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Alexander Mackay, Uganda

by E. E. Enock

Alexander MackayAlexander Mackay was born on Oct., 13th, 1849, in Rhynie, a little village some way from Aberdeen. His father was minister of the Free Church there. Alec was a strong and healthy lad, full of interest in everything which his scholarly father taught him. Till he was 14 years of age he had no other teacher. Map drawing was a great delight to him. His father had a map of Africa on the study wall. This map, rather empty at first, was gradually filled in, as news of discoveries came to hand. Alec was about 8 when his father put in the vast Lake of Victoria Nyanza. Little did either of them dream of the part Alec would play on its shores.

About this time, at his special request, his father gave him a small printing press, Mr. Blackwood, the Edinburgh publisher, supplying the type. The boy's quickness and accuracy in setting the type was remarkable. Years after, in the far Uganda, that printing press, was still at work.

Mrs. Mackay watched her boy anxiously as he grew up. Would he become a minister?
It did not look like it, for he was always engrossed in material things. Machinery held a great fascination for him. He would walk four miles to Huntly Station to see the engine when the train stopped there. He frequented the village smithy, carding mills, gas works, and when at school in Aberdeen, the shipbuilding yards enthralled him, and his clever hands thus early learnt things which proved of infinite value in furthering the Kingdom of God on the far shores of the great lake, though as yet he knew not the purpose.

During these years his mother would talk to him of the Saviour, and the Bible, and of missionaries, for she was interested in Foreign Mission work. One night they talked of Africa. "Would you like me to go to Africa as a missionary?" he asked. One can imagine how searchingly her eyes would rest on him as she replied "that she would, if God called him to it, and she showed him that he himself had need of a Saviour before he could take the Gospel to the heathen."

These words, and her unceasing prayers for him, this clever, attractive son, were not unavailing, though she did not live to see their fruit. She died in 1865, when he was 16. He was away at the time, but she left him her Bagster Bible, giving it into the hands of a dear relative with the message that he should search the Scriptures, and he would find the way to Heaven and meet her there.

The story of his conversion is not given as far as I can see, but that he came to trust and love the Saviour is abundantly shown by a letter of the Countess Von Eglostein who knew him as a young man in Berlin, and who wrote to his sister after his death: "Life was to him a gift used for Jesus. He counted all things but loss for the excellency of Jesus Christ his Lord. Under His wings he was safe, and never alone, for his Saviour was with him."

For several years he continued his studies, following the strong bent for engineering, first in England then in Berlin, where his companions tried to show the earnest young Christian the folly of believing in the Saviour and the Word of God.

In January, 1876, he was accepted by the C.M.S. for their Mission on Victoria Nyanza. The party numbered eight (in about 3 years Mackay was sole representative), and they arrived at Zanzibar, May 29, 1876, "at their journeys' beginning," as Mackay put it. He and Lieut. Smith went up the Wami River soon after, in the "Daisy," a launch which the C.M.S. sent out with them. They were to see if there was a water route into the interior. There was not. The "Daisy" had to be taken to pieces, all their impedimenta packed up for carrying, and the party in four divisions started off. Mackay, who had ox-wagons with him, had literally to hack his way through as he travelled. The jungle, he says, was so dense that a cat might scarcely pass. During the performance of this arduous task he had to return to the coast ill, but he filled in the convalescent time there fitting out a caravan for those of his fellow-workers who had reached Victoria Nyanza and when sufficiently recovered he was at it again. He organised a band of natives with the aid of Susi, one of Dr. Livingstone's servants, and a road wide enough for ox-carts was made for a distance of 230 miles. Ahead, however, was the dreaded Tsetse fly, deadly foe to oxen, and eventually the work had to be abandoned.

The news of the murder of Lieut. Smith and Mr. O'Neill on the island of Ukerewe reached him (Dr. Smith had succumbed to fever some time previously) and Mackay hastened off to the island. A native deputation from its king, Lkonge, met him and rowed him across, and the king told him the story of the treachery of the Arab traders which caused the tragedy. Mackay returned to Kagei, where some of the stores belonging to the party had been left. And here Mr. Wilson, who had reached Uganda, came down for stores, and found his friend. It was a happy meeting, and each had much to tell. By this time Mackay had found and put together once more the "Daisy," and in it the two embarked for Uganda. They had a stormy and adventurous voyage across the lake, but on Nov. 1, 1878, two and a half years after he had landed at Zanzibar, Mackay set foot in Uganda.

Here Mackay had work enough in mending things for every one, from the king, Mtesa, downwards, for which he was paid in food. His forge was quite a rendezvous, and an object regarded with awe. It was also a place for preaching the Gospel. The printing press came into use. Sheets of alphabets and portions of the Gospels were printed and distributed, the king being served first, of course, and reading the Scriptures began in earnest. Mtesa became greatly interested and was much impressed by the reading and explanations which Mackay, by royal command, gave regularly in full court. Mtesa often acted as interpreter, and did it well.

There were three great hindrances. The Arab slave-traders, the Roman Catholic priests (they had quickly followed the missionaries), and witchcraft. The Arabs had the ear of the king. They knew their trade would cease if Mtesa and his people became Christians, and they continually frightened him by saying that the English were coming to turn him out of his country, thus rendering the missionaries objects of suspicion.

True to his Saviour, and confident in the power of the Gospel, Mackay laboured on patiently year after year, and when converts came he felt more than repaid. Sembrera was the first. But Mtesa, it is to be feared, was not saved. In spite of Mackay's earnest entreaties he vacillated to the last. He once asked Mackay how they buried people in
England and Mackay had shown him how much more important the soul was than the body. He urged the king to come to the Saviour. Mtesa had his usual excuse ready: "Which 'Religion' was right?" Mohammedan, Roman Catholic, or Mackay's? Mackay knelt on the mat before him and pleaded earnestly, saying that that excuse would be no defence before God, and begged him to read his New Testament. "There never was anyone yet who looked for truth there and did not find it" he said.

Mtesa died in Oct., 1884, whilst Mackay was away at Entebbe. The making of his coffin fell to Mackay, and what his thoughts were one can well imagine. But God who comforteth all that are cast down, would be beside him.

Mwanga, one of his sons, 17 years of age, succeeded him. He proved to be a blood-thirsty and cruel king. Within three months of his accession, most of the young converts were seized and burnt to death. Persecution resulted in the making of more converts, and these, on the advice of Mackay and his missionary colleagues, remained quietly in their homes, teaching.

Mwanga, after the murder of Bishop Hannington, thought to do the same by Mackay and Ashe, but fear of England prevented. In 1886 there were more massacres of native Christians. The printing press was secretly busy with a letter to those still living. On the back was printed 1 Peter 4. 12-19, for their encouragement. It did not fail, and Mwanga, at last, in spite of his boast that their God had not saved the victims, stayed his hand when he found some of his most powerful chiefs were converted.

In 1888 Mackay felt led to go to Usambiro and there he remained, as it was needed for a base for the Uganda Station, held then by Rev. E. C. Gordon. Here he was visited by a band of missionaries, and the party spent some happy days together. Later, Sept., 1889, H. M. Stanley passed, on his way to the coast, after which Mackay was left with David Deekes, a missionary in failing health.

During this period Mwanga had been deposed. Whilst exiled the Roman Catholics baptised him, and shortly afterwards he was reinstated. The Papists were throwing quite a force of priests into Uganda. Mackay longed for Protestants, to support Mr. Gordon and Mr. Walker. England seemed slow in sending.

Mackay had now been 14 years in Africa, and his end was drawing near.

It came very suddenly whilst he was building a launch to take Mr. Deekes across the lake en route for England. One morning in February the silent anvil proclaimed the illness of the intrepid pioneer-missionary. He was called Home on Feb. 8th, 1890. The planks which he had cut for the launch were used for his coffin.

Mr. Deekes broke down whilst reading the burial service, but, in the Uganda tongue, Mackay's boys burst out triumphantly singing: "All hail the power of Jesus' Name!"

He, whose frail frame was lying in the grave, was face to face with the Saviour, whom he had joyfully crowned Lord of all in his life on earth. Now he is at Home.


Copied for WholesomeWords.org from Twelve Mighty Missionaries by E. E. Enock. London: Pickering & Inglis, [1936?].

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