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The Martyres of Blantyre
Chapter IV. Henry Henderson, the Pioneer


Henry Henderson was a son of the Manse, his father being the late Rev. Hr. Henderson of Kinclaven, in Perthshire, where he was born in 1843. The old church and Manse stand in a charming rural spot close by the Tay, without even a village near, so that his earliest impressions of God’s great world were gathered from a beautiful picture of field and wood and river, with the blue hills behind,—the stillness unbroken by the roar of the city, and God’s clear sky undimmed by any cloud of earthly smoke. It was no wonder that all his life he loved to be where Nature’s book was open to him, and that he could never feel at home among the restraints of city life.

He received the godly and hardy upbringing which so often has made the sons of the Manse the men they are. His father, who was somewhat of the sterner type of the old school, taught his sons himself till they were fourteen, and then sent them off to school and college; but to Henry, who was the youngest, there was perhaps less of stern severity shown than to the others. Being without companions of his own age, lie was much with his father, to whom he became useful in many respects. As a boy he was thoughtful and sagacious, and rather quaint in his ways, often causing amusement to the other members of the family. All his life he was most conscientious and rigidly honest, never pretending to be better than he really was. He was not over-fond of prolonged study, and was always ready to take part in outdoor occupations, caring little what remarks might be made about him provided what he was doing were necessary or useful. Much amusement was caused one winter, when, the office of beadle having become vacant—rather a despised office in those days—Harry, then a boy of thirteen, offered to ring the church bell and carry up the Bible to the pulpit, only stipulating that he should carry up the Bible before the people came into church. His offer was accepted, and for a whole winter he discharged the duty quite readily. About the same time one of the parish “bodies” said to him she supposed he would be going to be a minister, but his reply was prompt and characteristic. “No,” he said, “I am not. I can’t take care of my own soul, and how could I take care of the souls of other people?” The same tone of mind and feeling continued when the time came for him to decide on his future career. He could not be induced to enter the ministry, doubting his own motives and dreading a responsibility so great. At the age of sixteen he went to the University of Edinburgh, where he passed through a full Arts course in a manner which gave promise of useful work in any profession which he might have adopted. But he did not feel that any of the professions offered the sphere of service for which he was fitted. His inborn love of travel and adventure led him to look abroad, and accordingly at the age of twenty, furnished with a few letters of introduction, he set forth to seek his fortune in Queensland. He was fortunate in getting good situations, and for twelve years he remained in the bush, seeing a great deal of bush-life. If he had chosen he might have established his fortunes there, for his character and powers were such that he was soon trusted, and offers were made to him which most men would have accepted, and which, in the prosperous days twenty years ago, would certainly have led him to wealth. At one time there joined him two young men from home, both gentlemen’s sons, and perhaps it was in observing them that he was able clearly to study himself. Anyhow, he soon came to feel that all of them were out of their proper sphere. It was not long till one of them returned home, and after a course of study became a clergyman of the Church of England. The other also came home, and soon after died; while Henderson, having grown year by year more dissatisfied with the selfishness and self-seeking of a colonist’s life of that time, felt within him a growing desire for a life in which he would have greater opportunities of usefulness and of benefiting his fellow-creatures—for some form of service, if possible, in which he might help the spread of Christianity. In the hope of finding some such sphere he returned home. He again enrolled himself as a student in one or two of the classes in Edinburgh University, thinking it might possibly prove useful to him in some way. Here again, like an attractive vision, the idea of the ministry presented itself to him, but again harassed with doubts as to his fitness for it, he abandoned the idea. More than a year he had passed thus, hoping and waiting for some path of usefulness to open up to him, when one day in the Advocates’ Library he happened to turn over the pages of the Missionary Record, and read of a proposal to organise a Mission to Central Africa as the Church of Scotland’s memorial to Dr. Livingstone, and of the desire to find some one who would go as a pioneer to prepare the way for it. Like a flash of inspiration, or a voice from God, came the thought that here was the opportunity he had been waiting for. He could not be a minister, but he could be a pioneer missionary. He had learned what it was to “rough it” in the Australian bush. He could wander over lonely hills; he could sleep under the stars; he could endure hunger and fatigue, and could turn his hand to anything that needed to be done. Here was a chance of serving his Church, serving his fellow-men, serving Christ. He would go to Africa to open the way for others, and as a missionary live a Christian life among the heathen. God’s pillar of cloud before him was moving forward, and he would follow it; so he offered himself to the Committee of this African Mission, of which the late Dr. Macrae, Hawick, was convener, and his services were gladly accepted. The Foreign Mission Committee of the Free Church, largely inspired by the enthusiasm of the Rev. James Stewart (now Dr. Stewart of Lovedale), was organising an advance party to visit the shores of Lake Nyasa and select a site where a Mission party, to go out the following year, might take up their headquarters. No sooner had this been determined on than the Reformed Presbyterian Church, the Church of Scotland, and the United Presbyterian Church all requested to be allowed to have a share in the movement; and surely it was a token for good that the Scottish Churches could thus unite for such a work. The United Presbyterian Church, though precluded by other responsibilities from undertaking missionary work in Central Africa, generously placed at the disposal of the Free Church Committee, for a time at least, the services of the Rev. Dr. Robert Laws, a medical missionary, who had been intended for service in another field; and the Church of Scotland, already preparing to plant a Mission in the neighbourhood of Lake Nyasa, requested that their pioneer missionary might be allowed to accompany the expedition and receive from it such assistance as it might be in the power of its members to render. That pioneer was Henry Henderson. Few men could have been found better fitted for such a work. It was just the kind of work in. which he had spent the last twelve years in the Australian bush. And yet he often spoke of it as a strange reversal of the kind of life he had at first planned out for himself. He had always shrunk from the idea of having to deal with uncivilised races. It was for that reason he had gone to Queensland, where there was least chance of contact with aboriginal tribes. Now he found himself despatched to a land where he would be plunged alone, perhaps for years, into the heart of the life which he felt would try him more than any other. How often do we find that that from which a man naturally shrinks turns out to be the calling whereunto God has called him!

The expedition, which was placed under the command of Mr. E. D. Young, R.N., included, besides Dr. Laws and Mr. Henderson, a carpenter, two engineers, an agriculturist, and a seaman of the royal navy, eight good men and true, who bravely discharged the commission entrusted to them. They sailed from London on the 20th May 1875, and on the 23rd July they cast anchor in the Kongone mouth of the Zambezi. The first duty enjoined on them was to launch on Lake Nyasa a steamer which they had brought out with them, built for the purpose, and named the Ilala after the place where Livingstone had died. They landed her on the beach at the Kongone mouth, steered her through the shallows of the Zambezi and the Shire, unscrewed her into eight hundred pieces at the Murchison Falls, and had these pieces carried on the heads of an army of eight hundred natives over a roadless track for upwards of sixty miles, not one single piece being wanting at the journey’s end. There they reconstructed the steamer and launched her again on the Upper Shird. It was a lovely morning, the 12th of October, when with a gentle breeze the Ilala rode over the swell as the great blue waters of Nyasa received the first steam-vessel that had ever entered an African lake. “ God speed you,” said Mr. Young reverently. “ Amen,” responded his companions. Then they sang a hymn together, and a service of devout thanksgiving was conducted on the deck of the little vessel. The African stillness was broken by a new song, even praise to our God, and the dream of Livingstone for the healing of Africa began to be a reality. Of the brave men who stood there that day only one—Dr. Laws of Bandawe—now remains in Africa, left alone since they laid Henry Henderson to his rest in the cemetery at Quilimane.

In all the work of this memorable expedition Henderson had his full share. Six days later he was present when the foundations of Livingstonia, the station of the Free Church Mission, were laid at Cape Maclear; and when the work of station-building was fairly begun, he started, along with Dr. Laws and Mr. Young, on a voyage of exploration round the lake, his Committee’s instructions to him being to proceed first to Lake Nyasa. The hardships and privations of that voyage are well told by Mr. Young in his “Journal of a Mission to Nyasa.” The tremendous gales and fearful seas which they encountered justified the title which Livingstone had given to it, “the Lake of Storms.” Then the vessel was small and the accommodation limited. There was a narrow space between the gunwale of the vessel and the cabin-wall, and into this Henderson had to squeeze himself every night; and ever afterwards, until improvements altered the plan of the vessel, this bole was called “Henderson’s Coffin.” Hunger, too, was added to other discomforts, and provisions were dealt out with a sparing hand. On one occasion Henderson was driven by hunger to barter his handkerchief at a village where they stopped for a mess of native porridge and rotten fish. But all privations were taken without complaint as part of the contract. His examination of the shores of the lake satisfied him that it was unsuitable for European occupation, so he resolved to turn back and explore the Shir6 Highlands, the mountainous district to the south-east of the lake. These Livingstone had always praised, and thither the great traveller had himself led the first Central African Mission of the English Universities. That Mission had had to be abandoned, leaving the graves of the noble Bishop McIvenzie and his three companions; but kindly memories of “the English” still lived among the native inhabitants. To that district Henderson accordingly turned. The Ilala brought him down as far as Nsapa, on the Upper Shire, and from there, with Tom Bokwito (a freed slave of the old Bishop M'Kenzie days) as his interpreter, and four native carriers to carry his loads, he started to explore the Shire Hills. And now he was indeed on that strange and lonely path which God had marked for him to be his own. Eound the north side of Mount Zomba he went. He stayed for some days with an old chief, Malemya, close to where Domasi Station now stands; then he journeyed on to the neighbourhood of Mount Chirazulo. Everywhere the natives flocked to gaze upon the first white man they had ever seen. At Hgludi Hill (near Soche) the illness of his servant kept him for ten days, and gave him a good opportunity of familiarising himself with the district. The headman of the village sent him on to his chief, Kapeni, then living on the slopes of Mount Ndirande. Everything seemed favourable, and everywhere he was welcomed. Gradually but surely the feeling deepened on his spirit that he was now in the neighbourhood of the place he was in search of. He was on the high, healthy plateau, and yet within easy reach of the river, the means of communication with the coast. The natives were eager that the English should come to stay among them, for they would protect them from the marauding Angoni, before whose raids they had been driven to these hills. The natives guided him to several likely spots, and from these he selected two, either of which would be suitable. With his mind so far made up, but leaving the final decision till he should return with the members of the Mission party, whose arrival was now almost due, he made his way down towards the river. About three miles from his camp on Mount Ndirande he halted to luncli under the shade of a large tree on the banks of a stream. On the ridge above him were the ruins of a native village whose inhabitants had fled from fear of the Angoni. One solitary hut remained, inhabited by an old woman, whom neither the fear of wild beasts nor fear of the still wilder Angoni had been able to drive from what she called her home. Henderson sat there under that great tree, looking at this ridge and the ruined huts that crowned it. It was one of the two sites he had fixed on. Blantyre Church, schoolhouses, garden, work-shops, and coffee-fields crown it to-day. .The wilderness and the solitary place are glad, and the desert rejoices and blossoms as the rose.

Thus it was that Henderson chose the site of Blantyre. Not long ago, before the sad tidings of his death had come, the author of “Light in Africa”— himself one who had spent twelve years in an African mission-field—said to me, “I do not know whether your Church recognises her indebtedness to Henry Henderson or not, but even if he had done nothing but chosen the site of Blantyre, that itself would have been worthy to be a life’s work.” The site, in the opinion of all who have visited it, is singularly well chosen. The ground rises from the river in a succession of terraces, and Blantyre is on the third of these, about 3000 feet above the sea. Gushing springs and flowing streams abound, the scenery is beautiful and picturesque, the soil is fertile, there is abundance of good timber, the chiefs are friendly, the people are willing to receive instruction, and the climate is unusually healthy. In the words of Livingstone, “it needs no quinine.” Even in presence of the recent melancholy events, we must not forget that the Mission had been fifteen years there without one single death that could be attributed to the climate.

Having determined on the site, Henderson took up his quarters in Ramukukan’s village, among the Makololo, on the Lower Shire, to await the coming of the expected Mission party. And wearily he had to wait, day after day and week after week. The fever that haunts the river caught him, and for days he was confined to his hut, all alone in his weakness, his only companions his New Testament, the “Christian Year,” and a volume of Cowper’s Poems. Each day his plate of native porridge and beans was cooked and brought to him by one of the chiefs wives. Thus week after week passed without tidings of the expected party, till three months had gone. Then he borrowed a canoe from the chief and set off down the river in search of news of them. All the way to the Kongone mouth he went, only to spend another weary month of idle waiting there. He was ill; a single tin of sardines was all the English food he had with him. Native food was scarce and dear, and his troubles threatened to become worse, when news came that the party had arrived at Quilimane, and were on their way up the Kwakwa to join him on the Zambezi. Great was their disappointment when they learned that not Lake Nyasa but the Shire Hills was to be the site of the future Mission. The succeeding days were days of trial and worry and disappointment and fever. They ascended the river in boats and canoes, the only means of communication in those days, but it was slow and weary work. Ultimately they reached Ramukukan’s, and here Henderson left the others while he ascended the hills to make preparation for their coming in a day or two. Several of the half-ruined huts were repaired, and on the 23rd October 1876 the remainder of the Mission party came up, took possession and founded Blantyre. Once they were well settled Henderson considered his task done and returned home for a time, He had found what he had been sent to seek—a site for a Mission. Two years later, however, saw him again in Africa, and, with intervals of two visits home and a short visit to a brother in India, he remained there till his death. His heart was in the Mission and his hand was ready to serve it. It would be difficult to say what was his department or what it was exactly that he did. He always shrank from the responsibility of fixed and definite work. He was no public speaker and did not preach, but he had a grand ideal of what the Mission life should be—a stooping-down to live a Christ-like life among the native people. He supplied that which is of such importance in any Mission, and especially in a Mission like Blantyre. He was always everywhere, seeing that everything and everybody was right. The natives called him by a name which meant “ the man who never sleeps.” If goods had to be brought up from the river, he would see about it; if something were wanted for the school, or the church, or the work-shops, or the garden, or the cattle, Mr. Henderson was the man to look to for it. If a chief had to be treated with, or a village trouble arranged, or a gap anywhere to be filled, or an ulendo (a journey) undertaken, or any special work to be done at home in Blantyre, in the bush, or on the march, Mr. Henderson was always ready. It is impossible to overestimate what he was to the Mission—a wise and judicious counsellor and an unfailing help in any time of need.

The last time I saw him was in February 1888, the day on which, in the little Scotch church in Caledonian Boad, London, I married him to Miss Harriet Bowie, the younger sister of Mrs. D. Clement Scott. Oh, how proud he looked that day standing by the bright, brave young wife who was going to share with him the cares of the Mission in that African home ! As on a new lease of service he went forth again, the spirit of such willing service being abundantly shared by his gifted wife. Wherever they were needed,—in whatever part of the work they could be of most service,—that was where they both desired to be. This was the law of life for them both. And what a vast field of usefulness does such a readiness open up in a place like Blantyre, where there are so many-little things to be seen to that do not technically belong to anybody in particular, but are for the help and comfort of all!

“We have as yet made Blantyre our headquarters,” he wrote after returning, “contenting ourselves with two trips—one to Chirazulo and one to Milanje. It is our intention to go to Domasi soon, at least for a week or two, to see if we can be of use there in any way. I believe the place would be much benefited by a white woman being there, if only for the sake of the bachelors, who are not always able to look to their own comforts.” They went to Domasi, and the weeks lengthened out into months, and the presence of the white woman, so- bright and capable, so thoughtful for every one, and so industrious and practical, came like a fountain of refreshing to the little community there. They made a trip to Milanje, where the presence of Mrs. Henderson was taken as a guarantee that their errand was a peaceful one, and they were well received both by the chief and his people.

After some time they returned to Blantyre, where they were both greatly wanted for the ever-increasing demands of the work there. Most heartily they threw themselves into it, and many a graphic picture of life in that hive of industry came home, flashed in quick touches in the personal letters of the clever young wife. “ Every one here is as busy as can be,” she wrote. “ There is endless work, and the sweating system is in vogue! Most of the wives in Blantyre will be able soon to take medals as either charwomen, bakers, laundresses, &c., and two of them would be able to qualify at once as skeletons! You can have no idea of the work. It is delightful work, and we all enjoy it, but all the same it is very hard. . . . We have started ‘the Blantyre Laundry,’ with one customer to begin with. Mr. Buchanan is making a large table, and we hope to get lots of irons, &c., from home. We will not, however, enlarge our custom till Mrs. Fenwick returns. Wonders are going to happen then. Just now is the trying season of the year. Every one is more or less ‘seedy’ except myself. Mrs. Scott is too hard-worked, and Mrs. Tanner has been ill for weeks. The doctor fears she may have to go home unless she picks up, as we all hope she will in the cold season. Yet, with it all, life out here is just delightful. How thoroughly you would enjoy it and enter into it!” Occasionally clouds of anxiety hovered over them, and such touches came in as, “This mail has brought us sad news from Uganda. We are well off here, at least in the meantime;” or again, “The news from the river is rather disquieting again. These troubles with the Portuguese keep us all anxious.”

By-and-by the birth of a son brought a new joy into the home of the pioneer missionary and his wife, and very proud and happy they were in this gift of God. “The Boy Henderson,” as they playfully called him, or “the Little Cardinal” (so Mr. Hetherwick entitled him), with his rosy, chubby cheeks and bright eyes, was a new centre of attraction in the little community, and the growth of motherhood in the young mother’s heart seemed to deepen her affection for the little black children that were her special care.

From one of her latest letters we may quote the following glimpse of a woman’s work in the missionary home:—“We have a great many girls just now,” she writes, “somewhere about sixty—fourteen of them from the river. Four of them arrived yesterday who had been away since the death of Katunga (a Makololo chief who had been one of Livingstone’s men). We did not expect them back. Then, when Masea sent his five daughters back after the holidays, he sent five daughters of his different headmen along with them. We have great difficulty in disposing of them at night. In fact, we have, as it were, to pack them in at night and unpack them in the morning! The dormitory is far too small. These girls all live in the house, and about twenty-five boys as well, so you may understand how Mr. Waddell (a visitor) thought this an interesting place. He came into contact with the children a great deal, for they run about the house. About a dozen of these girls are finished with school and do industrial work, most of them in the laundry, as well as house-work. The children are what one might call ‘jolly,’—full of fun and brightness—that is, the majority of them. Never a meal passes, almost, at which we have not some bit of fun to tell about them.

“Dressing all these children is quite a thought— where to get clothes for them all. The mission-boxes are very nice, but the clothes last no time ; the sun rots them, and we are continually making new garments. Just now we have set ourselves—Mrs. Fenwick, Bella (Mrs. Scott), and I—to make one shirt each for so many days till we get all the boys clothed. I have the boys in charge for dressing and washing. The latter is a lengthy process just at present. They have to be washed in hot water and carbolic and rubbed with sulphur ointment—treatment for an irruption they have, I tell them, with eating too much(!), at which they laugh derisively. I don’t think there could be a nicer place to work in than here.”

Thus time went on, and for nearly three years they laboured lovingly together, and then with almost tropical suddenness the shadows fell, and without a twilight the night came. Henderson caught fever when on a journey down at the river. The attack was pretty severe, and the malaria hung about him, but neither he nor his wife thought it more serious than the usual fever caught on the river. His wife could write:—“I am sorry to say Harry is not at all well. He looks as yellow as a leinon. Jack (Dr. Bowie) has given him a tonic and a bottle of port. He ought to take a glass and a half a day, but it is amusing to hear his dodges to avoid taking it: 'I think I will take a little milk instead,’ or 'a lemon drink,’ and so on. Jack thinks he ought to leave before the hot weather comes; he himself is anxious to try another year. I tell him people will think he is baby’s greatgrandfather. He looks about 150 years old just now! He is so thin, too, and yellow and shrivelled up, and altogether miserable. He is so different these last few months from what he used to be. The least thing tires him, even going to Mandala; and before, he used never to be in, bnt was always walking about the place. Probably he will be himself soon again.” Ah! never again, bright young wife! There is that coming which will be harder on him than the fever-fiend of the river, but you will not be there to see him reel and fall from the blow.

By-and-by the doctor ordered him home, assuring him that if another attack came he could not weather it. With great reluctance and disappointment of heart they began preparations for returning home for good. Then came the terrible diphtheria, of which the next chapter tells. It took from him within ten days first his child, and then his wife, and then his brother-in-law, Dr. Bowie, and left him shattered in health and broken in spirit, to start for this country. Before he left, he slipped away alone to pay a last sad visit to the little cemetery where his beloved had been laid. It was no wonder that as he knelt by the fresh graves the storm of grief swayed through him like an autumn wind through the leafless trees. He was able, however, to take charge of the home-coming party during the journey down the river with his usual care, and he seemed the better for the occupation which it gave him.

At Quilimane there was a short delay waiting for a steamer, and while there the dreaded fever came again. He was in the house of Mr. Ross, agent of the African Lakes Company, where he had every possible kindness; and both Dr. Henry of the Livingstonia Mission, who was his fellow-traveller, and the doctor at Quilimane, did him everything that human skill and care could do, but in vain. God’s time was come. The day’s toil was over, his wanderings were at an end, and very gently, very softly, like a little child, he literally fell asleep. Hot a word of farewell, not a struggle, not even a sigh, but in the sweet peace of God the eyes closed and the weary traveller was at rest, the sorrowful spirit was comforted, the divided family was reunited, and were together in the heavenly home. Well done, good and faithful servant; enter thou into the joy of thy Lord !

They buried him in the cemetery at Quilimane, and thus he lies at the gateway of Nyasaland, Europe and Africa alike mourning his loss. Among many tokens of the regard in which he was held, at home as well as abroad, none was more touching than the graceful tribute which two of the Judges of the Court of Session in Edinburgh paid to the memory of their old college friend. In the Parish Church of Kiuclaven, by the winding Tay, there may now be seen a Memorial Tablet bearing the following inscription:—

HENRY HENDERSON,
Pioneer of the Church of Scotland’s Mission at Blantyre, in East Africa.
Son of the late Rev. II. Henderson, D.D., Minister of this Parish.
Born at the Manse, April 14, 1843.
Died at Quilimane, February 12, 1891.
And there buried.

This tablet was erected by his old college friends, the Right Honourable J. P. B. Robertson, M.T., Lord Advocate of Scotland, and Lord Stormonth Darling, to commemorate in the church of his native parish a life of enterprise, gentleness, courage, self-denial, and absolute devotion to the service of Almighty God.

“If any man serve Me, him will My Father honour."

—St. John xii. 26.


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