The Mal­tese ex­plorer who dis­cov­ered Obama’s tribe

James Martin – The Mal­tese Ad­ven­turer

Malta Independent - - FRONT PAGE -

Au­thor: Mark Pul­li­cino Pub­lisher: Mpi Pub­lish­ing UK, 2013 Ex­tent: 221 pp

Noel Grima

His ac­tual name was An­to­nio Mar­tini, later Angli­cised to James or Jimmy Martin, born in Marsa in 1857 to Mal­tese par­ents. His fa­ther had em­i­grated from Italy in his youth and was a sea­man, more abroad on ships than at home.

This book is the story of his ad­ven­tur­ous life. To cut a long story short, he was the ad­ven­turer, the first white man who made con­tact with the Luo tribe in 1883. Ex­actly a year later, Hus­sein Ony­gango Obama was born. His gen­er­a­tion would be the first one to take ad­van­tage of the op­por­tu­ni­ties the white men brought with them and his grand­son would be­come the 44th Pres­i­dent of the United States, Barack Obama.

James Martin is also the founder of Nairobi. Prior to 1896, the place was known sim­ply as Martin’s camp. At that time he was su­per­vis­ing the es­tab­lish­ment of the first rail­way in that area and his camp was the spot where the fu­ture rail­way sta­tion would be. It was in Septem­ber 1896 that the place was first called Nairobi.

This is a de­light­ful book that in­stead of giv­ing the bare facts, also pro­vides the con­text while adding many di­gres­sions and telling other sto­ries.

Jimmy was a highly in­tel­li­gent child, but he was dys­lec­tic. As a small child he at­tended the lo­cal skola tan-nuna but it soon be­came clear he could not cope and his fam­ily was too poor to pro­vide pri­vate tu­ition. The last time Jimmy at­tended school was when he was seven years old.

How­ever he com­pen­sated for dys­lexia in a won­der­ful way. Later on, he would be­come an ac­com­plished lin­guist – he learned lan­guages rapidly and ended up speak­ing a wide va­ri­ety of them – some­thing which would en­able him to learn the di­alects of East Africa.

As a young boy out of school, and with a fa­ther sea­man, he was daily to be found around the Grand Har­bour, ad­mir­ing the many ships that came in.

He also came in con­tact with other sea­men, such as Guze Rug­gier (or Angli­cised to Joe Rogers), an­other sea­man from Marsa who be­came a hero for sav­ing many peo­ple in the ship­wreck of the Royal Char­ter off the rocks of Wales in 1859 for which he was awarded a gold medal and also a men­tion by Charles Dick­ens in The Un­com­mer­cial Trav­eller.

Jimmy’s first job was as an ap­pren­tice to a sail­maker. It was in this ca­pac­ity that he was sent to de­liver a sam­ple to Barunissa de Piro in her palace in Val­letta – an­other di­gres­sion where he en­tered a very dif­fer­ent world – a world of no­bil­ity, speak­ing in Ital­ian, liv­ing at ease. This world was light waves away from his en­vi­ron­ment.

(In­ter­est­ingly, the au­thor di­gresses fur­ther to speak about Paolo Pul­li­cino, maybe a rel­a­tive, known as ‘the fa­ther of Mal­tese ed­u­ca­tion.)

Jimmy’s way out of poverty lay in the sea – he en­rolled as a sea­man, aged just 16. His name was changed by his mates and he trav­elled all over the world.

But then, dis­as­ter struck. His ship was ship­wrecked in the Red Sea but by luck he was picked up by HMS Lon­don and taken to Aden. He re­sumed his trav­els but later made his way to Zanz­ibar. Once again, he was ship­wrecked but once again he was saved by the Royal Navy.

Just as Malta then was the en­try point to North Africa and Egypt, so too Zanz­ibar was the en­try point to Eastern Africa at a time when this was be­ing opened up. Dr David Liv­ing­stone had just died and there was huge in­ter­est in the area by many Euro­peans.

Jimmy came un­der the spell of Africa. Hence­forth, he would stop sea­far­ing and he would never re­turn to Malta. He was sent by the Church Mis­sion­ary So­ci­ety to help out in Fr­ere­town to cope with Africans who had es­caped slav­ery.

His ex­tra­or­di­nary gift for lan­guages meant he quickly learned the main di­alects of that area and his easy-go­ing com­mu­nica­tive char­ac­ter en­abled him to make friends with many heads­men of tribes.

On one of his fre­quent vis­its to Zanz­ibar, Jimmy met ex­plorer Joseph Thom­son and to­gether they ex­plored the area be­tween Mount Kil­i­man­jaro and Lake Vic­to­ria, an area pop­u­lated by the wild and bel­li­cose Maa­sai tribe.

Once the ex­pe­di­tion was over, Jimmy set­tled in a camp but he was soon in­un­dated with re­quests to ac­com­pany English­men ei­ther on sa­fari ex­pe­di­tions with game hunt­ing in­ten­tions or to ac­com­pany trades­men on trips.

But the sit­u­a­tion in Europe was heat­ing up (soon af­ter 1900) and East Africa was caught in the re­ver­ber­a­tions as the Ger­mans be­came as keen as the English to es­tab­lish a foothold there.

In June 1894, the British gov­ern­ment had taken over the du­ties, re­spon­si­bil­i­ties and obli­ga­tions of the British East Africa Com­pany and Jimmy found him­self ap­pointed as District Of­fi­cer of the Uganda Ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Mean­while he had fallen in love with the daugh­ter of the lo­cal doc­tor, Por­tuguese Maria Au­gusta Elvira de Souza, and mar­ried her in 1896.

This was the time when the great rail­way line was be­ing built to open up East Africa. Jimmy’s task was the re­cruit­ment of lo­cal labour, which shot up from the ini­tial 2,600 to over 30,000.

His ex­tremely var­ied life was draw­ing to an end. He came to trou­ble over his trad­ing ac­tiv­i­ties on the side and he was eased out of his post and sent to build an of­fi­cial sta­tion on one of the is­lands in Lake Vic­to­ria. It was an un­happy pe­riod for him, plagued by the lake’s flies and mosquitos.

Re­prieved, he was sent to En­tebbe on the shores of Lake Vic­to­ria as a district of­fi­cer. But his use­ful­ness had eclipsed. His younger of­fi­cers rel­ished re­count­ing the many in­ge­nious ways in which he cir­cum­vented his il­lit­er­acy and dys­lexia and all his fel­low ad­min­is­tra­tors were uni­ver­sity-trained ver­bal thinkers, ex­cept him.

So af­ter the Great War, in which he did his bit for Bri­tain, al­though ba­si­cally Bri­tain and Ger­many ground to a stale­mate in East Africa, he mi­grated to Por­tu­gal where his wife’s fam­ily lived. He died in 1925 and was buried in Lis­bon.

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