Project Canterbury

The Life of Charles Alan Smythies
Bishop of the Universities' Mission to Central Africa

By Gertrude Ward

Edited by Edward Francis Russell, M.A.

London: Offices of the Universities' Mission to Central Africa, 1899.

Chapter VII. The Insurrection, 1888

WHEN the news of the insurrection reached Bishop Smythies he was in Dublin, and his first thought was to hasten back to Africa, for the telegrams from Zanzibar filled him with alarm for the Magila staff. Knowing full well that conciliation and tact were essential in dealing with natives, he shrewdly guessed, from what he had seen of the Company's officials, how the mischief had arisen; and a certain amount of indignation with the British Government for 'delivering us over, after attracting us there, to people who have stirred all this feeling' is apparent in his letters. Relinquishing his project of attending the Manchester Church Congress, the Bishop went straight to London, conferred with the Committee, and started for Zanzibar on October 12. His farewell sermon set forth clearly the groundwork of the Mission's operations.

'It was,' he said,' for the friends and supporters of the Universities' Mission to watch narrowly the course of events, and to gather the principles on which it bases its work. The first was that missionaries must not rely in any way upon this or that civil government, but must entirely fall back upon the spiritual power which exists in the Holy Catholic Church, by virtue of her union with her Lord. Of course they must use the civil power to a certain extent. The missionaries did not expect, when they went into a country like Africa, any protection from the natives; they knew perfectly well the conditions of life in Africa, and they would be sorry to have any interference in their behalf from the Government at home. But they could expect of the Government at home so far to interfere in behalf of its citizens as to use what influence diplomacy could give to prevent them, and the people amongst whom their lot was cast, from being tyrannised over and interfered with by other European Powers, especially as the missionaries had now been working among the natives for their spiritual welfare for nearly twenty years.

'Another principle which had been made clear by recent events was that it is fatal to missionary work for missionaries to attempt to gain for themselves any political power or any material wealth. Hints had been thrown out on the part of those in power that it would be very convenient--they did not go further than that--if, in the event of certain complications taking place, the Mission would be ready for a money consideration to shift the scene of its labours, as certain persons had done on the West Coast of Africa. But these were only hints which were thrown out, because he had given it to be clearly understood that missionaries of the Catholic Church, whatever other missionaries might do, when they had once settled in a country and had gained the love of its people, would never abandon it, and if civil powers threatened to remove the missionaries by force they had only one answer to give: "If you remove us by force we shall return; and the only way to get rid of us is to take our lives." Neither must any civil power expect the Mission to use its influence to change the natives, and to transform them from what they are, in their social and political condition, into subjects of an alien State. They did not want the people to suppose that to become Christians they must cease to be natives of their own country' [Side by side with this strong pronouncement of Bishop Smythies' policy it is amusing to place the opinion of a member of the German East African Company. 'England had a close diplomatic friendship of many years' standing with the Sultan of Zanzibar, and was casting covetous eyes on the mainland opposite. In their well-known manner, the English had sent their missionaries there, not only as apostles of humanity and Christianity, but as their first political agents.'--Rochus Schmidt, Deutschlands Kolonien, 1894.]

Meantime the German East African Company had naturally appealed to their Government for assistance in suppressing the rebellion caused by their own indiscretions, and the Government found themselves face to face with the question whether they were to undertake an expensive military expedition or to leave the Company to its fate. The latter alternative was, of course, impossible, after the promises of security granted in the charter. The ingenuity of Prince Bismarck hit upon a device for consolidating Germany's power in Africa, while at the same time gratifying the strongest Parliamentary party at home. He suggested the slave trade as the cause for armed intervention. Referring back to the negotiations of 1885, he now boldly suggested a blockade of the east coast, in which Germany and England should combine, to prevent 'the importation of arms and the exportation of slaves.' At the opening of the Reichstag by the young Emperor in person on November 22, the speech from the throne referred to Germany's new responsibilities in East Africa, to England's hundred years' conflict with the slave trade, and to the 'understanding' just arranged with the English Government for the suppression of the slave trade in East Africa.

A joint blockade was therefore declared on November 27, to come into force on December 2. Lord Salisbury was evidently well informed as to the real cause of the rebellion, although he, like Prince Bismarck, laid undue stress upon the question of the slave trade. Speaking in the House of Lords on November 6, he said:

I should say that the increase of the slave trade has been the disposing cause, and the very great errors committed by the Company have been the exciting cause, and the two together have resulted in the terrible misfortunes which have occurred.

And further to justify the part taken by England in the blockade he said:

If you close the German coast to the importation of arms and the exportation of slaves, it would simply lead to turning the traffic round to the English coast.

When Bishop Smythies reached Zanzibar on October 31 his sense of truth was outraged by the news that greeted him:

This new move is undoubtedly serious. It is of course only .... to make it appear that what they are now asserting is true, viz. that all this trouble is caused by the opposition of the slave traders instead of the monstrous conduct of the German Company. Everyone here knows the slave trade has nothing to do with it.

Finding that the blockade was imminent, that Bagamoyo and Lindi had already been bombarded by German ships, that 'natives are continually being murdered in cold blood by members of the German East African Company near Bagamoyo,' that 'the German ships have been steaming two miles from the mainland coast at night, and occasionally throwing shells promiscuously on to the land .... to overawe the natives,' and that 'we have reason to fear Pangani and Tanga will be bombarded,' the Bishop made every effort to travel to Magila in order that the Sisters might be conducted in safety to Zanzibar while the ports were still open.

Much was said both at home and abroad about the advisability of withdrawing the whole Mission staff, but on that point Bishop Smythies was absolutely firm. Later, when the coast was under blockade, and the war had assumed a still more serious aspect, strong representations were made by the Home Committee as to the necessity of withdrawing. Fortunately, however, the English episcopate, whose opinion was sought, was unanimously in favour of the missionaries remaining at their posts, and the vigorous letter of the present Archbishop of Canterbury (then Bishop of London) is given here as representing exactly the mind of Bishop Smythies, and advocating the only possible course for consistent Christians to take:

Fulham Palace, S.W.: May 18, 1889.

My dear Sir,--It seems to me quite impossible to advise Christian missionaries to withdraw from their work because that work has become dangerous. That any missionary under special circumstances may he justified in flight to save his life is undeniable; and particularly if there is a prospect of return. But to withdraw a Mission on general grounds of danger, after the missionaries have won people to Christ, would be indefensible. Are the converts to remain? Will they be in no danger? Will they not be in danger of what is worse than death, apostasy? Is it hereafter to be said that we have called men to Christ and then deserted them?

I cannot advise the withdrawal of the Mission for a single day.

Yours faithfully,


The Secretary, Universities' Mission to Central Africa.

Writing from Zanzibar, Bishop Smythies says:

The Consul-General was very anxious that we should all leave the district; but I have told him that it is quite impossible for missionaries to leave their flock in time of danger, though there are grave reasons in the case of the ladies. I intend myself to stay at Magila for the present; the Consul-General was anxious that I should come back here, and there is a great deal to be said for this. But on the whole I think it will have a better effect on the minds of the people on the mainland if I go and remain there. It will tend to give them the feeling that we can trust them without fear, and will be likely to make it easier to keep open a way of communication with Zanzibar. There is also the natural feeling that I should be where my brother missionaries are most in danger, and therefore where they may feel most comfort in the presence of their Bishop.

The Bishop accordingly crossed to Pangani, and gives the following account of his perilous experiences:

Pangani: November 13.

The Consul-General insisted very strongly on the necessity of bringing at least the ladies down before the blockade, and I went with him to the Sultan about it a second time. He said he would get the Admirals to postpone the blockade for a week, if his Highness would ensure me a safe passage and the return of the ladies. His Highness said he would send the father of the Liwalt of Pangani, an influential Arab, Nasr Bin Suliman, with me, with orders to the jumbes, or petty chiefs, who have a hand in managing the affairs of Pangani, to send me up with a proper guard.

The earliest time that he could send me was Sunday morning at eight o'clock, and, as no time was to be lost, I said I would be ready. We had a celebration of Holy Communion at six o'clock and were on the quay before 8 A.M., when we found that, in true Oriental fashion, nothing was ready, his Highness having forgotten to give the order. I went to the Consulate, and messages were sent and promises made, and we 'finally got off at 2 P.M. The men on the steamer had told us it was impossible we could go that day, and it was only by great persistence we got off at all, and this though the Consul had insisted, much to the dislike of the German Admiral, that the blockade should be put off for this very purpose.

It was thought better that no white men should go with me, so I took Petro Limo and Susi. We came in a little steamer, which the late Sultan had made, two or three years ago, to take his wives round to his palace at Chukwani, beyond Mbweni. The weather was very calm, but when a breeze sprang up at night one could tell, by the way the boat rolled, how very unsafe she would be if it was at all bad weather. The cabin is all windows, gilt and fitted up with heavy velvet cushions, but all in a dilapidated and untidy condition, and so infested with disagreeable insects that when I tried last night to sleep downstairs I was obliged to retreat on deck, though it was stormy, and, when driven down again by the rain, took up my quarters on the table as the least favourable position for attack on the part of the enemy.

As we started so late we could not reach Pangani on Sunday, but anchored off Fumbi, a little to the south. On Monday we started early, and as we approached the harrow passage into the Pangani River my Arab guardian asked me to go down into the cabin so that the people should not see me. I had not slept very well, and I must have fallen asleep as soon as I got down. I was awakened by the sound of firing and the whizz of bullets. I thought my Arab would have sent a boat on shore before we entered, but I suppose he did not believe the Sultan's flag would be fired upon. We were already inside the river, and there were numbers of people assembled on the shore in great excitement. I do not think they generally fired directly at the boat, but one bullet struck it on the side, and another went through the turban of an Arab soldier on deck. The shooting only lasted a few moments, when, I suppose, they recognised the Governor's father, Nasr Bin Suliman, and let him go ashore to them in a boat. We were then allowed to go in and anchor opposite the town in peace. After waiting a long time, the Arab came on board with Bushiri, a sort of brigand Arab chief, who lately ill-treated Dr. Meyer, and only released him on promise of a large ransom. Nasr Bin Suliman told me they had heard from Susi, whom I had sent before, that I was coming, and had intended to prevent my landing, but out of respect to the Sultan and the Arab they allowed us to come in; that the people of Pangani were willing for me to go up the country, but there were a great many people from the neighbouring tribes whose consent must be obtained. It was not safe for me to land, and I must remain till 4 P.M., when I should know.

So I stopped on board all day, and the Arab did not return till the evening, when he said that the jumbes would not agree; they thought they were not going to get anything of the ransom Dr. Meyer had promised, and they wished me to go back; that they would not interfere with our goods and letters, but that they did not want white people to pass through their town. Those at Magila must stay or go by another route, and if I wanted to go I must do the same. I asked if I might sleep at our house on shore, but he said they would not allow that. The Arab talked to me about giving the people money; and I think, if the Sultan had given him authority to spend a certain amount, the way would be open. I said it would never do for us to give large bribes to the people to let us go up; that was a matter for the Seyyid and the Consul who had arranged it. But as I had come so far, and it was not advisable for me to fail, I would give him the thousand rupees I was taking up for our use at Magila; but it must be given as by the Sultan, and I must not appear in it. He went away saying he would try what he could do the next day. It is now 11 A.M. and I fancy they have been talking all the morning.

Tuesday, Nov. 13; 5.20 P.M.---At last our Arab returned with Bushiri and some of the jumbes to say we can start to-morrow, and that I might go on shore, so I am now safe in our house with a guard of Arab soldiers, though I believe I should be perfectly safe now without it. I think unless there is a great change our men and goods will be safe in passing, but it will not be safe for missionaries to come through Pangani; we shall have to try other ports. But what will be the effect of a blockade I do not know. Perhaps no dhows will dare to come when they find that everyone is to be searched. And within a very short time it will be a bombardment, I feel sure, unless it is stopped from head-quarters, and that must mean cutting off all communication, as far as I can see.

All our friends in England might be asked to say daily a special prayer for us--for this poor country. Once more, I must insist that all the trouble is due to the Germans, and might have been certainly foreseen from their conduct, and they have nothing to gain from their present action but revenge.

Mkuzi: November 19.--.... On Wednesday I heard that some of the jumbes had been and sent word to Nasr Bin Suliman to say that I wished to see them if they came. In the afternoon, as the Arabs had promised, they came to say that all had been arianged for my going but that the soldiers who were to go with me could not get ready till the next morning. I had already sent on my boxes with the money I was taking up for the use of the Mission, and from this you will understand that no hindrance whatever was put in the way of our porters passing with goods either to or from Zanzibar.

The sole cause of the excitement was the appearance of a European under the circumstances of the great hopes excited by the large sum of money exacted as a ransom from Dr. Meyer, together with the fear that it would not be paid, and the knowledge that it had been lodged in the hands of the English Consul. I fancy that there may have been a great many who disapproved of Bushiri's action in exacting a promise for so large a sum; but now that it had been done, everyone expected, somehow or other, to have a share in it, and they were not inclined to let a white man pass without at any rate getting some instalment. On Wednesday evening one or two younger men came, and their leader asked me for money. I pointed out that my going up country was entirely the affair of the Sultan, and that it must be plain to them that if I gave anything to anyone I should be at once besieged with applications. I fancy this man may have made mischief.

On Thursday morning (November 15), ACkworth, our native catechist, left by a dhow, very early, for Zanzibar with letters. He had brought down a donkey for me from Magila. I got up before it was light and made ready to start. Soon after 6 A.M. I sent to Nasr Bin Suliman to say that we were all ready. He came and told me that at night a large number of the young men had had a dance, and had agreed that they would not let me go. They said that the jumbes and others had received money from the Sultan; that if I was the Sultan's guest why was I not sent up without? that if any money was distributed why should not they, who had all the trouble, and went down every day and watched on the shore, have their share of it? I must say I rather sympathised with them. The Governor said he would call the jumbes and would consult them again.

I had been told not to leave the house, but I thought it best to go out a little later--of course attended by my guard to the place where the council was being held. I told the Governor that I did not want to enter the country against the wish of the people; that if it caused disturbance and ill-feeling we had better go back to Zanzibar. He told me that he had ordered steam to be got up, but that he would await the coming of the jumbes, whom he had sent for.

Soon after I got back to our house it was surrounded by an excited crowd, chiefly, I suppose, of young men, who with great noise tried to force their way in. I was in an upper room looking on to the flat roof of the rest of the house, which is partly covered by a verandah, in which my guard was stationed. If I had been seen I should certainly have been shot at. Our servant Susi and the men who were with me ran in very much frightened, saying that they were trying to force their way in to kill me. I hardly think this would have been so, though I don't know what might have happened in their excitement. I believe the guards would have fought for me, and some great violence would have happened. That it did not do so was entirely due to the courage of Bushiri and another Arab who helped him. Bushiri stood in the doorway downstairs and said that no one should enter unless they killed him first. He was able to keep the crowd back, with great danger to himself as all my people say, until the other Arabs with their soldiers came up. He said that his quarrel was only with those foreigners who had oppressed the people, that he had guaranteed the safety of the missionaries, and he would see me safe up to Magila, even if he had to fight his way up.

On the appearance of the Arabs the crowd retired to a short distance, and the Governor sent to them to say that they would fight on my behalf if the others were determined to oppose my going; but if they did not wish to fight, let them send someone to arrange matters. It ended in three of the ringleaders being put in prison for a short time and all difficulties being composed. Probably some money was distributed, and the men afterwards released.

Next morning early (Friday, November 16), I left in safety without any sign of opposition, with a large and picturesque-looking guard, consisting of Bushiri and my other Arab friend, a young son of the Governor's to represent him, and one or two of the jumbes, and some hundred others--Arab soldiers and natives of the coast. I had again said, after the disturbance took place, that I would much rather go back to Zanzibar than cause any fighting, or pass through Pangani against the wishes of the people. But the Arabs felt that they were bound to show their loyalty to the Sultan of Zanzibar, and also that they had power to carry out his commands when they believed they were not really contrary to the interests of himself and his people.

We consider it about seven hours' journey for a caravan from Pangani to Mkuzi, our first station. This was successfully accomplished, and I sent on at once to Magila, three hours' further on, for the rest of the party from there who were going to Zanzibar. They arrived at Mkuzi late at night and started the next morning early (November 17), arrived at Pangani in the afternoon, and went straight on board the Sultan's steamer without any mishap of any kind. There were five ladies who went down, three of them being Sisters of Mercy who for the last year had devoted themselves to the welfare of the people. They were accompanied by three members of our Mission staff. One of the Sisters writes from Pangani, 'Everybody very friendly and kind; we were accompanied, I should think, by everyone in the town as we neared the coast.'

The Arabs have shown the utmost friendliness throughout without any exception, and the utmost loyalty to the Sultan. I am convinced that if the members of the German East African Company had shown a friendly disposition, had regarded the customs of the people, had waited till they had established themselves in the country, and made themselves valuable to the surrounding populations before they asserted their rights, all this trouble on the coast of East Africa need never have happened. But is it not contrary to all common-sense and experience to suppose that a mere handful of foreigners can enter a vast territory, and treat the natives as a conquered people, without an army, without even a police to support them? Might not anyone of common intelligence, who knew what was going on, have foreseen what was almost certain to happen?

I hope it will not be thought that I am prejudiced against the Germans. Had they done what in Germany they were expected to do--had they peacefully settled down in the country and developed trade--I should have welcomed their advent most sincerely. But the result of their coming has been that, after living safely among the people for nearly twenty years, our relations with them growing ever more friendly, we now see our work hindered, our position insecure, our lives possibly endangered, and our religion degraded because connected with violence and oppression--and all to what end? None of the consuls at Zanzibar, no one who really knows, thinks that what has been done will lead to the development of trade or the advancement of civilisation; rather there is reason to fear that both will be immeasurably retarded. [The contemporary German press was evidently of the same opinion. 'The numerous indiscretions of many of the officials of the German East African Company, coupled with their harsh treatment of the natives, and probably, too, of the Arabs, have brought the Company to the verge of ruin. The whole work of colonising German East Africa must be begun afresh.'--Illustrirte Welt, 1889.]

After thus seeing the Sisters and other ladies safely through to the coast, the Bishop himself took charge of Mkuzi, and was happy to be able to report a little later that all was quiet in the neighbourhood of Magila, and that the native prejudice against Europeans did not extend to the missionaries. The evacuation of the country by the German Company, and their temporary abandonment of their plantations, caused the Bishop to hope once more for a readjustment of the boundary line between the German and English territories, so that the English Mission stations might be included in British territory. The hope was, however, again disappointed. The joint blockade began; but in spite of the threatening aspect of affairs the Bishop spent a peaceful Christmas at Magila.

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