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As Dr Livingstone presumed

28 August 2015

Two missionary societies merged 50 years ago to become USPG. Janet Traill describes the first venture of one of them, the Universities’ Mission to Central Africa


Missionary men: Bishop Charles Mackenzie

Missionary men: Bishop Charles Mackenzie

DAVID LIVINGSTONE, the missionary and explorer, gave many addresses when he was home from Africa in 1857. One was to the students of the University of Oxford. He said that he was returning to forge a way for commerce and Christianity, and left them with the stirring words: “Do you carry out the work I have begun? I leave it to you.”

Although Livingstone was a Scottish Presbyterian, his appeal sowed the seed for the creation of an Anglican missionary society, the Universities’ Mission to Central Africa (UMCA). This year marks the 50th anniversary of the UMCA’s merger with the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG). Together they became the United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, now Us.

The first Bishop of Cape Town and Metropolitan of Southern Africa, Robert Gray, came to the university the year after Livingstone’s visit, looking for missionaries to open up new areas. The Oxford and Cambridge Mission to Central Africa was subsequently launched with great publicity and official backing from many prominent people. Later, Dublin and Durham universities also joined, and the name became UMCA. This is the story of its first mission to Africa.

Gray wrote to Livingstone, who was leading an exploratory expedition up the Zambesi, seeking advice regarding the siting. In Livingstone’s view, the Shire Highlands, near Lake Nyasa, was an ideal spot, although his dream was for colonists to settle there — not just an isolated group of inexperienced missionaries, who, he knew, would encounter untold difficulties. But, having committed himself publicly to the area, he recommended the village of Magomero near by.

Archdeacon Charles Mackenzie was appointed to lead the mission. He was a well-liked, open-hearted man with a good sense of humour, who was not afraid of hard work. The party sailed for Africa in October 1859. On 1 January 1860, Mackenzie was consecrated Bishop “to the tribes dwelling in the neighbourhood of the Lake Nyasa and River Shire”, in St George’s Cathedral, Cape Town.

At the end of January, they reached the mouth of the Zambesi River to meet up with Livingstone, bringing with them the river-steamer Pioneer, which he had ordered from the Foreign Office.

The Bishop made an immediate good impression, and Livingstone judged him to be “A1”. He wrote to the Foreign Secretary: “They seem to have sound practical views of the work before them, and during our short intercourse have shown they have no nonsense about them.”

Mackenzie expected Livingstone to escort them to the Shire Highlands immediately; so it came as an unpleasant shock when the explorer announced that he had other plans: he first wanted to explore the Rovuma River, 500 miles to the north.

After a heated debate, Livingstone prevailed, but in the event the Pioneer could penetrate only 25 miles up the Rovuma, often having to be hauled over sandbanks. The Bishop worked as hard as anyone, and once narrowly escaped being eaten by a crocodile.


MOST of the missionaries soon experienced bouts of malaria, and conditions in the cramped quarters were unpleasant. Progress in the overloaded steamer was slow and arduous in the intense heat, and the journey, which should have taken three weeks, took more than two months.

But amid all these problems the two leaders found common ground in their faith. Livingstone and his colleagues attended communion services held by the Bishop, and he in turn found inspiration from the writings of Livingstone’s father-in-law, the missionary Robert Moffat, from whom he learned it could take years for conversions to take place.

Eventually, on 15 July 1860, the Pioneer reached the Murchison Cataracts, and the party continued on foot. Livingstone advised that they should all be armed, as guns were the best deterrent against an attack. The Bishop wrote of his own incongruous appearance: “I myself had in my left hand a loaded gun, in my right the crozier they gave me in Cape Town; in front, a can of oil, and behind, a bag of seeds. I thought of the contrast between my weapon and my staff. I thought of the seed which we must sow in the hearts of the people, and of the oil of the Spirit that must strengthen us in all we do.”

The next day, they met their first slaving party. Livingstone was proved right: at the sight of the armed men, the slavers ran away, abandoning their captives. Although no shots were fired, the Bishop was convinced that “in such cases it is right to use force, and even fire if necessary to rescue captives.”

When they arrived at Magomero, they were told by the people that a tribe was raiding villages near by, killing the men and taking the women and children captive to sell to the Portuguese slavers. Livingstone and Mackenzie set out with their men, encountering a large force and killing six of the assailants.

Writing of the incident later, Gray recalled a conversation when Mackenzie had been more idealistic: “It is curious that the question of using arms was freely discussed in my house, and that the Bishop [Mackenzie] most especially maintained that it was unlawful under any circumstances, even in defence of their lives; that their line was patient suffering”.

The hostile reality of the situation had obviously undermined Mackenzie’s pacifism.


SOON after their arrival at Magomero, Livingstone prepared to leave and continue exploring the Rovuma River. Before his departure, he advised Mackenzie not to get involved any further in tribal warfare. On his return, however, he was furious that the missionaries, despite his warning, had been entangled in two further skirmishes. The Bishop had seen no alternative. Although he was well aware that peaceful conduct was preferable for missionary work, he felt that nothing would be achieved in an atmosphere of constant feuding. No one else was taking charge, and he felt obliged to act to quell the tribesmen.

Later, the missionaries welcomed some new recruits, including a young and vigorous man, the Revd Henry de Wint Burrup. His new wife would join them later, with the Bishop’s sister and Livingstone’s wife. Livingstone would journey to the coast to meet the ladies, and bring them up river in the Pioneer. The Bishop and Burrup would rendezvous with him and take them on to Magomero.

Both men were ill with dysentery when they left by canoe in heavy rain, although Mackenzie managed to pen a few thoughts: “We have seen the sun today, and this is a very beautiful place. I suppose, however, it is not so healthy as the higher lands.”

Soon, calamity struck when the boat ran aground and the all-important quinine and other medicines were lost. When they eventually arrived at the appointed place, they found that Livingstone had been delayed, and was still on his way to the coast. The Bishop and Burrup settled down to await his return, translating texts from Greek to pass the time.

Mackenzie had been right: this low-lying area was unhealthy. The Bishop’s condition quickly declined, and, with no medicines, he was soon in a coma. On 31 January 1862, the first bishop to the tribes of Central Africa died, and was hastily buried under an acacia tree.

Burrup had never completely recovered from his dysentery, either, and was now stricken with malaria. In his weakened state, he decided to wait no longer. His men carried him back to Magomero, but a week later he died.

These events, followed by further deaths and illness in the party, were not an auspicious beginning to missionary work in Central Africa. Bishop William Tozer, however, Mackenzie’s replacement, was given carte blanche, and immediately relocated the mission. He chose the island of Zanzibar, 20 miles off the African coast, an important centre of business and trade.

After a decade of service, he was succeeded by Bishop Steere, who set up a mission once again on the eastern shore of Lake Nyasa. This thrived, together with other missions, and was joined by settlers and businessmen to create the British Protectorate of Nyasaland. Livingstone’s dream of a colony had at last come to pass.


THE original Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG) was founded around 1701 at the instigation of the Bishop of London, Henry Compton. Its work was mostly among European immigrants to America, and later included Native Americans and slaves.

Its alliance with the Universities’ Mission to Central Africa (UMCA) was formed in 1965. The new organisation changed its name to USPG (United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel), but in 2012 this was shortened to simply United Society, or Us.

The former chair of the charity’s trustees, Canon Linda Ali, said: “No doubt the [original] name worked well in its day, but words like ‘propagation’ are simply outdated in the 21st century. So it was time for a change.”

It remains an Anglican charity, and, like that of its predecessors, its work is about practical action to transform lives.

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