H. E. O’Neill RN v. The Reverend W. P. Johnson:
Hilary C. Palmer
Introduction: The background to this controversy
It is recorded that David Livingstone, the first European to chart the southern stretches of Lake Shirwa in northern Mozambique (whilst on his Zambesi expedition 1858 – 1864), presumed Lake Shirwa (or Kilwa/Chilwa)1 to be the source of the Lujenda river. This was a presumption perpetuated by those Britons who came to this region south-east of Lake Nyasa in the wake of the famed explorer’s death in 1873.2 These were largely missionaries and traders who, taking inspiration from Livingstone’s best-selling exposition of the local slave trade, arrived in the region bent on eliminating the evils of slavery via preaching the word of God and promoting the tenets of free, legitimate trade.
However as Britain’s commercial influence in the Portuguese territory grew, and Scottish missions were settled at Cape Maclear on Lake Nyasa in 1875 (Livingstonia mission which moved to Bandawe in 1881)3 and Blantyre in the Shire highlands in1876,4 so too did Portugal’s suspicion of her imperial rival’s intent. And ensuing efforts by the Portuguese to extend their authority over the Shire region were to have adverse effects on British interests. In 1882, for instance, an attempt by Portugal to assert its sovereignty over the peoples of the Shire river provoked fierce resistance from the Makololo people5 bringing trade on the Shire to a standstill. Therein Livingstonia and Blantyre were isolated - for the Shire was the only route in and out for these missions’ supplies. Such disruptions, together with the difficulties encountered in navigating the Zambesi/Shire route, soon persuaded British officials - consuls and missionaries – of the need to establish alternative overland routes to the coast.6 This was no easy task. The existing trade routes were the haunt of those slave-traders British legislation had vowed to destroy. Similarly daunting was the knowledge that none of these routes (linking Blantyre and the coast) had hitherto been traversed by Europeans.7 “Rumours of inhabitants of such a barbarous character it was unsafe for a white to go amongst them,”8 together with threats of “capital punishment” and “strangers invariably being treated as enemies”9 recorded by travellers such as Frederic Elton (the British Consul at Mozambique 1875 – 1877)10 served as effective deterrents until Henry Edward O’Neill, the British Consul at Mozambique 1879-1889 ( as well as an avid explorer), calculating that the source of these “rumours” was, invariably “those who traded amongst the [Makua and Lomwe] themselves”,11 chose to disregard them. For centuries, however, these traders successfully protected their markets12 and incidental to this the Makua and Lomwe’s cultural norms. It is acknowledged that despite a Portuguese presence on the coast dating back to 1505, it was not until the 1880s and O’Neill’s path-breaking journeys of exploration that any European ventured beyond thirty miles of the coast due west of Mozambique Island. However as the hinterland was opened up to European exploration, so was the potential for geographical feuding.
This then is the context in which the O’Neill/Johnson controversy - the focus of this paper - took place. It is a controversy which, like the Burton/Speke dispute before it, witnessed science challenging instinct as the basis of discovery. The nub of this controversy was uncovered in a memorandum now retained in the archives of the Royal Geographical Society.13 Its protagonists, introduced below, were men schooled in the ways of two institutions that can be seen as representative of the progressive and conservative forces at work in late-nineteenth century British society – the Royal Navy and Oxford University.
The Royal Navy’s function as the premier service safeguarding the interests of the world’s leading imperial and industrial power imposed demands that could only be met by an emphasis on the “modern”. International communication, for instance, was facilitated by a knowledge of modern languages and so the late-nineteenth-century service prioritised the teaching of modern languages, downgrading the importance of Latin and Greek.14 By the same premise, an understanding of technology15 was deemed a more appropriate ability than fluency in Homeric verse by a Navy struggling to retain its supremacy in the face of competition from growing powers like Germany and the USA. Expertise in sciences such as astronomy, ethnography, hydrology and botany was similarly seen as advantaging men whose work included fixing longitudes and latitudes in the interests of geographical accuracy, assigning ethnic identities to individuals rescued from slave dhows, and identifying and collecting botanical specimens that might profitably be redistributed throughout the Empire.16
Meanwhile the public school system and Oxbridge were steeping their scholars in the values of the classics. Rugby School’s syllabus of the 1860s shows that seventeen out of twenty-two hours teaching were devoted to the classics; only three out of twenty-two hours were spent on mathematics and two hours out of twenty-two on modern languages and natural philosophy (chemistry and electricity).17 Therein via Caesar and Tacitus a bureaucrat’s “virtues,” patriotism, imperialism, chivalry, self- sacrifice and integrity were transmitted to generations of boys, seventy-one percent of whom would enter government service either at home or in India.18
The Protagonists and a detailed examination of their dispute.
Lieutenant Henry Edward O’Neill RN was appointed Consul at Mozambique on 3 April 1879. Immediately prior to this, from 1875 to 1879, he was senior Boat Officer stationed aboard HMS London on slave patrol in the Pemba Channel, off Zanzibar. His naval career begun as a boy recruit to HMS Britannia in 1862, and encompassing duties aboard such vessels as the Victory, Royal Oak and Duke of Wellington,19 had fitted the young Lieutenant well for the post at Mozambique. For example, fluency in Swahili, a valuable tool to nineteenth-century explorers of East Africa,20 was acquired via O’Neill’s participation in a naval scheme offering “financial incentives” to officers prepared to qualify in “native languages.”21 Similarly his skill as an astronomer gained as “a youngster at sea”, and thereafter ”utilized in the service of geography”22 saw him awarded the Royal Geographical Society’s prestigious Gold Medal in 1885 for “his thirteen journeys of exploration along the coast and in the interior of Mozambique” as well as “his extensive series of lunar observations to fix the longitude of Blantyre”.23 These established the Scottish mission as a secondary meridian in East Central Africa.24
William Percival Johnson was recruited to the Universities’ Mission while still an undergraduate at Oxford. The plans he had made for joining the Civil Service in India had been set aside when “he heard the voice of someone calling to him from afar – ‘Come over into Africa and help us.’”.25 The young graduate arrived in Zanzibar in 1876 and was ordained an Anglican deacon there by Bishop Steere, the cleric responsible for overseeing the erection of the Anglican Cathedral on the site of the old slave market in Zanzibar. The following year he transferred south to the Mission’s Lindi house in northern Mozambique. Johnson’s vocation as perceived by a colleague was ”to gather into one the children of God that were scattered abroad.”26 This he strove to do for more than fifty years, retiring as Archdeacon of Nyasa.
For reasons of state and Church then - in short, keeping an eye on international competitors, trade, slavery and souls27- both Consul O’Neill and the Reverend Johnson were to journey simultaneously in northern Mozambique during the 1880s. Each recorded his journeys for the Royal Geographical Society and therein courted a controversy that was to divide the membership of that Society - for both men were to claim and later counterclaim “discovery” of the northern part of Lake Shirwa, long assumed to be the source of the Lujenda river.
W. P. Johnson’s initial claim to “discovery”of “the Lake Shirwa of Livingstone, the northern part of which had never been seen before” (by a European) came in 1882. His account of Shirwa ,“a large lake with a few islands in it and grass grown margins swarming with hippopotami and water-fowl,” confirmed by him upon “discovery” as the source of the Lujenda river,28 appeared in the Royal Geographical Society’s Proceedings of August 1882. This account and his accompanying map of the area clearly represented Shirwa as a single body of water.
However O’Neill, who journeyed to the area in August-September 1883 expressly to explore “the eastern and northern shores of Lake Shirwa and the supposed connection of the lake with the Lujenda river”29 was quick to repudiate the clergyman’s claim. A talk, delivered on his behalf to members of the Royal Geographical Society on the evening of 28 April 1884, emphasised that while it was in no captious spirit [he] brought forward ... arguments in disproof of the statement that Mr Johnson visited Lake Shirwa and ‘traced the source of the Lujenda [river] to that lake,’” it was in the interests of geography “that such a mistake should be placed in the clearest light.”30
O’Neill’s “arguments” rested on geographical and scientific data. A skilled cartographer, his own map of the area based on “seven detached topographical sketches”31 illustrated that two smaller lakes, Chiuta and Amaramba, lay to the north of Lake Shirwa – therefore the area could not be depicted as a single body of water. Furthermore, his “careful examination of the northern extremity of Lake Shirwa,” informed by his knowledge of hydrography, revealed that it had “no regular constant outlet to the north...and [therefore could] not discharge into the Lujenda river.” .32 Johnson’s observation that looking eastward from Shirwa “only a few detached rocks [are] visible” was similarly challenged. For fixing his position by lunar observations and chronometer readings O’Neill estimated that looking eastward from the north-west of Lake Shirwa one could in fact see “a continuous line of hills.” One hill in particular, Chikala, was as he pointed out “difficult to overlook,” given it rose “precipitously to a height of 2000 to 2500 feet and [Johnson] would have been under the very shadow of it.”33 In further support of his argument O’Neill used statements from the Mambasi and Mikoko peoples of Lake Shirwa that “no white man had been seen there until my [own] arrival.”
Conversely O’Neill used claims from the people of Lake Amaramba that “an Englishman had visited them a couple of years back from the westward”, together with his estimation that Johnson’s observations “perfectly described the country east of Lake Amaramba,” if not Lake Shirwa, as proof of what he considered the basis of Johnson’s error – the missionary “had arrived at Lake Amaramba and not Lake Shirwa.”34
Johnson revisited the disputed area in November 1883. The account of this later journey was read to assembled members of the Royal Geographical Society on 17 June 1884, two months after his original account was publicly refuted. Yet despite O’Neill’s suggestion, in light of the above evidence, that Johnson had mistaken Lake Amaramba for Lake Shirwa, Johnson’s latest description of Lake Shirwa tallied exactly with that which he had published in 1882. The lake’s banks remained reed-fringed and swampy; they were not the “dry and lightly wooded”35 undulations O’Neill’s account had described for the Society’s members that April. Moreover, the map that accompanied Mr. Johnson’s account of his most recent journey still clearly represented ‘Lake Shirwa, Chilwa, Kilwa’ (see figure 4) as one body of water. In its failure to acknowledge O’Neill’s concerns, so recently voiced to the Society, this account supported Johnson’s earlier claim of “discovery.”
As the aforementioned memo dated 17 October 1884 and lodged in the archives of the Royal Geographical Society records, the Consul read Johnson’s apparent disdain for his own carefully collated estimations in relation to Lake Shirwa as a personal affront. “I feel,” he writes, “that I have been attacked and that not in the pleasantest manner, not by words and directly, but indirectly and by imputation,” and “ all who choose to read Mr Johnson’s descriptions of the district ... and compare with it my remarks read before your Society on April 28th last, must, at once, acknowledge it.” O’Neill projected the dilemma as a question of honour, for “were Mr Johnson’s delineation and description of Lake Shirwa and the lakes that form the headwaters of the Lujenda and not mine [proven to be] the correct one then I should most unworthily and dishonourably have abused [the Society’s] trust.”36 O’Neill wrote with confidence for he judged his honour secure, a second exploration of the area undertaken whilst “lately travelling from Blantyre to Quillimane” between July and September of 1884 having confirmed him in his earlier estimation that “Mr Johnson’s map of Lake Shirwa entirely misrepresents the ‘form,’ ‘character’ and ‘connection’ of what are three distinct sheets of water.”37
The memo then expresses regret for “any remarks which might have the appearance of depreciating Mr Johnson’s work,” before launching an attack on Mr Johnson’s mode of exploration. The Consul was well qualified to criticise the cleric’s journey of November 1883 for, as his memo next reveals, his investigation into its route and demeanour had been rigorous. “I followed for a considerable part of the way Mr Johnson’s track in the journey made by him in November last,” he writes, “and, upon this journey, I was accompanied by a man whom no doubt Mr Johnson will remember called Bill, who was, I believe, his personal attendant upon his journey.” This hints at the inquisitorial nature of O’Neill’s latest journey. Its full extent becomes apparent as he continues:
“Naturally anxious to discover how far our route corresponded with Mr Johnson’s we enquired at every point as to his movements, not only from his native servants but also at all the villages at which we stopped and we were much surprised to find that he rarely, if ever, stopped at a village, always passing on and sleeping at some forest encampment where no people were.” 38
O’Neill’s view of exploration was shaped by his years as senior Boat Officer aboard HMS London in the Pemba Channel. His experiences there, tracking down dhows that might be involved in the illegal transport of slaves for instance, or on-shore locating leaves and seeds of rare species of trees and plants for shipment back to the Royal Botanical Gardens (Kew),39 fostered an opinion that it was communication, enquiry of the indigenous population, that reaped the most accurate information. Therein, if one wanted to “discover” the whereabouts of obscure east African lakes, river sources, and hills one simply asked the local peoples. “Anybody,” he attested, “who has travelled in Africa knows well that it is at the villages and by enquiries made quietly in the mornings spent amongst the inhabitants that information as to the country is chiefly to be gained.”40 To this end O’Neill had become conversant in the Makua and Lomwe languages.
Information was not so easily elicited by Johnson, however. For at this stage in his mission he possessed only a few words of Makua and an ”imperfect” knowledge of Swahili; “even the little Swahili primer...I used to go about with was not very useful.”41 This inability to converse with the Lakes’ peoples probably influenced both Johnson’s preference for solitary camp sites and his choice of a guide from Blantyre.42 A dubious choice in O’Neill’s view, for “while a guide from a distant district may be capable of guiding you over a well beaten caravan route, it is not from such a one that correct information regarding the rivers, hills and general features of the country is to be gained.”43
The published account of this latter journey from Blantyre to Quillimane was penned by Daniel Rankin,44 a young explorer who had accompanied O’Neill from the Scottish mission at Blantyre to Quillimane, and it was read before assembled members of the Royal Geographical Society on 29 February 1885, together with O’Neill’s account of the outward journey Quillimane to Blantyre.45 Neither man’s paper made reference to the Consul’s scrupulous detour into Mr Johnson’s route of November 1883, or to the Lakes’ area. However the discussion following the paper’s reading by the Reverend Chauncy Maples illustrates that, whether they were aware of the contents of O’Neill’s memorandum or not, the O’Neill v Johnson dispute remained a matter for controversial debate amongst the Society’s members.
The Venerable Archdeacon Farler, for example, first praising O’Neill’s ”very great work of geography” in East Africa, then revealed that instinct led him to favour Mr Johnson’s claim in regard to the source of the Lujenda. “Mr Johnson describes [Shirwa] as the head-waters of the Lujenda river, but Mr O’Neill thought it was not,” however “the more I read on the subject the more [I can] not help feeling that Mr Johnson was right – that Shirwa really was the head-water of the Lujenda.”46 In similarly partial fashion Sir Foxwell Buxton in acknowledging the extent of the O’Neill’s journeying then attributed the credit for this firmly with the Oxbridgian old school, implied that an element within the Society viewed the young naval officer’s behaviour in this affair as less than gentlemanly.
“It is true that Mr O’Neill travelled …much more than Captain Elton [his predecessor] did a few years ago, but probably ... more from the fact that the whole region had now learned something of what Englishmen were like … due to the experiences the natives had had of Mr Maples and his colleagues”.47
“Mr Maples’ colleagues” included W. P. Johnson, a close friend at Oxford. The young gentlemen had been recruited to the Universities Mission together,48 and were now fellow missionaries in northern Mozambique. It is certain that the openness and intensity of O’Neill’s enquiry into Johnson’s claims of “discovery” earned him the disapprobation of some at the Royal Geographical Society. A letter he wrote to the Society’s Librarian Dr Scott Keltie in 1893 reveals “I cannot forget that my relations with one or two officials of your Society have not, in times past, been such as I can look upon with pleasure.”49 Yet O’Neill’s estimations of the nature of Lake Shirwa and its connection with the Lujenda garnered majority support in this dispute. This was probably because his findings were known to be rooted in scientific evidence rather than instinct, and were the outcome of meticulous planning and organisation, 50 whereas Johnson in his 1883 account admits to having “lost” the notes recording his 1882 “discovery.”51
O’Neill’s support was especially evident amongst members domiciled in East Africa, including the Reverend Maples, who concluded that February evening’s discussion by questioning Buxton’s estimation of where the credit for the Consul’s exploration lay. For “while O’Neill’s predecessor Captain Elton was not wanting in intrepidity [he] was never able to go beyond Pao Mountain, thirty miles from Mozambique,” yet “since that time Mr O’Neill has gone [into the hinterland] repeatedly.”52 Praise for O’Neill was also forthcoming on the home front. The President of the Society, upon presentation of the Society’s Gold Medal to O’Neill in July 1885, seconded Maples’ appreciation of the pioneering nature of his journeys, observing that he “had executed a great number of expeditions through regions wholly unknown to Europeans.”53 O’Neill’s own calculation was that his journeys totalled approximately 4000 miles in sum and that “nearly half of these were over previously unbroken ground.”54 Notable amongst these path-breaking journeys were his two expeditions into the Makua and Lomwe countries in 1881 and 1883.55
For O’Neill was not only the first European to be allowed into the Makua and Lomwe territories whilst they retained their independence, he was the last,56 in that Portuguese attempts to meet the profitable and escalating demand for African labour that came with the mid-1880s’ discovery of South Africa’s diamonds and gold swiftly acted as a catalyst to these little-known peoples’ dissolution.57 By 1910 their countries had been conquered and incorporated into the Portuguese territory.58 Thus O’Neill’s accounts of the Makua and Lomwe’s social, economic and political circumstances are unique.
Corroboration for O’Neill’s estimations in regard to Lake Shirwa was to come from another colleague of Johnson’s in East Africa, Bishop Smythies, head of the Universities’ Mission, whose “remarks” as reported in the Journal of the Manchester Geographical Society “concerning the true source of the Lujenda river, and the minor lakes Chiuta and Amaramba fully [bore] out O’Neill’s description of them.” “I am glad to see that all I have said independently from an unscientific point of view, about the country that I passed through by accident, coincides with [O’Neill’s] accurate and careful account,”59 wrote Smythies.
Meanwhile an 1885 letter from the Reverend Alexander Hetherwick of the Scottish mission at Blantyre, but based at Domasi “which commands a fine view of the Lake” (Shirwa), sought to qualify O’Neill’s observations via his own calculation that “the waters of Lake Shirwa drain through the sand into Lake Chiuta and thence to the Lujenad.”60 O’Neill, who judged Hetherwick, if not Johnson, “a close and sound observer,” was prepared to accept this finding. “I must rest satisfied with having corrected the erroneous impression previously held, that the Lujenda river issued from Lake Shirwa – an impression unfortunately strengthened by the mistake of a missionary who in 1882 believed he had traced the source of the river to that lake”61 he wrote in 1885. However by 1887 following further intensive exploration of Lake Shirwa, Hetherwick writing to O’Neill conceded, “There can be no drainage from Shirwa into Chiuta, so any theory of mine on that subject has gone to the winds.”62 Today’s maps confirm that Lake Shirwa has no outlet.
This correspondence was published in The Scottish Geographical Magazine along with Hetherwick’s affirmation of O’Neill’s findings in relation to the composition of the lakes. The “three lakes are quite distinct as you say; Chiuta and Amaramba being separated by the part of the Lujenda called Msambiti as on your map.” The editor of the Magazine sums up this whole episode in his comment that “Consul O’Neill first disconnected the Shirwa from the Lujenda Drainage system, and the evidence of Bishop Smythies ... and now of Mr Hetherwick more than confirms what Mr O’Neill said in his paper”63 read to the Society’s members on O’Neill’s behalf on 28 April 1884.
As to the true source of the Lujenda river? Today’s Webster’s New Geographical Dictionary states that the Lujenda “issues from the north end”64 of Lake Chiuta, as O’Neill’s own map clearly illustrates.65 And lying to the north of Lake Chiuta, exactly as O’Neill described it, lies Lake Amaramba.66 The conclusion to the O’Neill v Johnson controversy runs counter then to the conclusion of the Burton/Speke dispute which saw Speke’s instinct emerge victorious67 (Lake Victoria Nyanza was scientifically confirmed as the source of the Nile) - in that science triumphed over instinct. Increasingly this proved to be the case. For whilst establishing good relations with the indigenous population remained the key to successfully locating geographical features as yet unknown to Europeans (serendipity played little part), it was no longer considered sufficient to merely visit and vaguely map out a description of one’s “discovery” – a full geographical survey was deemed essential.
So what became of the two protagonists in this latter dispute? O’Neill’s above reference to “the missionary” and his “mistake” is his last found reference to Johnson. And with amazing disregard, Johnson’s autobiographical My African Reminiscences, which covers the first twenty years of his mission in East Africa, omits any reference to O’Neill, the leading British official in northern Mozambique 1879 to 1889. Yet the Consul’s predecessor Captain Elton, his successor to the post H. H. Johnston, and the various other Britons resident in East Central Africa at that time all receive elaborate attention. Notably neither does Johnson make reference to his “discovery” of the northern shore of Lake Shirwa which he had once verified as the source of the Lujenda river.
As earlier observed, Johnson was to stay on in Africa for many more years, while O’Neill took up the Consulship in Leghorn in 1889, later becoming Consul for Rouen 1891-1899.68 The breadth and importance of Lieutenant O’Neill’s exploration has yet to be recognised. In the late nineteenth century, as the scramble for Africa gathered pace and one purported discovery rapidly eclipsed another, his novel exploits were soon forgotten, and his obituary in the Geographical Journal records his “labours” as merely “supplementing those of the great pioneers.”69
Unlike the renowned participants of similar but well chronicled geographical controversies such as Burton and Speke, O’Neill and Johnson are forgotten men. Yet this paper asserts that their dispute, if seemingly minor, contributes nevertheless to that watershed in the history of nineteenth-century exploration which saw the newly important sciences displace instinct as the basis of discovery, and the professional approach usurp the amateur, in the competitive international realm at least, and this constituted the operational domain of a progressive Royal Navy. On the domestic front, however, where remembrance of the 1789 overthrow of the existing order in France still dictated that preservation of the existing order in Britain be deemed paramount, conservatism and the generalist bureaucrat continued to hold sway.
This tension between these two forces of continuity and change which governed late nineteenth-century British policy is clearly discernible in the differing emphases placed on education by institutions such as the Royal Navy and the public school system, and is reflected in the attitudes and attainments of their protégés - men like Johnson and O’Neill.
Until 1883 there was confusion as to whether Shirwa and Kilwa (or
Chilwa) were names for the same expanse of
water. See Notes, Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society,
11 (1882). This was the case, yet the various names persisted.
For clarity’s sake however the lake will be referred to as
Shirwa throughout this paper; its most popular title in the late
nineteenth century. Today
it is commonly known as Chilwa.
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