Tag Archives: British explorers

Whose Wednesday: Harry Johnston

by Piter Kehoma Boll

More a politician than a naturalist, today we remember a British explorer that was central in the mess that Europe turned Africa into, but also a important in recording Africa’s culture and biodiversity.

Henry Hamilton Johnston, more commonly known as Harry Johnston, was born on 12 June 1858 in London, the son of John Brookes Johnstone and Esther Laetitia Hamilton. He studied at Stockwell grammar school and later at the King’s College London, after which he studied painting at the Royal Academy for four years. During his studies, he traveled through Europe and visited the interior of Tunisia.

In 1882, aged 24, he traveled to southern Angola with the Earl of Mayo (which I guess was Dermot Bourke at that time). Traveling north from there, he met the Welsh explorer Henry Morton Stanley in the Congo River the following year. There, he became one of the first Europeans to see the Congo River above the Stanley Pool (currently known as Pool Malebo), a widening of the river near the cities of Kinshasa and Brazzaville. He published a book in 1884 called “The River Congo: From its Mouth to Bolobo” and, in that same year, was appointed leader of a scientific expedition to Mount Kilimanjaro, in current Tanzania. In this expedition, he managed to conclude treaties with local chiefs. The reports of this expedition were published in his 1886’s book “The Kilema-Njaro Expedition”.

Harry Johnston, probably during the 1880s.

In 1886, the British government appointed Johnston the vice-consul in Cameroon and the Niger River delta area. The British had claimed the area but the local leader, Jaja of Opobo, refused to give up the territory. Invited by Johnston to negotiate, Jaja was arrested and deported to London. During the following years, Johnston took part in several expeditions and diplomatic missions that helped the British Empire to dominate more and more of Africa’s territory.

In 1896, Johnston married Winifred Mary Irby, daughter of the fifth Baron Boston. That same year, afflicted by tropical fevers, he was transferred to Tunis as consul-general in order to recover. In 1899, he was sent to Uganda as special commisioner to end an ongoing war. There, he found out that a showman was abducting Pygmy inhabitants of the Congo for exhibition. Johnston helped to rescue them and the pygmies mentioned to him a creature, some sort of “unicorn donkey” previously referred to by Stanley. There were some reports about explorers seeing an animal with a zebra-like pattern moving through the bushes and the expectation was that it was some sort of forest-dwelling horse. The pygmies showed tracks of the creature to Johnston and he was surprised to find out that it was actually a cloven-hoofed beast and not a single-hoofed animal as a horse. Johnston never saw the animal, but managed to obtain pieces of the striped skin and a skull, which led the creature to be classified as Equus johnstoni in 1901. The inclusion in the genus Equus was mostly motivated by the pygmies referring to the creature as a kind of horse. Analyses of its skull, however, soon concluded that it was a relative of the giraffe. This animal is currently know as the okapi, or Okapia johnstoni.

The two pieces of okapi skin sent to England by Johnston and the first concrete evidence of the animal’s existence.

In 1902, when Johnston was back to London, his wife gave birth to twin sons, but both died few hours later. They did not have any other children. That same year Johnston was appointed member of the Zoological Society of London. In the following years, he spent most of his time at home writing novels and accounts of his voyages through Africa. In 1925, he had two strokes that partially paralyzed him. He died two years later, on 31 July 1917, aged 69.

Johnston, as all imperialists of his time, believed that Europeans, and British especially, had superiority over Africans. Nevertheless, he was against using violence against the subjugated peoples and had a more paternalistic view. Although such views are seen as horrible today (or at least they should to any reasonable human being), he was considered some sort of radical for his time, as others had a much worse vision of the African cultures.

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Wikipedia. Harry Johnston. Available at < https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harry_Johnston >. Access on 11 June 2019.

Wikipedia. Okapi. Available at < https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Okapi >. Access on 11 June 2019.

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