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Start Joseph Thomson, the Last Great Explorer of Africa
02 August 2017

Joseph Thomson, the Last Great Explorer of Africa

Estimated reading time Time 4 to read

Dr. Livingstone, I presume? It is an immensely popular phrase that has been linked to the exploration of Africa, as well as to its protagonists, Henry Morton Stanley, who uttered it, and David Livingstone, the man alluded to. But after them, another figure helped to open up to Western knowledge the last corner of the dark continent that was still shown on the maps as Terra Incognita, closing the epoch of the great African explorations: the Scot Joseph Thomson (February 14, 1858 – August 2, 1895).

Throughout the nineteenth century, sub-Saharan Africa was becoming less and less of a geographical mystery. The continent’s coasts, more accessible, had already been explored hundreds of years earlier, and the heart of the continent had been left open by the expeditions of figures such as Livingstone or Stanley. Even without formal treaties of partition, the European powers were unilaterally defining their territories of domination.

Far away, Thomson was born in the small town of Penpont, Scotland, expected to follow in the footsteps of his father as an apprentice stonemason. But from a young age, his dreams reached far beyond Penpont. Sophia Harkness, president of the Joseph Thomson Group at the Joseph Thomson Local Heritage Centre in Penpont, explains to OpenMind that “when he was a boy, he was always interested in the great outdoors and would sometimes sleep outside to harden himself when he became an explorer.”

Thomson’s dreams were more than mere fantasies. When he was 13, he learned that Livingstone was missing somewhere and “he pleaded with his mother to let him go and help find him,” says Harkness. Later, at the University of Edinburgh, he studied geology, mineralogy and natural history. In 1878, at age 20 and with his diploma in his pocket, he returned home not knowing what to do. At that time, the Royal Geographical Society (RGS) was preparing an expedition under Alexander Keith Johnston from the coast of present-day Tanzania to the lakes of Nyasa (Malawi) and Tanganyika. “He saw an advert in the local paper which prompted him to apply to be the geologist and naturalist to the expedition, paid or unpaid,” says Harkness.

Thomson had occasion to enjoy himself on that voyage more than he had expected— Johnston died of malaria during the trip, and the command fell upon the young Scotsman to direct the expedition between the lakes and back to the coast, which he did successfully. On his return he published his first chronicle, To the Central African Lakes and Back (1881).

Joseph Thomson helped to open up to Western knowledge the last corner of Africa that was still shown on the maps as Terra Incognita. Source: “Joseph Thomson: African explorer” (1896)

His great journey

With this first experience and a second incursion commissioned by the sultan of Zanzibar, Thomson was now prepared to undertake what would be his great journey. A few years earlier, Stanley had opened a route southward to fertile Uganda, which he described as “the pearl of Africa.” The British Empire had a commercial interest in building a railroad to these lands, but the shortest route from the coast of present-day Kenya was still an unexplored spot on the map. Two great obstacles stood in the way: the impenetrable Taru Desert of thorns and, above all, the Maasai, a legendary tribe of fierce warriors whose mere name inspired dread.

In 1882, the RGS decided to commission an expedition through the Maasai lands, where until then only two German missionaries had dared enter. Where the veteran Stanley demanded an entire army, the proposal of young Thomson was much more appropriate to the budget: with few conditions, a few weapons and a small group of men, the Scotsman left Mombasa on March 15, 1883 as the first explorer ready to tread on Maasai territory, or so he believed, until he learned that another German party led by the naturalist Gustav Fischer had already embarked on the same route.

Fischer only reached Lake Naivasha, near present-day Nairobi. On the contrary, on December 10 Thomson culminated his trip to the planned destination, the shore of Lake Victoria, where it is said that the Scotsman dressed in the kilt of his clan and danced a traditional dance of his country.

Thomson culminated his trip through the Maasai lands in the shore of Lake Victoria. Credit: Tom Patterson, US National Park Service

At only 25, Thomson had triumphed thanks to a focus on exploration that is summed up in his motto: “He who goes gently, goes safely; he who goes safely, goes far.” According to Harkness, “he respected the country he went through and the people he met. He had a great sense of humour and Scottish doggedness.” Thomson appeared before the Maasai like a powerful magician, taking photographs, removing his false teeth and dissolving Eno salts to surprise them with the effervescent water. “His sensible and peaceful approach was the key to his success,” says Harkness.

During his trip, Thomson discovered and named several Kenyan landmarks, such as the Aberdare Range, which he named in honour of the then-President of the RGS, or Thomson Falls, which he dedicated to his father. His name lingers today in the Thompson’s gazelle, one of the most recognizable inhabitants of the African savannah.

Thompson’s gazelle is one of the most recognizable inhabitants of the African savannah. Credit: Paul Mannix

Through Masai Land

Neither being gored by a buffalo, nor malaria, nor dysentery prevented him from returning triumphantly to Mombasa and recounting his journey in his most famous work, Through Masai Land (1885), which was a best-seller. So much so that only a few months later, another writer and traveller named Henry Rider Haggard published a novel entitled King Solomon’s Mines, in which a character would take his teeth out to scare the natives. Thomson was outraged about this unauthorized borrowing of his own adventures.

In later years, Thomson never wanted to retire to a desk job to enjoy his fame. “He was tasked with establishing treaties with African tribal chiefs and he was not keen on this part of the work, wanting to explore and discover more,” says Maureen Halkett, treasurer of the Joseph Thomson Group. And even though Africa was already moving from the romantic epoch of exploration to the commercial era of partitioning the continent’s riches, Thomson continued to travel, until at age 37 the numerous illnesses contracted during his adventures brought him down.

“On the whole, Thomson is not remembered as well as we think he should be,” laments Halkett. But today Thomson is receiving recognition not only from his countrymen, but also from the descendants of those he met during his great journey. In 2016, the Joseph Thomson Maasai Trust was launched with the support of Ezekiel Katato, a Maasai elder from one of the communities the explorer visited. In June 2018, Katato will lead a walk, open to the public, through some of the places that the last great explorer of Africa made known to the world.


Javier Yanes


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