Chauncy Maples was born in Middlesex on February 17, 1852 to Frederick Maples and Charlotte Elizabeth and was their sixth child. In her book on her brother’s life, Allen Maples quotes his life-long friend who described Maples’ childhood, “As a small child he was particularly interesting and of a remarkably happy disposition, never fretful or cross; lively and very sensitive where his feelings were concerned. He had an intense love of music, and would sit quietly engrossed with it. From the few things from which I can judge it seems to me that his early training left a deep impression on his character.”
During his formative years, his mother’s strong consistent Christian life and teaching greatly influenced Maples’ character. He always confessed that he owed the best in himself to his mother.
He was sent to a private school in Wimbledon for his primary education. According to his sister, one of his school friends at Wimbledon spoke of him, as “the sort of boy one instinctively knew would go straight.” When Maples was fourteen years old, he went to Charterhouse to continue his education. During the holidays, he organized expeditions to places of interest. One of his chief pleasures was to take long walks. One of his famous solitary walks was about fifty miles long–going all the way from Chester to Lichfield, via Nantwich. Little did he know these walks were preparing him for the long treks in Africa.
During the last years of his school life at Charterhouse, Maples studied English literature, and began to take a keen interest in science. He got the Thackeray prize at the Charterhouse for an essay on English sonnets and sonneteers. On December 25, 1869 Maples left the Charterhouse and began to study under J. B. Mozley of King’s College in London in preparation for Oxford University College. He entered Oxford University College in January 1871.
In January 1874, Maples left Oxford because of ill health and went to Liphook in Hampshire to read with the Rev. W. W. Capes from whom he learned a great deal. At this time Maples decided to return to Oxford to study theology not so much with the goal of seeking ordination but rather in order to pursue missionary work in Africa. Later in 1874 when Bishop Steere addressed students at Oxford and put up a notice calling men and women to go as missionaries to Africa, Maples decided to go. Afterwards, when Maples wrote to his mother to announce his decision to work under Bishop Steere in Africa he explained that this was not a sudden idea on his part. He had always told his two sisters Allen and Alice that he might one day become a missionary.
Not only did Maples’ parents oppose his decision to become a missionary but they also made all efforts to prevent him from doing so because they considered him unfit for the unhealthy conditions of Africa. Disregarding their concerns, Maples continued to prepare for his missionary task. For him, obeying Christ’s command in Matthew 28:19 to preach the Gospel to all people was more important than anything else. He believed Christ’s order was clear, and if people had not responded to the Gospel in some places, it was because Christians had neglected to obey His command. For this reason Maples felt he was under a divine obligation to evangelize Africa. In the years to come, this gave his ministry its penetrating power.
Maples got his degree in June 1875. Afterwards, he worked for several months as a layman under the Rev. John Eyre in Liverpool. In October 1875 he was ordained a deacon at Cuddesdon and worked as a curate in St. Mary Magdalene’s parish in Oxford under the Rev. Cecil Deedes. He did not stay long in Oxford for on March 18, 1876 he sailed for Africa to work on staff with the Universities’ Mission to Central Africa.
During his first year in Zanzibar where he was initially stationed, Maples had more attacks of fever than any other member of the mission. Nevertheless, Maples’ mission was a success story in Zanzibar. In addition to his usual work, Maples taught theology to young laymen preparing for ordination. He was also in charge of a boys’ school where he proved a very efficient theology teacher and school administrator. He was loved by both colleagues and students and he led many of his students to the Lord. During his stay in Zanzibar, Maples would occasionally accompany Bishop Steere on his visits to Magila, the first inland mission station.
In September 1876, the bishop of Zanzibar ordained Maples a priest. In July 1877 Maples was transferred to Masasi mission station, a colony of the released slaves whom Bishop Steere had brought back from Zanzibar. As the spiritual leader at Masasi-a very poor colony–Maples led many developmental projects in the areas of health, education, and evangelism. Being particularly concerned by the health situation of the people in Masasi, he taught them hygiene to improve their health standards. He also taught them how to read and write.
As Maples wished to extend education to all the people in Masasi, he encouraged parents not only to send their children to school but also to attend classes with them. Furthermore, by constructing a road and building a church made of permanent materials, Maples established the first “modern” Christian village in Africa. Due to his good missionary work, many Africans were converted from African traditional religion to Christianity.
In June 1879, Maples returned to England to talk about his missionary work in Africa. His presentations on Africa aroused a great interest in missions among his listeners. During this first return visit to England, Maples read a paper on the Makua language at the Philological Society in which he spoke of the need to codify African languages and put them into writing for teaching purposes.
Maples returned to Masasi in September 1880. In the summer of 1881 he visited the area between Masasi and the coast of Mozambique in hopes of opening new mission stations. However, the local people were opposed to this project and in 1882 the warrior tribe of Gwangwara attacked and burned down Masasi village, taking many people captive. Refusing to be disheartened, Maples worked hard to rebuild the village and encouraged the surviving residents not to lose faith in God’s protecting hand. In 1884 Maples returned to England for medical treatment, also taking a little rest in the country with his family during the months of August and September. Most of the time nevertheless, Maples gave many talks in churches about his missionary work in Africa.
On March 18, 1885, Maples sailed again for Africa and was happily reunited with his Christians at Masasi. He stayed with them until June 1886 when he was appointed archdeacon of Nyasaland. Maples left for Likoma, the archdeaconry headquarters, with mixed feelings because of his many friends at Masasi. He then proceeded to develop the archdeaconry headquarters at Likoma materially and spiritually with the same energy as he had done at Masasi. Although Likoma was an island in Lake Nyasa–today called Lake Malawi–it became the headquarters of the Anglican Church in Malawi until after World War II because of the level of development attained during Maples’ time.
In 1890 Maples went to England to visit his dying mother, returning to Africa for the fourth time in August 1891. The following year twenty-one out of thirty houses at the mission station at Likoma were burned down. But Maples reacted to this incident the same way he had in 1882 when Masasi village had been attacked. With great energy Maples rebuilt the archdeaconry headquarters and encouraged the Christians to see God at work in their midst.
In 1893, the diocese of Nyasaland was created out of the diocese of Zanzibar and Bishop Hornby was appointed its first bishop. But his health failed even before arriving at Likoma and he resigned the following year. At that point Bishop Hornby and the committee unanimously decided that Maples was the right man for the post of bishop. Maples’ sister quotes Canon Scott Holland: “The one message he (Bishop Hornby) had to give us when he came back was, ‘There is only one thing you can do. There is only one thing that is absolutely right. This one thing I learned in the six months in which I was there, and it is something if I bring that back to you. There is only one man who can be Bishop of Likoma, and that is Chauncy Maples.’”
When the Archbishop of Canterbury offered the bishopric to Maples, his initial reaction was to refuse it but his true and trusted friend William Johnson persuaded him to accept the position. Even then Maples wrote back neither accepting nor refusing the offer. Finally, in April 1895 it was announced that Maples had accepted to be bishop of Nyasaland.
On June 29, 1895 in a ceremony with other four bishops Maples was consecrated bishop of the diocese of Nyasaland. He stayed in England until July 11, 1895 when he set off for Africa for the last time. He was full of plans and hopes for his future missionary work in Africa. At Port Herald, on the river Shire the local people asked him to consecrate a cemetery. This was his first and last episcopal ceremony. While at Port Herald, Maples heard about the death of one of his best friends in Central Africa. According to his sister, while they were on the steamer on the river Shire, Maples had said to his friend Joseph Williams, “Well, Williams, you and I have lived nearly twenty years in Africa. We cannot expect to be allowed to work here much longer.”
On his way to Likoma, Maples had a three day stopover at Blantyre and led a Sunday church service in one of the churches. He also visited the British commissioner at his residence in Zomba. Afterwards Maples crossed over to the upper side of the river Shire and waited for the boat for two days at Matope. On September 2, 1895 Maples sailed for Kota Kota on Lake Nyasa in one of the mission’s boats, the Sheriff, named after George Sherriff, a Brixham sailor who had worked on the mission’s boats and had died on Likoma Island. Maples was not familiar with this vessel as he usually sailed in the Charlotte but he was in a hurry and could not wait for the Charlotte, because he wanted to extend his pastoral care to the bereaved family as soon as possible. He encouraged his friend Williams to board the Sheriff although he may have suspected it to be less seaworthy than the Charlotte in bad weather with the excessively light cargo it was carrying.
Due to the strong wind on the lake, Ibrahim, the African captain of the boat, suggested to the bishop that they head for safety on the east coast. But the bishop, eager to get to the west shore where people were waiting his arrival, insisted that they continue going west. A few minutes after eleven at night huge waves crashed over the boat making it capsize and throwing passengers and crew into the water. Ibraham saw that Maples, normally a good swimmer, was struggling because he was hampered by his cassock. Ibrahim and Isaiah, another member of the crew, helped Maples onto two floating boxes and pushed the boxes along as they swam. But the boxes soon filled with water and began sinking along with Maples. According to Ibrahim–as recorded by Maples’ sister–Maples said, “Do not let me cause your death. It was my fault–save yourselves. Go to the Europeans–to Mr. Johnson–and tell them I have died.”
Joseph Williams, who had been asleep when the boat capsized, also died in the accident. He had first sailed to Africa with Maples and now he died with him. Finally, after being in the water for over two hours, the crew reached a small island where they remained until daylight. The only thing saved from the wreck was Maples’ bag of communion vessels.
The sad news of the fatal accident caused great mourning in Likoma because both Europeans and Africans had loved Maples. Maples’ sister recorded one African as saying, “We were all looking for our bishop, not without some fears, some doubts, but any such [sic] only the birth of knowledge of the difficulties before him; no one doubted we were beginning an era! No one so thoroughly sympathized with the natives, no one so social a power amongst Europeans! So much life, so much independence, such ready, too ready, [sic] sympathy–one had fear in the very width and beauty of hope! We were all looking for his coming to the hills the route [sic] by Unangu.” Maples’ body was found not far from the scene of the accident two weeks later and was buried in Africa.
Maples is remembered for his great love for Africa and the great many hymns he wrote which are still being used in the Anglican Church of Malawi.
Besides his missionary work Maples’ most important venture, started in the last years of his life, was the Nyasa News, a magazine for British Central Africa. Though edited, published, and printed by a missionary (Maples himself), Maples intended for the magazine to unite British administrators in British Central Africa. Besides local news and notes on local subjects, the Nyasa News contained articles of a high standard on geographical and scientific topics connected with Africa.
Anderson, G. H., ed. The Theology of the Christian Mission. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company Inc., 1961.
Maples, Allen (his sister). Chauncy Maples: Pioneer Missionary in East Africa for Nineteen Years and Bishop of Likoma, Lake Nyasa. London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1897.
Marsh, Zoe and G. W. Kingsnorth. An Introduction to the History of East Africa. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1957.
Neill, Stephen. A History of Christian Missions. Middlesex: Penguin Books Ltd., 1964.
Wilson, George Herbert. The History of the Universities’ Mission to Central Africa. London: Universities’ Missions, 1936.
This article, received in 2005, was researched and written by Rev. Dr. Christopher Byaruhanga, 2005-2006 Project Luke fellow and Associate Professor of Historical Theology at Uganda Christian University, a DACB Participating Institution. He is also the liaison coordinator at UCU.