Henry Hamilton Johnston

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Henry Hamilton Johnston

Henry Hamilton Johnston (1858-1927), or Sir Harry Johnston, was an English administrator, explorer, naturalist, painter, and author. He helped to explore Africa, to govern its subject peoples, and to make scholarly sense of the continent's complexity.

Henry Johnston was born in London on June 12, 1858, the eldest of 12 children of Esther and John Johnston, a wealthy and well-traveled insurance company director. Henry discovered his aptitude for drawing, painting, and languages at an early age and, before he was out of his teens, had attracted the attention of the London Zoological Society and the Royal College of Surgeons. For a time he pursued the study of languages at King's College, University of London, but in 1875 became a pupil of painting at the Royal Academy.

In 1878 Johnston began painting in France, and during the next 2 years his paintings began to be hung in the academy. He also illustrated for the Zoological Society, and his studies of birds and animals appeared in The Field, a leading natural-history periodical. In late 1879 Johnston went to Tunis to paint. He spent the better part of the next 2 years there and in Algiers. He grew artistically and learned to feel comfortable in, and knowledgeable about, a Moslem culture. Even more important, Johnston was swept up in the tide of European imperialism; he was prepared emotionally and intellectually for an intensely political career as one of England's far-flung proconsuls.

Travels in Africa

In 1882 Johnston accompanied the Earl of Mayo, an enthusiastic amateur zoologist and adventurer, on a hunting expedition through Angola. In preparing for this voyage Johnston, reading in the British Museum, developed a lifelong interest in the problems associated with classifying the Bantu tongues.

During 1882-1883 Johnston traveled in western and southern Angola, first with Lord Mayo and then with Africans, and throughout a large section of the Congo. The meeting of explorer Henry Stanley near the mouth of the Congo fed Johnston's ambition and joined him mentally to the great age of exploration. Yet Johnston's published account of his experiences in the Congo, The River Congo (1884), discusses politics little. Like so many of Johnston's books, it is a supremely illustrated travel narrative of lasting historical, ethnographical, and botanical value.

With the publication of his book and a number of articles in British periodicals, Johnston achieved a degree of recognition as an Africanist and explorer. In 1884 he was called to the Foreign Office for confidential discussions about the activities of Belgium's King Léopold in the Congo. The same year he was asked by the British Association and the Royal Geographical Society to visit Kilimanjaro in East Africa and there collect alpine equatorial flora. The results of this journey were significant botanically and linguistically. The Kilimanjaro Expedition, again with his own magnificent illustrations, appeared in 1886.

Civil Service Career

By late 1885 Johnston was on his way to the Bight of Biafra as vice-consul for the Oil Rivers and the Cameroons. He was Britain's overlord in the area. When King Ja Ja, the celebrated palm oil merchant of Opobo, proved antagonistic to the success of British traders, Johnston tricked and then forcibly ousted him. Johnston encouraged and perpetrated a number of similar acts of gunboat diplomacy on behalf of British imperialist expansion before returning home in 1888.

From 1889 to 1896 Johnston, as Her Majesty's commissioner and consul general for Mozambique and the Nyasa districts, created the nucleus of modern Malawi and personally articulated and directed the development of British energies in the trans-Zambezian regions of Central Africa. First in partnership with Cecil Rhodes and later with the help of Alfred Sharpe, Johnston's successor and the first governor of Nyasaland, he subdued the opposition of Africans to the white incursion, fought off the Portuguese, who claimed the region, and encouraged white settlement and agriculture.

After marrying Winifred Irby in 1896, Johnston was appointed consul general in Tunis. During the 2 years he spent there, his scholarly inclinations became more pronounced. He published British Central Africa (1897), the important record of his first proconsulship, and readied the first edition of what, in the second edition of 1913, became The Colonization of Africa.

From 1899 to 1901 Johnston created the basis of modern Uganda. Although the protectorate had been in existence for 7 years, he, as special commissioner and commander in chief, arranged the settlement of internal difficulties known as the Uganda Agreement. Johnston gave the Ganda, the dominant people in the southern sector of the country, considerable political and territorial advantages over the other hierarchically organized peoples of the protectorate.

For the remainder of his life, Johnston turned his energies to writing and scholarship. He completed a two-volume report on his last mission, The Uganda Protectorate (1902); wrote British Mammals (1903) and The Nile Quest (1903); after visits there, the two-volume Liberia (1906); a two-volume study of an influential Protestant missionary, George Grenfell and the Congo (1908); and the remarkably prescient The Negro and the New World (1910), a volume personally encouraged by President Theodore Roosevelt and based on a journey to the West Indies and the United States. Between 1919 and 1924, in addition to The Story of My Life (1923), he published six novels. His major work during this last phase of his life was the two-volume Comparative Study of the Bantu and Semi-Bantu Languages (1919, 1922), a taxonomic work of lasting, if now exceedingly controversial, value. Johnston died in 1927 near Worksop in Nottinghamshire.

Further Reading

In addition to Johnston's autobiography, there is a biography by his brother, Alex Johnston, The Life and Letters of Sir Harry Johnston (1929). The standard work is Roland Oliver, Sir Harry Johnston and the Scramble for Africa (1957). □

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Sir Harry Hamilton Johnston

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