The Maltese explorer who discovered Obama’s tribe
James Martin – The Maltese Adventurer
Author: Mark Pullicino Publisher: Mpi Publishing UK, 2013 Extent: 221 pp
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.