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 Issues | Church History | James Hannington


Great Churchmen No. 22

James Hannington (1847-1885)

by F. E. Hansford, F. R. S. A.

First Bishop of Eastern Equatorial Africa

Published by Church Book Room Press



So James Hannington sailed away to an entirely new life. It was characteristic of his forthright and thorough methods that, ere the first day of the voyage ended, he had sought out the captain and made a successful plea for public prayers, while on the following morning he called a “C.M.S. Council” at which a time-table was prepared, so that each day had definite periods set aside for private devotions, communal leading and prayer, and study (including that of the Swahili tongue). Characteristic, too, of his humility that, when the ship was in Mediterranean waters, he should write to the secretary of the C.M.S. : “Give me as much advice as possible, and do not ever hesitate to point out my faults and shortcomings; in so doing, you will be more than ever my friend.”

From the comfortable, 3,200-ton Quetta the party was transferred, at Aden, to the 1,200-ton Mecca—a dirty old ship which “swarmed with cockroaches, black ants and bugs, and which was, moreover, dreadfully overcrowded”. Added to these discomforts were those occasioned by foul weather and heavy seas, so that the companions were heartily glad when, on June 19th, the island of Zanzibar was sighted. Here Hannington received many kindnesses from members of the Universities’ Mission, and preached in the Cathedral.

At sunrise, on June 29th, the native porters began to pick their way along the narrow track that led towards the African interior, the party sojourning thereafter at the camps of Ndumi and Mkangi. The former place provided Hannington with his first experience of what an African well could be like. “You might cut the water with a knife,” he wrote. “An English cow or an Irish sow would have turned from it.” The river Buzini was reached on July 8th, and not without difficulty was this fever-infested stream crossed. Hannington, in fact, was deposited unceremoniously into its foul waters when his bearer collapsed in mid-stream. Next came an ordeal by fire when the company was called upon to fight a terrific conflagration at a point where blazing palm trees and grass taller than themselves made a raging and roaring furnace. Good it was, after this terrifying experience, to fall in with a London Missionary Society party, with whom our C.M.S. friends kept as close a contact as was possible until Uyui was reached.

As though these early ordeals by fire and water were not sufficient to test the fortitude of the missionary band, a worse visitation was in store for them. Nine days after the crossing of the Buzini the dreaded fever appeared among them—a scourge from which Hannington was thereafter never wholly free. On July 21st the party reached the C.M.S. Station at Mamboia, where the curious church exhibited its circular mud wall and ingenious double roof which ensured both adequate ventilation and the exclusion of rain. Here the missionaries were heartily welcomed by Mr. and Mrs. Last, who were labouring zealously for the religious and educational welfare of the natives.

During his short stay in the Mpwapwa district Hannington was able, for a brief space, to indulge a taste which had been with him since childhood—the love of collecting—a useful hobby which has been shared by many missionaries. As a result, Hannington was able to enrich the British Museum with a large collection of birds and insects, while another, consisting of rare mosses and plants, found a home elsewhere.

The first day of August was spent at Khambe, where the party rested before undertaking the trying forty-mile desert march to Pero. During these and succeeding weeks, the travellers encountered the unwelcome attentions of hordes of black ants and the larger and fiercer Chunqu ants, the discomforts of sand-storms, and occasionally the exquisite pain that results from contact with the venomous red hairs of the malignant Usagara bean-pod. Constant vigilance was necessary, too, lest the party should be set upon by the fierce and pillaging robber bands—the dreaded “Ruga-Ruga”. After leaving Pero, the missionaries made many vain searches for drinkable water. They found, to their great dismay, that the well at the next camp had been rendered putrid and noisome by the decaying remains of countless toads and rats. Little wonder that Hannington’s fever returned, this time marked by alarming rigors, fainting fits, and a temperature of 110°. A donkey was made ready for him, but with characteristic unselfishness (reminiscent of that of Sir Philip Sidney at Zutphen) he insisted that a sick companion should be placed upon it. At “Dead Man’s Camp”, however, he was too weak to stand, and two bearers were summoned to carry him in a hammock. Of his sufferings at this time he wrote in his diary: “Fever is not always agonizing, but, sometimes, as on the present occasion, it is accompanied by violent sickness, intense pain in every limb, and burning thirst. I had nothing to drink, and my tongue was so hard and dry that, when I touched it with my finger, it made a noise like scraping a file.”

And now they were in the Ugogo country—and to the inquisitive, war-painted Wa-Gogo tribesmen (of whom he wrote most amusingly) Hannington took a decided fancy, for he thought that, despite their evil reputation, they “might be won to the service of the Lord”. The third week in August found the missionaries over the borders of Ugogo, and by the 30th they had reached Itura, where Hannington, as “Bwana Mkubwa”, was entertained with a national dance by the Wa-Nyamwezi.

Leaving Itura on the following day they were confronted with the prospect of negotiating an eighty-mile stretch of forest desert, but notwithstanding the intense heat, and the painful plodding over the hard-baked ground, the caravan was very near Uyui by the beginning of September and reached the Mission Station on the 4th. Here Hannington suffered a grievous attack of dysentery and for ten days he lay at death’s door. It was obvious to his companions that he could not proceed with them to the shores of the Victoria Nyanza, and on the 15th the main body went forward, under the guidance of Mr. Stokes, leaving the leader in the tender care of Mr. Copplestone (who was in charge of the Station) and Mr. Cyril Gordon. On the heels of dysentery came rheumatic fever: “I was desperately ill,” the sufferer afterwards recorded in his diary, “and in such agony that I had to ask all to leave me and let me scream, as it seemed slightly to relieve the intense pain.”

Mr. Stokes, however, was unsuccessful in his endeavour to reach the Lake by the old route and, after disputes with the natives concerning the payment of tribute, the caravan returned to Uyui on October 6th. This unexpected turn of events was interpreted by Hannington as a heaven-sent sign. He wrote in his diary: “When I heard his voice I exclaimed, ‘I shall live and not die.’ It inspired me with new life. I felt that they had returned that I might go with them.” So, as always, did Hannington seek to turn apparent defeat into glorious gain. A Council was called, at which the majority, sharing the view of Copplestone, “held that their leader was different from other people, and that his iron will might possibly pull him through, where a man of less strength of purpose would be doomed to failure.” Once more a hammock was prepared and, on the eve of his departure, Hannington concluded a brave letter to Mr. Wigram with the cheerful message: “I close with words of hope. I am better; full of joy and, I hope, of praise to my God.”

The company started on the 16th, reached Urambo on the 22nd, and then set their faces towards the comparatively unknown country of Msalala, arriving at Kwa Sonda on November 8th. Soon afterwards—and by now they had made a toilsome and hazardous journey of nigh a thousand miles—they viewed the Lake from a point a little to the west of Jordan’s Nullah. Great was their joy, but soon the little band was to be depleted. Two of their number had already been left at Uyui to take over the duties of Copplestone, who was about to leave for England, while Stokes, who had proved an invaluable travelling companion, had now to return to the coast. So, after despatching letters to Uganda apprising the brethren there of their arrival and movements, Hannington and Gordon selected a camping site in the heart of a forest, where they had lions, rhinoceroses, tarantulas, mosquitoes, and four species of ant as near neighbours!

It is in the dark and desperate hours of life that men of true courage most show “the mettle of their pasture”. And what glorious courage, based upon the complete recognition of God’s never-failing providence and love, is apparent in the entry which Hannington made in his diary concerning Christmas Day, 1882:

“Gordon very ill in bed. Ashe and Wise tottering out of fever beds; I myself just about to totter in again. In spite of our poor condition, we determined to have our Christmas cheer. We had a happy celebration of the Holy Communion at 8 a.m., and thought much of the dear ones at home, praying for us and wishing us true Christmas joy.

“In spite of our poor plight, we determined to celebrate the day, and Ashe undertook the pudding. . . . I am sure that many a cottager had a better one, but I doubt if any enjoyed theirs much more than we did ours. Its drawbacks were certainly not few. The flour was both musty and full of beetles and their larvae; the raisins had fermented; the pudding was underboiled, and yet boiled enough to have stuck to the bottom of the saucepan whereby its lower vitals had suffered considerably; and yet a musty, fermented, underdone, and burnt mass of dough was such a real treat that day, that I cannot remember ever to have enjoyed a Christmas pudding half so much. We felt quite cruel in denying a slice to Gordon, who was not in a fit condition for such delicacies.”

Five days later the party set out to meet Romwa, king of Uzinza, and on January 9th, 1883, this chieftain himself came to them, guarded by medicine men who carried horns full of rancid butter, doubtless mixed with blood. These they planted in the ground all round his majesty’s seat, in order to protect him from the witcheries of the white man! As an additional precaution against witchcraft, the king had anointed himself liberally with castor oil. “Never,” commented Hannington, “had we been witness to such a scene of superstition, nor, I think I may add, smelt such a perfume.”

But Romwa’s temper was very uncertain and his demands for gifts unceasing. Soon Hannington departed for Kagei while Ashe returned to Msalala, where the former intended to rejoin him (after crossing the Urima country), so that together they might collect their goods and proceed to Buganda. But towards the close of the month the leader became very ill with dysentery and violent internal pains. “My liver,” he wrote, “is in such a state that I have to walk with my hands tied to my neck to prevent my arms moving, as their least motion gives me intense pain.” He returned, indeed, to Msalala, but in so pitiable and exhausted a condition that it was plain to all—and this time even to the gallant sufferer himself—that his health had completely broken down and that Rubaga, “the distant goal beyond the lake,” was not to be reached by him. So weak and exhausted was he that twice at least, during that depressing journey, his bearers left his body on the ground, believing him to be dead, and it was not until May 8th that the caravan reached Saadani. Four days later the sick man boarded a homeward-bound steamer at Zanzibar, determined that, if renewed health and strength should be vouchsafed him, he would return to Africa, there to impart the Good News of the Gospel.


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James Hannington
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