Meeting Report: Joseph Thomson, the African Explorer from Penpont

7 October 2016
Presidential Address
Liam Murray

At the Annual General Meeting of the Dumfriesshire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society the retiring President, Liam Murray, gave a talk on the Penpont-born African Explorer Joseph Thomson.

Thomson was born on 14 February 1858, the youngest of five sons of a quarry owner. Joseph went to school in Thornhill and that his father owned a quarry gave him an opportunity to gather specimens of fossils and this, allied to a keenness to take long walks to study the geology of the area, enabled him to write a paper for the DGNHS Transactions.

He took an Honours Degree in Geology and Botany at Edinburgh University and having learnt that an expedition under Keith Johnston was going to East Africa he applied to join it. He was taken on by the Geologist and Naturalist for the expedition which was going to explore the land between Dar es Salaam and Lakes Nyassa and Tanganyika. The expedition, consisting of 154 men, 78 of whom carried guns, set off on 19 May 1884, but a few weeks after they left, Johnson died from a fever and dysentery. Thomson decided, though he was only 21, that he should carry on and after traveling over hitherto unexplored land on the 3 November, reached Lake Nyassa. After exploring the land around the lakes he returned to Bagamoya on the East Coast arriving there on 10 July having led an expedition of 150 Africans over 3000 miles, over half of which lay in regions unknown to geographers. He returned to London and after giving a report to the Royal Society returned to Thornhill where he was greeted with a Triumphal Arch.

In subsequent years he made further expeditions, to Kilimanjaro, through Masai territory, climbing Mount Kenya and reaching Lake Victoria and in subsequent years to the Niger where, having traveled up the river he made agreements with the chiefs by which Nigeria in effect became part of the British Empire.

In 1889 he was invited by Cecil Rhodes to explore the lands north of South Africa and traveling over 1250 miles obtained trading agreements over an area of 40,000 square miles, territories which were subsequently to become Zimbabwe and Zambia.

He made one final trip to Southern Africa, but was by now in very poor health and, having returned to Scotland, he died on 2 August 1895 and was buried in Morton Cemetery. In an appeciation of him the writer asked how great a man was Thomson and said:

With him dies the only traveler of our time who, as regards his pluck, his persistence and his methods, is worthy to rank with Livingstone.