Richard Baron spent thirty-two years in Madagascar as a missionary with the LMS (London Missionary Society). During that time, he acquired a well-deserved scientific reputation in the fields of botany and geology in Madagascar, becoming one of the most competent experts in each field at that time.
Baron was born on September 8, 1847, in Kendal, England. While he was preparing for pastoral ministry in the Congregationalist Church, he attended some lectures given in his seminary by a visiting lecturer named William Ellis. Ellis gave a report on how enthusiastically the Malagasy people were embracing Christianity following the conversion of their Queen, Ranavalona II, and her Prime Minister, Rainilaiarivony. For that reason, and in response to a call given by Ellis, Baron volunteered to go to Madagascar. He left for Madagascar in 1872 and began work in the central province of Imerina. In 1878, he was sent to Fianarantsoa for some time, and he returned to Antananarivo in 1880. He remained there for the rest of his career, and was given charge of Ambohidratrimo, Amparibe, and other districts near the capital city.
Independently of the regular ministry he exercised in the churches and schools that were in his care, he wrote important commentaries on various books of the Bible, composed hymns, and edited a hymnbook. He could speak Malagasy exceptionally well and without a foreign accent, and his Malagasy friends said that he could easily be mistaken for a native speaker in that regard. It is quite likely that from among all the missionaries, he was the best at speaking Malagasy.
Baron undertook several important trips for the mission and traveled to various outlying areas of the island. In 1891, one of these trips to the north had him travelling “twelve hundred miles in a sedan chair [or palanquin],” which was the title of his report.
The time he had available on these trips was well-spent, and he managed to collect all sorts of scientific documents. For example, he collected spoken expressions in the various dialects, which he later had published. Encouraged by his second wife (Baron remarried three times), he began to study botany. He published several important articles on the subject, and it is estimated that he collected “from 4,000 to 5,000 plants, a great many of which were as yet unknown to science,” sending them to Kew Gardens, in London. For this reason, he was named a member of the Linnaean Botanical Society of London, and this also explains why many Malagasy plants carry the qualifying prefix Baroni.
Baron acquired the same level of notoriety in the field of geology, and it is worth noting, with respect to his character, that he taught himself German in order to be able to read [academic] works on the subject. Scientific institutions were quick to recognize the value of his work, and to assist him. He was named a member of the Geological Society of London, and the Royal Society gave him a microscope so that he could study the structures of rocks. He was also awarded the Murchison Prize for geological research.
The French administration also offered him a high post in the (national) Mining and Engineering service, but he turned it down on the grounds that, however useful and interesting geology might be, it was secondary to his missionary work. In 1903, he nonetheless accepted to undertake a long geological prospecting trip to the northwest region, accompanied by Captain Mouneyres. At one point, he also became vice-president of the Académie Malgache [the Malagasy Academy].
Even though he carried out botanical and geological studies at the very high level of academic scientific research, it should be noted that he was able to teach this science to his students, and that he wrote manuals on these scientific fields in Malagasy.
It was said of him, quite justly, that he was “a man of many talents who had an influence on Malagasy life in many ways.”
Richard Baron died in Morecambe, England, on October 12, 1907.
J. T. Hardyman, L. Molet
Ny Filazantsaran’i Lioka [Commentary on the Gospel of Luke], Antananarivo, 1927 (third printing).
Epistily nosoratan’i Jakoba [Commentary on the Epistle of James], Antananarivo, 1916 (second printing).
Ten Year Review of Mission Work in Madagascar, 1880-1890 (editor), Antananarivo, 1890.
“Over New Ground: A Journey to Mandritsara and the North-West Coast” Antananarivo Annual, 1887, pp. 261-282.
“Twelve Hundred Miles in a Palanquin” Antananarivo Annual, 1892, pp. 434-458.
Botany (in Malagasy), Antananarivo, 1882.
“On the Flora of Madagascar” Journal of Linnaean Society, Botany, London, 1889, pp. 246-294.
“Compendium des Plantes Malgaches” [A Compendium of Malagasy Plants], Revue de Madagascar, (a series of articles on the years 1901-1906), Paris.
“Notes on the Geology of Madagascar” Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society, 1889, pp. 305-331.
Geology (in Malagasy), Antananarivo, 1896.
Baron and Mouneyres, “Rapport sur une tournée géologique effectuée en 1903 dans le Nord et le Nord-Ouest de Madagascar” [Report on a Geological Expedition Undertaken in 1903 in the north and northwest of Madagascar], Bulletin Économique de Madagascar, Marseille, 1st trim., 1904, pp. 1-20.
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.