Home Read stories Africa maps The Project Resources Our Writers News

Cameron, James
1800 to 1875
Madagascar / South Africa

It would be difficult to miss the work of James Cameron, because it dominates the capital, Antananarivo. It was Cameron who built the stone exterior of the old wooden palace of the Queen and turned it into the stone landmark it has become today. On the far northern end of the same hill, another edifice, the commemorative Church of the Martyrs of Favohitra, shows more clearly that he was a missionary. A Malagasy proverb was even composed in his honor: "The next issue [will come out] just like Mr. Cameron's articles on astronomy," which was an allusion to a column he wrote in the monthly paper at that time.

A Scotsman, Cameron was born in Little Dunkeld on January 6, 1800. He was essentially a carpenter, and that is mainly why he was recruited by the London Missionary Society (LMS) as an artisan-missionary. He obviously had many other capacities, because he was sent to study cotton spinning and weaving in Manchester so that he could help an LMS colleague who was being sent to Madagascar to set up a project along those lines. Cameron arrived in Madagascar in 1826 with a group of young missionaries. He helped his colleague with the cotton project, but it was soon abandoned. Cameron's genius was that he found ways to use local resources. For instance, he showed people how to make good bricks, and he found a way to produce sulfur. He was even able to fulfill an unexpected request from the Queen.

Ranavalona I, who was a pious pagan, was irritated by the spiritual work the missionaries were doing, because it was shaking up the social fabric of that time, and draining it of energy. She suggested that they return to their home country "so that their parents would not miss them." The missionaries thanked the Queen for her concern, but informed her that they had come to teach her people many new things: Greek, Hebrew... The Queen, in turn, let them know that those dead languages held no interest for her people, but that what she really wanted was some soap. Two weeks later, Cameron was able to have someone present her with an "acceptable" bar of soap. That success - which he achieved by using raw materials - had more than hygienic consequences, because the missionaries were not expelled for several more years. They were thus able to complete the translation and the publication of the Bible.

His priceless ingenuity had already been manifested when he assembled and began to operate the first printing press that had been sent to the island. The printer who had been sent by the LMS had died upon arrival and hadn't even had time to uncrate his machine. One of the first works that Cameron printed was a thirty-two page booklet on the principles of gravity (1832). He later published other small works in Malagasy on geometry and on weights and measures.

In 1831, Cameron was overseeing 600 apprentices. He built a chapel in Ambatonakanga for one of the first two churches (in Antananarivo) that were established through the work of the LMS. Another important accomplishment was the excavation for Lake Anosy and its water supply channel. This was but one part of a large project related to making a powder magazine that had been conceived by Chick, who also helped him to build it.

Eventually, missionary work and the general conditions for Malagasy Christians became increasingly difficult. The Queen offered Chick and Cameron a work contract on condition that they abstain from all religious activity. They had not come solely to promote material progress however, but had come as missionaries of Christ, and their primary interest was in people. They turned down the contract and withdrew to Capetown, South Africa, with a few other missionaries, in 1835.

For thirty-seven years, Cameron put his talents to work in Capetown as a land surveyor and builder. He was the borough surveyor there for some time. Although he had resigned from the LMS because of this [secular] work, he maintained close ties with them. He also remained interested in Madagascar and kept up with what was happening there thanks to letters that some of his Malagasy friends managed to get to him. In 1853, he returned to Tamatave with Maingeot, on behalf of Mauritius, in order to pay the indemnities claimed by Ranavalona following the Franco-English naval attack on Tamatave in 1845. Economic relations had almost ground to a halt since that time, and the merchants in Port-Louis wanted to start doing business again.

In 1862, it became possible to do missionary work again. W. Ellis conceived of the project of building a certain number of stone churches in Antananarivo to commemorate the Malagasy martyrs who had died for their faith in the preceding thirty years, and steps were taken in London to hire an architect named Sibree. Since Cameron was still in Capetown, Ellis asked him if he would join him in Madagascar. There was some confusion in the instructions that were given, but Cameron nonetheless played an important role in the project, in relation to the churches in Ambatonakanga and Faravohitra in particular. He also built a dispensary in Analakely (Antananarivo), a number of country churches, and some houses for missionaries. As mentioned above, he also built the stone exterior of the Queen's palace, which was previously a wooden structure. In addition, he made the plans for the smallest royal building that was built within the palace grounds, a building called Manampisoa, which can be translated as "exceedingly beautiful."

Cameron was interested in many things, but his favorite hobby was astronomy. As one of his colleagues said, "The almanac... was basically completely his project..." When a transit of Venus was visible from Antananarivo, he would communicate his observations and calculations to the astronomer of the royal observatory in the Cape. He was also a good surveyor, and he was probably responsible for drawing up the first city plan of Antananarivo. This plan was published in Ellis's History (1938), and the same plan was revised for Madagascar Revisited, by the same author (1867).

In 1875, when a delegation from the LMS came to visit Madagascar, Cameron was among those who accompanied the group to Fianarantsoa. He was seventy-five years old at that time, however, and the trip exhausted him. He died in Antananarivo on October 3, 1875.

Although his life was quite different from Jean Laborde's, the two men had many things in common. Cameron did not stay in Antananarivo as long as Laborde, but given the time he did stay there, his technical accomplishments are quite comparable to Laborde's. Even though he spent many long years in Capetown, Madagascar remained his principal interest. It should also be made clear that he didn't just want to leave stones as a legacy, but rather men who had been trained and if possible, transformed. He spent his last days writing out the Bible lessons he had taught so that they could be printed. His epitaph bears the following inscription: "A faithful friend of the government and of the people of Madagascar."

J. T. Hardyman, L. Molet


R. Toy, The Late M. James Cameron: His Life and Labours, Antananarivo Annual, 1875.
B. Jordan, Splintered Crucifix, Capetown, 1969.

This article, which is reprinted here by permission, is from Hommes et Destins: Dictionnaire biographique d'Outre-Mer [People and Destinies: Overseas Biographical Dictionary] vol. 3, published in 1977 by the Académie des Sciences d'Outre-Mer (15, rue la Pérouse, 75116 Paris, France). All rights reserved.