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Joseph Thomson
Born 14 February 1858(1858-02-14)
Penpont, Dumfriesshire, Scotland
Died 2 August 1895 (aged 37)
London, England
Occupation Geologist and Explorer

Joseph Thomson (14 February 1858 - 2 August 1895) was a Scottish geologist and explorer who played an important part in the Scramble for Africa. Thomson's Gazelle is named for him. Excelling as an explorer rather than an exact scientist, he avoided confrontations among his porters or with indigenous peoples, neither killing any native nor losing any of his men to violence.[1] His motto is often quoted to be "He who goes gently, goes safely; he who goes safely, goes far."




Early life

Born in Penpont, Dumfriesshire, he was apprenticed into his father's stone-masonry and quarrying business. He developed a keen amateur interest in geology and botany which eventually led to his formal education at the University of Edinburgh, studying under Archibald Geikie and Thomas Henry Huxley.

Royal Geographical Society

On graduating in 1878, he was appointed geologist and naturalist to Alexander Keith Johnston's Royal Geographical Society expedition to establish a route from Dar es Salaam to Lake Nyasa and Lake Tanganyika. Johnston perished during the trip and it was left to Thomson to take over the leadership. Thomson successfully led the expedition over 3000 miles in 14 months, collecting many specimens and making sundry observations.

In 1883, he embarked on a further Royal Geological Society expedition to explore a route from the eastern coast of Africa to the northern shores of Lake Victoria. British Empire traders were demanding a route that would avoid the fearsome Maasai and the hostile Germans who were competing for trade in the area. The expedition set out a few months behind the rival German expedition of Gustav A. Fischer. The expedition was again a success demonstrating the feasibility of the route and making many important biological, geological and ethnographic observations, though Thomson's attempt to climb Mount Kilimanjaro in a day failed. However, on the return journey, Thomson was gored by a buffalo and subsequently suffered from malaria and dysentery.


In 1885 Thomson was employed by the National African Company to forestall German influence in the vicinity of the Niger River, but returned the following year to the UK to lecture, disillusioned that there were no further opportunities for large-scale exploration in the continent. He was discontented with his life in the UK and struggled to identify new opportunities for exploration. A modest expedition to the Atlas Mountains of Morocco was marred by trouble with porters and local political difficulties. He spent a month in 1889 traveling in central Europe with budding author J. M. Barrie.

British South Africa Company

In 1890, Cecil Rhodes employed Thomson to explore north of the Zambezi and gain treaties and mining concessions from chiefs on behalf of his British South Africa Company which had been chartered by the British Government to claim the territory known as Zambezia (later Rhodesia, modern day Zimbabwe and Zambia) as far north as the African Great Lakes. Though he made a sequence of important treaties on the trip, he was blocked by a smallpox epidemic in the intervening country from reaching the ultimate goal, which was to meet Alfred Sharpe at the court of Msiri, King of Katanga, and to assist Sharpe in incorporating the mineral-rich country by treaty into Zambezia. Thomson's role was to bring supplies of cloth, gunpowder, and other gifts with which to impress Msiri. Without them, Sharpe was rebuffed, and a year later the Stairs Expedition, believing itself to be in race with another attempt by Thomson to reach Katanga, killed Msiri and took Katanga for King Leopold II of Belgium. Unknown to the Stairs Expedition, by this time Thomson had been instructed by the British government not to go.[2]


Thomson's health deteriorated from cystitis, schistosomiasis, and pyelo-nephritis. In 1892, he contracted pneumonia and, seeking the right climate in which to recuperate, spent time in England, South Africa, Italy, and France. He died in London.


  1. ^ Through Maasailand: In the Footsteps of Africa's Greatest Explorer
  2. ^ Moloney, Joseph Augustus (1893). With Captain Stairs to Katanga. London: Sampson Low, Marston & Company (ISBN 0955393655).

Further reading

Works by Thomson

Works about Thomson

  • Rotberg, R.I. (1971) Joseph Thomson and the exploration of Africa
  • Thomson, J.B. (1896) Joseph Thomson: African explorer

See also

External links


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