Cape to Cairo

(This is taken from the offprint of a magazine called “Lords and Commons” in my possession. I know nothing about the magazine, or how far it was an offical parliamentary magazine)

LORDS AND COMMONS, April 1, 1899




Impressions of a pioneer


William Selkirk 1899AT a time when the British Cabinet is anxiously considering the subject of the Parliamentary Guarantee which Mr. Cecil Rhodes seeks to obtain for his Cape to Cairo Railway Scheme, information as to the Bulawayo‑Tanganyika section of the project can hardly fail to be of interest to our readers. In that belief we publish below some salient passages from a conversation which a representative of LORDS AND COMMONS  has just had with Mr. William Selkirk, who, in his capacity as geologist to an exploration party, has carefully “ prospected ” Northern Rhodesia, through which that section pass. Although only a little over thirty years of age,  Mr. Selkirk, a typical, well-set‑up specimen‑ruddy‑ complexioned and blue‑eyed‑of the adventurous Anglo‑Saxon pioneer, has already ridden across Mexico to the Pacific Ocean in quest of gold, has twice visited fever‑haunted Western Africa on the same errand, has spent three years mining in various parts of Spain, and has just explored a portion of the Dark Con­tinent hitherto untrodden by the white man. When our representative left him, this intrepid traveller (who is the son of Mr. Isaac Selkirk, a Cumbrian yeoman of the best possible type, who played cricket and football for his county when he was but eighteen years of age) was just off to Spain to inspect some manganese and iron mines. A month hence he will be in England again.

But let us hear _Mr. William Selkirk on his trip to and through Northern Rhodesia.

“We landed at Chinde, at the mouth of the Zambesi, and proceeding up one of the tributaries of that river‑the Shir6­we disembarked at Katongas, striking thence across to Blantyre, where coffee of an excellent quality is grown abundantly. Only capital is required to make the Blantyre district a highly remunerative tract of country. We left Blantyre for Zomba, where we interviewed Mr. Sharp, the hospitable British Consul‑General, whom we parted from to tramp to Liwanda, a station consisting of a few huts on the banks of the Shiré.

Stern wheeler "Sir Harry Johnston" 1899

Stern wheeler “Sir Harry Johnston”

Here we got aboard a stern‑wheeler. and steamed to Fort Johnston, and thence to Kota Kota, about half‑way up Lake Xyasa. We had the good fortune to have fine weather all through.

On May 24 1897, we set out from Kota Kota  to relieve Hoste’s exploring and prospecting party on the summit of the great Muchinga mountains. At Kota Kota, which, by the way, is an old slave port, we left the last vestiges of civilization behind, and began our march through Central Africa, touching Fort Jameson, named after the hero of the world‑famous Raid, on the road.

Fort Jameson 1899

Fort Jameson

Our route lay through the Angoni country, whose inhabitants were just then indulging in some inter‑tribal raids on their own account, and who regarded our appearance in their midst with anything but confidence. Mr. Frank Smitheman, who stands six feet two in his socks, and who headed our party, fortunately knew something of the little tricks and manners of the Angonis, whose country is fine for cattle raising, or we might have had trouble. The land here, notwithstanding that it suffers terribly from thirst, grows a juicy grass which attracts game. In most respects it resembles the soil of Matabeleland. Having crossed the Lowangwa River, in whose waters Smitheman  shot a  grand hippo, and on the banks of which I came near to finding my place inside a lion, we reached the foot of the Muchinga mountains, to the highest plateau of which we climbed one morning before breakfast. It was a stiff climb –  something like 5,000 feet ‑ but we were rewarded for our efforts by the hearty greetings of the occupants of Hoste’s Camp. Mr. Hoste and Mr. Nicodemi went home ; but Dr. Carte remained as medical officer to our relieving expedition.

Hoste's camp 1899

Hoste’s camp

Smitheman’s party, to which I played geologist, trekked in a northerly direction, through a country until then untraversed by white men. About 220 miles from camp they met the important Chief Chikunda, the head of a branch of the ruling Avemba tribe, who was very amiably disposed. Next they reached the source of the Luti‑Kela River, where the natives at first looked ugly, suspecting us of raiding intentions.

    The Zambesi river 1899

The Zambesi river

But eventually the chief accepted our explanation of the situation and all was smooth going again. From here they turned south and struck Kalonganzovu, where Livingstone once was, but the village has been moved along since his time. Thence ten hard days’ trek brought them to Lichipini’s, on the Lulemalu, where they found traces of civilization in the shape of a letter from Mr. Glave, of the Century Magazine, giving directions as to the locality of the Livingstone tree. At Lichipini’s they heard that the Aveniba had, the day before our arrival, killed four men. They found the Livingstone tree ‑ a M’pundu tree ‑ next day. It is getting rotten and is eaten away, though the inscription is still distinct.

Group of the Balala tribe

Group of the Balala tribe

“They were successful in shooting a number of pookoo antelope. Game generally was plentiful, but lions were very scarce. On their return to camp, the district within 150 miles radius having been explored, it was decided to move to the westward and build a base camp in the lrumi mountains some 170 miles away. Smitheman took the main party in as direct a line as possible, while I took a prospector and explored some of the country to the north‑west, finally joining the main party again at our new headquarters.

Native village near Fort Johnston, Lake Nyasa

After the camp was built Smitheman and myself took a trip north across the Luapula. Then striking in an easterly direction we went back to camp, that. trip occupying six weeks. From there we went due north across the Luapula, one of the head waters of the Congo, and down this river to the borders of the Belgian territory. Then we crossed over towards the Kafuba and struck it near its source, going down this river.

“Shortly after this the rainy season came on; this was in December. In the early part of January we got word in the camp that a white man, Mr. Genthe, had been killed by an elephant ‑some fifty miles away, and as we were the only white men in the country we had to go and investigate the matter. The story proved only to be too true. We had a very rough trip of it, as it was in the heart of the rainy season.

Shortly after returning to camp war broke out against Mpeseni’s people (the Angoni tribe), some 250 miles east from us, and we were obliged to build a fort, which took us about two weeks, as we expected a visit from them in case they were driven from their own country. This did not happen, however,  We then undertook several expeditions in the surrounding country, and I went south, down the valley of the Rivers Lukosashe  and Loangra to within two days’ march of Zomba, on the Zambesi. The route of the proposed railway will, in all probability come up this valley, where no engineering difficulties will be met with.

“We stayed at Fort Elwes and rested for a month before starting, in June, 1s98, on our big trip, which was to end in Bulawayo. The whole party who set out now consisted of Smitheman, Dr. Jackson (who succeeded Dr. Carte early in January), prospectors Collins and Spencer, and myself, 300 porters, comprising Angoni, Atonga, Swahili, Chickunda, Balala, Besa, Balamba, and Bausi, and thirty Askari carrying rifles. We started out westwards to the south of the Luapula trip. Going due west we crossed the Lefului or Kafukwe river, and eight days from this river we struck the Lefuyanyama, this eight days’ travelling being through virgin country. The last‑named river is a tributary of the Lefubu, but carries just as much water and was flowing strongly in the middle of the dry season. It is entirely unknown to geographers, and was one of our discoveries.

“Game here was very abundant. Pookoo, lechwe, and roan antelope, Lichtciistein’s hartebeeste, eland, oribi, Penrice’s waterbuck, zebra, bush pig, hippo, and crocodile all were plentiful. Spur‑winged geese and duck of several kinds were also on the river, as well as several species of waders, such as cranes, storks, ibises, &c. This tract is inhabited by the Balamba. Here we felt the influence of the Portuguese from the west coast, as the natives addressed us as , ‘Senhor.’ The contour of the country is flat, broken here and there by a rocky kopje. There are large trees only by the river. The common kinds are mahubahuba and mapundu, but the vegetation is not tropical in any way. We continued on through the heart of the country, still striking due west, and after about six days’ march we arrived at Mapiri’s. He is an important chief ruling over the section of the Balamba dwelling in that district. The customs of this tribe are similar to the Balala, but they themselves are not of such good physique.


Arab Slave raiders

Arab Slave raiders

“We continued down the left bank of the Luswesi, a river which we discovered, and at the end jof four days reached Nakanwendo’s, an old Arab slave raider. He was very hospitable, and made Smitheman a present of a large tusk. Five or six Balala came up to Smitheman and said they were slaves, and he freed them, much to the chief’s disgust. To make doubly sure Smitheman took them. with him. He left a letter for the next white man, stating the prices paid for goods and describing the character of the chief, adding a postscript that if he wanted any information he must pretend to read the letter and then question the chief, as he would then tell the truth, thinking the information was in the letter. We travelled onwards for four days through a deserted country, the Arabs having raided the district. killed all the old men, and carried the others away into slavery.

A group of Mashukulumbwi

A group of Mashukulumbwi

“The trip down to Mashukulumbwi occupied six weeks. We went by an entirely new route, and were the first white men to traverse the Mashukulumbwi from north to south. I do not think white men should go through Mashukulumbwi, as it is not safe except for a strong party. At Kazungwali we got the first news of the outside world for eight months. I have since made a map of the country I surveyed and plotted every bit of our journeys.


The Victorian Falls in 1899

The Victoria Falls

“Near Kazutigwali on the Zambesi are the Victoria Falls, which are the highest in the world, being almost twice as lofty as the Niagara waters. I am one of the very few who have seen both. It is not easy to compare the two, as they are quite two different types of scenery. In my opinion the Niagara are the finer. You get a much better view of them, and the tremendous volume of water is magnificent to watch. You miss the view in the Victoria Falls, as they are confined in a narrow gorge only 120 yards or so wide. You want the roar and the magnificence of Niagara. After a march of twenty‑one days we arrived at Bulawayo, the point which Mr. Rhodes’s Cape to Cairo Railway has reached from the south. The whole of our wanderings occupied some twenty months, during which time we walked something like 6,000 to 7,000 miles.”

“And what do you think, Mr. Selkirk, of the prospects of the scheme, so far, at all events, as the Bulawayo to Tanganyika section of it is concerned ? “

“Decidedly roseate,” was the unhesitating reply. “The railway is a great civilizer and developer. When the white man does not follow the railway he tries to get ahead of it. The making .of the iron road through Rhodesia will attract capital and labour, which, combined, are bound to develop to the full its great agricultural and mineral wealth. Coffee, wheat, and all kinds of fruits can be grown in the soil. Katanga will be tapped for its gold and copper. Make your railway, and the prospector and the pioneer will soon be busy. Yes, like most men who have been over the ground, I have great confidence in the judgement of Rhodes in this matter, notwithstanding that slip of his in the Transvaal. It is, of course, a pity that his way lies through German territory, and that that section should be run by German capitalists, but I presume diplomacy or international law, or both, will find a way to protect the interests of all concerned. A similar difficulty was easily overcome in the case of the Suez Canal

What about the climate, Mr. Selkirk ?

 “Good. The highlands are very healthy, and quite fit for habitation by Europeans. The low‑lying country should be avoided. Do I look any the worse ? ” He certainly did not. On the contrary. he looked the picture of bronzed and robust health. “Drop in and see me when I get back from Spain. Good‑day! ”

[The illustrations of this article are, with the single exception of the portrait of Mr. Selkirk, reproduced from snap‑shots taken by that gentleman himself.]


(Note by AS. The date of this article, 1899,  is significant. The year before, 1898,  the “Fashoda Incident” took place when England and France nearly went to war.  The English wanted to build a railway north to south,  from Cape Town to Cairo. The French wanted to build a railway from West to East, and both countries were squabbling over what should happen in the Sudan, where the lines would intersect.  Eventually it was decided that the limits of influence would be at the head waters of the Nile and the Congo.

 Presumably Uncle William must have been in Northern Rhodesia at the time that the incident took place)


On to the Smitheman Expedition