It is strange that this remarkable man appears to have been largely ignored by most of the standard histories of the development of Christian missions in Africa. Yet, he was the man who, following David Livingstone into Central Africa, was one of the very early pioneers who was instrumental in opening it up to future explorers, traders, and missionaries. In addition, he laid the foundation for a highly successful Christian endeavor in the broad strip of the continent that runs from Angola, through the southern Congo, north-western Zambia, and into Katanga and beyond: an area of Africa that became known to succeeding generations as the “Beloved Strip.” In particular, it was the work of Frederick Stanley Arnot that opened up the hinterland of Angola and that part of Congo through which the Benguela Railway was eventually to run, as well as the mineral rich area of Katanga, that was to become a bone of contention in the years to come.
Frederick Stanley Arnot was a Scot, born in Glasgow on September 12, 1858, although for a number of years his family lived in Hamilton, near Glasgow, and were neighbors of David Livingstone’s family. He came to know them well and it was this link to the great missionary and explorer that was undoubtedly a major factor in whetting his appetite for a life of exploration and missionary work in Central Africa. Livingstone was his hero and he would spend much time at the Livingstone home looking at the explorer’s various maps and artifacts in the attic and, as a boy, he determined to go to Central Africa and follow in his hero’s footsteps. He left school at fourteen to undergo an apprenticeship as a joiner in the local shipyards in order to learn the practical skills that he believed would be essential for his future work as a missionary, but he did not set sail for Africa until July 1881, just two months before his twenty-third birthday. He was accompanied by another young Scot, Donald Graham, and after arriving in Cape Town they took a coastal steamer to Durban from where they planned to set off for the interior of Africa at the end of August 1881. Unfortunately, his companion became sick and was advised to remain in Natal, but Arnot went ahead with his plans and for the next seven years he effectively vanished from the knowledge of the outside world. It is this first journey which is probably the most important part of his work as a missionary and explorer, not only because it laid the foundation for missionary endeavor throughout the region, but also because of the frequently misunderstood political consequences that followed from his relationship with the African “king” Msidi.
Arnot began his journey by making his way through the Transvaal to the kingdom of Kama of Botswana. The king and his people had become Christians and Arnot was made welcome among them, staying in the capital Sheshong for about three months before deciding to move ahead with his plan to reach the Zambezi River. His journey took him across the Kalahari Desert and ultimately to Lealui, the capital of the Barotse king, Lewanika, which he reached in December 1882 after severe hardships and numerous bouts of malarial fever and other illnesses. He was effectively detained here for some eighteen months by Lewanika, but utilized the time in teaching the king’s children to read and undertaking some evangelism. He was eventually given permission to move on, although not down the Zambezi to the Tonga people as he had hoped, but only further upstream. He traveled with a Portuguese trader, Silva Porto, and eventually reached Benguela, on the Angolan coast, towards the end of 1884. It appears that part of the reason for making this journey to the coast was in order to find a quicker and better route to the interior of Africa than the one he had used from the east coast. In the course of his journey he crossed the watershed of both the Zambezi and Congo Rivers, identifying the source of the Zambezi in the process. He was able to show that the river rose in what is today the furthest northwestern corner of Zambia, just north of Mwinilunga, and not in what is present day Angola as had been previously thought. He stayed for a time with a group of American missionaries from the American Board of Foreign Missions on higher ground at a place called Bailundu, some distance from the coastal plain. It was while with them, recovering his health and strength, as well as restocking his supplies, that messengers from the great chief Msidi, who ruled over a large area that included the modern Katanga province of Congo, arrived with an invitation for “white men to enter that country.”
Arnot eventually continued his journey to the coast and stayed for some weeks at Benguela, hoping that others would join him in his plan to move back into the interior to Msidi’s kingdom, centered on his capital, now the modern town of Bunkeya in the Katanga Province of the Democratic Republic of Congo, an area then known as Garenganze. He eventually set out for Msidi’s kingdom on June 3, 1885, taking with him supplies to last for two years and a small caravan of forty bearers. He reached Msidi’s capital on February 14, 1886 and remained there for two years until February 1888, having by then been joined by two other missionaries, Charles Swan and W. L. Faulknor who he was able to leave in charge of the mission in his absence. In fact, Arnot never returned to Bunkeya and never saw Msidi again.
Msidi, himself, was a tyrannical ruler who had begun life as a copper trader from the east of Lake Tanganyika, but had managed to take over the tribal lands of the Basanga people some thirty-six years before Arnot’s arrival . His influence extended over a very considerable area of country and he maintained wide trading links: with the west coast of Africa in ivory and other commodities, including slaves; with Arab traders in copper, and other tribal groups in iron. Arnot is on record as referring to Msidi as “a thorough gentleman,” but such an assessment seems to say more about Arnot, who was reputed to have never said a bad word about anyone, than it does about Msidi. There can be little doubt, judging from various contemporary accounts, that his rule was arbitrary, vindictive, cruel, and despotic. He was a warlord who enslaved his neighbors and whose capital was surrounded by palisades on which hung the skulls of his enemies. Nonetheless, Arnot was able to establish a working relationship with this strange and difficult man and there seems little doubt that the two men held each other in a degree of mutual respect. He was given land to build his own hut, a small clinic, a church, and a school. He was able to provide simple medical help for the local people and to start teaching the children to read and write. He also established a small orphanage. He did this without any regular source of funding and lived a humble life of faith in his God whom he trusted to supply his needs .
Arnot arrived back in England on September 18, 1888 to find himself famous and he was invited to present an important paper to the Royal Geographical Society in London  in which he described his journeys and his discovery of the source of the River Zambezi. In recognition of his explorations, the Society made him a Fellow. While in England he was also active in recruiting others to join him in his missionary work in Central Africa. By the time he was ready to return, in the early part of 1889, some thirteen recruits were ready to sail with him. Three of these deserve particular mention. Dr. Walter Fisher, from London, was probably the first genuine medical missionary in what is now Zambia. After working at various sites in the upper Zambezi valley, he eventually established a fine hospital at Kalene Hill in 1906, near the source of that great river. The hospital, much enlarged and modernized and on a new site, continues to serve the people of northwestern Zambia to this day and has been described as “a major center of curative medicine” . Fisher himself was regarded as “Northern Rhodesia’s foremost medical evangelist” . His sister, Harriet Jane Fisher, was also a member of the party that was to set sail with Arnot in March 1889. Before doing so, however, she had changed her name, marrying Arnot at Greenwich in South London on March 26, 1889 and sailing as his wife. The third person of note was Daniel Crawford, another Scot, whose later work was to have a major impact on that area of Central Africa and who was involved in the events leading up to the annexation of Msidi’s kingdom by the Belgians.
A constant problem faced by Arnot in Garenganze (Katanga), as by the missionaries who arrived later, was the demand for political advice and a continual supply of gunpowder for Msidi’s guns. The “scramble for Africa” was now on and Msidi was well aware of the conflicting interests of European outsiders and the unsettling effect that this was having on his own subjects. The missionaries attempted to maintain a position of neutrality and avoid involving themselves in local politics, but this did not impress Msidi who needed gunpowder for his arms and advice on how to deal with the representatives of foreign powers who began to move into the area after 1890. Following unsuccessful negotiations with British representatives, he was eventually killed by the leaders of an expedition sent by the Belgian King Leopold II and his kingdom was annexed into the new Belgian-controlled Congo Free State in December 1891. Arnot had returned to Africa some eighteen months before this event, but ill health had prevented him from undertaking the long trek to Msidi’s kingdom of Garenganze and he and his wife had also been engaged in establishing missions in the Bihé region of what is now eastern Angola. He had received several messages from Msidi, and although he had made one attempt to undertake the arduous journey to Bunkeya, his health had forced him back. He was not well enough to travel until the following April, but by then it was too late. He received a letter from the Belgian representative, an Englishman named W. E. Stairs, who had been instrumental in Msidi’s assassination, which told him of the disastrous events of the previous year. Arnot has been unfairly criticized for not playing a more active part in Msidi’s affairs and, in particular, for not ensuring a better reception of the British representative, Alfred Sharpe, that might have resulted in Katanga, with its enormous mineral wealth, becoming British instead of Belgian. No documentary evidence is ever adduced to support these criticisms nor to support the claim that Arnot had earlier advised Msidi not to sign any documents brought to him by Europeans, whether British or Belgian. All the available evidence would suggest that the Brethren missionaries, Arnot included, maintained a consistently neutral role and refused to interfere at any stage in local politics . Had their principles allowed them to act differently, it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that Katanga might have come under British influence and now be part of Zambia.
Arnot returned once again to England in 1892 and lived with his family in Liverpool for two years, and from this base he was able to supervise the shipping of much needed goods to Africa. The time in England also allowed him to recover something of his health which had been severely affected during the privations of his first journey. Nonetheless, he was able to make further forays into Central Africa, returning to the Katanga region in 1894, traveling from the east coast via the Zambezi River, and Lakes Nyasa, Tanganyika and Mweru, and reached the new model village that Dan Crawford and his companions had established on the Luanza River at the end of that year. His poor health forced him to leave after only a few weeks, but he was able to make a number of later journeys into the interior and was instrumental in establishing mission stations along the line from Benguela to Katanga and manning them with new recruits from overseas. Many of these old stations remain as active church centers in Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Zambia, most of them now under the ministry of local African Christians who continue to build on the foundations that Arnot laid so effectively.
Early in 1914, Arnot had set his heart on revisiting the area around the confluence of the Kabompo and Zambezi Rivers in modern northwest Zambia. He visited the area with two other missionaries who were looking for a suitable site for a new mission station and he was able to assist them, but he soon became seriously ill and had to be taken back to Johannesburg where he died on May 14, 1914. Perhaps the finest tribute to him came from Sir Ralph Williams, later to become Governor of Newfoundland from 1909 to 1913, who met Arnot at the Victoria Falls in 1884. He wrote that Mr. Arnot,
“was a remarkable man. … He was the simplest and most earnest of men. … I have seen many missionaries under varied circumstances, but such an absolutely forlorn man, existing on from day to day, almost homeless, without any of the appliances that make life bearable, I have never seen. He was imbued with one desire and that was to do God’s service. … And I have honored recollections of him ever since as being as near his Master as anyone I ever saw” .
J. Keir Howard
The story of his conquests is told graphically in Tony Lawman, From the Hands of the Wicked (London: Robert Hale, 1960), pp. 125-149.
A full account of Arnot’s dealings with Msidi was written by his son, using original material from his father’s diaries. See, R. S. Arnot, “F. S. Arnot and Msidi,” The Northern Rhodesia Journal, vol. 3, no. 5 (May 1958): pp. 428-434.
Frederick Stanley Arnot, “Journey from Natal to Bihé and Benguella and thence across the Central Plateau of Africa to the sources of the Zambezi and Congo.” Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society, vol. 2, no. 2 (Feb 1898), pp. 65-82 (map: 128). Several of Arnot’s maps and sketches of African life are preserved in the archives of the Royal Geographical Society, London. The catalogue may be visited on http://catalogue.rgs.org/uhtbin/webcat.
Robert I. Rotberg, Christian Missionaries and the Creation of Northern Rhodesia: 1880-1924 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965), p. 95.
Rotberg, Christian Missionaries, p. 76.
The neutrality of the Brethren missionaries at this time is attested in Ruth M. Slade, English Speaking Missions in the Congo Independent State: 1878-1908 (Brussels: Académie Royale des Sciences Coloniales, 1959). Much of Arnot’s original correspondence with the Brethren mission home base (“Echoes of Service”) in Bath, England is preserved in the Christian Brethren Archive of the John Rylands University Library, Manchester, England and may be consulted by arrangement.
Sir Ralph Champneys Williams, How I Became a Governor (London: John Murray, 1913), quoted in Lawman, p. 183.
Frederick Stanley Arnot, “Journey from Natal to Bihé and Benguella and thence across the Central Plateau of Africa to the sources of the Zambezi and Congo.” Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society, 1889; 2 (Feb): pp. 65-82 (map: 128).
——–, Garenganze or Seven Years Pioneer Missionary Work in Central Africa. London (James E. Hawkins, 1893).
——–, * Missionary Travels in Central Africa* (Bath: Echoes of Service, 1914).
R. S. Arnot, “F. S. Arnot and Msidi” in The Northern Rhodesia Journal, Vol. 3, no. 5 (May 1958), pp. 428-434.
Ernest Baker, The Life and Explorations of Frederick Stanley Arnot (London: Seeley, Service and Co., 1921).
Tony Lawman, From the Hands of the Wicked (London: Robert Hale, 1960).
R. I. Rotberg, “Plymouth Brethren and the Occupation of Katanga” in Journal of African History, Vol. 2, (1964), pp. 285-297.
——–, Christian Missionaries and the Creation of Northern Rhodesia: 1880-1924. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965).
W. T. Stunt, G. P. Simmons, A. Pulleng, D. K. Boak, A. Pickering, and S. F. Warren, Turning the World Upside Down: A Century of Missionary Endeavour (Eastbourne: Upperton Press and Bath: Echoes of Service, 1972), pp. 373-381, 389-390, 393, 415, 417.
F. A. Tatford, Frederick Stanley Arnot (Bath: Echoes of Service, 1981).
——–, That the World May Know, Vol. 6: The Dark Continent (Bath: Echoes of Service, 1984), pp. 321-352.
This article, received in 2005, was researched and written by Dr. J. Keir Howard, a retired consultant physician and Anglican priest who holds doctorates in both medicine and theology. From 1961 to 1966, he served as a medical missionary in Zambia.