South Scotland

Explorer Joseph Thomson from Penpont honoured by the Maasai

Joseph Thomson
Image caption Joseph Thomson led several expeditions to Africa in the 1870s and 1880s

An African waterfall and a species of gazelle are named after him and his exploits inspired H Rider Haggard to write the classic adventure story King Solomon's Mines.

Despite that, Victorian explorer Joseph Thomson is almost unknown in his native Scotland.

Thomson was born in Penpont, Dumfriesshire, in 1858, the son of a stonemason and quarry owner. He developed a love for botany and geology and studied at the University of Edinburgh.

But he also had the explorer's bug, leading several expeditions to Africa in the 1870s and 1880s, including one for the Royal Geographical Society to identify a trade route through the territory of the feared Maasai warriors.

"He could have been in mortal danger," said John Hastings-Thomson, the explorer's great grand-nephew, who believes he might easily have been mistaken for a white slaver and killed.

I am making history as the first ever Maasai elder to visit his birthplace...It really means a lot to me as it is something that has been in my mind since I was a child.

Ezekiel Katato, Maasai elder
BBC

Instead, however, Thomson managed to befriend the Maasai and earn their trust, respect and protection. Warriors escorted him along the way, keeping him safe from the dangers of wild animals and other hostile tribes.

Thomson had a motto: "He who goes gently goes safely; he who goes safely goes far."

"I think this encapsulates his way of doing things and ensured his survival," said Mr Hastings-Thomson. "He didn't go blundering in, all-guns-blazing. He was willing to be patient and negotiate his way through."

That is certainly how Thomson is remembered in Maasai-land, now part of modern Kenya.

"One of the things that stands out about Joseph Thomson is his humbleness," said Ezekiel Katato, a village elder in one of the Maasai communities Thomson visited.

Image caption A memorial to Thomson stands in Thornhill where he went to school

"He went through the land and avoided at all cost confrontation with anyone along the way.

"He was also very brave because he was going through a land unknown to him and to the world. He really didn't know what would happen to him the next day, or the next minute."

Mr Katato relates how Thomson endeared himself to Maasai women with gifts of beads, and intrigued the warriors with his dentures!

"They thought he was a magician because he had these teeth that he could remove at will and put back to his mouth," he said. "It's a story that has been passed on from generation to generation!"

Mr Katato learned about, and was inspired by, Thomson as a schoolboy. So much so that he has now travelled to Scotland to trace the explorer's footsteps.

Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption Thomson's gazelle is named after the explorer from Dumfries and Galloway

Striding through the sleepy village of Penpont, the tall imposing black man in bright purple robes does look quite incongruous. But no more so than a young white Scotsman would have looked in Africa 130 years ago.

"Today I am making history as the first ever Maasai elder to visit his birthplace here in Penpont," declared Mr Katato with pride. "It really means a lot to me as it is something that has been in my mind since I was a child."

The main reason for his visit is to join family members and supporters to launch the Joseph Thomson Maasai Trust in Penpont on Saturday.

It is being established to promote Thomson's life and legacy in Scotland and further afield and also a Thomson trail that Mr Kakato has developed along 65 miles of the 1,500-mile route the explorer followed.

Mr Hastings-Thomson has already tackled it twice and said it was "an amazing experience".

Image caption John Hastings-Thomson, Joseph's great grand-nephew, has walked the trail in Kenya

The aim now is to interest people, especially young people, from Scotland and elsewhere to travel to Kenya to take part in the next walk in June 2017.

"I think it is very important to get young people from all over the world to join the young people of Maasai-land to walk in the footsteps of Joseph Thomson, to bring different cultures together and to use their talents and energies to work for peace and make beautiful memories," said Mr Katato.

"I particularly wanted to organise this walk because of the respect I have for him (Thomson) and to promote his legacy because he is a man worth remembering in our community."

He shares Mr Hastings-Thomson's sadness that Joseph Thomson is today largely forgotten in Scotland.

There is a monument to him in Thornhill where he went to school and he is buried in the town's churchyard. Thomson died in 1895 at the young age of 37.

His life was short, but his legacy long-lasting - at least in Africa.

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