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McCarthy, James, Journey into Africa, the Life and Death of Keith Johnston, Scottish Cartographer and Explorer (1844-1879).

Whittles Publishing, Caithness, 2004. viii+248pp, index, illustrations. ISBN 1-904445-01-2. pb, 24x17cm, 35.00 [pounds sterling]. Available in Australia from DA Information Services, email:

Alexander Keith Johnston fils, (hereafter Keith) the titular subject of this book, was the only surviving son of Alexander Keith Johnston pere (hereafter Alexander), one half of the notable Scottish cartographic business of W. & A.K. Johnston. The Johnston family business was founded by the brothers William (later Sir) and Alexander in 1826, and rapidly gained fame, being appointed engravers to King William IV in 1834, and to Queen Victoria from 1837. Sir William held the office of Lord Provost of Edinburgh from 1844 to 1851. Sir Julius Haast (geologist and Surveyor General of Canterbury) even named the Johnston Range (now Mt Cook) in New Zealand after the family, the name appearing in print only in the Johnston firm's own atlases.

After training as a draughtsman with Stanford's, Keith Johnston was elected a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society (R.G.S.) in 1868 at the age of 24. He then headed the geography section of W. & A.K. Johnston's London office from 1869, but he was not business-minded enough to be particularly successful. By 1872, having published several geographical papers, he was appointed as assistant curator and draughtsman at the R.G.S. on the recommendation of Sir Francis Galton. The next year he was commissioned by the Paraguayan government to survey the boundary with Brazil, after the disastrous War of the Triple Alliance (1864-70), which had seen 90% of Paraguayan males killed in a war that that country had suicidally initiated against not only Brazil but also Uruguay and Argentina. The Paraguayan government, operating on the infamous 'manana' system, never paid Keith, who escaped the country by canoe, losing most of his equipment and notes, in a capsize that he was lucky to survive. With his remaining possessions embargoed by the Paraguayans, Keith was forced to sleep on park benches in Montevideo, his friends and family eventually securing him a ticket back to England in 1875.

Undaunted by this misadventure, in 1878 Keith managed to secure the leadership of what would be the last R.G.S.-sponsored African expedition, an attempt to discover a viable route for a road from the East African coast inland to the great African lakes. Captain James Frederick Elton, the vice-consul at Zanzibar from 1873, had set out on a similar mission, but had died on the return leg of his expedition to Lake Nyasa in 1877. Keith was to be accompanied by the 21-year-old Joseph Thompson, but the two did not get on, Keith's quiet scientific intelligence exasperated by his companion's gung-ho attitude.

After spending time in Aden, and then several months in Zanzibar outfitting the expedition, Keith and Thompson set off from Dar Es Salaam on 19 May 1879. On 28 June, only 40 days later, and less than 150 km from Dar Es Salaam, Keith was dead from dysentery, leaving the 150-man expedition in the hands of the bewildered 21-year-old Thompson. Thompson, subsequently the first European to traverse Masailand, went on to become an African explorer to rank with Livingstone and Stanley, even though he also died young, at 37. Keith Johnston meanwhile has been almost forgotten.

This new book seeks to redress this imbalance, and its author has already transcribed (but not published) Keith's journal of the expedition (McCarthy, 2000). Keith Johnston's short life is certainly interesting, and McCarthy tells it fairly well. However the book feels somewhat padded. Of its 235 or so pages, the first 50 detail the lives of Sir William and Alexander Johnston, and the family firm. Like Sterne's Tristram Shandy, the hero of the tale is not even born until well into the book, page 55 in this case. Keith's early life is covered well, but the Paraguayan adventure receives only 10 pages, which seems far too little. Perhaps the source material on this part of Keith's life is too scanty, certainly most of his notes from the survey were lost in the canoe capsize, and his diary may have been illegible.

Keith's own sister refers to transcribing this diary as "crewel work ... written in very minute characters with unstable republican ink" (p.142). Yet the lack of even a map of this part of South America showing the places mentioned, and in particular the route of Keith's flight by boat to Uruguay, is disappointing. The African expedition, from its inception in London until the death of Keith, occupies the remaining 135 pages of the main text, and as the central focus of the book, is also the best written and illustrated section. Particularly fascinating is the information on the motivations (and pay rates) of expedition porters, the description of squalid Zanzibar (Livingstone referred to it as 'Stinkibar'), and the contrasts between the various other African explorers of this time, particularly Burton, Livingstone and the alternately feted and hated Stanley: "Damn public opinion--the fellow has done no geography!" (p.64 quoting Markham, Secretary of the R.G.S.). A couple of appendices add further life to the story of the expedition, giving the number and prices of the instruments carried, and a detailed list, again with prices, of Thompson's personal equipment, which included 3 pairs of pyjamas, 6 merino vests, 6 towels and 12 handkerchiefs! A typical entry from Keith's expedition diary is also given, showing his meticulous approach to the need for scientific data and measurement: he notes changes in direction of the 150-man expedition as often as every five minutes!

The book is illustrated with extracts from a few period maps of Africa and East Africa, along with a number of photographs, many taken by the author during his days as a surveyor in Tanzania in the 1960s or during his 2001 attempt to locate Keith's grave near Mt Hatambula. There are even some photographs taken by Keith Johnston himself in Africa.

An index rounds off the book, but strangely, it contains not a single entry for Joseph Thompson!

There are several minor errors in the text itself. On p.24, an 1804 guidebook map of Scotland is claimed to be at a scale of 11 inches to 1 mile, rather than 11 miles to 1 inch. On p.112, reference is made to "1.10 shillings (i.e. 1.50 pence)", which is a queer phrasing for a British book. Surely "1 [pounds sterling]/10/-(i.e. 1.50 [pounds sterling])" would have been better? And on p.203, the 1879 death of the French Prince Imperial in Zululand is described as being "in battle". In fact the rash prince was killed in an ambush while out on reconnaissance, after pulling rank on the more cautious British officer he was accompanying (Farwell, 1974). Much more glaring, particularly for a book about a cartographer, is the map showing the route of the expedition up until Keith's death. It suffers from several defects. The originally planned route is not shown (Keith changed the R.G.S.'s suggested route after arriving in Zanzibar), it does not show the full extent of Thompson's continuation of the expedition (a dotted line falls off the western edge of the map), and the use of several different colours of dots to locate various towns is not explained. But worst of all, the scale bar given is completely inaccurate, being almost four times too short for the 200km distance it is meant to represent!

Overall, it is an interesting book, and an enjoyable read, especially once the book's hero is born. However, given the price of this 250-page paperback, I hesitate to recommend its purchase except by libraries, who will be further disappointed that there is no hardback version.


Farwell, Byron, (1974), Queen Victoria's Little Wars, Victorian & Modern History Book Club.

McCarthy, J. (ed.), (2000), The 1878-80 Royal Geographical Society Expedition to East Africa: The Diary of Keith Johnston. Transcribed with Explanatory Notes, National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh.

Dr Brendan Whyte

The University of Melbourne
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Author:Whyte, Brendan
Publication:The Globe
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 1, 2004
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