Livingstone’s Pathfinder

At the east end of Ormiston Main Street in East Lothian, stands the obelisk which is a lasting memorial to perhaps the village’s most famous son. The monument, of Peterhead granite, rises to a height of some twenty feet, bears a bronze figurehead and the name Moffat.  Paid for by public subscription and unveiled in April 1885 in memory of Robert Moffat – someone who would bring lasting recognition to the village.

He was born in the village in December 1795, the son of a Customs Officer. It was that parental employment which moved the family from Ormiston to Portsoy in Banffshire when young Robert was only two years old – then later to Carronshore near Falkirk. They were still there when Robert, now aged ten, went to sea as a cabin boy on a coaster captained by a friend of his father. He only served for a year on that ship but it was  a welcome break from school and the ministrations of a heavy handed schoolmaster.

Robert returned to school for a relatively short spell until finally leaving to become an apprentice gardener in nearby Polmont. 1811 saw the entire Moffat family move yet again, this time to Inverkeithing in Fife where Robert continued his gardening employment  on the Aberdour estate of Lord Moray.

Two years later, he moved alone to Cheshire to become a gardener on the High Leigh estate because “England was where many Scotchmen find their way”  That certainly was true of Moffat but perhaps, initially, not in a way he had envisaged.  While employed at High Leigh, he encountered the Reverend William Roby, Director of the London Missionary Society, who was preaching in and around Manchester.  Roby had a tremendous influence on the young Scot and effectively was responsible for his conversion to Wesleyan Methodism. Thanks to his mother, Moffat was already a devout Christian, but his theological knowledge was greatly enhanced  by Roby.

Moffat was so impressed by the itinerant preacher, that he moved from High Leigh to yet another market garden at Dunkinfield so to easier facilitate attendance at Roby’s meetings – and his continued association with the latter undoubtedly motivated Moffat to become a missionary.

He was eventually accepted as a candidate by the London Missionary Society in 1816, at a time when he was also contemplating marriage to Mary Smith, the daughter of his Dunkinfield employer.

Mr Smith forbade that union on learning of Moffat’s imminent departure to the African continent so Robert set off alone and, in January of 1817, he arrived at Cape Town where from the outset he was at odds with the incumbent Dutch settlers who he considered to be exploiting and generally ill treating the natives.

Moffat learned the Dutch language to assist with his integration in South Afrtica, but soon set off, in September 1817, north overland to Namaqualand where he befriended the local Hottentot chieftain – who had been outlawed by the ruling Dutch settlers. He remained with the Hottentots for some months before setting off yet again, this time over the Kalahari Desert, first to Griquatown, then further north to Lattakoo on the Kuraman River.

During that early time in Africa he had, somehow, managed to keep in touch with Mary Smith who, having eventually obtained her father’s blessing, arrived at Cape Town  on 6 December 1819.  Moffat returned south to meet her off the ship and they were married three weeks later, before husband and wife set off north again into undeveloped Africa.

Initially, they set up a base at Mabotsa, before travelling another hundred miles to create what would become their permanent home at Kuraman, where the first of their ten children, Mary, was born in April 1821.

In the beginning the family experienced some tribal resistance to their presence at Kuraman and it was not until 1825 that the mission station was finally established and accepted by the locals – with whom Moffat could now converse in their own language. The fierce Matabele King, Moselekatse, was the overall local ruler but, on realising Moffat was fluent in Sechuana, was duly impressed – sufficiently to accept the incomer’s presence.

“Ma” Moffat and her husband began to create an oasis of civilisation in what previously had been a barbaric wilderness. His inherent horticultural skills proved very beneficial in fashioning, tilling and harvesting the now productive fields, from what had previously been rough bush land. They constructed a church with an eight hundred congregational capacity to provide for Moffat’s prime reason to be in Africa. Livestock was bred for food and, despite his calling, Moffat was not averse to using his rifle for the provision of food or, when necessary, self defence.

Another considerable indication of their dedicated presence in Africa is the fact that, over three decades, they translated the entire Bible, and to a lesser extent, John Bunyan’s Pilgrims Progress, into the Bechuana language.

They had a small rudimentary printing press at Kuraman, but it proved incapable of processing their translated manuscripts. They could not find a press suitable in Cape Town so, in 1839 the Moffats returned to England where they proved to be in much demand to preach and speak of their African experiences.

It was in 1840, while at home in Britain, that Moffat first met David Livingstone and was instrumental in persuading the man from Blantyre to become a missionary and explorer. In fact, when Livingstone made his first trip to Africa, he took with him five hundred copies of the New Testament which had been translated by the Moffats and successfully printed in London during 1840.

In 1842 Robert Moffat published his book Missionary Labours and Scenes in Southern Africa.  He and his wife returned to Africa in 1843 taking with them two thousand copies of the New Testament and ten thousand hymn books – in addition to their other successfully printed translations.  On their way back, they met again with Livingstone on the Vaal River and he returned with them to the base mission at Kuraman.

Other new  missions were now being established in places such as Matabele, Makololo and Inyati where they were being overseen by new enthusiastic missionaries who had arrived from London, often motivated by Moffat’s experiences.

Soon after his parents’ return,  young John Moffat set off with Livingstone on his travels to visit  other tribes and spread the Christian gospel. Livingston did not get far and returned to Kuraman with a broken thigh. He was nursed during that period of enforced inactivity by Moffat’s daughter Mary and, soon after, they were married.Livingstone became a widower relatively soon when his wife Mary was unfortunately drowned in the Zambezi river.

Moffat’s personal journals relating to Africa are contained in two large volumes. He was the first known white man in Southern Rhodesia and journeyed vast distances spreading God’s word.  During these travels he assiduously kept details of the fascinating flora, fauna and wildlife he encountered, which proved a revelation to his Victorian readers back home.

After fifty four years on the Dark Continent, during which they were responsible for many significant changes, ill health caused the Moffats to return home where they set up home in Brixton. Their son, John , remained in Africa to continue his father’s work but never saw his mother again as she died in 1871 at Brixton.

In 1873 David Livingstone died in Africa and his body was returned for interment in Westminster Abbey. Moffat was asked to formally identify his son in law which he did, including pointing out the broken thigh repaired many years previously at Kuraman. Moffat was also present at the 1876 unveiling of Livingstone’s statue in Princes Street Gardens, Edinburgh. He had audiences with Queen Victoria to discuss Africa and was granted a Doctor of Divinity Degree by Edinburgh University. In 1878, he was given the Freedom of London.

During the last four years of his life, Robert Moffat lived alone at Park Cottage, Leigh, in Kent where he tended a small garden. Unlike Livingstone he had a simple burial and was interred beside his faithful wife.

“The Grand Old Man of Missionary Work” – often known as God’s Gardener, sowed a rich legacy in the wilds of Africa among all denominations. His own direct descendants include a Law Lord, a Doctor of Medicine, Rhodesian farmers and Knights of the Realm; his grandson became Prime Minister of Southern Rhodesia.

Moffat has never been accorded the same degree of universal acclaim enjoyed by his son in law; yet his endeavours and accomplishments in Africa are arguably equal to anything achieved by David Livingstone.

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