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The Rev Dr Robert Laws and missionary activity in Malawi, Tanzania and Zambia from the Scottish Foreign Missions Archive at the National Library of Scotland

Publisher's Note

In 1875 a mission was established towards the southern end of Lake Malawi at Cape Maclear in Nyasaland (now Malawi) by a group of Free Church of Scotland missionaries led by Lt E D Young and a young doctor named Robert Laws, with six other Europeans and four ex-slaves. The mission was called Livingstonia after David Livingstone, whose death in 1873 had rekindled British support for missions in East Africa.

Unfortunately the area was malarial and after a few years the mission was forced to move north to Bandawe and then again to healthier high ground between Lake Malawi and the Nyiaka Plateau in 1894. Dr Robert Laws had taken over the running of the mission in 1878 after the departure of Lt Young and he was to remain in charge for over 50 years. The mission station was set up on a beautiful site overlooking the lake and the mountains in Tanzania. The soil was good, there were forests for timber and there was a good supply of water. The mission gradually developed into a small town with a church, hospital, post office and workshops. The school offered facilities which encouraged pupils from as far afield as Zambia and Tanzania. Higher education began in 1895 and consisted of teacher and ministerial preparation classes and the Christian College produced graduates who were to become influential in many African countries. However on Law’s retirement higher education of Africans was not given the same level of priority and it was not until 2003 that a University was founded at Livingstonia.

Dr Robert Laws was born in 1851 near Aberdeen. He obtained a degree in Arts and Medicine at the University of Aberdeen, studied Divinity in Edinburgh and took medical classes in Glasgow. After qualifying as a doctor he worked in smallpox and fever hospitals in Glasgow and in 1875 was ordained by the United Presbyterian Presbytery of Aberdeen. He went to Africa with Lt Young to found the Livingstonia Mission in Nyasaland (now Malawi) in 1875. This journey inspired by David Livingstone involved navigating rivers which meant dismantling the ship and transporting it overland. He replaced Young in 1878 and was to remain head of the mission until he retired in 1927!

Over time he set up many educational, medical and social projects and after WW I encouraged the formation of Native Associations which were later, in 1938, to become the Nyasaland African National Congress. He managed to develop a Christian community of around 60,000 including African pastors and founded over 700 schools, which on his death were educating some 44,000 pupils. He was also for a time Principal of Overtoun College, Livingstonia and a deputy of the Hope Waddell Training Institution in Calabar, now in Nigeria. He was responsible for translating the New Testament into Nyanja, published an English-Nyanja dictionary, compiled a Gunda-English and English-Gunda vocabulary and published works in the Tonga language. He fought against the continuing Arab Slave Trade, helped to reconcile local tribes and played a leading role in educating and encouraging local individuals such as David Kaunda, whose son Kenneth was to become Zambia’s first president.

He married in 1879 and had a daughter Amelia. He was elected Moderator of the General Assembly of the United Free Church in 1908 and joined the Nyasaland Legislative Council in 1913. He was awarded various honours including election to the Royal Geographical Society in 1884, culminating in the Freedom of the City of Aberdeen in 1928. He died in London in 1934 and was buried in Aberdeen.

The papers held by the National Library of Scotland consist of:

• Letter Books of the Secretary, Rev John Fairley Daly of the Livingstonia Committee in Scotland, 1901-1934

• Letters from missionaries in Livingstonia to the secretaries of the Foreign Mission Committee, 1874-1926

• Letters to Dr Laws from other missionaries in Livingstonia, 1887-1896

• Private and official letters to Dr Laws from church officials, supporters of the mission and members of the Church of Scotland Mission at Blantyre, 1875-1900

• General letters concerning Livingstonia to the secretaries of the Foreign Mission Committee, 1874-1927

• Letter Book concerning Livingstonia Mission boxes, 1901-1906

• Journal by Dr Laws at Cape Maclear Mission, 1875-1876

• Journal written in various hands at Cape Maclear Mission, 1876-1880

• Journal by Dr Laws, Dr William Scott and Dr David Kerr Cross at Bandawe Mission, 1881, 1883-1887

• Journal written in various hands at Bandawe and Kanininga Missions, 1878-1879

• Minute Book of the Sub-Committee on the Livingstonia Mission, 1877-1890

• Minutes of the Livingstonia Sub-Committee, 1874-1899

• Papers and newspaper cuttings concerning Nyasaland, 1865, 1875-1903

• Accounts and financial papers mostly concerning expenditure in Livingstonia and dealings with the African Lakes Corporation, 1879-1895

These papers will provide researchers with excellent source material for the history of missionary activity in Malawi, Tanzania and Zambia and the growth of African nationalism at the beginning of the twentieth century.




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