March 17, 2023 4 min read

Joseph Thomson -  The Last Explorer of Africa

Joseph Thomson was born on the 14th of February 1858 in a small Scottish village called Penpont in Dumfries & Galloway. He played a very important role in opening knowledge to the west of the last uncharted section of Africa. At the time, it was still listed on all maps as “Terra Incognita.” The term was used in cartography for regions that had yet to be explored, mapped and documented. The literal translation from Latin is ‘unknown land’.


"He who goes gently, goes safely; he who goes safely, goes far."
Joseph's motto


From an early age, there was an expectation that Thomson would follow in his fathers footsteps and begin his apprenticeship as a stonemason in the local village. Though just as early as the expectation, came his dreams to look far beyond the village nestled in the Scottish countryside. He, like our other two forgotten explorers, took to the outdoors and was known to even sleep rough outside his parents house in order to prepare him to live out his dream of becoming an explorer. And this dream was more than a mere fantasy. At 13, he learned of Livingstone going missing during an expedition and begged his mother to let him join the search party in finding him. 

He went on to study geology, mineralogy and natural history at the University of Edinburgh and graduated at the age of 20 in 1878 with his diploma. Upon returning home to Penpont, he had no idea what to do or where to start. Soon though he heard that the Royal Geographical Society was preparing an expedition under Alexander Keith Johnston from the coast of Tanzania (as it’s known today) to the lakes of Nyasa (Malawi) and Tanganyika. The crew was still looking for a geologist and naturalist to join them. Johnson offered his services whether paid or unpaid. 

After being accepted they soon set off on Johnson's first taste of life as an explorer. Not long into the expedition, the leader (Alexander Keith Johnston) came down with Malaria and ended up succumbing to the illness. This left Johnson with an opportunity however to step up and lead the team between the lakes and back to the coast which he completed successfully. After returning to Scotland, he published his first book titled “To the Central African Lakes & Back."




The Great Journey 


Johnson's first two expeditions were financed by the Sultan of Zanzibar, and Johnson was now ready to take things up a notch. Some years prior, Henry Morton Stanley had founded a route to Uganda which the British Empire had commercial interest in to construct a railroad. The shortest route for said rail track though would have to go through modern day Kenya which was still “terra incognita.” The risk and dangers of the trip included: Malaria; Dysentery; a host of wild animals and the harshness of the Taru Desert.

In 1882, the RGS commissioned the trip and explorers pitched themselves to take on the last mapping of Africa. A trip of 1500 miles through Masai. Before this, only two German missionaries had entered this area of Kenya. Stanley submitted his proposal, however he demanded an army for his protection. On the other hand, Thomson requested just a few weapons and a small group of men. The RGS of course snatched up the more budgeted proposal and with everything signed up, the group left Mombasa on the 15th of March 1883. As they were leaving however, word reached them that a German party had already embarked on the same route, led by explorer Gustav Fischer. Their competition was short lived however as the Germans only went as far as Lake Naivasha (near now called Nairobi), while Thomson was aiming for Lake Victoria. They eventually reach Lake Victoria and it is said that Thomson whipped on his kilt and proceeded in Scottish country dancing in celebration. And rightly so. He had just written himself into the history books at just 25. At a time where explorers could often find themselves persona non grata, Thomson made use of his sense of humour, respect for locals and Scottish ruggedness to navigate through the landscape and settlements. The sight of a British man was usually a sign that you were to be taken to a slave ship, but Thomson used his favourable qualities to not only gain trust, but make friends. 

Over the course of his expedition, he also discovered and named many Kenyan landmarks. For example: the Thomson Falls which he dedicated to his father; and the Aberdore Range, dedicated to the president of the RGS. His return to Mombasa was not as smooth sailing as the outward leg. Thomson was gored by a buffalo and fought both Malaria and Dysentery. This slowed the trip back, however eventually they made it successfully. 


Credit: Photo Credit: Fiona Jeffrey / Art UK



An Early End


In his later years, he resigned to a desk job drafting treaties with African tribal chiefs. He was never a fan of sitting behind a desk though and never stopped his pursuit of personal exploration and adventures whenever he could. He sadly on one trip contracted many illnesses which eventually led to his death aged just 37. Thomson is not remembered as well as you’d think or hope given his landmark discoveries for Western Society. He has been immortalised  with a bust in Dumfries for his incredible work and descendents of those he met in Africa recently started the Joseph Thomson Masai Trust in 2016. At a time where the British Empire was not always popular, to see even descendents of those who met him, shows the true impact he had and the man he was.

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