Select an image to view larger version:

John Kirk photo detail
Livingstone's ship photo detail
Hippopotamus trap photo detail
Dar-es-Salaam photo detail
East Africans photo detail
Hahmed bin Mhuammed photo detail
Female retainers photo detail

The Kirk Papers is a collection of photographs and papers belonging to East Africa pioneer Sir John Kirk. It was acquired for the National Library of Scotland in 1998/1999 with the help of a grant of 55,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Though not as well-known as his friend and fellow-explorer David Livingstone, Kirk was a trail-blazer of empire in East Africa and a man of eminence in his day. Born in Barry, Angus, in 1832, Kirk qualified in medicine at Edinburgh University and then volunteered for medical service in the Crimea. An accomplished botanist, zoologist and diplomat, he was also a talented photographer. This is evident from the collection of over 250 photographs, many of them stunning.

Kirk acted as chief assistant to David Livingstone on the second Zambesi Expedition (1858-1863). A near-fatal accident in the Kebrabassa Rapids cost him a large amount of material and equipment, but a great deal remains: notebooks charting climactic and other conditions, detailed meteorological observations, a collection of photographs, including one of the 'Ma Robert' (the ill-fated ship used for part of the expedition), and one of Mrs Livingstone's grave, and a dramatic account in his own words of Kirk's experience at the Rapids when he was sucked under his overturned canoe. There are also 15 lengthy and fascinating letters from Livingstone himself.

Kirk spent 20 years as British Consul in Zanzibar, where perhaps his most important achievement was helping to end the cruel and disruptive slave trade there. His own letters to Charles Allen, Secretary of the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, are present and contain detailed accounts of many aspects of life in Zanzibar and of the slave trade. He reports fathers selling their children into slavery to pay for food: 'such a state of things attracts the human vultures'.

Also included in the collection are letters to Sir John in Arabic from the Sultan of Zanzibar and from Hamed bin Muhammed, a trader who made his fortune in the ivory and slave trade, as well as copies of Kirk's telegrams reporting events such as the murder of the Anglican Bishop Hannington and the creation of German East Africa (now Tanzania).

Inventory of Sir John Kirk's Papers (Acc.9942) (PDF: 18 pages; 133 KB)

National Library of Scotland logo