as it is a miles from the camp and the signs that a vehicle had once driven this way would sometimes almost disappear. I knew that if I lost this vague track I’d be lost. I did find it – but no wildlife and after this did not feel at all like driving again for a few hours and instead lazed around the pool.

Ruth's fear was that a monkey would steal her pink bag

Eventually Amelia’s determination to find buffalo and my rest resulted in a final trip where Amelia assured me that the very distant ‘large animals’ were in fact buffalo. I can’t comment – I don’t know. We did however make our way back to the remote waterhole I had earlier found and we found the elusive Kudu that I was interested in seeing.

After saying goodbye to Brian we headed back in time for a shower and joined the largely Azungu group at 5 in the building next to the old clocktower. Crispin was there and it was interesting to hear what he had to say. It was nice to see people but somehow I prefer the traditional Chechewa.

Later we received a call from Brian. Ruth had left her pink ‘princess’ bag at the lodge… There were tears before bedtime and Ruth told me that she did not want a monkey to take her bag away.

That was Sunday night and we then stayed in bed for 12 hours – I think I slept 11.