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The Life of James Stewart
The Pioneer of the East African Mission, 1891-1892

Again Pioneering—In the Jungle—No Water - Kibwesi - An Infant Lovedale - Stewart’s Methods—The Rev. D. C. Ruffell Scott, D.D.—The Rev. J. Robertson, D.D.

[The facts in this chapter have been gleaned from two reports by Dr. Stewart on the establishment of this mission.]

'Other sheep I have which are not of this fold.’ The Bishop of Sierra Leone says that these words on Livingstone’s tomb in Westminster Abbey made him a missionary.

‘Is it right to keep the Gospel to ourselves?'— Wels.

We are in great danger, the greater therefore should our courage be.’—Mazzini.

IN May, 1890, Stewart left Lovedale on what was really his first furlough, though he had spent twenty-four years in arduous toil. His time and strength during his previous visits to Scotland had been devoted chiefly to the interests of Lovedale, Blythswood, and Livingstonia.

In 1891 he was in his sixty-first year, but still as active and vigorous as most men are at thirty.

Sir William Mackinnon and his friends had subscribed a large sum of money for establishing a new mission in the territories of the Imperial British East African Company, now the East African Protectorate. They requested Stewart to organise and lead the expedition, select the site for the mission, and lay its foundation after the pattern and spirit of Lovedale. The proposal was after his own heart, and with the approval of his Church, he at once consented. [Mackay of Uganda, in the second last message he sent home to his friends in this country, pled that a second—he might have said a fifth—Lovedale should be planted in East Central Africa.]

On his way out he a second time visited the house at Quilimane in which he had stayed when he returned from the Zambesi, all forlorn, in 1863. These words then came to him with great power: ‘Thou shalt remember all the way by which the Lord thy God hath led thee.’ He fervently thanked God and took courage.

In August, 1891, he collected at Zanzibar a hundred and fifty men as the nucleus of his force. He had many vexing African delays, for he was in a land where, as he put it, ‘everything was done to-morrow.’ About the middle of September he started from Mombasa with two hundred and seventy-three men, of whom six, including himself, were Europeans. There was no railway then to Uganda, and as animal transport was impossible, everything had to be carried on men’s heads. ‘The walk was very hot, through mangoes and jungle— something like the air of a hot palmhouse at home. The road, a native footpath merely, wound to every point of the compass through thick jungle, mostly of thorns of the "wait-a-bit" type, and thick cactus and euphorbias, which kept out every breath of air.’ He had also the usual troubles with porters, several of whom were malingerers.

They had to go through the Taro Desert, at that season an inhospitable belt or ‘thirst-land,’ which had been fatal to many travellers. ‘That dreaded Taro plain,' [Ruth B. Fisher writes that in this neighbourhood she found the ground ‘strewn with the bleached bones and skulls of those who had died for want of water’ (On the Borders of Pigmy Land).] Bishop Hannington calls it. It was the same route by which he travelled in 1885 to find an African grave. The thorny bushes tore the travellers’ clothes and flesh. In some caravans as many as half a dozen lives had been lost in that waterless waste. [Stewart was greatly interested in the curious water.holes in the Taro plain. They were found in clusters near big boulders. They were only a few inches wide while they might be twenty feet deep. The narrowness of the opening and the shelter of the rock prevented evaporation, while the great depth of the hole stored a great quantity of water during the rainy season. But for these holes the great plain would have been impassable for man or beast. There are similar water holes in the deserts of Australia, but they are never found in the neighbourhood of rivers.]

The nearest water was two thousand feet up the mountain, and at a distance of fifteen miles. To reach it they had to plod on under a burning and blazing heat. ‘The appeals for water were very touching,’ Stewart wrote. ‘I had to use force or threaten it, to prevent a wholesale desertion. Good water—any water is now good—and the first flowing stream we have seen for a hundred and thirty miles. Every one feasted his eyes on the glorious sight of a small river waist-deep or nearly. A small river never before looked so glorious in the morning light.’ Many loads had to be left behind. But, while there was great distress, no life was lost. This trouble caused a week’s delay.

It was Stewart’s way to say little or nothing about his own work, and to commend the work of others. He does not tell that he was the only man in the party who was not overcome by the heat and thirst, and that, but for him, many in the expedition might have perished, or have been compelled to turn back. ‘He never had an hour’s illness.’ It has been remarked that in such trying enterprises the leader often fares better than the followers. He had that keen instinct of travel which delays the consciousness of growing age by adding to the buoyancy of life, and quickening all one’s powers. His boyish desire to carry a Bible in his pocket and a rifle on his shoulder was again fully realised. He had often to rely on his gun for a supply of fresh meat.

Stewart took a horse with him, and rode the greater part of the way. [Since writing this chapter I have learnt that Stewart took two horses with him, and that they were at the disposal of the sick white men in his party. One of the horses died at Kibwesi.] This was the first horse that made the journey into the interior and back to the coast. Stewart was told that it would certainly never return. As the natives had never seen a horse, many came long distances to gaze on the wonderful beast. As it was believed to be ‘salted’—immune from the tsetse fly and the African horse sickness—Stewart was offered a very large price for it by the British Military Expedition then about to enter the country. He declined the offer. ‘His horse,’ he said, ‘had gone among the natives as a messenger of peace, and he did not wish it to return as a messenger of war.’ He afterwards sold it to a gentleman in Mombasa on condition that he would not sell it to the Military Expedition. On his way home he learned that the horse had died. With a refinement—most people would deem it an excess—of mercantile honour, he returned the price of the horse. The purchaser then wrote to him :— ‘I certainly never dreamed that you would think of refunding me the 300 Rupees (£20) I paid for him. It is really too good of you. Such a transaction or experience in horse-dealing I never had, nor do I expect to have such another. Allow me to return my sincere thanks to you for your princely magnanimity in this matter. I only hope I may have the chance some day of making some return for your kindness. I think I mentioned in my letter how I was pressed by Captain Nelson to sell him the horse, but I would not go back upon my promise to you. I trust that if I can be of any service to you or to the mission, you will not fail to make use of me, as I shall only be too glad to do anything I can for you.

‘With kindest regards and many thanks for your great kindness,’ etc.

The writer of this letter was a severe critic of missions and missionaries, but this unique horse-deal disposed him to soften his criticisms.

This is not the only proof of Stewart’s high ideals about money. A gentleman left a large sum to Love-dale, and also a considerable sum to Mrs. Stewart. It turned out that there was not, in Dr. Stewart’s opinion, an adequate provision for the donor’s widow and children. Dr. and Mrs. Stewart at once transferred the legacy to them.

‘This is to be a missionary caravan,’ he wrote home, ‘if I can make it so. . . We had our service with a portion of the natives of the caravan. We got the length of the Lord’s Prayer. I spoke to them on the first words, which they repeated, "Our Father which art in Heaven."

A site was selected on the river Kibwesi, about two hundred miles from Mombasa, and about forty miles north-east from Kilimanjaro, which forms part of what was formerly known as the ‘mountains of the moon.’ It is only four degrees from the equator, and rises to a height of 19,681 feet, and above 14,000 feet its great dome is covered with perpetual snow, in spite of the equatorial sunshine. The district around is very beautiful and fertile—great rolling prairie plains with beautiful green grass, and crowded with big game, zebras in hundreds, and hartebeest. The ground was thick jungle, and consequently worthless to the owner. The natives were very friendly. Stewart bought five hundred acres of land from the chief, for which he paid in calico and brass wire, then the current coin of that realm.

[Here is the closing part of the agreement with the chief. ‘And it is made known that by this sale and the terms thereof, Kilundu further confirms his desire, expressed from the first, that the mission should settle in his district, and also his promise to give land for building and cultivation whenever a suitable site should be found.

‘In consideration of the aforesaid payment, Kilundu, on behalf of himself and the Wa-Kamba people in his district, hereby transfers to Dr. James Stewart, on behalf of the Committee of the East African Scottish Mission, all right, title, and interest of the said land. In confirmation of the sale, we, the undersigned, do hereby attach our signatures on this the seventh day of December, 1891.

 KILUNDU. X [His Mark]


Signed in the presence of and Witnessed by us 7th December, 1891.


Very soon does the presence of the missionary act as the ‘wand of the magician.’ Stewart at once began to plant an infant Lovedale, with its church or schoolhouse and neat little village. Roads were made and a garden was planted. He also set about training a number of oxen. He gives his reasons for this novel experiment, and they reveal his lifelong and generous sympathy with the downtrodden. He says: ‘This work, unimportant as it may seem, will have widespread effects on the condition of the Wa-Kamba women. All the transport between the villages, as well as all the cultivation, is done by them, and it is rare to meet the Wa-Kamba woman who is not either carrying a load or returning from doing so.’ This breaking-in of oxen he regarded as part of the ‘true missionary view of the situation,’ for he ‘considered nothing that would be helpful to the success of the mission as outside of his duty.’

‘There is a marvellous transformation already,’ he wrote; ‘you have no idea how pleasant the place looks even now.’ He was very hopeful about the field, and it might have tempted him, but for Lovedale. ‘I am very sorry,’ he wrote, ‘to go and leave so promising a beginning, which has in it almost boundless possibilities of good.’

Four natives and one European died on the expedition. When the first native died, he wrote:

‘He had a mother, and was once the joy of his mother’s heart. Poor fellow, but it was "only a native who was dead." That is the common view that is taken in this caravan work.’ Stewart was the only one in the party ‘untouched by sickness, and unmarked by fatigue.’ At sixty his body and mind were still a well-matched pair.

As this country was then in a disturbed state, the party was supplied with sixty rifles. ‘But it is pleasant to be able to state that not a single hostile shot was fired; that nothing but the kindest and pleasantest relations existed between ourselves and the native people, not only at the station but at all the different points on the route to Machakos and back; and that probably no caravan has passed into the country against which there have been so small a number of complaints made. . . . The mission has already won the confidence of the people, and the most friendly relations exist between us and them. They are being taught by what they see, as well as by what they hear, and by what they are taught to do, as well as what they are asked to believe. The gospel of kindness and of honest work—both new ideas to them—are helping to open their minds and their hearts for the reception of the chief message—the Gospel of God’s love and the news of His forgiveness to men. People do not readily receive a message if they are suspicious of the messengers, and unable satisfactorily to account for their presence among them. Many of these people think, and will continue for some time to think, that we have come for some reason totally different from the professed one. Time and their own conclusions as to what they see will efface that idea. . . . The formation of strong educational and evangelistic centres in contradistinction to solitary and scattered stations, or rather in addition to them, was the conclusion reached by Mackay of Uganda after fourteen years of toil, sorrow, and disappointment, and was the new plan he had resolved to begin. This was his last utterance to the Committee of the Church Missionary Society as to the method he desired to be followed. It seemed to him to afford some hope of dealing with what he calls "the gigantic problem of how to Christianise Africa," and a full statement of his views will be found in one of the closing chapters of his life. It is also the method that has been followed for some time in

South Africa, and has been found to answer. On these lines the present mission was at first organised, and there is nothing further to offer in the way of general recommendation than to fill in the details, and the result will come if we are not in too great a hurry.’

The organising of this East African Mission occupied Stewart for fully fourteen months, and was a bywork, or an ‘aside’ in his career, important though it was. It was the last of his picturesque missionary enterprises. But he was ready if his Church asked him, to play the pioneer again, even in his sixty-eighth year. In his address to the General Assembly of his Church, when he was pleading for a great forward movement in Foreign Missions, he said, ‘If the Free Church public and the Committee approve, and after full consideration agree to launch out on this new course, I am willing to go and see such points taken possession of and the work commenced.’

This mission was offered first to the Free Church of Scotland, but they did not see their way to accept it on the conditions proposed. It was then offered to, and adopted by, the Established Church of Scotland. Owing to a mysterious subsidence of the soil, caused by an earthquake, the headquarters were removed in 1898 further inland to Kikuyu, which is about half-way between Mombasa and Lake Victoria Nyanza. [Stewart went up as far as Kikuyu, and would have chosen it as the best site. But the villages there had been recently burnt down, and the inhabitants had fled. ] The Rev. D. C. Ruffell Scott, D.D., laboured with fervent zeal as the head of the mission. His death last year was a great loss to the Church of Christ in Central Africa.

The district around this mission is one of the most fertile in East Africa, and is well fitted for the rearing of sheep and cattle. It also abounds with game. The railway to Victoria Nyanza passes through it. The lions carried off twenty-two of the men who were working on the railway; indeed, they even carried off a railway official out of his carriage. One can now travel there as luxuriously and safely as at home. The climate suits Europeans, many of whom are now settling in the country.

Dr. Robertson of Whittinghame, writes:—‘ I send you a few extracts from the Diary kept by the late Rev. Thomas Watson, M.A., who was one of the staff of the mission from the first.

‘6th March.Dr. Stewart preached this forenoon from "Thou shalt remember all the way by which the Lord thy God hath led thee." His last Sunday with us.

‘8th March.—General meeting at xo A.M. Dr. Stewart’s parting address. He frankly expressed regret for any mistakes he might have made—gave thanks to God for blessings of health and guidance and freedom from accident, and expressed hopes for future success. He gave me good advice for the future, the sum of which might be generalised thus:

Work humbly, patiently, perseveringly, mindful of what it is that alone will appear valuable and give satisfaction at the close of life. Strive to be a trusted man rather than a popular man. Keep up the forms of a religious life, even if you do it alone. In teaching and preaching be brief, be simple; remember that in the mind of the native there are but few ideas and very little power of sustaining attention. In your relations to your fellow-workers be sincere and frank; if trouble arises, calmly and fully give and seek such explanation as will in all likelihood clear it away.

‘10th March.—We held our last prayer-meeting with Dr. Stewart about dusk. About 1 P.M. we held a farewell meeting in which both Dr. Stewart and I took part.’

Dr. Robertson adds: ‘I remember once being struck, in conversation with Dr. Stewart, by the strong belief he showed that the motive in founding a mission is decisive of its ultimate success. Nobility and purity of motive, he had evidently found in the experience of life, a sure prophecy of the Divine blessing. . . . It will be understood then that we of the Church of Scotland to whom that mission has been transferred, cherish the memory of those who endowed it, and of those who, in the course of their hard labour, suffered and died for it. Earliest among these names of honour we place that of Dr. Stewart of Lovedale. He and those who followed after— most of them now gone to their reward—laid the spiritual foundation on which we now build.’

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