Joseph Thomson was born in 1858 in Penpont, Dumfriesshire to William Thomson and Agnes Brown, the youngest of five sons. When he was 10, his family moved to Gatelawbridge, where his father, a Master Stone Mason, acquired the lease on a quarry. This is where geology and nature began to interest him. His school friends are known to have commented on his desire to read books about the world rather than play in the play ground. By seventeen, fuelled by published stories of the exploration of Africa, from such luminaries as Park, Bruce and Livingstone, he became an active member of the local Literary Society and the Society of Inquiry, which encouraged scientific study and observation. He went to University in Edinburgh, initially studying geology, mineralogy and chemistry, whilst later, taking on botany and practical natural history. His time at University was interrupted as he was required to return home, to assist his father at the quarry. This did not hinder his quest for knowledge, as he used the opportunity to gather hands on, practical information of his subjects. Within twelve months he had produced three significant scientific papers on the regions geological aspects, all of which were read before the Dumfries Scientific Society. He later returned to Edinburgh to complete his studies, achieving medals and high accolades. In his final term he impressed Sir Archibald Geikie enough, in his character and education that he recommended him to Keith Johnson and the Royal Geographical Society for a forthcoming expedition.
Thomson was appointed as the geologist and naturalist for the Royal Geographical expedition headed by Keith Johnson and made his first journey of exploration, to the central lakes of Africa. In May 1879, with a caravan of one hundred and fifty or so porters, they started out from Dar-es-Salaam. They were to explore the unvisited region between Dar-es-Salaam, Lake Nyassa and Lake Tanganyika. Within a month of their start Johnson fell ill, dying of malaria and dysentery four weeks later. Thomson continued the expedition and gained important geological information on the central lakes area, including the western shore line of Lake Tanganyika.
Fourteen months later he returned to a heroes welcome.
Earlier, in 1862, David Livingstone had made a journey to the Rovuma River, south of Dar-es-Salaam and observed that there was a strong possibility that large deposits of coal might be found in the region. Sultan Seyed Braghash of Zanzibar was anxious to have a proper scientific report of the region. So once again Thomson found himself on the coast of East Africa, and on the 17th of July 1881 he began his second journey across Africa, up the Rovuma River in search of Coal. Alas he returned to Zanzibar four months later with samples of shale not coal. The Sultan was not pleased, and accused Thomson of keeping the evidence from him.
A thirst for more intelligence of the East African region led the Royal Geographical Society to commission Thomson again. This time, his brief was to find a viable route for the European traveller from the East African Coast to the Great Lake Victoria Nyanza, as well as detailed information on the regions he travelled through. His journey took him through the notoriously blood thirsty Maasai tribal lands, a region from which, no European had ever returned. The journey took him fifteen months, suffering all the trials and tribulations of disease, native hostility and physical hardships that he had now come to know so well. On his return to Zanzibar he was suffering from malaria and dysentery.
After the publication of his book, “Through Masai Land” in 1885, and the reports of the German explorer, Gustaf Fischer, British and German governments were actively making moves on the East African region, while the French and Dutch were becoming interested in the riches available in West Africa. British companies on the river Niger became increasingly worried at this new outside interest and urgently needed to secure their trading position. Still un-well from his Maasai Land trip, but compelled by the excitement of yet another expedition to Africa, Thomson agreed to assess the northern region of the Niger basin. This was not virgin ground as Maasai Land had been, nevertheless it was equally treacherous. On the 15th of March 1885 he set out, up the river Niger. On the 21st May they reached the journeys upper-most point at Sokoto. There, Thomson was able to negotiate treaties with the Sultans of Sokoto and Gandu, securing trading rights for the British Empire.
In 1888, Thomson managed to gain a somewhat restricted access from the Sultan of Morocco, to travel through the fifteen hundred mile range of the Atlas Mountains. The journey was entirely for his own pleasure, although he did gain some funding from the Royal Geographical Society. During his expedition, he studied the early iron workings of Jebel Handi (Iron Mountain) and also climbed the Djebel Ogdemt, claiming to have achieved the accolade of climbing 2,000 feet higher than any other explorer. He published his account in the following year, under the title “Travels in the Atlas and Southern Morocco”.
Following the success of Rider Haggard’s book, “King Solomon’s Mines”, which Thomson felt had plagiarised most of its “meat” from his book, “Through Masai Land” he felt compelled to write his own novel, entitled “Ulu: An African Romance” in collaboration with Miss E Harris-Smith. Additionally, his publisher at the time invited him to write a biography on the explorer Mungo Park, using Park's own account, together with Thomson’s personal experiences up the river Niger.
In 1890, the political atmosphere around Lake Nyassa, Lake Bangweulu and the Zambezi River was very tense between the British and the Portuguese. Each was vying to become recognised as the controlling power in the region.. Anxious to secure trading treaties, with a local Chief Msiri, entrepreneurs George Cawston and Cecil Rhodes commissioned Thomson to enter Quilimane, in Portuguese East Africa, via Cape Town, and secure potential copper and silver mining rights in the area of Katanga. At Chiromo, (Zimbabwe) Thomson found his route blocked on the shores of the river Ruo by a fortified Portuguese garrison. Determined not to be undermined, he canoed past, tipping his hat jauntily at the volley of ball shot and cannon fire from the Garrison. He penetrated the western regions of Lake Nyasa, unexplored by any European.
Alas, Thomson’s goal was never truly achieved as the caravan of porters became infected with smallpox, severely hampering progress. Eventually, he was forced to turn back, just two hundred miles from his goal, Chief Msiri’s town in Katanga. With treaties signed by thirteen ruling chiefs, and after walking over twelve hundred miles Thomson was carried home, suffering from cystitis and symptoms of bilharzia.
Ravages of perpetual illness had taken their toll, and Thomson never fully recovered. He tried to recuperate in Europe, but Africa always called him. Suffering from pneumonia and possibly tuberculosis, he received a special invitation from Cecil Rhodes to convalesce at his home in South Africa. Thomson returned once more to the continent that he loved and that had quite literally consumed him. After a short time, with no improvement, he was forced to return to London, where he died on the 2nd of August 1895 at the age of thirty seven.
Although Joseph Thomson’s time in Africa was some twenty years after Livingstone, Stanley, Speak and Burton’s geographical discoveries, and beyond the true romantic idea of African Discovery. He nevertheless deserves equal recognition and must be considered a major African explorer.
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