Extract from Fr Mazé’s History Notes on the Origins of the Nyasa-Bangweolo Vicariates, dated 1930
Translation into English by Fr M.C.J. Gruffat, completed on 15th August 1999
Shire, Nyasa, Bangweolo: those three Apostolic Vicariates in British East Africa, named after the Highlands and Lakes in this part of the continent, were grouping in the years 1930s some thirty flourishing mission stations, catering for some 100,000 baptised Christians and 40,000 catechumens. They were recent Christian communities, still deeply rooted in the past, but resolutely looking ahead to a very promising future. They have the same historical origins, for the three of them were cut out of the enormous territory of what was called the Nyasa Mission, created in 1889 and erected into one Vicariate in 1897. The aim of the following pages is not to relate the whole history of the Church from 1899 to 1905, but the first episodes, the most important of which was the conquest of the Bemba Kingdom by Bishop Dupont, who founded Kayambi and Kilubula, and who was the first Vicar Apostolic of the huge Nyasa Vicariate. The first step is to narrate the painful and obscure odyssey of the missionaries who founded the first mission stations of Mponda and Mambwe between 1889 and 1895, which were at the origin of the huge Nyasa Mission.
In April 1878 the first caravan of White Fathers boarded a boat in Marseilles on their way to East Africa. They were sent to open mission stations in the region of the Great Lakes. They were ten all together, five for the Nyanza Mission, five for the Tanganyika Mission. Nyasa was nowhere mentioned. Some time later, as the third caravan of White Fathers were preparing to leave, the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith in Rome erected those two missions into Apostolic Vicariates, with clearly defined geographical boarders (21st-09-1880). But Lake Nyasa was not included within the territory of the new ecclesiastical divisions. At the beginning of 1887, another Roman decree created the Tanganyika Vicariate, the Pro-Vicariate of Upper Congo, and the Pro-Vicariate of the Unyanyembe. Nothing yet about Nyasa. This ignorance of the Nyasa region in Rome may sound very strange, but it would take too long to explain why in a short historical treatise.
This official silence was the stranger since, everywhere in the Nyanza and Tanganyika jurisdictions, the missionaries were grappling with tremendous difficulties in their apostolate: for over ten years the missionaries had not been able to make any headway in spite of strenuous efforts on their part. We may well ask ourselves why Cardinal Lavigerie took so long to send his missionaries towards the Nyasa. Very strange indeed, for we know that the Cardinal was intent upon barring the way to the Protestants wherever he could, and this was a region where the Protestants had preceded the Catholics. Stanley’s appeal for missionaries to come and evangelise the Baganda had not rung yet through the protestant world, but the Protestants of England and Scotland had already answered Livingstone’s call and had helped opening mission stations on the Shire and the Nyasa. Their missionaries were men and women driven by an admirable zeal for the Gospel, endowed with remarkable vitality and talents at the service of the Word. They lived and laboured fearlessly for fifteen years in those regions before the British took over the land. They were years of heroic struggle for the Gospel. They were joined at different times by other evangelists: Dutch Reformed Church (Boers) from South Africa and Baptists from Scotland. The first Catholic missionaries came to settle down among them only between 1901 and 1903, a quarter of a century later, when the people had already been prepared for the Christian message, brought to them by some ten different denominations and sects, which felt perfectly at home and tended to look at all new comers as intruders.
And yet, the Catholic Church had not been completely absent from the race for mission stations in the Nyasa region. On the eve of Christmas 1889, a small caravan of four White Fathers coming from Qilimane had pitched their camp at the extreme end of Lake Nyasa, on the left bank of the Shire River. They had sailed across rivers and lakes in the canoes of the WaNyasa and established their camp, the same evening, in the large village of MPONDA. That is where they were going to stay for eighteen months.
At that time, the whole of East Africa, north of the Nyasa, between Bagamoyo and the Congo, between Tabora and Khartoum, was torn by internecine wars. That was the reason why those four White Fathers had been sent by their Superiors to Mponda. Those wars were caused by the Arabs and the African tribes engaged in slave raiding and slave trading, and they were directed against the Europeans who were staunchly against slavery and slave trade. The fighting had been going on for ten years, getting worse and worse every year, to reach a climate in 1888 when the British Consul in Zanzibar, acting on behalf of Her Majesty’s Government, claimed for the Royal Navy the right of blockading the whole East African coast to stop the export of slaves to the outside world. In response to this challenge, the powerful slave traders and slave raiders, whether Arabs or Africans, determined to exterminate all the White people wherever they were, or to force them out of Africa. The Europeans were a threat to their prosperous trade in human flesh. The Europeans, then, woke up to the necessity for them to occupy the African continent to impose peace, by force of arms if necessary. This was unacceptable to all those engaged in the commerce of slaves, for they were thriving on wars and internal dissension.
The missionaries and the missions were caught in the crossfire, and their future uncertain, to say the least. Those who had opposed Cardinal Lavigerie’s dispatch of the first caravan of White Fathers to East Africa in 1878 on the ground that this ‘evangelical escapade’ would end in disaster, were now strengthened in their early convictions and launched a campaign for liquidating this mad enterprise. But Cardinal Lavigerie was not easily swayed, the more so since he had before his eyes the tenacious perseverance of the Protestant Ministers and their admirable wives. He did not see any reason why Catholic missionaries would not be able to face dangers and hardships for spreading the Catholic Faith, just as the Protestants were doing for implanting their brand of Christianity. In the Cardinal’s mind, the African tribes were waiting for the Good News, and it was unthinkable that the Catholic Church would be absent from the spreading of the Gospel in East Africa simply because a few missionaries were in danger of losing their lives at the hand of the slave traders or through privations and diseases. For Cardinal Lavigerie the dramatic situation prevailing in 1888 in East Africa warranted the dispatch of reinforcements in men and resources to the East African mission field.
The Nyasa Mission is created:
But where were the missionaries to be sent? To the south, in the neighbourhood of Lake Nyasa! The tribes in that part of east Africa were at least living in a climate of comparative peace, and communications were relatively easy with the south of lake Tanganyika. All the lands touching upon Lake Nyasa were loosely attached to the old Portuguese possessions of Mozambique and along the Zambesi River. Protestant missionaries had infiltrated those districts, settled down on mission stations, and had managed to maintain their presence for over twenty years. Portugal was officially a Catholic country, and would be ready to give assistance to the installation of the Catholic missionaries of Cardinal Lavigerie wherever they had some leverage in local affairs. The Cardinal was first approached in Paris in September 1888 by the Ambassador of Portugal and was assured of the good will and support of Portugal for what he had in mind to do. He was again contacted in Rome in December of the same year, with more concrete proposals of support and co-operation. Trusting the Portuguese authorities, he accepted their suggestions, and in June 1889 he made a contract with them, by the terms of which a first mission station was to be opened in Portuguese territory, south of Lake Nyasa, on the banks of the Shire River, in chief Mponda’s fiefdom. The Portuguese had decided to appoint an official of the Mozambican administration at the station. The contract between Cardinal Lavigerie and the Portuguese was presented to the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith for approval. On July 31st, Propaganda Fide created the Nyasa Mission. The first five missionaries for this new jurisdiction in East Africa had already been on the high seas for two weeks, and they were now approaching Zanzibar. One of them, Bro Chrétien, died on board the boat that had left Marseilles for Zanzibar. The four remaining pioneers landed at Mayote, boarded a cruiser of the Portuguese Navy, and at last landed at Quilimnae on 21st August 1889.
Quilimane was the most popular harbour on the seacoast controlled by the Portuguese. That is where all the inland caravans from all over South Nyasa were heading to, and that is where the caravans from the coast to Nyasaland were leaving from. It took an awful lot of time for the missionaries to organise a caravan for the interior, for they were delayed at every turn. They had plenty of time to collect information from travellers coming from Nyasaland, and it soon became evident that there was a lot of rivalry between the Portuguese and the English in this part of Africa. Their caravan finally set out, part of the large caravan taking M. de Souza, the Portuguese Government agent, to Mponda. They reached their destination on December 28th 1898. But they very quickly realised that they had walked straight into a hornet’s nest. Portugal did not control the Shire, as they pretended they did, and therefore all their insurance of support came to nothing in reality: the White Fathers at Mponda were on their own.
Nyasaland before 1860
The Portuguese could have become the masters of the land, especially in the course of the last century, for they had been present in East Africa for three hundred years. At one time, in the course of the eighteenth century, the Portuguese seriously envisaged to take control of all the territory up to the Zambezi River. The Portuguese explorer Lacerda brought to the attention of Lisbon the importance of the occupation of Capetown by Great Britain in 1795, an event which was bound to have tremendous repercussions for the future of Africa. It was imperative for Portugal to foresee the consequences of the inevitable, and probably very rapid, expansion of British domination on the African continent. One consequence was the possible creation of a British colonial empire swallowing all the lands up to the source of the Zambezi River, and therefore cutting off Angola from Mozambique. Was it not urgent for the Portuguese to take possession of all the land between their two colonies in the east and in the west? Lacerda was appointed Governor of Mozambique and took the head of an expedition that penetrated far north of the Zambezi River, well beyond the Lwangwa River, well beyond even the Chambeshi and the Lwapula up to Lake Mweru. He had hardly reached the Mweru that he died in 1798. The expedition he was leading came back to Tete, the capital of the Zambezi Province. No lasting result was achieved by this expedition.
In the following years, explorers, traders, adventurers, all Portuguese, kept travelling around the extensive highlands between the Zambesi River in the South, the Lwangwa Valley in the West, the Shire River and the Nyasa Lake in the East. But they were all acting on their own initiative and working for their own interests or for the interests of trading companies. Portugal was not concerned at all.
Livingstone and the Protestant Missionaries in Nyasaland
Half way through the nineteenth century Livingstone appeared on the African scene. His purpose was simply to explore Africa in the footsteps of the Portuguese travellers, and also of the Jesuits. For the Jesuits had gradually come as far as the confluence of the Lwangwa and the Zambezi, and they had started the evangelisation of the Senga when the bitterly anti-clerical Pombal took power in Portugal and passed a law expelling the Jesuits from all Portuguese territories. Livingstone was now coming up to explore the Zambezi Basin and the region of Lake Nyasa, after several others. He spent several years on the Shire Highlands, where he was joined in 1861 by the first Anglican missionaries grouped in the University Missions for Central Africa, or U.M.C.A. Those pioneers gave up their attempt at evangelisation of the local population after a year and fell back on Zanzibar. Livingstone, however, remained on the Shire High Plateau.
Portugal was by now thoroughly worried by the presence of Livingstone on the Shire Highlands, and asked London for explanations on the activities the famous explorer had been carrying out for a long time in what Portugal regarded as part of her patrimony in Africa. The British Government was not in a mood to come to grips with Portugal over territorial claims in East Africa, for no British trader had so far shown any interest in this part of the world. Livingstone was, therefore, ordered to leave the Shire.
It was 1884. Portugal was now thoroughly alerted and would probably hasten to send Portuguese agents in all the territories north of the Zambezi River, and have the local chiefs sign treaties of friendship with Portugal. That was the usual practice: the most important Chiefs in a territory coveted by a European Power would be bribed or compelled into putting their fiefdoms under the protection of the said Power. No European Power had as yet bothered to earmark that part of Africa as its own. It was naturally, as it were, within the reach of Portugal, whose presence in the south had endured for three centuries. But Portugal did nothing.
In the meantime the Ngoni of Mombela, of Mupeseni, and of Tidyaonga had reappeared, terrorising the local populations whose land they coveted. The Portuguese had already witnessed such a massive migration of tribes from South Africa forty years previously. They had gaped in wonder at those endless hordes of warriors, women, children, and cattle moving north relentlessly and crossing the Zambezi. They had rejoiced at the fact that the invaders showed no interest in the land occupied by the Portuguese, and the Portuguese were glad to see this mass of milling humanity pushing north towards other places to conquer and plunder. It was, in fact, a colossal movement of population, probably the greatest shifting of population ever in East Africa. In all probability, the Portuguese did not dare to follow and to propose to the Angoni treaties of friendship that would curtail their freedom of action, for the Angoni were not in a mood to submit to anybody at a time when they were bent on conquest. But it might also have been negligence, lack of foresight and political sense on the part of Portugal.
Less than ten years later, two Scottish missionary societies, carrying out the wishes of Livingstone, came to open mission stations on the shore of Lake Nyasa and on the Shire Highlands: the United Free Church of Scotland Mission (U.F.C.S.M.) in 1875, and the Church of Scotland Mission (C.S.M.) in 1876. Soon after, in 1878, a trading company, sort of financial arm of the C.S.M., was founded in Blantyre under the name of African Lakes Corporation. . This trading company set out at once to monopolise the ivory trade by squeezing out the Arab and the Portuguese traders; to organise a regular service of transport from the outfall of the Zambezi to Lake Tanganyika by running two small steamers on the river and on Lake Nyasa; to carry out trade all over the hills of the Nyika; to build a road for the caravans joining Lake Karonga to Lake Kituta. In 1881, the missionaries of another group, the Universities Missions for Central Africa or U.M.C.A., made their appearance in Nyasaland and opened a mission station on Likoma Island. Both missionaries and traders went on with their respective work with remarkable steadfastness and courage, sometimes in dreadful and tragic circumstances, always in spite of the opposition of the Yao and the Angoni. They managed to establish a few permanent stations that became centres from which the policy of peace making in Nyasaland gradually bore fruit.
The Conflict between Great Britain and Portugal
The Portuguese were now definitely shut out of those lands. They suddenly became feverishly active to make their presence felt. Their famous explorer, Serpa-Pinto, led a military expedition from the Zambezi River to Lake Nyasa. They opened centres of administration, like the one at Mponda, but all to no avail, for they were working in a vacuum. They were simply too late.
Since 1883, there was a British Consul at Blantyre, and a few peace treaties had already been signed between some important Chiefs and the British. The latter were now irrevocably committed in Nyasaland. In July 1889, on hearing that a caravan of White Fathers was on its way to Mponda, the famous Johnston was appointed Consul General in Mozambique and he at once made his way to Mponda to keep an eye on the Portuguese and to protect British interests.
Conflict had become unavoidable between the British and the Portuguese. While the White Fathers were chafing at Quilimane under forced restraint up to the end of November, Johnston came across Serpa-Pinto at the confluence of the Ruo and the Shire Rivers. Lisbon had already given London insurance that Serpa-Pinto’s military force would not march through the Shire Highlands. Informed of the decision taken at the level of the governments by Johnston, Serpa-Pinto understood that the military expedition he was leading was pointless. After some shilly-shallying, he decided to go back to base. He dealt mercilessly with a chief who tried to deny him passage through his fiefdom. Then Serpa-Pinto handed over his command to Lieutenant Coutinho and regained Mozambique. But the Lieutenant was a daring officer. He suddenly crossed the Ruo and marched north, and reached a place that was just one day’s march away from Blantyre. A few hundred kilometres away to the east of the Ruo, unknown to Coutinho, the four White Fathers and the Portuguese agent de Souza were plodding along in the direction of Mponda, which they were to reach a few days later. Coutinho’s daring attempt to impose the Portuguese presence in Nyasaland aroused the wrath of Lord Salisbury, the British Prime Minister. On January 11th 1890, he dispatched an ultimatum to Lisbon, and Lieutenant Coutinho had to take his soldiers across the Ruo back to Portuguese territory. The Shire Highlands and Nyasaland were definitely lost to Portugal.
In the hornet’s nest of Mponda
The Catholic missionaries who had come to settle down at Mponda were certainly not the guests of the British, but they were not particularly welcomed by the Portuguese either, even though they had come in answer to an invitation of Portugal and were told they would be officially supported by the Portuguese. In the eyes of the British, the arrival of those French missionaries at that particular moment could only be regarded with suspicion, their religious activities only as a screen for nefarious projects. They could be used as aces by Portugal in case of a conflict with Great Britain. Neither the Consul General Mr Johnston, nor the managers of the A.L.C., nor the Protestant missionaries were inclined to think that the White Fathers had come to Mponda unaware of being the tools of the Portuguese. In other words the White fathers were somehow in cahoots with the Portuguese. Hence the attitude of the British people who called on the Fathers at Mponda: they were definitely cold, reserved and even suspicious.
How did Chief Mponda welcome those white men who had entered his village in the baggage of the Portuguese, as it were? He was, in this southern part of Nyasaland and of the Shire Highlands, the most powerful Yao potentate, belonging to the Amachinga section of the tribe. He was, at the same time, the most ferocious slave trader. His fortified village, on the right bank of the Shire River, comprised about 1,500 huts. It was from this village that several expeditions would leave every year to make razzia of slaves among the population living in the plain. Mponda could count on one thousand rifles, and he had no difficulty in getting supplies of gun powder and pellets in spite of all international legislation forbidding the sale of weapons to slavers (the Brussels Acts). Two or three barrels of gunpowder against two or three young slaves: that was the normal rate of exchange practised by the Arabs and all the slavers along the coast.
Generous provider of African slaves for the Arabs, he was also a fervent Moslem, at least in the African way. All the heads of the main families followed his example. The missionaries noticed it at the occasion of the Ramadan, which was widely observed at Mponda. But as they were kept away from public life and from close contact with the people, they came to appreciate only very late, shortly before they left Mponda, and only partially, the strength and prestige of Islam in this large African agglomeration. For Mponda and his entourage, those white men who passed themselves off as men of God were of no importance at all, since they were not preaching Islam. Moreover, they were the tools of the Portuguese, and therefore just good to be exploited like the English people. For the cunning potentate was still under the illusion that the rivalry between English and Portuguese was to last indefinitely, and that he was there to draw the utmost profit from it, since both nations were vying for his friendship.
No wonder that the presence of the missionaries at Mponda achieved strictly nothing. Nor could they do anything, since they had been quartered in the royal part of the town in very poor accommodations – the Yao are reputed for their offhandedness and meanness – and carefully kept apart from the population. Even if they had had free access to the families and free contact with the ordinary people, they would not have achieved more.
Let us beware not to attach undue importance to principles and methods of apostolate, which would infallibly produce good results on condition that they are applied strictly and faithfully. The truth is quite different, and of a much higher order than our brightest human ideas. The truth is simply that God achieves whatever He likes at His own good time. The arrival of the missionaries at a given place does not necessarily mean that God is now calling the people to conversion. The missionaries come to prepare the ground, and to sow, but the seed will grow only at God’s own time. Christ even warned us that it might be necessary at times to shake the dust off our feet and go elsewhere. It was certainly the case at Mponda, as the missionaries saw for themselves. This huge village was in fact only a military camp in perpetual state of siege. It was the same with all the villages in the plain. The only occupation of the people was to make war, as they said themselves. And war meant plundering, raiding, night surprise attacks, razzia of women and children, destroying crops, burning down entire villages. War meant also fratricidal conflicts, Yao against Yao, in which well paid Angoni warriors came to give a hand. What could the missionaries do among those enraged lunatics?
In fact the White Fathers had been misled and deceived all along the line. Nothing was conformed to what they had been led to expect. Chief Mponda was not controlled by the Portuguese at all, but would soon be brought to heel by the British like all the other chiefs in this part of East Africa. The country was far from being peaceful and quiet, but was echoing with the beats of the war drums from the beginning of the year to the end. Communications between the two Great Lakes were not safe at all, except for the slave traders all armed to the teeth to convey their human goods to the coast, and for the caravans of the African Lakes Company with their heavily armed escorts.
When they came to Mponda, the missionaries fell into a trap. They decided to make the best of a bad situation. They settled down and tried to do something. The queerest thing of all is that they even got quite attached to the local population, although all they could see of it was the usual revolting vices of the Moslems and the defects of the animists. When they finally received from Maison-Carrée the order to pack off and move out, they obeyed without hesitation, but not without regret.
Note by translator: Fr Mazé gave large extracts of the Diary of Mponda Mission, from December 31st 1889 to 31st December 1890. Those extracts are filled with the many events of every day life and the countless incidents that peppered their otherwise monotonous existence in forced seclusion in the royal enclosure. The missionaries noted down everything, day in day out, events, customs, and all sorts of observations. They have not been added to this translation of Fr Mazé’s document, for they do not directly concern the history of the Church in Zambia. Follows the conclusion given by Fr Mazé.
According to the Mponda Diary, the months of January and February 1891 were filled with wars and rumours of war. The missionaries heard every day of skirmishes and kidnapping of women and children on the outskirts of villages. They got wind of a military expedition of Makanjire (a friend of Mponda’s) against Cebemba (?). They witnessed with their own eyes an attack of the Angoni of Cikusi on Mponda’s fortified village: the Angoni were advancing on the fortifications in close formation when the defenders suddenly opened fire with a thousand blunderbusses and rifles on their assailants at close range; all the Angoni could do was to break ranks and flee in disorder, for they had only hide shields to oppose to this murderous hail of pellets. This victory wiped away any fear the Yao of Mponda may have entertained in their hearts for the Angoni warriors of Cikusi. No wonder it was soon followed by several incursions of Mponda’s Yao on the territory occupied by the Angoni of Cikusi. The Yao never went far inland, they just pounced on the Angoni villages on their borders and every time returned with fifteen or twenty captives to be reduced to slavery. Those punitive expeditions continued for a whole month. The biggest expedition set out on April 25th. All the valid men in Mponda took part in it and were joined by the soldiery of some twelve neighbouring villages: some four thousand rifles and blunderbusses in all. They were back on May 1st with 150 captives, mostly women and children.
Faced with those repeated successes of the Yao, the author of the Diary points out that the situation has radically changed. Formally the Yao were numbered among the tribes whose main weapon was the bow, and which were reckoned inferior to the tribes wielding spears and shields like the Angoni. That was at least the classification Reverend Sterre (?) made popular in the preface to his Yao grammar. The Yao ranks are now bristling with firearms and hold the fierce Angoni in contempt. The Yao were formerly the victims of the salve raiders, they have now joined the ranks of the slavers. Slavery is the plague of Africa, it will only go from bad to worse if the European Powers do not put an end to slave raiding, slave trading, and slavery.
This is a striking remark on the part of the author of the Diary: he speaks of the Yao as being the victims of slave trade. It is very usual for Catholic missionaries to feel a deep sympathy even for the most depraved tribes they meet in the course of their apostolate. Nevertheless, our missionaries at Mponda are completely off the mark when they look at the Yao as victims of the slave trade. Commerce in slave existed in Nyasaland long before the Angoni invasions. This is one more proof that the observations made by Europeans who are new in Africa are of doubtful value and must be taken with a grain of salt. They are all too often erroneous. We must be wary of those so-called experts who give the facts of life in any country tendentious explanations based on preconceived ideas.
The White Fathers who spent a year and a half at Mponda wrote many denigrating remarks on the Angoni in their Diary. They trusted their Yao informants somewhat blindly, forgetting that the Yao were the sworn enemies of the Angoni, and therefore of doubtful reliability. Hence, in the Mission's Diary, the Angoni are described as savages, barbarians, cannibals, only intent upon plundering and slaughtering. Their reputation of being fearless and cunning warriors is groundless, for they have repeatedly shown they were cowards when they faced the Yao.
It is true, the Angoni were, by nature and tradition, barbarians with a reputation of ferocity that was still spreading terror among all tribes throughout East Africa, from the Zambezi to the Nyanza. The Angoni were certainly proud of their reputation, the more so since it made it easier for them to overcome the tribes they found on their way. When it became known long in advance that a party of Angoni (or Mafiti or Mankusi or Watuta, which are other names for Angoni) was on the rampage or on the war path, the war drums were heard from the four cardinal points, warning the people to be on the lookout and not to wander far from their home, for death was ready to pounce on the imprudent. In fact, whenever a village was razed or plundered, whenever people had to flee for their life, the deed was always attributed to the Angoni, rightly or wrongly. However wild and ferocious the Angoni may have been, they were not cannibals. Once they had taken over a village, the local population could rely on them for protection against the Arab slave traders and their allies the local tribes of slave raiders.
The Yao were among the slave providers, at least the Machinga section of the tribe, to which Mponda belonged. The Yao, whom the missionaries stranded at Mponda were tempted to feel sorry for, were pitiless slave raiders. The commerce in slave was a profitable occupation, and that was the reason why they had made an alliance with the Arabs, who traded in firearms, and embraced Islam. It is rather strange to realise that it took months for the missionaries to realise that Mponda was a fanatic Moslem, according to the entry on 12th April 1891, which reads: “We have just discovered that Mponda village boasts of at least ten Koranic schools: the evil of Islam is much deeper and more widespread than we thought!”
In fact those good missionaries had no idea of the importance of Islam at Mponda. They hardly suspected that it was the reason why they were, to all intents and purposes, kept in quarantine for eighteen months. All they were able to do was to attend a few hundred patients and to teach fifty kids at school. All forms of direct apostolate were strictly forbidden. At their first meeting with the Chief, Mponda told them he had the greatest contempt for their ministry as men of God, and he never changed his mind. They tried at times to bring up the question of religion, but they never got anywhere. Evidently, the official directive was ‘No religious discussion with the white men!’ The Diary, which abounds in lively, if insignificant incidents, does not mention one single sermon, one single catechism lesson, or simply a conversation with a local Nicodemus. They were absolutely forbidden to visit the people in their homes, and this is probably unique in the saga of the missions in Africa. There were at times unkind words and marks of utter contempt, but never any act of violence against the missionaries. The whole climate was one of general hostility and insurmountable distrust, and total and systematic isolation in one corner of the royal enclosure. The missionaries who had to go through this unnerving experience had lived in North Africa, and they knew by experience that apostolate in the Moslem world was summed up in one phrase: to wait patiently. They were not unduly surprised by their total failure to achieve anything remotely tangible in eighteen months.
Mponda Mission is abandoned
The day finally came when the White Fathers who were living in seclusion at Mponda had to shake the dust off their sandals on the villages that were guiltier than Ninive. The day came in mid-June 1891. A letter of Fr Mercui reached the community on May 5th informing the missionaries that the order of leaving Mponda and the instructions for their transfer somewhere else had left Maison-Carrée and would be brought to them by special mail. Impossible to say whether they ever reached the missionaries, for the Diary is silent about those official documents. An entry under May 12th 1891 mentions that Father Superior baptised a child in danger of death, the only baptism made in eighteen months, and the author added this bewildering comment: “Our stay at Mponda has not been totally fruitless since we gave God and the Church an angel in heaven!” It is a hackneyed cliché in missionary literature, but quite a lot of true humility was needed to couch those words on paper! Four missionaries fully conscious of sending only one single child to heaven in eighteen months!
The Diary stops here suddenly, although the missionaries left Mponda only a month later, and we understand why: they had nothing to add to a total vacuum. What they felt, they kept it for themselves. But their departure was certainly a blessing.
It was also partly a curse, for the White Fathers were turning their backs on Nyasaland for the time being. Had the Major Superiors at Maison-Carrée been better informed – there was nobody to provide them with better information - they would have sent the Mponda team on the Highlands just a few days away, among the Achewa and the Angoni of Cifisi, all animists and untouched by Islam. The history of Christianity in Nyasaland would have been quite different, for the Protestants, Boers and Scots, would not have claimed, as they did later, that Nyasaland was the stronghold and the gem of Protestantism.
Divine Providence had something else in view: the BaBemba on the Chambeshi were first on the list of those who were called to welcome the Gospel Message. The missionaries who had been sent first to Nyasaland were now making their way south of the Tanganyika Lake towards the kingdom of the BaBemba, and it was from the Ubemba that the missionaries were to come ten years later to establish mission stations in Nyasaland. God’s views are not our views. The missionaries obeyed their Superiors, turned their back to the sterile Mponda, and transported themselves 800 kilometres north of Mponda without stopping anywhere in between, until they pitched their camp in the small country of Mambwe.
From Mponda to Mambwe
The only usable road to reach the Tanganyika Lake was the one the African Lakes Company had opened up: crossing the Nyasa Lake from south to north, from Mponda to Karonga on board the steamer ‘Domira’, then by caravan along the Stephenson Road from Karonga to Kituta, the southermost harbour on Lake Tanganyika. The missionaries boarded the ‘Domira’ on June 16th 1891, with eleven Europeans: three agents of the Company, four Scottish missionaries, and four Moravian missionaries. After eight days of pleasant sailing, they were at Karonga on June 24th 1891 and pitched their tent in the fortified enclosure of the African Lakes Company. They waited for two weeks while the Company’s agents were preparing consignments of goods and other supplies for their stores strung out all along the route to the Tanganyika, enough to necessitate five hundred porters. The White Fathers left with this caravan, which set out on July 7th. On the 9th, they were at Cerenje, a mission station of the Scottish Church founded eight years previously. On the 14th we reached Mwenzo, a post built up the previous year by the African Lakes Company. On the 17th, a few hours before leaving Mwenzo, there turned up a Reverend of the L.M.S. (London Mission Society). This missionary organisation had opened two mission stations a few years previously close to Lake Tanganyika. Everywhere the Protestants seemed to be ahead of the Catholics.
On July 19th 1891, the caravan was pitching camp at the headquarters of Chief Mwene-Mambwe, who was the biggest chief of the WaMambwe. Fr Heurtebise, who had been seriously ill for a few days, worn out by the long journey, was definitely incapable of going any further. There was at that place a fairly large house built by the Company the year before, but which was abandoned when the station of Mwenzo was opened. The Company accepted to hand this building over to the White fathers, who decided to settle down at this place, at least for the time being. The Superior, Fr Lachaptois, was to continue up to Kituta in the hope of coming cross a more suitable and more convenient site for the Mission. If he didn’t, the missionaries were determined to stay where they were, at Mwene-Mambwe, which was included within the limits of the Tanganyika Vicariate, and two weeks away from Karema, the only mission station of the Vicariate.
Fr Lechaptois left with the caravan the following day. During his absence, Fr Heurtebise wrote down in the Diary the numerous visits paid to the missionaries by the neighbouring headmen. Each visitor came with a present, a modest present from the land: hens and goats. They all wanted their men to be included on the list of the workers employed by Bro Antoine. Chief Mambwe, taking advantage of his seniority, wanted us to enlist everybody in his entourage. He did not make any bone about the satisfaction he felt to see the missionaries planning to settle down in his country. He was straightforward about his motive. “White people in a village, it is just like having a well that never runs out of water”. There was another reason for his choice, which the missionaries discovered only later: Chief Mambwe hoped that the presence of the white people would protect his little country from the marauding BaBemba. On August 9th the Diary mentions the arrival at Mwene-Mambwe of a man who had fallen into the hands of the BaBemba and who had finally managed to escape. He was horribly mutilated: one ear and four fingers of each hand had been cut off, and he had been castrated..
On August 15th, Fr Heurtebise wrote in the Diary: “We inaugurated today the teaching of catechism under the protection of Mary, before an audience of 37 persons who came to prayer, 27 of whom were grownups. It was really a great consolation for us to see all these men, women, and even children, after spending eighteen months at Mponda totally ignored by the local people.”
The Choice of Mambwe
On August 25th, Fr Lechaptois was finally back after over a month of absence. He had been up to Karema, where the White Fathers had settled down and had already a small Christian community. He was bringing back with him three Christian families and five orphans, to be the nucleus of the new mission station in this part of East Africa.
The decision was then taken to stay at Mwene-Mambwe. The Umambwe – the country of the WaMambwe – was very small in area, very thinly populated, comprising some ten villages at most. Formerly the tribe was quite large, but it had been almost decimated by their terrible neighbours the WaBemba. The latter spent their time and energy raiding their neighbours. The populations around their land, more particularly the WaMambwe, were migrating further and further away to the east, as far away from the Lubemba as possible, so as to discourage raiding. The number of the WaMambwe was reduced to between 1,500 and 2,000. Evidently Fr Lechaptois did not choose to settle down among them just for the sake of evangelising a handful of survivors of the Bemba incursions. He was attracted by the ideal geographical position of the Umambwe. Leaving Mwene-Mambwe and going south through the country of the BaLungu, then turning west, they could easily get into contact with the White fathers working in the Upper Congo. In the east they could go over the Ufipa Plateau to join the other White fathers who were stationed at Karema. Moreover the Umambwe seems to be much more salubrious than the shores of the two Great Lakes, where the death rate among the missionaries working in the two mission stations was appallingly high. Fr Lechaptois thought it might be an excellent idea to have a kind of ‘sanatorium’ for the missionaries working in East Africa – the ‘Province’ of Tanganyika, Nyasa and Upper Congo - where they could recover from the debilitating effects of the hot climate prevailing in the lowland.
For the thought of the Nyasa Mission was in the very centre of Fr Lechaptois’s preoccupations, since he had been sent out to found it. At Mwene-Mambwe, some of the missionaries were still thinking of moving southwards, but Fr Lechaptois had other views. He had now come to realise that at a distance of two days’ march, across the Chambeshi, there was what was known as the Panda, the fiefdom of Chief Makasa, one of the three great Bemba chiefs (Makasa, Chitimukulu, and Mwamba). The WaBemba enjoyed a dreadful reputation among their neighbours, and the temptation was great for the missionaries to win them over to Christ. In other words - and that was Fr Lechaptois’ conclusion - the White Fathers ought to stay at Mwene-Mambwe, because it was an ideal site for a mission station: it was near the Lubemba, and there was bound to be many opportunities to come into contact with those redoubtable neighbours. It was, in fact, the main reason that prompted Fr Lechaptois, the Superior of the Nyasa Mission, to stay and settle down at Mambwe. The missionaries stationed at Mambwe were to keep an eye on the neighbouring Lubemba and be ever ready to seize the first opportunity to move into their land.
Fr Lechaptois is made Bishop of Tanganyika
The first batch of mail that reached Mambwe brought the news that Fr Lechaptois had been appointed Bishop of the Apostolic Vicariate of Tanganyika. It was September 8th 1891. He was chosen to replace Bishop Bridoux, who had died a year before. There was fortunately no hurry for Fr Lechaptois to go back to France for his ordination to the Episcopate. What his jurisdiction needed above all was a titular administrator rather than an ordained Bishop. For the bishops ordained for Tanganyika were apparently in the habit of dying as soon as they had received the episcopal consecration. The very first Apostolic Vicar had been Bishop Charbonnier. This missionary had arrived at Ujiji in 1886, was ordained a Bishop at Kipalapala in January 1887, and died at Karema, the seat of his administration, as soon as he reached it in January 1888. His successor, Fr Bridoux, was consecrated Bishop in Paris, reached Tanganyika in January 1889 and died at Kibanga in October 1890 after a few apostolic journeys that actually killed him. Fr Josset took over the administration of the Vicariate for the interim. He made only one trip to the north of the Vicariate, in a vain attempt to found a mission station at Usige, and died as soon as he was back at Karema on July 4th 1891.
That was what the missionaries could expect at any time around the Great Lakes. Life expectancy was frighteningly low, for the climate was merciless. After a few months spent squatting in a canoe, tossed around in a hammock or simply plodding along bush trails in the heat of the African sun, most of the time in the company of clouds of blood-thirsty mosquitoes, after a few bouts of black water, and after a few disappointing attempts at settling down somewhere or at penetrating a new province, many a missionary met his end in some obscure corner of the savannah because his body was wasted with fever (usually black water), and he could go no further. He was then laid to rest in a tiny patch of African soil. The Bishops shared the fate of their missionaries with the same implacable fatality. Bishop Lechaptois was fully conscious of what was probably in store for him, and did not see the use of going to Europe to receive the episcopal consecration. He thought that life was too short to spend any of it on lengthy journeys to Europe just for a religious ceremony. There was too much to do here in the Vicariate, and likely very little time to do it, since dying in one’s prime was apparently the fashion among the missionaries.
His first decision was to send Fr Heurtebise back to Algiers, for this pioneer missionary had come to the end of his tether, and there was no chance for him ever to resume a normal life of pastoral ministry. Then he waited in the company of Bro Antoine for the arrival of two priests from Karema who were appointed for Mambwe Mission. The two priests were Fr Dromeaux and Fr Depaillat, and they joined the Bishop and the Brother on 13th November. Four days later the Bishop set out for Karema to take possession of his Vicariate. That day the Mambwe Diary has this simple entry pregnant with melancholy: “Bishop Lachaptois has just left for Karema. Our prayers and best wishes accompany him. At Mambwe Mission there remains only one man of the original team of five missionaries who left Maison-Carrée in June 1889 bound for this ill-fated Nyasa Mission: Bro Antoine!” While he was keeping pace with his few porters across the Ufipa Plateau on his way to Karema, Bishop Lechaptois had plenty of time and leisure to plan for the future of his Vicariate.
His Vicariate was, at that time, in a very precarious situation, in spite of twelve years of efforts and costly sacrifices in personnel. His Vicariate was stretching from the Uvira Plain north of Lake Tanganyika to Lake Bangweolo in the south. Below a line extending from Karonga to Bangweolo was the Nyasa Vicariate. West of Lake Tanganyika was the Pro-Vicariate of the Upper Congo. Both territories were, in fact, still under his jurisdiction, since nobody else had as yet been appointed to take over what was not properly Nyasa Vicariate. All this huge ecclesiastical province was just an endless waste of water and savannah, in which some thirty missionaries had been wandering around for the past twelve years, some for a few years, others for just a few months, on the lookout for suitable sites for permanent mission stations. It had been hard going, but not totally fruitless.
Of the first caravan of five missionaries (1878-1879), Fr Dromeaux was the only survivor, the one who had just been appointed to Mambwe. The leader of the caravan, Fr Pascal, had died en route in the forests of the Ugogo. Fr Deniaud and Fr Augier had been killed at Rumonge at the hands of slave raiders and traders. Fr Delaunay died at Kibanga. Those pioneers were followed by twenty-six others in the next ten years. Now, out of 31 missionaries sent to this part of East Africa in the first ten years, fifteen were already dead and buried in 1891. They were young men who had come to East Africa full of expectations, ready to put their talents and zeal at the service of God in the mission field, but the only service God was apparently expecting from them was to forget their expectations and die in silence in the silent bush.
Of the sixteen survivors, two had gone to Mambwe, the others were distributed among the three mission stations around the Lake: Kibanga and Mpala on the western shore, Karema on the eastern shore. Those three missions were the only surviving posts among several others that had been abandoned after the death of the missionaries who had started them. At Rumonge the missionaries had lasted two years before being massacred. At the Masanze they managed to last four years, in the Usige six months, in the Marungu nine months, and in the Ufipa, after two fruitless attempts, they stayed just the time to build a hut in 1889.
Bishop Lechaptois was soon convinced that the immediate future of his Vicariate lay along the Lake, south of Karema, on the Ufipa Plateau and in the Rukwa Lowland, in the territory between Karema in the north-west and Mambwe in the southeast. He was to open a mission station at Kala, south of the Lake, and to expand the mission field of his missionaries all around.
At Mambwe, in the last two months of 1891 and the first two months of 1892, nothing of what is recorded in the Diary is of any particular interest, except mention of the increasing concern of the British towards the hostile attitude of all those engaged in slave trade and slave raiding, and the serious disturbances that shook the south of Nyasaland when Makanjire, a friend of Mponda’s, went into open revolt against the British Presence.
Fr van Oost at Mambwe
On March 15th 1892 there came to Mambwe Fr van Oost, a White Father Bishop Lechaptois had just appointed to Mambwe in replacement of Fr Dromeaux, recalled to Karema. He is at the real beginning of Mambwe Mission. He was not to last very long, since he died three years later as he was in the act of transferring Mambwe Mission into the fiefdom of Makasa, an important chief of the WaBemba. That is the reason why his name has ever since been attached to the origins of the Lubemba Mission.
Fr van Oost was coming from Mpala, the mission station on the western side of Lake Tanganyika, in what is now the Congo. His journey had lasted a whole month, for it was during the rainy season. He had several times to interrupt his march because of illness, that is to say violent bouts of malaria, and because the trail was blocked by a raging torrent, that is to say a river suddenly in full spate because of the heavy rains. Very near Mambwe, in the broad plain of the Saisi River, he spent two full days building a bridge of branches and tropical creepers to span the flooded plain. He never properly recovered from the ordeal he went through to reach Mambwe from Mpala. On June 1st, he was brought down by an attack of black water. “Trouble is,” we read in the Diary, “we have run out of remedies, all we can do is to pray!” His confreres really thought they were going to lose him, and on June 7th they administered to him the Sacrament of the Sick. But it was not his hour yet, and he recovered. The rest of the year went by without major problem. In August, Bishop Lechaptois came to pay Mambwe Mission a pastoral visit. Among other things, he and Bro Antoine went to visit a village whose headman was a Mubemba, the Bemba village nearest to Mambwe. The Bishop and his companions were not particularly well received, since they had to palaver a long time before one of the gates in the palisade around the village was grudgingly open for them to squeeze in. In the following months, the missionaries heard lots of rumours about Bemba incursions in the land of the BaLungu, south of the lake. But there were other rumours that filled the WaMambwe with dread. Let us turn to the Diary for more information.
The Mambwe Diary September 1892 – December 1893
26-09-92: Some Mambwe families would like to settle down on the emplacement of an old village some four kilometres away from the Mission. But as it is in the south, they are afraid of being on the way of a Bemba invasion, and the first to be plundered. That is why they first came to us to make obeisance, as it were, so as to have a right to claim our protection, and at the same to offer their services. Father Superior placed three guns at their disposal, complete with pellets and powder, to be used as means of self-defence
23-10-92: Rumours are going around that are a cause for concern. The gist of them is that the BaBemba are on the war path and are preparing to attack the Mission and to kill the missionaries, and to plunder all the villages of the BaMambwe. Recently they defiantly went to Kituta, the English post, and plundered a whole village before putting it to the torch, under the eyes of the English who stayed put. It is a fact that the Arabs and the Wangwana have been delivering a substantial supply of gunpowder to our dreaded neighbours for a few weeks. Of course, those are only rumours, but we are always in danger of being taken by surprise. The BaBemba are known to pounce upon their victims in the dead of night. We have instituted a night watch around our ‘boma’ and our village: two men on constant patrol.
06-11-92: A caravan of carriers with loads of ivory went through Mambwe today, headed by a Mr Law, the Company’s agent at Kituta. There was more than one hundred loads of magnificent tusks, some weighing as much one hundred pounds. This ivory comes from Ujiji, or rather from Manyema via Ujiji. There are lots of those caravans of ivory, with as many caravans transporting loads of gun ammunition and gunpowder going in the opposite direction. The munitions come usually from Karonga.
The BaBemba, we are told, led an attack on Zombe or Mbala, not far from Lake Tanganyika, a few hours away from the English station, killing three men and kidnapping six women and two children. When are the British going to put a stop to those acts of banditism?
21-11-92: A gentleman, Mr G;, who is an agent of Mr Sharpes, the deputy consul, pitched his camp at a short distance from our village. We hear that he is coming from the Mweru. But contrary to the accepted usage among travellers in Africa, he did not come to say hello. He was hardly encamped that he was demanding an ox and ten goats from Chief Mambwe. The latter answered that all his cattle were the property of the missionaries. The agent finally came to the Mission, and in broken French managed to explain to us that it was his way of dealing with the people. It was, he added, the German way, and it was very efficient, and entirely to his own liking. Thus it was that two days before (on November 19th to be precise), he burnt down the village of Keresya – a village of 200 huts - killed four men, chased all the others into the bush, and slaughtered all the cattle. Why? Simply because a man of this village had stolen cloth material from him. Useless to say that we were not particuliarly impressed by his high-handedness, and we were secretly in fear he might get it into his head that it would be fun to burn down the Mission!
30-11-92: Mr Sharpe, the vice-consul, calls on us on his way back from the Mweru. He brought the affair of the Keresya village into the conversation, and expressed his strong displeasure at, and disapproval of, his agent’s deed. As far as we are concerned, this incident has lasting – and unpleasant – consequences: now that Keresya has been destroyed, all the caravans will stop at Mambwe, and we shall therefore be invaded practically everyday by convoys going either way.
26-01-93: In our mail we found two letters from Mr Johnston, High Commissioner and Consul General of Her British Majesty in Central Africa (Nyasaland and dependencies). In the first letter he enclosed the title deed of the Mission compound. Here are the main points in the second letter. In answer to an enquiry
we had sent him, he gave the African Lakes Company licence to sell us weapons and munitions without restriction, to be used in self-defence against the incursions of the WaBemba. We are also allowed to arm our people for the same purpose, as long as the firearms are distributed with discrimination. But the Brussels Act has imposed severe restrictions on the import of firearms and ammunition into Africa, and has made it a law to obtain a licence for carrying a gun. We must abide by this regulation and ask for the proper permit, one for each gun, valid for five years, against payment of one pound sterling for each licence. Well, the Brussels Act is full of unpleasant surprises! Mr Johnston adds: “I totally agree with you: the WaMambwe must be protected against the murderous incursions of the WaBemba. By grouping them around you and teaching them the principals of Christianity and of a way of life based on human wisdom and work, you will certainly achieved much for the common good.” We quite agree with Mr Johnston, but we naturally object to being made to pay sound money for the privilege of working for peace and of protecting a harmless tribe against the incursions of slave raiders.
24-02-92: There is much talk about Bemba marauders in the neighbourhood of villages. They abducted some women near Keresya. We are setting up a big boma around ours, in which the people have already built fifty huts.
19-O3_93: The BaBemba have attacked the village of Kitine, at a distance of one hour from Mambwe, plundered it, beheaded three men, mutilated a woman, and burnt down all the houses.
21-03-93: Noisy palaver at Mambwe’s place. A few armed BaMambwe pursued the Bemba assailants. We are pretty certain that this is all a lot of empty boasting. If they did follow them, they must have been extremely careful to keep at a safe distance. But they are now all together and getting excited. Mambwe, followed by the elders, comes to inform us that they have decided to make war on the BaBemba. For the BaBemba, they say, have sworn to exterminate the BaMambwe in spite of the presence of the missionaries, and that they will turn against the missionaries themselves, who are mere cowards, and they will also wipe them off the face of the earth! And so on and so forth! We urge the Chief to go and contact the British authorities, whose agent happens to be at Mwenzo just now.
24-03-93: Two men sent to Mwenzo came back with the following message: “I have no order from my government to deal with the BaBemba. All I can do is to lend you twenty-five guns and six hundred rounds of ammunition to fight back the BaBemba if they come to attack you!”
30-03-93: The BaBemba are once more in the forefront of the news: the day before yesterday, they drove off the men of Kazoka, who came to take refuge in our boma. During the night, they burnt down Mumera, killed two men and a child, and came up to the palisade around our boma to howl threats at the missionaries. They have the feeling there is nothing we can do to remedy the situation. The country is so poor that we cannot group together all the scattered villages and hamlets. They can destroy them all one after the other at leisure until our Mission is standing in the heart of a country empty of all population.
01-04-93: A small caravan of ten men, sent by the agent stationed at Mwenzo, brought us loads of copper wire. They were attacked by a gang of BaBemba on the way and lost one load, in spite of the fact that they had seven guns to fight back.
02-04-93: Easter Day. Our neighbours of Kirambuzi’s village surprised a few Bemba marauders in the course of the night and captured a young man. They first of all mutilated him horribly before cutting his head off. Then they impaled the head on a pole and brought it ceremoniously to Chief Mambwe, as if they had won a great victory.
05-04-93: New incursion of the BaBemba at Kazoka.
08-04-93: Last night the BaBemba came to destroy the fields of beans around Mambwe. This evening they pounced on the village of Malowa. They are welcomed by heavy rifle fire. Our people are in a panic. In the hope of limiting bloodshed among our people, we grabbed our guns and made a beeline for Malowa. We are too late, however, for the attackers have broken contact and fled into the bush. The BaBemba found the people of Malowa on the alert and were not able to take them by surprise. They did not insist and disappeared. That are the usual tactics of the BaBemba: they avoid a headlong confrontation with those they come to plunder. From Malowa we can see in the distance, in the direction of Kirangwa, many campfires. We are told that the BaBemba of Kitimkulu have come to participate in the extermination of the BaMambwe.
27-04-93: The many caravans plying between Karonga and Kituta all stop at Mambwe and camp here at least for a night. It is a real plague as far as we are concerned. Wherever those caravans happen to pass, they leave behind a trail of moral corruption and misery. The men in those caravans are morally unprincipled, and the leaders are only intent upon requisitioning food supplies and carriers with total disregard for the disrupting effects this daily tapping has on the human and material resources of the local population. It is absolutely impossible for us to organise religious instruction among people who live in a state of utter confusion. If the present situation continues, Mambwe can never be a mission station.
08-05-93: A letter from Mr Law informs us that the BaBemba attacked a village near Kituta, killed eight men and abducted 16 women.
08-07-93: Father Superior, who had gone to Kala with Bro Antoine to meet Bishop Lechaptois, came back today after an absence of twenty-two days. The two travellers went through the Urungu and the Ufipa on their way to Kala and back, and in some villages they found the men under arms, for they were expecting attacks from the BaBemba. For the BaBemba are roaming around the countryside in small autonomous groups. Major Wissman is touring the Ufipa at present and has raised the German flag over the capital of the local king. Will the BaBemba have more fear of the German flag than they have had so far of the English banner?
15-07-93: The BaBemba have again abducted three women from the village of Kirambuzi, practically on our doorstep. They are getting more and more daring.
10-07-93: Bishop Lechaptois, who met with Major Wissman at Kituta, informs us that the Major came to grip with a whole army of BaBemba in the Ufipa and gave them a sound thrashing. The BaBemba left twenty corpses on the battlefield and fled to the south in disorder. It is a blessing that they did not go back to the Ubemba through the Umambwe, for we are told that they numbered more than 3,000 men. But the news of their defeat will have tremendous consequences for the future.
10-08-93: Major Wissman, who was on his way to Karonga, stopped over at the Mission. The headmen and chieftains in the neighbourhood hastened to bring him gifts and tried to convince him that he should take a walk in the Ubemba. The Major’s visit was a curse for our villagers, for his soldiers, who have just given the hated BaBemba a thrashing, behaved with insolence, as if they had been occupying forces in a hostile country. The men of the villages are no longer masters in their own houses nor the legal owners of their gardens. The women have all run away and taken refuge at the capital of Chief Mambwe. The major is taking along in his caravan some twenty women, a few little girls and two old grandmothers, whom he found in a village of Wangwana who had tried to block his way and whom he swept aside. He entrusted to our care in the orphanage three children and the old crones, but he kept the young ladies for the pleasure of his soldiers.
10-09-93: Extract of a letter from Mr Johnston, British Consul at Blantyre, answering our complaint that the amount of money we were required to pay for the guns we needed to organise our protection and the protection of our people against the BaBemba was much too high: “I must admit that the fees you are asked to pay just now for several arm licences are quite substantial, the more so since the isolation of your Mission makes it imperious for you to organise your own defence with your own means. But I think I shall be able before long to establish a military post in your neighbourhood, and you will thus be relieved of the duty to ensure the protection of the local population against Bemba invasion.”
10-10-93: Father Superior and Fr Depaillat set out along the Saisi Valley in search of better land for the sustenance of the people around them. For the land around Mambwe cannot feed the population. The BaMambwe claim that the country of Kiramaunga, which extends beyond the frontiers of the Umambwe, and through which flows the Saisi River down to its outlet into the Rukwa Lake, is very fertile and rich in game.
Lubemba or Rukwa?
When reading the last entry of the Diary quoted above, one question comes at once to mind. If the missionaries posted at Mambwe were turning their eyes and minds away from the highlands through which flows the Chambeshi River to direct them north to the Saisi Valley and further on to the plain of the Rukwa, known to be fertile and full of game, had they not forgotten the purpose of their very presence at Mambwe? For they had been told they were sent to Mambwe in order to keep a close eye on the neighbouring country of the BaBemba and watch for the right moment to go and settle down among those dreadful brigands. They had definitely not forgotten anything, but the realisation of this project of a mission station in Bembaland seemed to drift further and further away in the distant future. For all they heard about the BaBemba was the echoes of their massacres and plunders, and they were wondering whether those bloodthirsty warriors would ever tolerate the presence of missionaries among themselves, or whether they would even let them come into their country at all. The BaBemba were openly boasting that no white man would ever settle down on their land.
The Bemba chief Makasa, who was ruling over the Panda province situated on the left bank of the Chambeshi and bordering on Nyasaland and Tanganyika, seemed to be more amenable to the presence of Europeans in the neighbourhood. The reason may have been that he was better placed than the other Bemba chiefs to observe them at work, plying to and fro from north to south and from east to west, trading and exploring and pacifying. He became gradually aware of their real power and wealth. Would he ultimately welcome Europeans in his fiefdom? He was known to live in fear and terror of his ‘Tata’ (=father) Kitimkulu, the Paramount Chief of the BaBemba, who was no admirer of the Europeans.
For Kitimkulu had made it clear in public that any European who would seek a favour from him was to approach him on his knees and give him the royal salute, lying down on his back and clapping his hands. (N.B. In other words, no European would be allowed to approach him except by acknowledging Kitimkulu’s supremacy in the traditional way, by doing the ‘kutota panshi’, lying on his back and clapping his hands; which was expected from everybody, freemen and slaves alike). The missionaries would have been prepared to follow the local traditions to obtain permission to preach the Gospel, but they knew it was only a cynical joke on the part of Kitimkulu. The truth was much simpler: Kitimkulu did NOT want any European in his country!
As for Mwamba, chief of the Ituna, east of the central province of the Lubemba ruled by Kitimkulu, he was in fact the most powerful of the three Bemba chiefs, far more powerful and feared than Makasa, and even than his Paramount Chief Kitimkulu. Mwamba was the terror of all the lesser chiefs around, whatever tribe they belonged to. The day would certainly come when the British would impose the ‘Pax Britannica’ on the Lubemba, for those provinces under various chiefs, all of them intent only upon plundering and enslaving their neighbours, were included within the ‘British sphere of influence’, which was south of ‘the German sphere of influence’, according to the terms of the Berlin Conference of 1885 on the ‘partition of Africa’. But the British were apparently not in a hurry, to the astonishment of the missionaries at Mambwe. We shall give further the reason for this attitude of ‘wait and see’ on the part of the British. In the meantime let it be clear to the reader that the BaBemba were interpreting this procrastination as a sign of weakness and fear. One unforeseen result of this delay was to create serious misunderstanding between the agents of the B.S.A.C., officially representing the British Government, and the White Fathers, which might have, at one moment, taken a turn for the worst. The BaBemba were quick to see the difference between the energetic attitude of Major Wissman, commanding officer of the German expedition against the slave traders and slave raiders, and the dallying attitude of the military forces at the disposal of the British Company. They respected the first and no longer ventured to conduct raids in the Ufipa and the Rukwa. They despised the second and continued their raiding activities in the British zone. The temptation was very great for the White Fathers in Mambwe to look towards the Ufipa and the Rukwa for a place where to transfer the mission and the people depending on them, for those districts were more fertile and populated than the Umambwe. They were also enjoying peace, thanks to Major Wissman, who was moreover eager to welcome the missionaries.
Fr van Oost consulted Bishop Lechaptois. Towards the end of November 1893, the Bishop gave his opinion. He first agreed that Mambwe had to be abandoned, for it had become impossible to undertake any serious work of evangelisation in the situation prevailing at the Mission at that time. But he was not in a position to decide whether the Mission should be transferred to the Rukwa at once, or whether the missionaries should not wait some more for an occasion to move into the Lubemba, as had been planned at first. He advised the missionaries to wait, for he was on his way to Maison-Carrée to receive the Episcopal consecration, and there he would discuss with the major Superiors the fate of Mambwe Mission. The choice of the Ufipa and Rukwa to the detriment of the Lubemba, would be, in his opinion, the deathblow to the hope of founding the Mission of Nyasa. Since the withdrawal of the White fathers from Mponda, the tribes on the Shire Highland and of Nyasaland were left to the Protestants. If the White Fathers were now to abandon Mambwe, the tribes along the Chambeshi and the Bangweolo – and that meant the BaBemba to start with – would be abandoned to the Protestants; in other words to the Reverends of the London Mission Society who had been poised on the borders for ten years, ready to move in at the first occasion.
Bishop Lechaptois arrived at Mambwe on December 10th 1893. He was coming from Kala, and he had been delayed in the Ufipa for ten days by an attack of black water. He reached Mambwe in such a state of physical weakness that he had to stay a whole month there to recover. He had brought with him Fr Lepelletier to reinforce the Mambwe staff. On January 14th the Bishop gathered the missionaries in council and informed them of his decision to transfer the Mission to the Rukwa Valley. On the following day he set out again for Karema and eventually for North Africa.
First Visit into the Lubemba to the Residence of Chief Makasa
10-01-94: Men from Kitika, a Bemba chief residing in a village that was hardly two days’ march away from Mambwe, brought a goat to Father Superior in return for a gift the Father had sent him. The idea of penetrating into Bembaland is very near the heart of the missionaries, since they have been sent to Mambwe for that purpose: to wait for an opportunity and grab it at once. If they are moving their headquarters to the Rukwa valley, are they not postponing the date indefinitely? The missionaries are in a terrible dilemma. What is God’s secret?
28-01-93: Fr van Oost and Fr Dépaillat set out this morning to enter into the land of the BaBemba for the first time. The long awaited occasion seems to have been offered to us to make a first move in that direction, for Chief Kitika has offered us his friendship. As there is no rumour of war, of Bemba gang on the warpath, a small escort will be enough. On the way to Kitika, we notice that the fields of millet are being laid bare by the locusts. At Mambwe the people are in the grips of a terrible famine, for the granaries are empty…(In the evening of the first day they pitched their camp at Kitene, a village inhabited by BaBemba and BaMambwe). We are very well received. The headman’s wife comes to greet us with refined politeness. We were struck right from our first meeting with Bemba women by their refined deportment. The BaBemba are physically closer to the European type than the other tribes around us. (Right from their first contact with the BaBemba, we feel the missionaries are impressed by their martial bearing and their commanding presence; later Bishop Dupont would wax lyrical on the subject of his dear BaBemba!) In our interview with Kitika, we speak of Mr Giraud, a fellow Frenchman who had been a close friend of the previous Kitimkulu. Unfortunately, this Chief died a month after the passage of the French explorer, and the latter was – quite in accordance with local customs and beliefs – made responsible for the Chief’s demise: Mr Giraud must have somehow cursed his host! Chief Kitika answers that Lesa = God is the master of life and death, not Man. We are pleased to note that Mr Giraud left a good impression behind.
29-01-93: When we left Kitene, several Bemba women joined our caravan, for they were afraid of travelling alone. Among them we see one that has been amputated of both hands. We shall have ample occasions to witness such mutilations. We plodded along for seven hours through the bush. A bush that was monotonously flat, totally empty of life! A bush without the usual twitting of birds or the occasional sight of fleeting game! A dismally dead bush! After seven hours, a gang of men appeared suddenly on the horizon coming to meet us, with Chief Kitika at their head, cavorting and capering in noisy greeting. As we are drawing near the village, the people are crowding on the threshold of their huts, more attracted, we think, by the sight of our donkeys than by our own persons.
30-01-93: Today we make our way in an easterly direction. We are determined now to pay a visit to Makasa, who is reported to be the son of Kitimkulu. . When we reach the gates of the village, the centre of attraction is once more our donkeys, but when one of them gets it into its head to bray, it is general panic. While we are pitching camp, the crowd of inquisitive and prying onlookers is pressing so hard around us that we can hardly breathe. A few Wangwana wearing long white robes stick out like a sore thumb among the crowd of ordinary Natives wrapped in pieces of bark cloth, which is the usual apparel of the BaBemba. Makasa grants us an audience. He is big and fat like all the chiefs who live mainly on ‘pombe’ or native beer. He is seated in the middle of his entourage. A troop of warriors wielding rifles executes a war dance for our benefit to the accompaniment of six enormous drums that make a deafening noise. This is all to show us that Makasa is a great Chief: the warriors, the drums, the dancing. In the following interview, he informs us of his intention to send word to Kitimkulu that we, his visitors, were sending our most respectful greetings to the Paramount Chief. In the evening he sent his troupe of musicians to our tent ‘to gladden our hearts’, as he puts it. But the fact that all those talented singers display signs of physical mutilation, and that the hands that beat the drums are finger-less, sends cold shivers down our spines and somehow spoils the pleasure of the concert.
Journey of Exploration in the Ufipa:
The two travellers were back from their excursion into the Lubemba on February 1st, and they were quite pleased with the welcome they had received everywhere. But Bishop Lechaptois had left strict orders that the Mambwe Staff was to move into the Rukwa Valley or on the Ufipa Plateau. It was now time to go and find a suitable place for the new foundation where Mambwe Mission could be transferred at the end of the rainy season in April or May. Fr van Oost was once more ready to lead the caravan, which took a northerly direction. He was accompanied this time by Fr Pelletier. Twenty days later, they were back, on February 27th to be exact, after travelling all around the provinces of Pilula, Kimaraunga and Kapufi. Their choice for a mission site fell on Kinambo, in the Rukwa Valley. Fr van Oost hastened to inform the German Resident stationed at Langenburg in North Nyasa, who was responsible for this part of the Colony. The Resident was all for the White fathers to settle down on the spot of their own choice. The whole month of March passed by without any step taken to move Mambwe Mission to its new site. Just then, the missionaries were told that Kafupi, the ruler of the Ufipa, had apparently been well impressed by the missionaries that had recently gone through his land, and was now in his turn clamouring for the opening of a mission station in his fiefdom. That is why Fr Pelletier left on April 10th for the mission station of Kala to make preparations for the new foundation on the Ufipa Plateau, accompanied by Fr Dépaillat. The latter, however, was soon back at Mambwe with Bro Gérard. The two were to hold the fort at Mambwe while Fr van Oost and Bro Antoine were going to Kinambo to launch the building of the new mission station in the Rukwa Valley. The future was apparently clearly outlined for the coming years: Karema, Kala, Kinambo, and a post on the Ufipa Plateau. But this was only an illusion, for new instructions from Bishop Lechaptois were on the way from Kala, brought to Mambwe by Fr Dépaillat. The letter had been posted at Blantyre on February 22nd, and had been somehow considerably delayed somewhere on the way. Here is what the Diary has to say about the whole situation:
“According to the Bishop’s instructions, we were to leave Mambwe and transfer the whole Mission to the Rukwa Valley immediately after the rainy season. We had therefore prepared everything for this transfer. The local people had decided to follow us, and they were also gathering their few possessions to migrate to the Rukwa Valley. We were four days away from the date fixed for our departure when the Bishop’s letter from Blantyre reached us, with orders to stay where we were, for very wise reasons. The perspective of the coming months was most unpleasant, for our people had nothing to eat. In fact the people around us went away until there was absolutely nobody left. To feed the fifty children in our orphanage, we had to go into the neighbouring countries to buy foodstuffs. If we really run out of supplies, we shall ask Fr Dupont at Karema to advise what to do, for we are running out of ideas as well as food stuffs.”
The Famine at Mambwe:
From May to November 1894, the word ‘famine’ fills the Diary every single day of every single week. All the villages migrated to more fortunate places in Unyamwanga and in Ufipa. The missionaries were watching every day those hordes of miserable people, men, women, and children, moving slowly along with their meagre possessions on their heads: mats, pots, calabashes, and pieces of furniture. Only the old people and the handicapped stayed behind to keep an eye on the huts in the villages, waiting for the rainy season that would bring most of the people back for the sowing. The rainy season had been totally inadequate the previous year, and that was the reason why the crops had failed. To make matters worse, the animals in the bush were moving away in search of pastures, for the bush itself had become completely dry and the whole vegetation had withered away. The lions had no animal to feed on, and were roaming around the villages and on the paths in quest of a human being to eat. The people were reduced to the state of skeleton and did not have the strength to run away or to defend themselves from the starving beasts. Every week men and women who had been severely mangled by the carnivorous animals were brought to the Mission. The Father who was on duty at the station would try to do something for them. It was, in fact, his main occupation, together with catechism classes he was giving the children in the orphanage. There was nothing to do in the Umambwe turned into a desert by famine. Even the caravans, the large caravans of the past, were giving Mambwe a wide berth, for there was no food to be had anywhere, and no village to get it from anyway. All that went through Mambwe was small caravans of hardly twenty porters, which we had to provide with a minimum of supplies to continue their journey and keep alive till they were out of this cursed country.
The question of looking for food supplies was for the missionaries an endless source of headache and terribly exhausting journeys. Fr van Oost had hardly received the letter from Bishop Lechaptois enjoining the missionaries to stay at Mambwe that he left for the Ufipa for his first trip in search of food. From April 21st to April 27th, he went around villages hunting for beans and other eatables. Fr Dépaillat and Bro Antoine made two such trips in May and July, and Fr van Oost two others in August and October. There was no question of paying another visit to Chief Makasa, or to any other Bemba chiefs, like in January. The Diary mentions twice that Makasa, desirous to maintain the contact with the missionaries, sent presents in token of good will, the first time a young boy, the second time a woman with two children. Fr van Oost understood the Chief meant well, but not only was he not in a position to visit him, but the Chief’s presents were in fact four more mouths to feed at Mambwe.
The Protestants all out for spreading the Gospel:
The Diary also mentions rumours that were going around the countryside at that time that the Protestants were engaged in a spate of activities and visits, especially the neighbours of the White fathers in the Urungu, the Reverends of the London Mission Society. One minister was busy founding a mission station in the region of the Mweru Lake. Another one was exploring the Lubemba under the guidance of Wangwana who were careful to keep away from the usual roads leading to the Bemba chiefs. This Reverend was certainly running great risks. There was even a story that he had been caught by Kitimkulu, and had been stripped of his weapons and of everything he had before being thrown out of the Lubemba. The man who was thus treated was not the Reverend in question, but an American journalist on the lookout for a good story for his newspaper. In the East, the Protestants were just as active and enterprising. Mr Palmers, agent of the African Lakes Company at Mwenzo, wrote a letter to the Fathers to warn them that a Scottish missionary was going to open at Mwenzo a mission station on behalf of the U.F.C.S.M. This last piece of news left the White Fathers undisturbed, for there were no more people to evangelise at Mwenzo than there were at Mambwe.
Bishop Lechaptois’ return:
As far as the missionaries who were stationed at Mambwe were concerned, they were still looking both ways: to the Rukwa and to the Lubemba. They were fighting down a strong urge to move, but they had instructions to wait for the return of the Bishop, and they were bidding their time. They were convinced that the Bishop would this time come with a definite answer to their dilemma. Bishop Lechaptois arrived on November 2nd. He had been consecrated Bishop in May, three years after his election to the episcopate. He was coming with reinforcements: four priests, one Brother, and five White Sisters, but they were all for Tanganyika, except Fr Guillé who was for Mambwe.
The decision had been taken: the orphanage was to be transferred to the Rukwa, in the new mission station, but the mission station of Mambwe was to stay for the one purpose it had been opened to start with: as a forward post wherefrom the Lubemba would be penetrated, and eventually conquered.