The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 57
Ellis, A. B.—West African Islands. London, Chapman & Hall: 1885, 8vo., pp. viii. and 352. Price 14s.
Compiled from notes taken, during visits to the principal islands lying off the West Coast of Africa, between the years 1871 and 1882. The islands separately treated of are:—St. Helena, Ascension, Fernando Po, the Isles de Los, St. Vincent, San Antonio, Goree, Grand Canary, Teneriffe, and Madeira. The Bissagos Islands, Ilha do Principe, S. Thome, and Annobon are not referred to.
Thomson, Joseph.—Through Masai Land: a Journey of Exploration among the Snow-clad Volcanic Mountains and Strange Tribes of Eastern Equatorial Africa. Being the Narrative of the Royal Geographical Society's Expedition, to Mount Kenia and Lake Victoria Nyanza, 1883-84. By Joseph Thomson, F.R.G.S., Leader of the Expedition. Illustrations and maps. London, Sampson Low & Co.: 1885, pp. xii. and 583. Price 21s.
Those of our readers who were fortunate enough to listen to Mr. Thomson's well-told story at the opening meeting of the Society last November, and those who have only been able to read it in the pages of the 'Proceedings,' will have had their appetites whetted for the abundant and varied feast provided in the handsome volume before us. With regard to the interest and scientific value of the work, we can only echo the chorus of praise with which it has been received by the Press. Mr. Thomson's bright and attractive style is well known to the readers of his previous narrative; his unfailing good-humour, buoyant spirits, keen appreciation of the ludicrous, graphic and glowing descriptions of scenery, and sympathetic portraiture of people, are qualities which in our estimation adorn the solid scientific groundwork of his narrative. The Society intrusted Mr. Thomson with the accomplishment of a briefly but clearly defined mission:—"The ascertaining of a practicable direct route for European travellers west through the Masai country from any of the East African ports to Victoria Nyanza, and to examine Mount Kenia; to gather data for constructing as complete a map as possible in a preliminary survey; and to make all practicable observations regarding the meteorology, geology, natural history, and ethnology of the regions traversed." How conscientiously and completely Mr. Thomson has carried out his mission is known to our readers, and is evident in every page of the volume before us. His trials and sufferings were many and severe. His own men were as bad a lot as ever left the coast; but he brought them back physically and morally regenerated. One less brave or less humane and patient than he might have been tempted over and over again either to flight or violence in the face of the stalwart, warlike, ever irritating Masai. Putrid meat was his food for weeks, and so dysentery laid him low for a couple of months, and nothing but his indomitable spirit and his strong sense of the ludicrous even with death staring him in the face, prevented him from succumbing entirely. Nothing whatever could provoke Mr. Thomson to risk his success in doing what he undertook to do for the Society, which has every reason to be satisfied with its young pioneer.
It is unnecessary here to go over the ground again with which the readers of these pages must be familiar. It would probably be hard to say whether Mr. Thomson has established that a practicable direct route exists from the east coast to Victoria Nyanza through the Masai country. He certainly succeeded, by infinite tact and long-suffering, in making it practicable for page 259 himself and his men; but we suspect it will take some time before the Masai can be persuaded to permit a regular route to be opened through their country. Doubtless it will be easier for Mr. Thomson's successors than it was for himself, if they are endowed with a fair share of his tact. So far as is known he is the first white man that has succeeded in penetrating Masai-land. Rebmann, Krapf, New, Wakefield, and Yon der Decken succeeded in reaching the border of the region which Mr. Thomson has explored, and Kilima-njaro, even before Mr. Johnston's visit, had been ascended to the snow-line. Krapf, we know, got as far north as Ketui, and even reached the Tana, but that was far east of Mr. Thomson's route, and out of the country of the Masai altogether. It was then he got a glimpse of snowy Kenia, though Mr. Thomson shows that he made a curious mistake as to its direction and configuration. Wakefield indeed, as will be seen from Ravenstein's map, collected much information as to routes and features from native travellers, and some of this informaiion Mr. Thomson has proved to be wonderfully correct. But it was always recognised as dangerous by caravans to traverse the Masai country, and these never returned without leaving not a few of their numbers behind them. Dr. Fischer, just previous to Mr. Thomson, had to beat a precipitate retreat when only halfway between Kilima-njaro and Lake Baringo. The country is likely to be sought after by hunters of big game, for probably no region on the continent, Mr. Thomson shows, is richer in this respect. Some parts of the route were certainly desert and waterless enough. There are two such stretches between the coast and Kilima-njaro, and at least one great waterless desert between Kilima-njaro and Lake Naivasha. Much of the region, however, especially in the north, about the Aberdare range, is rich in rivers, beautiful and romantic in aspect, bracing and healthy, and abounding in splendid pasture. Events are moving so rapidly in Africa that ere very long we may expect to find this magnificent country—guarded north and south by its alpine peaks, with some of the finest features of its explorer's native land between, becoming the sanatorium and tourist resort of the budding states of Central Africa.
From the geographical point of view, Mr. Thomson's chief task was to gather data for constructing as complete a map as possible in a preliminary survey. How very thoroughly, under the most trying circumstances, he carried out the duty is evident both from his book and his map. Compare the latter with the section of Mr. Ravenstein's map which includes this region, and it will at once be seen how materially the Society's latest expedition has contributed to a knowledge of African geography. At the same time it will become evident that the data collected by Wakefield and others from the native traders who had ventured into those parts, are fairly accurate. But when Mr. Ravenstein revises the sheet he will have much work to do to bring it up to date. True, with Mr. Thomson as with other pioneer explorers, only the general features along his route and for a little distance on each side could be roughly mapped; still his map is wonderfully precise. Of course we are here on the central tableland, but in this particular region that tableland is strongly accentuated. On the north especially, we have some fine ranges of mountains, marked by the loveliest valleys and glens. Broken groups of hills, rising into many peaks, are found along the whole route. On the west a steep escarpment runs nearly the whole distance, and in the further north a few peaks that almost rival Kilima-njaro and Kenia themselves. Great forest regions and grassy plains, beautiful lakes, fine waterfalls, rapid rivers, gleaming lakelets, are some of the features which render this remarkable region attractive. But Mr. Thomson is more than a topographer. As we know, geology is his speciality, and he knows how to observe intelligently both in zoology and botany. To the geologist the country is one of the highest interest. Much of it is evidently in the last stage of volcanic activity. The centre of the region, it may be said, belongs either to the earlier or later volcanic series, and is marked by a great plain of depression. Both Kilima-njaro and Kenia belong to the later volcanic series, and both show that in no very remote period they must have been the scenes of stupendous activity. Indeed Kenia does not seem quite cooled down yet, and the people of Chaga have a tradition that the crater lake of Chaga occupies the site of a former town. Broad belts of metamorphic rocks flank the central area on each side, while on the east, between the metamorphic and the lowest tertiaries is a wide strip of page 260 carboniferous. Of course these indications must be regarded as of the most general character, and to a large extent conjectural; at the same time it should be remembered that Mr. Thomson knows how to read the rocks. In some respects the zoology and botany are as wonderful as the scenery.
No region in Africa, probably, so abounds in game; and Mr. Thomson's sporting adventures add excitement to his narrative, and are sure to draw mighty hunters to this region. In some respects the botany is very remarkable; at one time recalling the vegetation of the Cape and at another reminding Mr. Thomson of the pine forests and heath-clad mountains of bonny Scotland. But what interested the explorer most were the Masai themselves. Magnificent savages they seem to be from his account, unlike any African people he has seen or heard of. That they have close affinities with the Gallas there seems little doubt; their own traditions indicate that they are migrants from Galla-land into their present home, where they have had much hard fighting to maintain their place. Still they are evidently mixed to some extent with other tribes of different types from the Gallas; for here we are at the meeting-place of the three great stocks into which the bulk of the natives of Africa are divided. For the many interesting details as to the fine physique, fighting qualities, curious social organisation, customs, dress, and occupations of the Masai we must refer the reader to the book itself. They are in brief cattle-stealers and cattle-rearers, the unmarried men as a rule taking the former role and the Benedicks the latter. Mr. Thomson frequently (perhaps too often) alludes to the strange part which expectoration plays in Masai intercourse. Mr. Thomson's powers in this respect were often greatly tried when he wanted to be particularly gracious, and he was occasionally compelled to resort to the custom which prevails in some parts of New Guinea. There, a recent Dutch traveller tells us, it is the custom to welcome a friendly stranger by squirting upon him a shower of water from the mouth. Is it not also the custom in certain parts of Africa for courtiers to preserve the salival discharge from the chiefs mouth? No doubt the Masai custom is a survival from a custom which had some sort of rational origin and which it would be of some interest to trace.
It will be evident from these few notes that Mr. Thomson has a completely satisfactory account to render of the manner in which he has performed the mission intrusted to him by the Society—more than was expected of him—and will doubtless be honoured as he deserves. Notwithstanding the unsatisfactory condition of his health, as a result of his Masai-land exploration, he has accepted and is actually employed on a mission of great commercial as well as geographical importance in West Africa; and we trust that in the future his exceptional faculty for successful work in Africa will find satisfactory occupation. We ought to say that his book abounds in instructive, attractive, and well-executed illustrations.