Wholesome Words Home
Worldwide Missions
missionary biographies

Mackay of Uganda: A Missionary and an Engineer

by H. K. W. Kumm
1849 Born at Rhynie, Aberdeenshire. (October 13th)
1859 Sir Roderick Murchison surprised at his skill in drawing.
1865 His mother died.
1867 Entered college at Edinburgh.
1870-72 Teaching and studying engineering.
1873 Left for Moabit, Germany. (November 1st)
1876 Two calls for foreign mission work were sent to him. (January 26th)
1876  Sailed by S.S. Peshawur from Southampton. (April 27th).
1876  Arrived at Zanzibar. (May 29th)
1878 Reached Victoria Nyanza. (June 13th)
1878 Arrived in Uganda. (November)
1887 Driven out of Uganda.
1890 He died at Usambiro (February 8th at 11 p.m.)

Alexander MackayUnder a sun awning, a thatched grass roof, resting on roughly cut wooden posts, Mtesa, king of Uganda, sat in his quaintly built royal chair. By his side on a camp stool, Stanley, his writing-case on his knees, was busily writing. Around them chiefs and sub-chiefs, slaves and native women, formed a background.

"Here is the letter," said the white man to the ruler of the land, "the letter asking the people of my country to send you teachers. I wish I could stay and instruct all your people in the ways of the white man and the white man's God, but I cannot do this, as my friends who have sent me to this country expect me to go on with my geographical and exploring work."

At this moment Linant de Bellefond, Stanley's friend, sauntered up to him. "I think I shall have to leave to-morrow," he remarked, "on my way northward down the Nile. Can I do anything for you?"

"Yes," said Stanley. "You can carry my mail if you will, and take this letter to the Editor of the Daily Telegraph in London. I'll write him a special note, asking him to publish this call for missionaries to be sent to Uganda."

King Mtesa, much pleased, showed his appreciation by providing carriers and food for the caravans of the two explorers when, shortly after, they left his land.

Through forests, swamps and open plains, by road and river, de Bellefond journeyed towards the Sudan. Months and months of travel in the wild tropical regions of the African forest belt had been hard on his nervous system. He was full of fever but soon (may be in a month or two) he would reach Khartum, travel through the healthy desert lands, to Egypt, and thus home. So he planned, but his destiny had been arranged far otherwise. Like Van der Deken, Mme. Tinney, Boyd Alexander and many others, he was to die in the Dark Continent at the hands of the natives.

He had reached the country of the Bari people, one of the Nilotic tribes. Whether his treatment of the natives caused by his nervous condition stirred up strife, or whether fear of the white, ghost-like traveler who suddenly appeared among them lead to the trouble, will probably remain unknown. This much is certain, that in a scuffle with the Bari tribesmen he received a blow on the head with a bludgeon-like, wooden club, and was killed. The servants ran away, and some of them finally found their way to Khartum, where Charles Gordon ("Chinese Gordon") was then governor. An intelligence officer who had heard the story of the death of a white man reported it to Gordon. A small expedition of investigation was sent, and de Bellefond's body found. The natives had not touched it, but had run away into the long grass. The body was decomposed, but on its feet were still the boots, and when these were examined there was found in one of them Stanley's letter to the Editor of the London Daily Telegraph. Reverently the explorer's body was deposited in a grave, but Stanley's letter was taken on, handed to Gordon, and by him sent home to Europe.

In due time it appeared [in the newspaper]—on November 15th, 1875. An anonymous donor immediately offered five thousand pounds sterling to the Church Missionary Society, asking that a missionary party should be dispatched to Uganda. Another fifteen thousand pounds were collected, and on the 22nd of April, 1876, the missionaries sailed from England to carry the Gospel to the heart of Africa, there to lay the foundations for the most successful foreign missionary enterprise of our day...

On the 13th of October, 1849, in the Free Church Manse of the parish of Rhynie, in Aberdeenshire, a boy was born, named after his father, Alexander Mackay, who was destined to become the spiritual father of a nation. His father (who was an LL.D. besides being a minister) himself educated his boy, until the latter reached the age of fourteen. In 1864 young Alexander was sent to the grammar school in Aberdeen. Early the child had shown a strange liking for books that many other boys would not relish. Milton's "Paradise Lost," Russell's "History of Modern Europe," Gibbon's "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," and Robertson's "History of the Discovery of America" were his book-companions when he was seven years old—at an age when a modern child would read "Alice in Wonderland" and "Robinson Crusoe," or perhaps "Strubel Peter."

For years his mother had prayed that little Alexander might give his heart to the Lord and become a servant of the Master. It was through her death that the great change in his life took place. Her boy could not be got home from Aberdeen in time to see his mother before she passed away. She gave her Bagster's Bible to the nurse with instructions to hand it to her son on his arrival, with a text of three words, the words of St. Paul, the apostle, "Search the scriptures." This passage, which was specially marked in the Bible, became to him as a message from God.

It was in 1867 that father and boy removed from Aberdeenshire to Edinburgh, and it was there that the son passed the university entrance examination with highest honors, being at the head of all the young men going up from the United Free Church. Three years of study at Edinburgh university gave him a solid educational foundation. It was his father's wish that his son should prepare for the ministry, but young Mackay was far more interested in engineering than in pulpit oratory. When through with his college course, he served in the morning as a teacher, and spent the afternoons in the engineering yards at Leith. On Sunday morning he worshiped at the church of Horatius Bonar, and on Sunday afternoon went among the ragged children and outcasts in the slums, seeking to help the most needy. He also became interested in foreign missions, and as the persecutions of the Christians in Madagascar were much talked about at that time in missionary circles, he offered himself for work there—but nothing came of this.

It is said that a canny Scot has his eye always on the "main chance," that is, the chance of money-making. But the great men of Scotland have been remarkably free from this weakness. Alexander had many opportunities of becoming a rich man, but he turned away from these, saying, "It is not to make money that I believe a Christian should live." Once he was offered an equal partnership in a prosperous engineering enterprise in Moscow (Russia). He "turned this down" to become a poorly paid missionary in Central Africa.

On October 13th, 1874, Alexander Mackay wrote in his diary, "Twenty-five years of age! Bless the Lord O my soul for all His goodness! Man is immortal till his work is done. Use me in Thy service alone, Blessed Savior." This was the prologue of that remarkable man's life.

A year later Mackay offered to the Church Missionary Society of England to become the lay superintendent of a settlement for liberated slaves which was then being organized at Mombassa, East Africa. This was the same year in which Stanley reached Uganda. Thirteen years before, the first white man, Captain Speke, had set foot in that kingdom of the lakes. Instead of going to East Africa, Mackay accepted a lucrative appointment as chief instructor in an engineering firm sixty miles from Berlin, in Germany.

In Berlin the young Scotchman made a number of friends. He was a welcome guest in the house of the court preacher and, desiring to make a contribution to the Christianity of Germany, he translated one or two of Dr. Bonar's devotional works.

Thus, physically and mentally, he was at work in Europe—but the lure of Africa had reached his heart. On the 1st of May, 1874, he had written in his diary, "This day last year Livingstone died—a Scotchman and a Christian, loving God and his neighbor in the heart of Africa. Go thou and do likewise." The years 1874 to 1876 were years of restless longing for an adequate life's work.

It was in 1875 that Stanley wrote to the editor of the Daily Telegraph, calling on Christian Britain to send missionaries to Uganda. On December 12th, 1875, Mackay wrote to the Church Missionary Society, "My heart burns for the deliverance of Africa, and if you can send me to any one of those regions which Livingstone and Stanley have found groaning under the curse of the slave hunter I shall be very glad." The question of foreign missions had to be squarely faced in the life of Mackay on the 26th of January, 1876, when two calls came to him, both summoning him to Africa,—one from the Church Missionary Society, to join a party that was to be sent to Africa in response to Stanley's message; and the other from the Free Church of Scotland, to become the head engineer on a missionary steamer on Lake Nyassa. He felt the former call to be the more pressing, and wrote to the Church Missionary Society that he was ready to go.

Time fails here to tell of the fitting out of the missionary party, of the departure from England (27th April, 1876), the arrival on the East Coast of Africa, and the many and varied experiences Mackay had, before he finally reached Uganda. Suffice it to say that whatever Mackay did he did thoroughly. There was no road to Uganda, so his first work on his arrival in East Africa was to build such a road from Mpwapwa, two hundred and thirty miles inland. It was no plaything, this. His companions retired, one after another, on account of ill-health, and the last two were murdered, but Mackay went on steadily and fearlessly. For two years he toiled north-westward, towards the great lake.

Lieutenant Smith and Mr. O'Neill, his two companions, had transported a sailing boat to Lake Victoria, but they were killed; and when Mackay reached that great inland water basin, at the south end of it, at a place called Kagei, he found that the Daisy had been destroyed by white ants, hippos, and the heat of the sun. So, after building the road, he built a boat; and when this was finished, he made friends with the murderer of his two companions, Chief Lkonge, on the Island Ukerewe.

The call to Uganda had come to him in January, 1876. In November, 1878, Mackay entered Ntebe, the harbor of Uganda, and five days afterwards was in the capital of the country, Rubage, a place now known as Mengo.

Mtesa, the Kabaka (king of the country), welcomed him, and his real life-work began.

Like Livingstone, Brooke and Grenfell, Mackay was not a genius, but he was an idealist and a hard, conscientious worker. Perhaps these terms are synonymous, for a genius has been defined as "a man who is willing and able to take endless pains."

Let us spend an average day with Mackay now, that we may realize what foreign mission work is.

The morning star is sinking in the west, and the eastern horizon is tinted with the faintest streaks of dawn, when in his hut on Kampala Hill the white man throws off his blanket. He gets off his wooden couch and takes a good stretch, for the bed is not of down, and bones get stiff with lying on hard knobs. The mosquitoes have been worrying him through the night for, in spite of careful tucking in the net by way of precaution, the bloodthirsty trials always manage to enter. A missionary wag suggested but the other day that a sound way to secure a respite would be to make a hole in your mosquito net after you had lain down, and when it was full of the mosquitoes in your room, then slip from your bed, tie up the hole, and sleep in quietness—outside! But a missionary intent on his work has usually no time for such considerations. His head is in a wash-basin to get the sleep out of his eyes—a quick rub down and he climbs into his clothes. There are not many of them, and the toilet takes less than five minutes.

In the meantime his native boys outside at the fire have yawned, stirred up the embers, got the kettle on, and prepared some slow poison in the shape of tea or coffee. Ground millet is cooked into a porridge, and as the blinding disc of day rises above the horizon (for there is no rose-fingered Eros in Central Africa), presently the missionary's boys and some men from the native huts near by come together for morning prayers—some half a dozen of them. A truckle made of grass mats, and thatched with the same material serves as chapel. The hard beaten floor is covered with rushes or mats. There are no pews, or forms, or chairs, only a stool for the white man. They repeat together the Lord's Prayer: some short passage from one of the Gospels is read—another prayer, the benediction, and the service is over.

While the day is still cool the missionary works outside with some of his native boys. The garden needs attention; some bushes and new trees are planted; or in the blacksmith's shop axes, hoes and hatchets that need mending (perhaps some have been sent by the chief) are put into good working order. And thus three hours of the day go by.

It is 9 o'clock. From the valley by the bush path come two elderly natives dressed in bark cloth—a long brown garment looking something like a Roman toga. And now the books are got out under an awning in front of the chapel, at a table made by the missionary with his own hands from packing cases, for stools they have the sawn off logs of wood,—and he and his two native teachers sit down. The vocabulary of the language (consisting of about 3,000 words) is finished: the rudiments of a grammar have to be gone through again. Besides the Baganda language the teachers speak Suahili, and the missionary has acquired proficiency in this during his two years in the coast region, so the conversation is carried on in that language. Prefixes and suffixes, conjugations and declensions, diminutives and superlatives are not a little puzzling at times; the structure of the Bantu languages is entirely different from the Latin, Germanic or Semetic tongues. An hour of this is about as much as can be managed at a time. Then comes translation work, and new words, and other difficulties.

What is the word for "substitute"? For "cross"? For "spirit"?

If not careful the missionary is frequently led in his translation work into serious trouble. For years the missionaries in another country in Africa had used the word that meant "evil spirit" for the "Holy Spirit." In another language the words for "heart" and "dog" are almost the same; it would never do, if you want to tell the natives that they must have a new heart, to tell them that they must have a new dog! Behind a number of words a query is made. These words are to be investigated further. A chapter of the Gospel, translated the previous day, is revised, and a new chapter is translated in the rough.

The work is not yet finished when, from different directions out of the fields and the forests, come the halt and the sick and the blind, for by this time the missionary has gained the reputation that he is as good as the witch doctor, if not better, in dealing with the ills evil people or evil spirits have inflicted on the bodies of their enemies. The old-fashioned way of getting the witch doctor to lay your enemy by the heel, and have him dealt with by poison ordeal, does not always cure the disease, and so the white magician is consulted. The two "High Cs" for which the native has the greatest respect are calomel and castor oil, and no missionary is without them if he can help it. Sometimes the trouble is such that the missionary, shaking his head, has to confess there is no help, and sometimes he is put on his mettle. The poor man has not studied surgery, and here is a man with an ulcerated spear-wound in his lower extremity, and mortification has set in! The leg must be amputated if the life is to be saved. The wounded man has brought some relatives along. The white man tells them that their friend will have to die, and he is besought to do something for the suffering brother.

"His leg will have to be cut off, and I cannot do this. If I do, he may die under the operation. I have never done such a thing in my life."

"White man, you can do anything you want to."

Yes, the white man is such a wonderful animal that if he should take it into his head to fly over the treetops, the natives would not be astonished. After much consideration the white man gets out of his carpenter's chest a small saw, he gets his razor, a pair of scissors, strong silk and a darning needle, puts them into a pot and boils them (for he has heard that this is necessary), washes the wounded leg with antiseptic, has the native tied onto a bench,—and operates. But what a horrible business! A missionary who was in just such a predicament vowed that he would go right home to Europe and study surgery, and did so.

"White man, I cannot see," comes from the lips of an old woman, perfectly blind.

"Yes, poor mother, I am afraid you will never see again. But if you come to the Light of the World, your soul will get eyes that will see beyond the grave, hope, happiness and heaven."

"White man, teach me about the 'Light of the World.'" And so with the sick around him he tells them the Gospel, not from a pulpit, nor from a platform, but the way the Lord of Life taught and they who followed Him, his Apostles.

Thus hour follows hour in busy work, with no end of difficulties and problems to be solved impromptu.

In the afternoon the chief may call or send messengers, or he may have to visit the king's compound. Letters have to be written and reports sent home, and by that time night comes with its evening tub and dinner. The missionary needs no sleeping-draught at half-past eight, or maybe nine o'clock, when he seeks his couch and sinks into a dreamless slumber, committing his soul to God's keeping, and thanking Him for the privilege of service that is worth while.

Time after time the authorities at home begged Mackay to return to England for rest. Mr. Eugene Stock, the editorial secretary of the Church Missionary Society, realizing the value of Mackay's life, urged him to spare himself and take a holiday. To this our hero replied, "What is this you write! Come home? Surely now in our terrible dearth of workers, it is not the time for any one to desert his post. Send us only our first twenty men, and I may be tempted to come to help you to find the second twenty."

Stanley, who said of Mackay that he was the greatest missionary since Livingstone, writes about him in the days when Mackay passed through deep billows and shadows, "He has no time to fret and groan and weep (and God knows if ever man had every reason to think of graves, and worms, and oblivion, and to be doleful and lone and sad, Mackay had), when, after murdering his Bishop and burning his pupils, and strangling his converts, and clubbing to death his dark friends, Mwanga turned his eye of death on him, and yet the little man met it with calm blue eyes that never winked! To see one man of this kind working day after day for twelve years, bravely, and without a syllable of complaint or a moan amid the wildernesses, and to hear him lead his little flock to show forth God's loving-kindness in the morning and his faithfulness every night, is worth going a long journey for the moral courage and contentment that one derives from it."

Among many writers on Uganda, hear but these three, on what Uganda was, and what Uganda is—and that, the result of the life of Mackay.

Stanley, in 1876—before Christian missions began in Uganda—

"Thievish knaves. Violence is rife. Human life cheap. Frequent tortures. Bloody superstitions abound."

Pilkington, in 1896.

"A hundred thousand evangelized—half able to read for themselves; two hundred buildings for worship; two hundred native evangelists and teachers supported by the native church; ten thousand copies of the New Testament in circulation; six thousand souls eagerly seeking daily instruction; the power of God shown by changed lives."

Winston Churchill (former British Colonial Minister) says that he never saw better order or happier homes than in this central region of Africa, where a few years ago pioneer missionaries (Bishop Hannington) were mercilessly put to death by natives.

For only fourteen years did Mackay's life work last—nay not last, but in fourteen years it began and goes on for ever. On April 14th, 1890, the news was telegraphed from Zanzibar to England that the earthly life of Alexander Mackay had come to an end.
The last message from him, which reached the Church Missionary Society House ten days later, contains this clarion call—

"You sons of England, here is the field for your energies. Bring with you your highest education, and your greatest talents. You will find scope for the exercise of them all. You men of God, who have resolved to devote your lives to the cure of souls of men, here is the proper field for you!"


Copied from African Missionary Heroes and Heroines by H.K.W. Kumm. New York: MacMillan Company, 1917.

More Information on Alexander Mackay


Missionary Biographies Index

 Copyright ©2017 Wholesome Words. All Rights Reserved.