Nilsen-Lund is not someone who is remembered because he was an explorer who made countless perilous escapes from danger, but rather because he penned the music and words of about twenty very popular hymns that can be found in the Lutheran Hymnbook of Madagascar.
Born in Steigen, Norway, on October 20, 1842, Peder Nilsen-Lund already had a teaching degree when he began his theological studies at the Lutheran Seminary of the Norwegian Missionary Society (NMS) in Stavanger (1868 - 1873). He became an ordained pastor in 1874 and was sent to Madagascar, where he was charged with establishing the mission station of Ambotofinandrahana in the Betsileo, where he remained stationed for long periods of time.
Being a very approachable person, he had great success teaching the older boys in his home, and many of them went on to become pastors or devoted catechists. He was also quite a musician and he wrote very poetic verse for some hymns that were soon included in the Church’s hymnbook (including the music, in some cases). The teaching he offered was so good that it was called “a school for poets” because many of his disciples, in turn, composed very beautiful hymns themselves.
However, in addition to his missionary station work, Nilsen-Lund was also an intrepid explorer. In 1877, along with A. Valen, he traveled from Fianarantsoa down to the east coast, first to Mananjary, then to Vohipeno. The two men parted ways there and Nilsen-Lund continued south. He wanted to push on towards Fort-Dauphin, but the governor who was in command of the Merina garrison was opposed to it. He returned to Fianarantsoa by the shortest route, passing through Ambalatany and crossing the Bara region.
Ten years later he attempted an exploration that was more difficult in every respect: departing from Fianarantsoa and heading straight west, he penetrated the territory of Raihandry, King of the Bara-Imamono, who received him kindly. He proceeded to cross the kingdom from north to south, and then entered the territories of other minor kings east of the Isalo chain. He was arrested, taken captive, and threatened with death. In order to keep his porters from being reduced to slavery, he helped them to escape, one by one. He was finally allowed to leave with the only man left from his original team. He continued west, crossing the zone that was occupied by the emigrant Tanosy people (the Taheza and Sakondry valleys), and on through the land of the Mahalafy, and the Androy, eventually reaching Fort-Dauphin on the southwest coast, but not without having been confronted with some very critical situations. He headed north from there, passing through Manambondro and Vangaindrano before finally reaching home, having spent four months away. As a result of that journey, new missionaries settled in Fort-Dauphin, Manambondro, and Vangaindrano in the following year.
In 1890 he undertook another trip, going from Ihosy to Tulear, and it was twenty kilometers from Tulear that he met with the most difficult situation he had ever faced. However, he managed to get a message through to his colleague Röstvig, who came to his deliverance with the help of a sakalava chief. He returned home through the region of the Tanosy emigrants and was able to help the first American Lutheran missionary settle in Manasoa.
Later, in 1892 and 1893, he made some short trips west. In July of 1893, taking advantage of the southern winter, he set out on a long tour that was to take him to Malaimbandy, Ankavandra, and Antsalova. Having returned to Malaimbandy, he set out for the west once again, heading for Morondava. Along the way he was captured by bandits who tied him to a tree in order to spear him to death, as was customary. However, they became terribly frightened by the sight of a shooting star, so they untied him and let him go.
In 1894, he took the same route once again to Morondava and explored the land between Morondava and the Mangoky, without notable incident this time.
In 1897 he returned to Norway on furlough but he was in such poor health that he could not go back to Madagascar. He took some health cures in Aix-les-Bains, France, and spent several winters in the south of France, especially in Cannes, where he found the climate to be favorable. He died in Cannes on November 23, 1914.
O. Chr. Dahl, L. Molet
His report about the journey he made in 1887 can be found in the journal Antananarivo Annual (1888) and is entitled “Travels and perils among the wild tribes in the south of Madagascar.”
There is a more detailed biography written by Gabriel Nakkestad, Peder Eileert Nilsen-Lund. Stavanger, 1951.
The above article, reprinted here by permission, is from Hommes et Destins: Dictionnaire biographique d’Outre-Mer [People and Destinies: an 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.