Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Blaming the engineers - The Zambezi Expedition (3)

David Livingstone’s attempts to open up the heart of Africa involved the navigation of two other rivers apart from the Zambezi, being the Rovuma (Ruvuma) and Shire (pronounced either shee- or chee-ray). All of this would depend on reliable steam vessels and the calibre of the men to operate them.

The first vessel ordered by the Admiralty was built during the winter of 1858/59 at the Birkenhead yard of Macgregor Laird for the modest cost of £1,200. This steam paddle wheeler was named Ma Robert, after Livingstone’s wife Mary, in the traditional African fashion of Ma for mother and Robert her eldest child.
Ma Robert, Royal Museums Greenwich

At Laird’s own suggestion, her hull was constructed of a new type of thin steel plating but unfortunately untested for the conditions she would face. She had three watertight compartments which could be taken apart or bolted together. Her boiler was designed to burn wood but in fact coal was used in her trials on the Mersey which was to be the root of another problem later.

With feed pipes that choked easily and cylinders and boilers that gave constant trouble, Ma Robert soon proved next to useless. She needed several tons of hardwood every day just to get up steam. The acquisition and haulage of wood to the river was another tough and tedious process and more time was spent chopping wood than it took for the vessel to consume it. Compounded by this was an often recalcitrant and inexperienced native crew who didn't like the job of stoking. Livingstone was disgusted with himself when he lost control on one occasion and beat one of them, a rare occurrence indeed.

Another major geographical consideration hadn’t been taken into account; the seasonal fluctuations in river levels of Central Africa. There was often insufficient water to float the vessel when fully loaded with people and equipment plus the massive quantity of wood fuel. The last straw came when the revolutionary thin hull started to disintegrate and the holes had to be stopped up as best they could with plugs of clay.  "Asthmatic" as Ma Robert came to known, finally fell apart completely and sank into the sands of the Zambezi in December 1860.

Livingstone was furious and put the blame personally on John Laird, openly accusing him of incompetence, greed and deceit and it is no wonder that Ma Robert's chief engineer, and Livingstone’s fellow Glaswegian, George Rae, would feel the brunt of his wrath. 

But although the two men were at loggerheads many times, their common roots gave Rae a major advantage in his dealings with Livingstone as the other relationships around them turned sour. It was Rae whom Livingstone relied on and trusted to take on the responsibility of building Mary Livingstone’s coffin after her death at Shupanga.

George Rae’s story is worthy in its own right. Born in 1831, the son of a master joiner, he worked for a millwright in Perth before receiving an apprenticeship with Laird’s. He later moved to the firm of Tod & McGregor

Rae went on to serve in transports employed during the Crimean War and survived a shipwreck off Cadiz. In 1856, he joined the Zambezi Expedition as engineer in charge of the Ma Robert and in 1860 he was sent by Livingstone back to Scotland to oversee the construction of the next vessel, the Lady Nyassa to be built by Tod & McGregor using Livingstone’s own funds drawn from royalties on his book.

The prefabricated Lady Nyassa being loaded at Birkenhead for the Zambesi
Mary Evans Picture Library
 Rae was lucky to get home at all, as he was involved in another shipwreck en route. The brig Guide of Salem, Massachusetts, sailed from Zanzibar on 30 August 1860, with a company that included twenty Americans as well as Rae and three Spanish ladies. At midnight on 4 September the vessel struck and went ashore near Rass Hafoon (Ras Hafun) in what is now Somalia near the Gulf of Aden. 

The Gulf of Aden, German map, printed 1860. 

In the morning, all on board were able to reach the shore, but they had been seen and were swiftly robbed of everything they possessed by local tribesmen. There was no fresh water to be found and five crewmen who went in search of some were later found murdered. By now the survivors were in extreme distress, almost unable to speak from thirst. The captain’s dog was killed as a source of nourishment and by the fifth day ashore, the group had decided it would be wiser to return to the safety and whatever supplies remained on the wrecked ship where they would hope and pray for rescue. This came a few days later in the form of a chief’s headman from the interior who had said he had orders from his Sultan if there were any Englishmen among them, they were to be protected until the arrival of the chief. (This was probably one occasion when a Scot like George Rae would willingly have admitted to being English.)

A few days later the chief made good on his promise and Rae was despatched with the ladies in an open boat to Makullah (Al Makulla). The Sultan provided them with another boat which reached Aden on 25 October and Rae was finally able to secure further passage to Southampton, where he arrived on 17 November. What happened to the Americans left on Guide is a mystery and no doubt another interesting story.

In February 1862, Rae returned to Africa with the prefabricated Lady Nyassa. This vessel would have another chequered history and Livingstone was to have no better opinion of it than the last but which, in spite of its deficiencies, was to carry the Expedition over 2,500 miles before it, too, lost its bottom and sank. In Rae’s absence, Livingstone had use of the Royal Navy survey vessel HMS Pioneer with engineer Charles Hardisty in charge. This also had trouble and was aground more often than not.

Illustrated London News images of Pioneer being loaded and towing parts of Lady Nyassa

The practicalities and frustrations in constructing and sailing Lady Nyassa can be found in the various Livingstone biographies and will not be detailed at length here, save to say that the conflicts that hounded the Expedition just continued, exacerbated by episodic mania caused by fevers as well as religious and class-divisive clashes with new missionary arrivals on the scene. 

Rae’s character is difficult to gauge. His second engineer, Charles Hardisty, was unhappy serving under him and some of Hardisty's letters to his wife that survive are vitriolic, while Rae in turn accused him of incompetence in allowing the pipes of HMS Pioneer to become blocked. Then Livingstone himself wrote,“Rae has behaved with great duplicity, accusing [the artist Thomas] Baines of having stolen his goods, then giving him a certificate that he had no reason to believe he had stolen any public property. I shall use him but be wary of trusting to him in the least degree”.

Others in the Expedition also accused Rae of being an inveterate gossip, stating that he was the original source of the suggestion of gross impropriety between Mary Livingstone and the Reverend James Stewart after he saw Stewart entering Mary’s cabin at night on the brig Hetty Ellen which had brought them out to join the Expedition at the Zambezi delta.

The brig Hetty Ellen was almost identical to this, her sister ship,
Clara Novello built at Llanelli, Wales
At least Livingstone endured these slurs on his wife's reputation with circumspection and ultimately disregarded them. Stewart maintained he was giving her spiritual comfort as she verged on total abandonment of her religious faith, while Rae took a different viewpoint. He detected a more temporal abandonment, given that Mary had turned into an alcoholic after long and difficult years apart from her husband. Rae added fuel to the fire by declaring Stewart to be a bogus missionary and was really a rogue trader and a libertine. While the self-righteous Stewart was appalled at the accusation against him, Sir John Kirk was to write in his journals that Rae's own morals were suspect as he had an eye for the native women and that he had actively pursued an adulterous liaison with the wife of a Portuguese official.

Whom to believe? Without Rae’s own defence in the written records, this is just another example of the mud-slinging that went on between the individuals and no-one emerges from this Expedition without serious stains on their character. At this distance in time it is impossible to know the truth.

After Rae finally had enough and resigned in 1863, he went to Johanna (Anjouan) in the Comoro Islands and was engaged in sugar planting with William Sunley, the British Consul. He erected a sugar engine for the Sultan of Johanna then returned to Zanzibar where he was retained by the British trading firm of Smith, Fleming & Co. With a view to purchasing some sugar-crushing machinery for his employers, Rae returned to Scotland, arriving 10 October, 1865.

Rae decided to combine business with personal affairs and arrangements had been made for his marriage the following day, Tuesday 11 October, to Ann Dalgleish, a daughter of Walter Dalgleish of Holylee, Selkirkshire, a farm manager for the Ballantyne family who owned the Holylee estate. The circumstances of their courtship or how long the couple had known one another are not known.

Although quite hale and hearty in the morning, at around noon George Rae began to complain of a pain in his stomach but it eased enough for him to go through with his marriage to Ann at 3 o’clock. Shortly afterwards, his pains returned and he was put to bed in his rooms at 69 Abbotsford Place. By the evening he was insensible and although consciousness returned by the morning, he failed to rally and died within hours.

Abbotsford Place, Glasgow, where George Rae was married and died was demolished in the 1970s
One can hardly imagine the shock this would have had on his poor bride, Ann. If she ever expressed her feelings in any way, they are long lost to history. Ann later remarried and had two children, although she did not forget her husband of less than a day, and a purse that she owned and which was originally given to Rae by David Livingstone was later donated to the David Livingstone Centre at Blantyre by one of her descendants

Rae’s death certificate states it was a perforation of the stomach. The curse of the Zambezi Expedition had done for Rae in a most dramatic way - poor diet, shipwrecks, intermittent fevers and ulcers all added to the stress on his body. Although he was only around 30 when this photograph was taken, he looks twice that age.

George Rae. c. early 1860s. David Livingstone Centre
Contrary to what his fellow travellers on the Expedition had said about him, the newspapers reported that “Mr Rae was a gentleman of amiable and kindly disposition and much beloved and respected by all who knew him”.

Charles Hardisty (or Hardesty) the second engineer, was born in Leeds in 1830, the son of another engineer. It was his alleged neglect or incompetence in looking after the engines of HMS Pioneer that had prevented the party leaving the fever-ridden delta of the Zambezi on schedule, contributing to the death of Mary Livingstone. Whether Livingstone went so far as to accuse him openly, we can't know for sure, but Livingstone's correspondence carries much bitterness over the delays.

Although he also suffered from the fever, Hardisty managed to survive but was then sacked from his job. Whether he bore the cross of Mary Livingstone's death on his own shoulders or blamed everyone else (and primarily George Rae) is impossible to know. His letters to his wife include phrases like “[Rae] is a Thing and no better than a crawling two faced mischief making man” and “[Livingstone] is only putting up with him until he can do without him, then he will spurn him like a dog

Hardisty married young, as the 1851 Census in Yorkshire shows him already having a wife and two year old son. Interestingly, the 1861 Census return has him listed living in Southwark, London, with the occupation of “Engineer, chief. Absent on Livingstone Expedition” - no doubt a bit of boasting on part of his family. However, by the Census of 1871 he is back in Yorkshire and seems to have slipped in occupation to a mere “labourer in foundry iron” and in 1891 he is described as an “engine fitter”.

Hardisty’s life seems to have gone largely unrecorded after his expulsion by Livingstone, apart from being called as a witness in a coronial inquest into a fatal explosion of a boiler at Bradford in 1867 - a common occurrence throughout much of that century - although given the accusations levelled against him previously it is curious that his name appears in another controversy over poor boiler maintenance.

Photograph by Sir John Kirk of the fated Ma Robert, nicknamed the "Asthmatic"

All information in this series of blogs is taken from my extensive personal collection of books, journals and documents relating to David Livingstone in addition to general history publications, archive newspapers and genealogy sites. If more specific detail is required, please contact me.