Wholesome Words Home
Worldwide Missions
missionary biographies

Alexander Mackay, "the Hero of Uganda"

by John C. Lambert

Alexander MackayIn days when the British flag flies proudly over the Commissioner's residence in what is now known as the Uganda Protectorate in the equatorial regions of East Central Africa, and railway trains pass regularly to and fro through the wild regions that lie between the town of Mombasa on the coast and Kavirondo Bay on the eastern shores of the Victoria Nyanza, the grandest of all African lakes, most of the mystery and romance which once hung about the kingdom of Uganda may be said to have disappeared. Less than fifty years ago [written in 1907] the case was very different. One or two bold travellers, pushing on towards the sources of the Nile, had heard from Arab traders, not less bold, of the existence of an ancient, powerful, and half-civilized kingdom lying directly under the equator, and stretching along the coasts of a great inland sea. But these at the best were only hearsay tales, and if the thrilling romance of King Solomon's Mines, dear to the hearts of boys, had been in print half a century ago, the wonderful regions discovered by Allan Quatermain and his companions would have had as much reality to English readers as the dominions of King Mtesa.

Stanley's Letter

But in 1862 Captain Speke reached Uganda, the first of all white men to enter the country; and in 1875 there came an explorer greater still—Henry M. Stanley. Stanley was much impressed by what he saw of Mtesa and his kingdom, and was especially struck with the great possibilities for the future of Christian missions in Africa that seemed to be opened up by the existence in the very heart of the continent of such a country as Uganda, ruled by a monarch so enlightened. On his return to England he wrote a historic letter to a great London newspaper, describing his visit to Uganda, and challenging the Christian Churches of Britain to send missionaries to that land. It was this letter that led the Church Missionary Society, shortly afterwards, to undertake that work in Uganda with which the name of Alexander Mackay will always be associated.

The Young Engineer

Mackay was a young Scotchman, the son of a Presbyterian minister in Aberdeenshire, who at an early age had made up his mind to devote himself to the service of Christ in the foreign field, and had conceived the original idea of becoming what he called an "engineer missionary." From the first he saw, as most missionary societies have now come to see, that Christianity and modern civilization should go hand in hand, and that mechanical work is as legitimate an aid to missions as medical science. He had a natural bent towards engineering, and after studying it theoretically for three years at Edinburgh University, went to Germany and spent some time there as a draughtsman and constructor. So marked were his constructive talents that one of his employers offered him a partnership in a large engineering concern; but what would have seemed a tempting opportunity to most young men was no temptation to him. Already his heart was in the mission field. When he was twenty-four years of age, and hard at work in Berlin, he wrote in his diary on the first anniversary of Dr. Livingstone's death: "This day last year Livingstone died—a Scotchman and a Christian, loving God and his neighbour in the heart of Africa. 'Go thou and do likewise.'" It was in the year following that Stanley returned from Uganda and wrote the celebrated letter already referred to; and among the first to respond personally to the explorer's challenge was the young Scotch engineer who had drunk so deeply of Livingstone's spirit, and whom Stanley himself described fourteen years later, when he had seen with his own eyes the kind of work that Mackay had done in the heart of Africa, as "the modern Livingstone."

According to Stanley it was the practical Christian teacher who was wanted in the Dark Continent—the man who, sailor-like, could turn his hand to anything. "Such a one," he wrote, "if he can be found, would become the saviour of Africa." Mackay's practical teaching began long before he set foot in Uganda, for as soon as he reached the East African coast he set to work to cut a good road to Mpwapwa, 230 miles inland. It was a huge task for one white man to undertake in the teeth of countless natural difficulties, and in spite of frequent sickness and dangers from wild beasts and savage men. But in the words of the old Scotch proverb, the young engineer "set a stout heart to a stey brae"—fording swamps and climbing hills, bridging rivers and cleaving his way through forests. It was not till two years after he had landed in Africa that he arrived at Kagei on the south of the Victoria Nyanza, and caught his first glimpse of the great lake in the neighbourhood of which the remainder of his life was to be spent. Two of the missionaries for Uganda, Lieutenant Smith and Mr. O'Neill, had been murdered shortly before by a neighbouring king; others had succumbed to the climate one by one; and meantime he was left alone to hold aloft in this vast region the flag of Christianity and civilization.

Victoria Nyanza

His first business was to get across the lake, for Kagei is at the south end, while Uganda lies along the northwestern shores. In size the Victoria Nyanza is about equal to Ireland, and the only way of crossing this inland sea was by means of a sailing boat called the Daisy, which had been brought up from the coast in sections by Lieutenant Smith, but in which not a single sound plank now remained, thanks to the burning rays of the sun, the teeth of hippopotami, and the ravages of armies of white ants. Mackay had to begin without delay those mechanical labours by which he was to produce so deep an impression on the native mind, and which by and by made his name famous all round the shores of the Victoria Nyanza. Day by day he toiled single-handed on the beach with crowds of natives all around, willing to help so far as they could, but sometimes doing more to hinder, watching and wondering until, as they saw his turning-lathe at work, or beautiful candles growing under his fingers out of the fat of an ox, or a complete steam-engine out of a heterogeneous collection of ban and rods and bolts and screws, they began to whisper to one another that the white man came from heaven.

The "Daisy"

But before his boat-building was completed, Mackay impressed the natives in another way by paying a visit to King Lkonge, of the island of Ukerewe, by whose warriors the two missionaries had been murdered a short time before. The friendly people of Kagei entreated him not to go to Ukerewe, assuring him that by doing so he would only be putting his head into the lion's jaws. But he went, alone and unarmed, and got Lkonge to promise that he would allow the missionaries to come and teach his subjects; and then after a nine days' absence returned to Kagei, where he was received almost as one who had come back from the dead.

At length the Daisy was ready, and Mackay had now to undertake the duty of navigating her across the unknown waters. Even to an experienced sailor like the murdered Lieutenant Smith the task would not have been an easy one, for like the Sea of Galilee, the Victoria Nyanza is a lake of storms, while countless rocks and islets stud the broad expanse on every hand. And Mackay was not only no sailor, he had not the slightest acquaintance with the art of handling a sailing boat. Still there was nothing for it but to launch out into the deep with a native crew which knew even less about boats than he did himself. It was a terrible voyage. Soon after leaving Kagei a great storm came down and raged upon the lake for two days, during which the Daisy was driven helplessly before the fury of wind and waves, until she was hurled at last a mere wreck upon the western coast. The boat-builder's task had to be resumed once more; and the Daisy was repaired, as Mackay himself puts it, "much as one would make a pair of shoes out of a pair of long boots. Cutting eight feet out of the middle of her, we brought stem and stern together, patching up all broken parts in these with the wood of the middle portion; and after eight weeks' hard labour, we launched her once more on the Victoria Nyanza."

A "Baraza" at Mtesa's Court

It was not till November, 1878, two and a half years after leaving England, that Ntebe, the port of Uganda, was sighted at last; and five days afterwards Mackay entered Rubaga, the capital of the land which had so long been the goal of all his hopes and efforts. On the earliest day on which there was a baraza or levee at Mtesa's court, he received a summons to attend. It was a striking succession of scenes that met his quietly observant eye as he pawed along the magnificently wide road that led to the royal palace of this Central African city. In his Two Kings of Uganda Mr. Ashe, Mackay's colleague at a later period, gives a graphic account of one of Mtesa's levees, when, amidst the rolling tattoos of deep-toned drums and the blare of trumpets, lords and chieftains from far and near, villainous but smiling Arabs, runaway Egyptian soldiers from the Soudan, adventurers from the East Coast and Madagascar, mountebanks, minstrels, dancers, and dwarfs all gathered into the courtyard of the Kabaka, which was the native title of the king.

Mackay's presentation passed off very well, and it was not long till his great skill in all kinds of arts and crafts, and especially in ironwork, made him an object of wonder to the whole country and a special favourite with the king. But he never allowed himself to forget that, important as practical work was, there was something which was infinitely higher, and that all the influence which he gained by his mechanical ingenuity must be turned to the service of the Gospel he had come to Uganda to proclaim. So while during the rest of the week he practised the arts of civilization and imparted them to others, when Sunday came he regularly presented himself at the court, and read and expounded the New Testament to a listening crowd in the presence of the king. At first Mtesa appeared to be in sympathy with his teaching, and to the ardent young missionary it almost seemed as if the whole nation of Uganda might be born in a day.

Adverse Influences

It was not long, however, till adverse influences began to work. The Arab traders bitterly disliked Mackay, for they were well aware that all his influence went to undermine their very lucrative slave trade. There were some Roman Catholic priests, too, who had followed him to Uganda after he had opened up the way, and these men set themselves to prejudice both king and people against him as far as they could. But worst of all, Mtesa turned out to be a hearer of the type of that Felix to whom St. Paul preached. Up to a certain point he listened to Mackay willingly enough, but he did not like the missionary to get into close grips with his conscience. There was much that was good and amiable about Mtesa, and to the end he protected Mackay from all his enemies. But his whole previous life had been a training in cruelty, brutality, and lust; and though his mind was convinced of the truth of the Christian Gospel, its moral demands were too much for his taste, and he remained a heathen in heart.

The Land of Blood

And so there came a time when Mackay discovered to his horror that while for more than two years the king had been listening to him with apparent interest, he had been permitting almost unimaginable cruelties to be practised just as before. In particular, every now and then he gave orders for a kiwendo, i.e. a great massacre of human victims, in one of which as many as 2,000 persons were put to death in a single day. In anticipation of these great sacrifices, gangs of executioners prowled about the land by night, pouncing upon innocent and helpless people and marching them off to the capital; and by and by Mackay came to know that the deep roll of drums which sometimes wakened him in the dead of night was nothing else than the signal that a fresh batch of victims had been brought in. When the day of the kiwendo arrived, these wretched creatures were put to death by burning. But before being cast alive into the flames many had their eyes put out, their noses and ears cut off, or the sinews of their arms and thighs torn out and roasted before their faces.

Against these horrible deeds Mackay protested with all his strength, but only offended the king, who now declined to see him at the court, and no longer as at first supplied him with food, so that he and the two other missionaries by whom he had been joined were sometimes reduced to actual starvation. From time to time, however, the royal favour was regained in some measure by a fresh demonstration of the white man's mechanical power. Once in a time of great drought, when water was not to be had in the capital, Mackay sank a deep well—a thing which had never before been seen in Uganda, and fitted it with a pump—a thing more wonderful still. And when the people saw the copious stream of water ascending twenty feet high, and flowing on as long as any one worked the pump handle, their astonishment knew no bounds, and they cried, Makay lubare ("Mackay is the great spirit") again and again. But their benefactor did not trade on their ignorance. He told them that the pump was only a kind of elephant's trunk made of copper, or that it was like the tubes they used for sucking beer out of their beer jars, only much bigger and with a tongue of iron to suck up the water. "I am no great spirit," he assured them. "There is only one Great Spirit, that is God; and I am only a man like yourselves."

A Brobdingnagian Coffin

Another of Mackay's tasks at this time was imposed on him by the death of Mtesa's mother, and consisted in the manufacture of what the king considered a fitting receptacle for the corpse of so august a personage. It was a triple series of coffins—an inner one of wood, a middle one of copper, and an outer one of wood covered with cloth. Everything had to be made as large as possible, and to fulfil the office of undertaker on this Brobdingnagian scale the handy missionary had to toil incessantly for thirty days, and latterly all through the night as well. The outer coffin was made of 100 boards nailed together, with strong ribs like the sides of a schooner, and was so enormous that it looked like a house rather than a coffin, and required the assistance of a whole army of men that it might be lowered safely into the grave, which, again, was a huge pit twenty feet long, fifteen feet broad, and about thirty feet deep.

King Mwanga and Martyrs

At last Mtesa died, worn out prematurely by his vices, and was succeeded by his son Mwanga, a youth of about seventeen, who inherited his father's worst qualities, but none of his good ones. Then began a time of fiery trial for the mission. Mackay and his companions were daily threatened with death, and death was made the penalty of listening to their teaching or even of reading the Bible in secret. Many of Mackay's pupils and converts were tortured and burnt to death; but in Uganda as elsewhere the old saying came true that "the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church." Inquirers became far more numerous than ever; men stole into the houses of the missionaries by night and begged to be baptized; and there were cases where bolder ones went openly to the court and proclaimed that they were Christians, though they knew that their confession would immediately be followed by a cruel death. Sir H. M. Stanley said of this martyr Church of Uganda that he took it to be "a more substantial evidence of the work of Mackay than any number of imposing structures clustered together and called a mission station would be." Certain it is that it was by the tearful sowing of Mackay and his companions in those gloomy days that there was brought about that time of plentiful and joyful reaping which came in Uganda by and by.

Murder of Bishop Hannington

And now we come to the culminating tragedy in this story of tyranny and bloodshed, and the moment when the faith and courage of the missionaries were most severely tested. They knew that Mr. Hannington had been consecrated Bishop of East Equatorial Africa and was on his way to Uganda from the coast. And they had heard with much concern that, instead of following the customary route to the south end of the lake, he was marching through the Masai country on the east towards the district of Usoga at the northern extremity of the Victoria Nyanza, with the intention of entering Uganda from that quarter. The ground of their concern lay in the fact that the people of Uganda looked upon Usoga as their private "back door," through which no strangers, and especially no white men, should be permitted to approach. There was an old prophecy among them that their country was to be conquered by a people coming from the east, and when word was brought that white men with a large caravan of followers had made their appearance in Usoga, Mwanga and his councillors grew excited and alarmed. Mackay guessed at once who the advancing travellers would be, and did everything he could to reassure the king as to Hannington's purpose in coming to his country. But in spite of all his efforts, a band of soldiers was secretly dispatched to intercept and massacre the Bishop and his followers; and soon the news spread throughout all Uganda that Mwanga's instructions had been literally fulfilled. The murder of the Bishop seemed to whet the tyrant's appetite for Christian blood, and a general persecution followed in which the very flower of the native converts were slain, while the lives of the missionaries themselves constantly hung by a single thread—the king being kept from ordering their instant execution only by the powerful influence of his Katikoro or Prime Minister, who urged him to remember all that Mackay had done for his father in the past.

At length Mr. Ashe, Mackay's only remaining companion, got permission to return to England, while Mackay himself was allowed to withdraw to the south end of the lake. Much as he needed a rest, he could not be persuaded to turn his back on Africa at this critical juncture. Nor did he cross the lake through any personal fears, but only because he was convinced that it might be best for the native Christians that his presence should be removed for a time. He went accordingly to the district of Usambiro, south of the lake, and immediately started mission work there, devoting himself at the same time to the task of translating and printing portions of Scripture for the Uganda people, so that even in his absence the Divine word might continue to win its way in many hearts.

A Visit From Stanley

It was whilst he was at Usambiro that Stanley and he first met. The distinguished explorer was then on his way back to the coast after his relief of Emin Pasha, and to him and his companions it was a welcome relief, as several of them have testified—an oasis in the desert of African travel,—to come in the midst of their long and weary march upon Mackay's mission station at Usambiro. In his book, In Darkest Africa (vol. II, pp. 388-389), Stanley himself gives a graphic description of the meeting, and thus records his impressions of the young Scotch missionary and the work in which they found him quietly and steadily engaged:—

"Talking thus, we entered the circle of tall poles within which the mission station was built. There were signs of labour and constant, unwearying patience, sweating under a hot sun, a steadfast determination to do something to keep the mind employed, and never let idleness find them with folded hands brooding over the unloveliness, lest despair might seize them and cause them to avail themselves of the speediest means of ending their misery. There was a big, solid workshop in the yard, filled with machinery and tools, a launch's boiler was being prepared by the blacksmiths, a big canoe was outside repairing; there were sawpits and large logs of hard timber, there were great stacks of palisade poles, in a corner of an outer yard was a cattle-fold and a goatpen, fowls by the score pecked at microscopic grains, and out of the European quarter there trooped a number of little boys and big boys looking uncommonly sleek and happy, and quiet labourers came up to bid us, with hats off, 'Good morning!'

"A clever writer lately wrote a book about a man who spent much time in Africa, which from beginning to end is a long-drawn wail. It would have cured both writer and hero of all moping to have seen the manner of Mackay's life. He has no time to fret and groan and weep; and God knows, if ever man had reason to think of 'graves and worms and oblivion,' and to be doleful and lonely 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."

Stanley spent twenty days at Usambiro, enjoying to the full the society and hospitality of his missionary friend. On the day that the expedition left, Mackay walked with the travellers for some distance, but bade them good-bye at last, and stood on the path waving his hat till they passed out of sight. One of Stanley's officers wrote afterwards, "That lonely figure standing on the brow of the hill, waving farewell to us, will ever remain vividly in my mind."

Mackay's Death

The end of this heroic life came not long after. Mackay was struck down in the midst of his labours by a sharp attack of malarial fever, which he had not the strength to resist, and after some days of delirium he passed quietly away. He has been called "The Hero of Uganda," and the record of his life shows that he would be worthy of the name, even though no great apparent fruitage had come from all his toils and trials. But the events that have followed since his death help us to a clearer estimate of the richness of the seeds he sowed, often in manifold pain and sorrow, in those first days of Christianity on the shores of the Victoria Nyanza...

Note.—The chief authorities for Mackay's life are Mackay of Uganda and The Story of Mackay of Uganda, both written by his sister, and published by Hodder and Stoughton; Two Kings of Uganda, by Rev. R. P. Ashe, M. A. (Sampson, Low, Marston, and Co.).


Copied for WholesomeWords.org from The Romance of Missionary Heroism... by John C. Lambert. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1907.

More Information on Alexander Mackay


Missionary Biographies Index

 Copyright ©2017 Wholesome Words. All Rights Reserved.