Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Thomson, Joseph
THOMSON, JOSEPH (1858–1894), African explorer, fifth son of William Thomson, by his wife Agnes Brown, was born on 14 Feb. 1858 in the village of Penpont, Dumfriesshire, in a house which his father—at first a journeyman stonemason—had built for himself and his family. In 1868 the household removed to Gatelawbridge, where William Thomson became tenant of a farm and a freestone quarry. Under the stimulus of his father's example and the quaint enthusiasm of a neighbour, Dr. Thomas Boyle Grierson, Thomson as a lad developed a keen interest in geology as well as in other branches of natural science. To Dr. Grierson's local ‘Society of Inquiry’ he contributed papers on the ‘Peroxide of Iron in the Sandstone of Gatelawbridge Quarry,’ ‘Some Peculiar Markings in the Sandstone of Gatelawbridge Quarry,’ and ‘The Stratification of the Sandstone of Gatelawbridge Quarry, with special reference to the Unconformable Character of certain Strata.’ From 1871 onwards the geological survey was at work in Nithsdale, and by a happy chance the young geologist fell under the notice of Professor Archibald Geikie at Crichope Linn, and had the delight of learning that his own eye had discovered in his native rocks three ‘fossil ferns’ till then unknown there. Leaving school in 1873, Thomson worked for a short time in his father's quarry, but by the winter of 1875 he had made up his mind to study his favourite sciences in the university of Edinburgh. In his first session, besides studying geology under Professor James Geikie and botany under Professor John Hutton Balfour [q. v.], he had the opportunity of attending a course of lectures on natural history by Professor Huxley. In 1877 he came out as medallist both in geology and in natural history.
In 1878 Thomson was appointed geologist and naturalist to an expedition under Alexander Keith Johnston (1844–1879) [q. v.], which was sent out by the Royal Geographical Society for the exploration of East Central Africa. The expedition reached Zanzibar on 5 Jan. 1879. On 19 May a start for the interior was made. By the death of Keith Johnston on 28 June 1879 within the malarial zone at Behobeho, Thomson suddenly found himself leader of the expedition. He reached Lake Tanganyika on 3 Nov., and on Christmas day had the pleasure of confirming Stanley's theory as to the geographical relations of the Lukuga outlet of the lake. After a brief visit to Ujiji on the eastern shore, Thomson again started westwards with the intention of reaching the headwaters of the Congo; but a mutiny of his men—alarmed at the risks they ran from the warlike Warua—obliged him to turn back (1 March 1880) when within a day's march of the river. His homeward route from the south end of the lake northward towards Tabora gave him an opportunity of making a detour to the neighbourhood of Lake Leopold (Lake Hikwa), which he was the first white man to see. By 27 May 1880 Thomson was resting at Tabora (Unyanyembe), and after a march of five hundred miles he reached the coast on 10 July. He recorded his experiences in ‘To the African Lakes and Back’ (2 vols. 1881).
Thomson's next enterprise was undertaken for the sultan of Zanzibar, who believed that the coal reported by Livingstone in 1862 as existing in the Rovuma valley might be turned to profitable account. The sultan invited Thomson to make an expert examination. This Thomson carried out in 1881. The result was a disappointment to the sultan—the ‘coal’ was only useless shale.
A very different task was that to which Thomson, under the auspices of the Royal Geographical Society, next braced himself—the opening up of a route between the seaboard of Eastern Africa and the northern shore of Victoria Nyanza. He left the coast with a caravan 140 strong on 15 March 1882, and reached Taveta, at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro, on 5 May. On 3 May the expedition entered the territory of the dreaded Masai, to find the tribe in a state of dangerous excitement as the result of a recent conflict with a party led by Dr. Fischer, a German explorer. Forming an encampment at Taveta, Thomson proceeded with ten men to examine the Kilimanjaro mountain, and, having travelled 230 miles in five and a half marches, he ascended the mountain to a height of nearly nine thousand feet. September found the explorer at Lake Navaisha, where Fischer had been obliged to turn homeward. At El Meteita Thomson left his main body to proceed with a trading caravan to Lake Baringo, and, taking with him only thirty men, made one of those rapid detours, which were always congenial to him, for the purpose of visiting Mount Kenia. On the way he discovered the noble range, fourteen thousand feet high, which he named after Lord Aberdare, president of the Royal Geographical Society. On reaching the neighbourhood of Lake Baringo (3,300 feet above sea level) he took a much-needed rest at Njemps or Nnems (0.30 N., 36.5 E.) among the friendly Wa-Kwafi. Having (16 Nov.) once more got his caravan (reduced to about a hundred men) into marching order, he pushed steadily and patiently from Baringo eastwards to Victoria Nyanza, and on 10 Dec. he bathed in the waters of the great birth-lake of the Nile. Here he was obliged to retrace his steps owing to the treacherous hostility of the king of Uganda, which was reported to him in time. On his homeward route he turned northwards to visit Mount Elgon (14,094 feet), and was rewarded by a discovery of a wonderful series of prehistoric caves suggestive of the existence at one time of a civilisation very different from that half-barbarism which now turns them to account. On the last day of 1882 Thomson was nearly killed by a wounded buffalo, and for weeks he had to be carried in a litter. On 24 Feb. 1883 the caravan resumed its march for Lake Naivasha, but by the 27th its leader was disabled by dysentery, and further progress was impossible for eight or nine weeks. Meanwhile the expedition was in daily danger of complete annihilation from the ferocious and suspicious Masai. Towards the end of April the appearance of Jumba Kimameta, a coast trader, along with whose caravan part of the inland journey had been performed, gave a happy turn to events. On 7 May Thomson parted with this friendly caravan, and carried out his original idea of making for Mombasa via Teita. By the 24th he had reached Rabai, and celebrated the event by walking through the village—the first walk he had taken for three months.
On his return to London in broken health in the summer of 1883 he was received with the utmost cordiality. Explorer after explorer had been previously baffled in attempts to traverse the country of the Masai, one of the most warlike of all African tribes, and Thomson's record of heroic endurance and adventurous bravery, which he published under the title of ‘Through Masai Land,’ took the world by storm.
By the end of 1884 Thomson was fit to undertake new explorations, and when, in 1885, the Royal Geographical Society bestowed on him the founder's gold medal, he was already in the Western Sudan. On this occasion he was in the service of the National African Company, and his mission was to forestall the efforts of Germany to enter into direct relations with the kings of Sokoto and Gand[ua]. The chief difficulties lay in outwitting Malikè, king of N[ua]pe, who considered his interests as a middleman endangered, and in reducing a mob of undisciplined and mutinous carriers to a recognition of authority. Starting from Akassa (15 March 1885), the expedition passed up the Niger to Rabba (7 April) and thence struck inland to Sokoto (21 May), Wurnū (23 May), and Gand[ua] (7 or 8 June). By September Thomson was in England once more with a record of work brilliantly done. He had made treaties with the great potentates of the Sudan which proved of the highest service to British interests.
Thomson's health was still weak, and the remainder of 1885, with 1886 and 1887, was devoted to its restoration. He paid during this period visits to the continent and made useful contributions to questions of geographical and political interest. He strongly advocated the selection of the east coast Masai-land route for the expedition to be sent for the relief of Emin Pasha; but his rival, Mr. Stanley, with whom he had more than once crossed swords on African affairs, carried out another scheme.
On 17 March 1888 Thomson set foot again on his chosen continent. On this occasion he elected to explore, on his own account, the Atlas mountains in Morocco. The difficulties thrown in his way were as great as any he had yet experienced. The escort provided by the Morocco authorities, under the pretence of protecting him, did everything to hamper and limit his movements. But Thomson overcame all obstruction. He reached Jebel Ogdimt, a height of 12,734 feet, and climbed 13,150 feet up Tizi-n-Tamjurt, but these explorations were brought to a close by a call from the British East African Company to enter their service. The company intended that he should go to the relief of Emin from the east coast, news of Stanley's expedition having been long looked for in vain. The proposal, however was not carried out.
In the controversies of 1888–9 with regard to the government policy of withdrawal from East Africa, Thomson took a keen interest and denounced in no measured terms what he considered the pusillanimity and treachery of the British authorities.
In 1890 he once more entered upon active service, this time in the interest of the British South African Company. He proceeded to Kimberley to receive instructions from Mr. Cecil Rhodes. Under those instructions his new explorations began at Quilimane. To circumvent the jealousy of the Portuguese was his foremost task. By pluck he passed in safety through their territory—goods and all—though at the last moment he just escaped with his life from a fusillade by native soldiers. The Shire being abandoned at Chilomo, Thomson's route ran northwards by Blantyre to join the Shire at Matopè, and then passed further northwards by water to Kota-Kota on the western shore of Lake Nyassa. With a caravan of 148 men he left Kota-Kota on 23 Aug. 1890. Marching west to the populous valley of the Loangwa, he made his first treaty with Kabwiré, chief of the Babisa. At Kwa Nansara (21 Sept.) the expedition was in the midst of a small-pox epidemic. Man after man dropped out of the march as they pushed forward to Lake Bangweolo. On 29 Sept. Thomson was attacked with cystitis and was obliged to be carried in a hammock. Happily two young Englishmen, Charles Wilson and J. A. Grant, who were with him proved excellent lieutenants. Threatened with desertion by his men, Thomson failed to penetrate beyond Kwa Chepo, where he found himself compelled to retrace his steps. When the expedition reached Blantyre (19 Feb. 1891) the leader found himself unable to proceed; Grant was entrusted with the documents to be delivered to the company; Wilson stayed behind, only to fall a victim to fever. The medical missionaries at Blantyre could do little more than alleviate the worst symptoms of Thomson's disease, and it was with difficuly he reached London on 18 Oct. 1891. The results of this mission were only partially divulged, the full report being still the private property of the company.
Thomson's health was permanently injured. In 1892, though weak and suffering, he visited the British Association, then holding its meeting in the university of Edinburgh; and in the latter part of the year he performed a considerable amount of literary work. On 22 Nov. he read a paper before the Royal Geographical Society, ‘To Lake Bangweolo and the Unexplored Region of British Central Africa.’ Shortly afterwards he was prostrated by disease of the lungs, following an attack of pneumonia, and he visited the Cape in search of health. First at Matjesfontein and then at Kimberley (where he was the guest of Mr. Rhodes) his vitality responded to the healing influences of the climate, and by December he was planning an expedition to Mashonaland. The expedition being postponed, Thomson again ventured home. Lung disease broke out once more. A visit (October–May) to Southern France did him little good. By the middle of May he was brought back to London, and there, in the house of Mr. S. W. Silver, he died 2 Aug. 1895. He was buried in Morton cemetery, Thornhill. A memorial, with a bust by Mr. Charles MacBride, was placed in 1897 near the village cross, opposite the school that the explorer had attended as a boy.
In physique, intellect, and morale, Thomson was an ideal explorer. At first sight he did not impress the observer as peculiarly muscular or robust; but there was an almost boyish ease in his gait, and his powers of endurance were often without parallel. Seventy miles was no infrequent record at the end of a day's march. While his work was mainly that of a geographical pioneer, yet in his most rapid passages through a country he had such a genius for observing that his notebooks were filled with material that most men would have taken months to collect. The first thing that appealed to his eye was the geological features of the country. No African explorer under similar circumstances ever made such extensive additions to the geological map of the continent. He laid down the master lines of structure over vast areas with an ease and accuracy which surprise those who have followed in his footsteps. To zoology and botany he made serious contributions in spite of the difficulties attached to the collection and conveyance of specimens during forced marches and forced inactivity. Several newly described botanical species in Central Africa were named after him (Johnston, British Central Africa, pp. 90, 259, 271, 280). But above all stands Thomson's capacity of dealing with men. He passed through the midst of the most ferocious of African tribes when their hostility against the white man was at fever heat without firing a shot in self-defence or leaving anywhere a needless grave.
As literature Thomson's records of his explorations take a high place. Besides a novel, ‘Ulu’ (1888), a psychological study of the African mind, written in collaboration with his friend Miss E. Harris-Smith (Mrs. Calder), his independent publications were: ‘To the Central African Lakes and Back,’ 2 vols. 1881 (German translation, 1882); ‘Through Masai Land,’ 1885 (revised edit. 1887; German translation, 1885; French translation, 1886); ‘Travels in the Atlas and Southern Morocco,’ 1889; and ‘Mungo Park and the Niger,’ 1890, in the series of ‘World's Great Explorers and Explorations,’ edited by Messrs. Keltie, Mackinder, and Ravenstein.
Thomson's other literary work figured in periodicals. The chief of his articles are: ‘The Origin of the Permian Basin of Thornhill’ (‘Trans. of the Dumfriesshire and Galloway Nat. Hist. Soc.,’ 1879). ‘Notes on a Glacial Deposit near Thornhill’ (‘Trans. of the Dumfriesshire and Galloway Nat. Hist. Soc.,’ 1879). ‘Notes on the Geology of Usambara’ (‘Proc. of Roy. Geogr. Soc.,’ September 1879, n.s. vol. i.). ‘Notes on the Route taken by the Royal Geographical Society's East African Expedition from Dar-es-Salaam to Uhehe’ (‘Proc. of the Roy. Geogr. Soc.’ February 1880, n.s. vol. ii.). ‘A Trip to the Mountains of Usambara’ (‘Good Words,’ 1880). ‘Toiling by Tanganyika,’ two articles (‘Good Words,’ 1881). ‘Journey of the Society's East African Expedition’ (‘Proc. of the Roy. Geogr. Society,’ December 1880, n.s. vol. ii.). ‘Notes on the Geology of East Central Africa’ (‘Nature,’ 1881). ‘Notes on the Basin of the River Rovuma, East Africa’ (‘Proc. of the Roy. Geogr. Soc.,’ February 1882, n.s. vol. iv.). ‘Adventures on the Rovuma’ (‘Good Words,’ 1882). ‘On the Geographical Evolution of the Tanganyika Basin’ (‘Brit. Assoc. Report,’ 1882). ‘Report on the Progress of the Society's Expedition to Victoria Nyanza’ (‘Proc. of the Roy. Geogr. Soc.,’ December 1883, n.s. vol. v.). ‘Through the Masai Country to Victoria Nyanza’ (‘Proc. of the Roy. Geogr. Soc.,’ December 1884, n.s. vol. vi.). ‘Sketch of a Trip to Sokoto by the River Niger’ (‘Journal of the Manchester Geogr. Soc.,’ 1886, vol. ii.). ‘Niger and Central Sûdan Sketches’ (‘Scottish Geogr. Magazine,’ October 1886, vol. ii.). ‘Up the Niger to the Central Sûdan’ (‘Good Words,’ January, February, April, and May 1886). ‘East Central Africa and its Commercial Outlook’ (‘Scottish Geogr. Magazine,’ February 1886, vol. ii.). ‘Note on the African Tribes of the British Empire’ (‘Jour. of the Anthrop. Institute,’ vol. xvi.). ‘Mohammedanism in Central Africa’ (‘Contemporary Review,’ 1886). ‘A Masai Adventure’ (‘Good Words,’ 1888). ‘East Africa as it was and is’ (‘Contemporary Review,’ 1889). ‘A Journey to Southern Morocco and the Atlas Mountains’ (‘Proc. of the Roy. Geogr. Soc.,’ January 1889, n.s. vol. xi.). ‘How I reached my Highest Point in the Atlas’ (‘Good Words,’ 1889). ‘Explorations in the Atlas Mountains’ (‘Scottish Geogr. Magazine,’ April 1889, vol. v.). ‘How I crossed Masai Land’ (‘Scribner's Magazine,’ 1889). ‘Some Impressions of Morocco and the Moors’ (‘Manchester Geogr. Magazine,’ 1889, vol. v.). ‘Downing Street versus Chartered Companies’ (‘Fortnightly Review,’ 1890). ‘The Results of European Intercourse with Africa’ (‘Contemporary Review,’ 1890). ‘A Central Sûdan Town’ (Harper's ‘Magazine,’ 1892). ‘The Uganda Problem’ (‘Contemporary Review,’ 1892). ‘To Lake Bangweolo and the Unexplored Region of British Central Africa’ (‘Geogr. Journal,’ February 1893, vol. i.).
[Thomson's Works; Life (with portraits), by James Baird Thomson (the explorer's brother), 1896; personal recollections.]