Great Churchmen No. 22
First Bishop of Eastern Equatorial Africa
Published by Church Book Room Press
June, 1883, found James Hannington once more on English soil, and great was the rejoicing of his family and friends—especially those at Hurstpierpoint and at the C.M.S. headquarters in Salisbury Square—as they greeted the missionary who had lain, more than once, at death’s very door. But it need hardly be said that in the mind of “the one that turned back” (as he once sorrowfully, described himself) there was ever present the fervent hope of a speedy return to Africa. And although at first the Medical Board of the C.M.S. were emphatic in their opinion that the Dark Continent must never again be the scene of his labours, his wonderful constitution, his fiery zeal and his earnest prayers combined to make it that, in the April of 1884 Sir Joseph Fayrer, the eminent specialist and climatologist, considered that Hannington could safely return to Africa. This verdict was encouraging enough, but equally heartening was the intelligence that a scheme whereby the Mission Churches of Eastern Equatorial Africa should be placed under the supervision of a Bishop was about to be consummated. Archbishop Benson had viewed this plan with cordial sympathy, and, recognizing that the new office demanded a man of “dauntless personal courage, tact, spirituality of mind, and prompt, business-like habits—a man who coupled gentleness with a strong personality”, the Committee of the C.M.S. naturally considered that Hannington possessed the high qualities necessary for this position. The matter was accordingly laid before him and, after long and fervent prayer, Hannington interpreted the invitation as a God-sent one. On June 24th, 1884 (St. John the Baptist’s Day), he was consecrated in the Parish Church of St. Mary’s, Lambeth, and on November 5th, 1884, Bishop Hannington and his Chaplain (the Rev. E. A. Fitch) boarded the Nepaul for the first stage of their outward journey.
Now began Hannington’s labours as the first Bishop of Eastern Equatorial Africa, wherein he dedicated all his efforts, with a devotion that was unsparing and an energy that was indefatigable, to the cause of Christ and the Mission. “Africa must be won for Christ,” he declared, just before he set out on his Kilima-Njaro and Chagga expedition in the spring of 1885, and he added: “And so I go forward, the Lord being my helper, to endeavour to open up the country of the Masai.” It was the sorry and hunger-stricken plight of the members of the Mission Station at Taita, that lay some two hundred miles from the coast, that led Hannington, in the first instance, to make the difficult and dangerous journey across the arid Taro Desert in order that he might himself observe the condition of the isolated little flock and relieve their acute distress. On February 25th, 1885, he joined the caravan of advance porters at Bandera, from which place the party ascended to the Mission Station at Rabai. Here he stayed for the few remaining days of the month, consolidating his plans for the march into the interior, preaching to over-flowing congregations and administering Holy Communion. On March 2nd, after united prayer and regretful farewells, the party again set their faces towards Taita. Through sterile Duruma and the dreaded and almost waterless Taro Plain they toiled until they came to the foot of Taita Hill where an arduous climb of 3,000 feet awaited them. Silent and deserted villages spoke only too plainly of famine and of attacks by roving and predatory tribes. Arrived at Taita they found that pioneering missionary, Mr. Wray, “in a state of semi-siege” and semi-starvation, and exposed to attack by the Wa-Kamba. It was at once evident that the Station could not, as matters then stood, be continued. His people were accordingly sent to Rabai while Wray himself accompanied Hannington’s caravan on its north-westward march.
Eastertide of 1885 found the party at Taveta, “a most beautiful and fascinating place (wrote Hannington), with its groves and streams, and a kindly and hospitable people making the stranger welcome to their forest home.” The return journey to the coast was started on April 13th, the Bishop taking with him a company of the half-starved Wa-Taita, who, that night, offered their grateful prayers to God as they gathered round their camp fire. Mercifully, they crossed the waterless desert between Maungu and Taro without undue suffering and the good Bishop brought his retinue safely to Rabai. (The remainder were to follow later, under the charge of Wray.) On arriving at Frere Town Hannington wrote: “I have to praise God for one of the most successful journeys, as a journey, that I ever took. For myself, too, I have enjoyed most excellent health almost the whole way, during a tramp of four hundred miles. May its result be the planting of the Cross of Christ on Kilima-Njaro!”
That prayer has been abundantly answered.
The tireless zeal, the restless energy of Hannington did not allow him long to rest, but almost immediately he was off again—this time to visit the station at Kamlikeni, north of Frere Town. The middle of May found Hannington back in Frere Town, where, on the 31st (Trinity Sunday) he held a memorable service at which the first two natives of East Africa (both of whom were one-time slaves) were ordained. “I can hardly tell you,” wrote the Bishop, “how greatly privileged I feel in thus having been permitted to ordain the first native ministers of our infant East African Church. The foundations of a native ministry have now been laid. I call most earnestly upon all the children of God to pray for these men, that they may be kept humble and zealous workers in God’s vineyard, and that they may be made winners of souls.”
On the first of June the Bishop embarked on the mission steamer Henry Wright for Zanzibar in order to make preparations for a second journey to Chagga, where he wished to establish Mr. Wray and his Chaplain, the Rev. E. A. Fitch, and to found a station at Moschi. On the 13th he was back in Frere Town holding his first African Confirmation. At 6.30 a.m. thirty-three candidates, men and women, presented themselves, and at the celebration of the Holy Communion, which followed, seventy people, including the newly-confirmed, took the Holy Sacrament. At noon on the same day, after prayer, the Bishop and his party set out again for the interior, and on the following day, at Rabai, he held his second Ordination in East Africa, the Rev. W. E. Taylor preaching the sermon in Kiswahili.
Taita was reached on June 22nd. The Bishop now decided to send Wray and Fitch forward to the carefully-selected mission sites at Chagga, while he himself returned to the coast to make full preparations for his great journey to the Lake. Starting from Ndara on June 24th (the first anniversary of his Consecration) he arrived at Rabai, to the utter amazement of his friends there, early on the 27th having walked 120 miles in three days and half an hour! Nor would he linger here, for, hearing of an important matter that demanded his instant attention, “I walked (he says) another five miles to the boat, and a row of three hours brought me safe and sound to Frere Town.”
Enthusiasm for the new way into Uganda from the northeast marked the Bishop’s correspondence at this time. “If this route be opened up,” he wrote to Mr. Wigram, “our work will be much more centralized. We could then work all our caravans from Frere Town and Rabai.” In a later letter he says: “As to future policy, I look forward with longing eyes to a Station in the heart of the Masai country . . . but for this we are not yet ripe”—and he added characteristically: “I am afraid you will repent you of your Bishop, or at least wish that you had clipped one of his wings and shod his feet with leaden soles; but I say, while I have health and strength, let me spend it in this work. May I therefore crave even more energy and more prayer on our behalf at Home?”