As some of you may have guessed, one of my New Year’s resolutions was to write more. I have definitely been neglecting this thing, but hopefully, now that the holidays are over I can get back into a routine.
During my vacation, I had the pleasure of hosting some friends who are CIDA interns in Malawi. On one occasion, we grabbed a two hour dala dala and headed north of Dar to the old German colonial capital city of East Africa, called Bagamoyo. It was amazing. Because Tanzania was a main coastal destination for incoming goods, explorers and missionaries, there is a lot of history here — a place where many journeys began and ended. Most famously, it was where David Livingtone’s body was carried (5,000 km) after his death, so that it could be returned back to London.
In the city there are old museums and the ruins of a mosque from the 13C. But the most interesting part for me, was at a catholic missionary museum; this is where I first heard of a Canadian explorer William Grant Stairs. I am sure, like me, you have never heard of him. The museum has this picture of him (see below) and a small description of his journey with Henry Morton Stanley (yes, the infamous explorer Stanley) from the mouth of the Congo River to Bagamoyo in 1889. Stairs was only 25, a recent graduate from the Royal Navy in Nova Scotia, and completing a 5000 km journey across Eastern Africa.
When I returned from our trip to Bagamoyo, I started to do some research on him. The more I read about him, and the more I delved into his history… the clearer the picture I got of this dark and twisted man. A lot of the accounts start with his more admirable accomplishments, such as, his discovery of one source of the Nile, the Semliki River or that he was the first non-African to climb the Ruwenzoris (10,677 ft).
However, it then the brutality of his expedition starts to shine through. For instance, he was wounded in the chest on the trek by a poisonous dart when he was shot by locals who thought their expedition was a slave raiding party — they (his expedition) killed hundreds in return.
I found one book that has his journal from his second mission in the Congo, where he is hired under Leopold II of Belgium to take Kantanga (an area that was not falling easily under Belgium control). The journal reads a lot like Heart of Darkness, where you have a man who seems eerily similar to Mr. Kurtz. I think for those who liked the Heart of Darkness and have interest in this period of history should take the time to read this (although maybe not for the faint of heart).
One excerpt that was very disheartening:
For those still reading… I read one story that makes the man seem absolutely frightening. In competition with Cecil Rhodes’ British South Africa Company, Stairs expedition set out to sign a treaty with the infamous Msiri. Msiri was a Tanzanian who had been sent by his father to Katanga to gain access to copper and ivory supplies. In a series of events which I will not detail here, Msiri then took control of the area and became increasingly powerful. Two other expeditions to the region proved to be failures. But this is where it gets gruesome:
After three days of negotiations without progress, Stairs gave Msiri an ultimatum to sign the treaty the next day, December 20, 1891. When Msiri did not appear, he sent his second-in-command, Captain Bodson to arrest Msiri, who stood his ground. Bodson shot him dead, and a fight broke out. The expedition took their wounded and Msiri’s body back to their camp where Stairs was waiting, and there they cut off Msiri’s head and hoisted it on a pole in plain view as a ‘barbaric lesson’ to his people. Some of the Garanganze were massacred by the expedition’s askaris, and most of the rest fled into the bush.
Oral histories of the Garanganze people say that the expedition kept Msiri’s head – by some accounts in a can of kerosene – but it cursed and killed everyone who carried it and eventually, this included Stairs.He was ill with malaria throughout January 1892. After being relieved by another expedition, the Stairs Expedition set out on the long return journey to Zanzibar. Stairs was frequently sick but by May 1891 had recovered. On a steamer down the lower Zambezi he had another attack of malaria which killed him on June 9, 1892. He is buried in the European Cemetery in Chinde, Mozambique at the mouth of the Zambezi River.
It makes me wonder why he is commemorated at the Royal Military College of Canada and St. George’s Cathedral in Kingston, Ontario and in Rochester Cathedral near Chatham, England or why they named Stairs Island, in Parry Sound, Ontario after him.