My African Journey, Winston Churchill
My African Journey
Winston Churchill
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Winston Churchill, in addition to his careers of soldier and politician, was a prolific writer under the pen name 'Winston S. Churchill'. Churchill's fictional output included one novel and a short story, but his main output comprised non-fiction. My African Journey, a story of his travels in Kenya and Uganda, was published in 1908. The book includes descriptions of the countryside and the insects, birds and animals that Churchill encountered, descriptions of both the Uganda Railway and the Victoria and Albert Railway.

My African Journey

Winston Churchill

Mr. Churchill and the Rhinoceros at Simba.Frontispiece.Mr. Churchill and the Rhinoceros at Simba.Frontispiece.


In so far as the collection of information is concerned, the advantages of travel may often be over-stated. So much has been written, so many facts are upon record about every country, even the most remote, that a judicious and persevering study of existing materials would no doubt enable a reader to fill himself with knowledge almost to repletion without leaving his chair. But for the formation of opinion, for the stirring and enlivenment of thought, and for the discernment of colour and proportion, the gifts of travel, especially of travel on foot, are priceless. It was with the design and in the hope of securing such prizes, that I undertook last year the pilgrimage of which these pages give account. I cannot tell whether I have succeeded in winning them; and still less whether, if won, they are transferable. I therefore view these letters with a modest eye. They were written mainly in long hot Uganda afternoons, after the day’s march was done. The larger portion has already appeared in the Strand Magazine, and what has been added was necessary to complete the story.

They present a continuous narrative of the lighter side of what was to me a very delightful and inspiring journey; and it is in the hope that they may vivify and fortify the interest of the British people in the wonderful estates they have recently acquired in the northeastern quarter of Africa, that I offer them in a connected form to the indulgence of the public.

Winston Spencer Churchill

London, 1908.

Chapter I
The Uganda Railway

The aspect of Mombasa as she rises from the sea and clothes herself with form and colour at the swift approach of the ship is alluring and even delicious. But to appreciate all these charms the traveller should come from the North. He should see the hot stones of Malta, baking and glistening on a steel-blue Mediterranean. He should visit the Island of Cyprus before the autumn rains have revived the soil, when the Messaoria Plain is one broad wilderness of dust, when every tree — be it only a thorn-bush — is an heirloom, and every drop of water is a jewel. He should walk for two hours at midday in the streets of Port Said. He should thread the long red furrow of the Suez Canal, and swelter through the trough of the Red Sea. He should pass a day among the cinders of Aden, and a week among the scorched rocks and stones of Northern Somaliland; and then, after five days of open sea, his eye and mind will be prepared to salute with feelings of grateful delight these shores of vivid and exuberant green. On every side is vegetation, moist, tumultuous, and varied. Great trees, clad in dense foliage, shrouded in creepers, springing from beds of verdure, thrust themselves through the undergrowth; palms laced together by flowering trailers; every kind of tropical plant that lives by rain and sunshine; high waving grass, brilliant patches of purple bougainvillea, and in the midst, dotted about, scarcely keeping their heads above the fertile flood of Nature, the red-roofed houses of the town and port of Mombasa.


The vessel follows a channel twisting away between high bluffs, and finds a secure anchorage, land-locked, in forty feet of water at a stone’s throw from the shore. Here we are arrived at the gate of British East Africa; and more, at the outlet and debouchment of all the trade of all the countries that lap the Victoria and Albert Lakes and the head-waters of the Nile. Along the pier now being built at Kilindini, the harbour of Mombasa Island, must flow, at any rate for many years, the main stream of East and Central African commerce. Whatever may be the produce which civilized government and enterprise will draw from the enormous territories between Southern Abyssinia and Lake Tanganyika, between Lake Rudolf and Ruenzori, as far west as the head-streams of the Congo, as far north as the Lado enclave; whatever may be the needs and demands of the numerous populations comprised within those limits, it is along the unpretentious jetty of Kilindini that the whole traffic must pass.

For Kilindini (or Mombasa, as I may be permitted to call it) is the starting-point of one of the most romantic and most wonderful railways in the world. The two iron streaks of rail that wind away among the hills and foliage of Mombasa Island do not break their smooth monotony until, after piercing Equatorial forests, stretching across immense prairies, and climbing almost to the level of the European snow-line, they pause — and that only for a time — upon the edges of the Great Lake. And thus is made a sure, swift road along which the white man and all that he brings with him, for good or ill, may penetrate into the heart of Africa as easily and safely as he may travel from London to Vienna.

Short has been the life, many the vicissitudes, of the Uganda Railway. The adventurous enterprise of a Liberal Government, it was soon exposed, disowned, to the merciless criticism of its parents. Adopted as a cherished foundling by the Conservative party, it almost perished from mismanagement in their hands. Nearly ten thousand pounds a mile were expended upon its construction; and so eager were all parties to be done with it and its expense that, instead of pursuing its proper and natural route across the plateau to the deep waters of Port Victoria, it fell by the way into the shallow gulf of Kavirondo, lucky to get so far. It is easy to censure, it is impossible not to criticize, the administrative mistakes and miscalculations which tarnished and nearly marred a brilliant conception. But it is still more easy, as one traverses in forty-eight hours countries which ten years ago would have baffled the toilsome marches of many weeks, to underrate the difficulties in which unavoidable ignorance and astonishing conditions plunged the pioneers. The British art of “muddling through” is here seen in one of its finest expositions. Through everything — through the forests, through the ravines, through troops of marauding lions, through famine, through war, through five years of excoriating Parliamentary debate, muddled and marched the railway; and here at last, in some more or less effective fashion, is it arrived at its goal. Other nations project Central African railways as lightly and as easily as they lay down naval programmes; but here is a railway, like the British Fleet, “in being” — not a paper plan or an airy dream, but an iron fact grinding along through the jungle and the plain, waking with its whistles the silences of the Nyanza, and startling the tribes out of their primordial nakedness with “Americani” piece goods made in Lancashire.

Let us, then, without waiting in Mombasa longer than is necessary to wish it well and to admire the fertility and promise of the coastal region, ascend this railway from the sea to the lake. And first, what a road it is! Everything is in apple-pie order. The track is smoothed and weeded and ballasted as if it were the London and North-Western. Every telegraph-post has its number; every mile, every hundred yards, every change of gradient has its mark; not in soft wood, to feed the white ant, but in hard, well-painted iron. Constant labour has steadily improved the grades and curves of the permanent-way, and the train — one of those comfortable, practical Indian trains — rolls along as evenly as upon a European line.

Nor should it be supposed that this high standard of maintenance is not warranted by the present financial position of the line. The Uganda Railway is already doing what it was never expected within any reasonable period to do. It is paying its way. It is beginning to yield a profit — albeit a small profit — upon its capital charge. Projected solely as a political railway to reach Uganda, and to secure British predominance upon the Upper Nile, it has already achieved a commercial value. Instead of the annual deficits upon working expenses which were regularly anticipated by those most competent to judge, there is already a substantial profit of nearly eighty thousand pounds a year. And this is but the beginning, and an imperfect beginning; for at present the line is only a trunk, without its necessary limbs and feeders, without its deep-water head at Kilindini, without its full tale of steamers on the lake; above all, without its natural and necessary extension to the Albert Nyanza.

On the Cow-catcher.(Mr. Currie, Mr. Marsh, Col. Wilson, Sir J. Hayes-Sadler, Mr. Churchill.)On the Cow-catcher.(Mr. Currie, Mr. Marsh, Col. Wilson, Sir J. Hayes-Sadler, Mr. Churchill.)

We may divide the journey into four main stages — the jungles, the plains, the mountains, and the lake, for the lake is an essential part of the railway, and a natural and inexpensive extension to its length. In the early morning, then, we start from Mombasa Station, taking our places upon an ordinary garden seat fastened on to the cow-catcher of the engine, from which position the whole country can be seen. For a quarter of an hour we are still upon Mombasa Island, and then the train, crossing the intervening channel by a long iron bridge, addresses itself in earnest to the continent of Africa. Into these vast regions the line winds perseveringly upon a stiff up-grade, and the land unfolds itself ridge after ridge and valley after valley, till soon, with one farewell glance at the sea and at the fighting-tops of His Majesty’s ship Venus rising queerly amid the palms, we are embraced and engulfed completely. All day long the train runs upward and westward, through broken and undulating ground clad and encumbered with super-abundant vegetation. Beautiful birds and butterflies fly from tree to tree and flower to flower. Deep, ragged gorges, filled by streams in flood, open out far below us through glades of palms and creeper-covered trees. Here and there, at intervals, which will become shorter every year, are plantations of rubber, fibre, and cotton, the beginnings of those inexhaustible supplies which will one day meet the yet unmeasured demand of Europe for those indispensable commodities. Every few miles are little trim stations, with their water-tanks, signals, ticket-offices, and flower-beds complete and all of a pattern, backed by impenetrable bush. In brief one slender thread of scientific civilization, of order, authority, and arrangement, drawn across the primeval chaos of the world.

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