To The Victoria Falls
Discovery of the Victoria Falls
In 1878 François Coillard, a Frenchman dedicated to the Paris Evangelical Missionary Society reached Leshoma (now Lesoma, northern Botswana), the traditional waiting place for travellers seeking the Litunga’s authority to cross the river at Kazungula and proceed north. Coillard travelled from Basutoland (now Lesotho) where he had served his first assignment, and had met and married Christina Mackintosh, the daughter of a Scottish Baptist minister.
"Mpalira is a sandy isle at the confluence of the Chobe and Zambezi. The Barotse chiefs, whose powers are subordinated to one another, are established there, governing the tributary tribe of Masubia, and guarding the principal ford of the river, the entrance to the country. No one can cross it without special authorisation… The chief, Mokumba, a man of unusual intelligence, received me with many attentions. Still, before consenting to let me pass on to Sesheke, the headman of which sent me a pressing invitation, he had to forward a special message, and obtain formal permission, as all entrance to their country, even to the left bank of the river, is absolutely forbidden to strangers.” (Coillard, 1897)
Although with the support of Westbeech he soon obtained permission from Lewanika to establish a mission in Barotse territory, he was forced to leave the following year by unrest in the region, and not to return for five years. Baxter (1952) recorded Coillard as visiting the Falls on 6th August 1878.
“The first attempt by François Coillard of the Paris Missionary Society to plant a mission among the Banyai proved a failure in the face of opposition of Lobengula, the Matabele Chief, and he then turned his attention to Barotseland, On 26th July 1878, he arrived at Leshoma, twelve miles south of the Zambesi, on the south bank of the Chobe, the usual halting place for travellers who desired permission to enter the Barotse country. He was allowed to proceed as far as Sesheke, but unfortunately his mission was so depleted by ill-health that he decided to turn back, but not before he had obtained permission from Lewanika to return and found a mission at Lealui. He returned to Basutoland, meeting Serpo Pinto on the way, having visited the Falls with his party in August 1878.” (Baxter, 1952)
Other missionaries had also made their way to the banks of the Zambezi, with many failing to even enter Barotseland. Father Depelchin, a French Jesuit missionary, reached the Falls on the 7th July 1880 with the intention of founding a mission, but due to illness of several members of the party, and the death of one in a boating accident, he abandoned the project.
In September 1881 the Rev. Frederick Stanley Arnot left Natal to establish a mission on the Zambezi watershed. At Pandamatenga he met Edmund Selous, brother of Frederick Courtney Selous, and travelled with him to the Falls, reaching them on 13th August 1883. Arnot, a Scotsman, travelled widely in Barotseland, including within reach of the source of the Zambezi, and is credited for holding the path open for Coillard through his work. Arnot was known as the ‘young Livingstone’ for his dedication to the region and its people.
Coillard at Leshoma
In July 1884 Coillard finally returned to Leshoma, but now found that internal strife within the Lozi ruling elite made further progress into Barotseland difficult.
“On 26th July 1884, he returned to Leshoma but found that there was trouble amongst the Barotse. When Livingstone had visited there last, Sekeletu was chief. He however, was a weak man and under his rule, the tribes rebelled. In 1865, the exiled branch of the Barotse under Sepopa returned and murdered the survivors of the original Makololo, sparing only the women and girls. With the Batoka and the river tribes conquered, the Barotse reigned supreme, but there was civil war and bloodshed for years; Sepopa was later murdered and also, it is said, his successor, Mwanawina. Lewanika, or Lobosi as he was then called, gained the chieftainship... [in 1878, but later in 1884] he was in turn deposed. It was at this stage in Barotse history that Coillard arrived, and he waited at Leshoma for thirteen months while civil war raged and Lewanika was driven [temporarily] into exile.” (Baxter, 1952)
Coillard eventually succeeded in founding a mission at Old Sesheke, on the north bank upstream of the Falls in 1885 with Rev Dorwald Jeanmairet as resident (and who in November 1885 married Coillard’s daughter, Elise).
Coillard rapidly eclipsed Westbeech as the major European adviser to the Lozi Litunga, with mission stations and schools soon also established at Sefula and at Kazungula (in 1887).
Coillard found legends of Livingstone everywhere. He said:
Wherever Livingstone had passed, the name of Moruti (missionary) is a passport and a recommendation. Must I confess that I have been humiliated not a little to see myself fitted with a doctor’s cap by these gentlemen of Sesheke? Whether I will, or not, I am Nyaka (doctor), Livingstone’s successor. Thus it is that the first missionary that comes by is invested with the boots of this giant.
He is also recorded by Clay (1963) as saying of Livingstone:
In Europe people admired the intrepid traveller, but one must come to Sesheke where he lived, to admire the man. He has engraved his name in the very hearts of the heathen population of Central Africa.
Arnot, F S (1883) From Natal to the Upper Zambezi: First Year Among the Barotse. Mission, Glasgow.
Arnot F S (1889) Garenganze: or, Seven Years Pioneer Mission Work in Central Africa. Hawkins, London.
Arnot F S (1914) Missionary Travels in Central Africa. Holness, London.
McDonald F W (1893) The Story of Mashonaland and The Missionary Pioneers, London, Wesleyan Mission House.
Mackintosh C W (1907) Coillard of the Zambesi. Unwin, London.
Macmillan H (2005) An African Trading Empire - The Story of Susman Borthers and Wulfsohn, 1901-2005. I B Tauris & Co Ltd, London.
Rae, W F (1968) George Westbeech and the Barotseland missionaries 1878-1888 Central Africa Historical Association, Salisbury.
'To The Victoria Falls' aims to bring you the wonder of the Victoria Falls through a look at its natural and human history.
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