Later Victorian Portraits Catalogue

Sir Harry Hamilton Johnston (1858-1927), Explorer and colonial administrator

Traveller, colonial administrator and artist; born 12 June 1858, in London. Studied languages at King’s College London and art at the Royal Academy Schools 1876; following a visit to Tunisia 1879–80 accompanied a hunting expedition to Angola, then travelled with Henry Morton Stanley; elected Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society 1883; led a scientific expedition to Kilimanjaro 1884–5; British vice-consul in the Niger delta and Cameroon region of West Africa; as African advisor to Prime Minister Lord Salisbury aimed to extend British interests ‘from the Cape to Cairo’ (Johnston’s phrase) in conjunction with Cecil Rhodes; commissioner for Nyasaland (Malawi) 1891–6; knighted 1896; served in Uganda 1899–1901; sought unsuccessfully to enter parliament; travelled in East Africa and the Caribbean; published books on imperial policy in Africa and some Dickensian novels; exhibited at the RA; died 31 July 1927 near Worksop. His collection of maps, papers, reports, photographs and drawings is held by the RGS, London.

‘With a figure apparently frail and almost boyish in its slightness, and a fair, gentle, sweet and almost shy expression, [he] looks the very opposite of the dauntless and inflexible explorer,’ according to one contemporary.[1] A diplomatic colleague wrote that Johnston had added 400,000 square miles to the British Empire through his ‘extraordinarily active and versatile intelligence, untiring industry and great personal energy and courage’.[2] Later assessments are less admiring, calling him ‘a social Darwinist’ and judging his contributions to natural science more notable than those to colonial politics.[3] His brother and private secretary Alex described him as ‘a many-sided man of strong will and convictions’ whose wit and vehemence often alienated others.[4]

Dr Jan Marsh

Footnotesback to top

1) T.P. O’Connor, review of Johnston 1897, Graphic, 17 July 1897, p.114.
2) Olivier 1937, writing from personal knowledge.
3) Oliver 2004.
4) Johnston 1929, p.10.

Referencesback to top

Johnston 1929
Johnston, A., The Life and Letters of Sir Harry Johnston, London, 1929.

Johnston 1897
Johnston, H.H., British Central Africa, London and New York, 1897.

Johnston 1923
Johnston, H.H., The Story of My Life, London, 1923.

Marsh 1897
Marsh, C., ed., South African Portrait Gallery, London and New York, 1897.

Milsome 1958
Milsome, J.R., ‘Sir Harry Johnston: Explorer’, West African Review, vol.29, 1958, p.503.

Oliver 1957
Oliver, R., Sir Harry Johnston and the Scramble for Africa, London, 1957.

Oliver 2004
Oliver, R., ‘Johnston, Sir Henry Hamilton (1858–1927)’, ODNB, Oxford, 2004; online ed., January 2008.

Olivier 1937
Olivier, S., ‘Johnston, Sir Harry Hamilton (1858–1927)’, DNB, Oxford, 1937.

Weinthal 1923
Weinthal, L., The Story of the Cape to Cairo Railway and River Route, from 1887 to 1922, 5 vols, London, 1923.