Mmegi Blogs :: George Fleming (1801-79)
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Friday 08 December 2017, 17:25 pm.
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George Fleming (1801-79)

As readers may recall, the earliest known African American visitor to Botswana was the pioneer trader explorer George Fleming.
By Jeff Ramsay Mon 04 Dec 2017, 17:19 pm (GMT +2)
Mmegi Blogs :: George Fleming (1801-79)








Between 1849 and 1856 he accompanied David Livingstone, William Cotton Oswell and others on four pioneering expeditions to Ngamiland and the Zambezi.

Recently this author was able to locate Fleming’s death certificate, which confirmed that he passed away on the 28th of August 1879 at the age of 78 in the Cape Town home of a certain Mr. Charles Claremont.

While the certificate further lists Fleming’s occupation “gentleman’s attendant,” it unfortunately provides few additional details, his place of birth being listed as “unknown.” And acso much basic information about the details Fleming’s life remains a mystery. What we do know so far is that arrived in Cape Town supposedly as a sailor from the West Indies.

In his correspondence Livingstone further claims that he had originally escaped from slavery in the USA. This dovetails with the fact that by the 1840s a distinct community of African-America seamen had established themselves in Cape Town, most of whom are said to have arrived aboard whaling vessels. Historian Bob Edger has thus noted:

“The earliest visitors were sailors who crewed American whalers that docked in ports such as Cape Town, Port Elizabeth and Durban. Some of these sailors, along with West Indians, settled permanently or for extended periods.”

A growing number of additional studies further reflect the fact that going to sea in general, and whaling in particular, was a preferred vocation for escaped slaves seeking to secure their freedom. During the first half of the 19th century up to 40% of all American whaling crews were black.

Little is, however, known of Fleming’s own circumstance before 1849 when he was hired as a cook by Oswell to take part in the first ‘European’ expedition to Lake Ngami, along with Livingstone and others. The journey was organized by Dikgosi Letsholathebe and Sechele, working with Oswell, to further promote the arms for ivory trade.    

In 1851, Fleming once more travelled with Oswell and Livingstone to Linyandi, which was then the headquarters of Kgosi Sebetwane’s Makololo kingdom.

The expedition had come about at Sebetwane’s invitation. Eager to make direct contact with Cape Colony merchants, a year earlier he had dispatched three parties of emissaries. One party brought 13 black cows to the Kgosi Sechele, another 13 brown cows to Kgosi Letsholathebe and the third 13 white cows to the Kgosi Sekgoma. 

Accompanying each of these gifts was a request that the three dikgosi allow the road to Linyandi to be opened to travellers from the Cape. In this respect, the Bafokeng turned Makololo ruler had observed with keen

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interest the growing power of his southern neighbours as a result of their acquisition of firearms.

In August 1851 Fleming, Livingstone and Oswell crossed what is now the eastern Caprivi to reach old Sesheke on the Zambezi from where they further explored the middle Zambezi. In so doing the party divided itself with Fleming and Oswell travelling eastward from the Chobe confluence, while Livingstone remained behind.

It is, therefore, not unlikely that Fleming was with Oswell, when the latter figure observed the position of Mosi-oa-Tunya (Victoria Falls), which he pinpointed on a map with the observation “spray seen at 10 miles.” This was just over four years prior to Livingstone’s so-called discovery in November 1855.

Encouraged by the commercial prospects he had encountered during the 1851 expedition, Fleming subsequently succeeded in obtaining financial backing from a Cape Town merchant named Howson Rutherford, in order to establish himself as an interior trader. In a letter to Oswell, Livingstone thus reported: “Your cook George Fleming proposes to go up country on his own account some months hence. Mr. Rutherford seems to approve of the plan and so I think will give him goods to trade with.”

Blakie further reports:  “It was Mr. Rutherford who, when Livingstone was at the Cape in 1852, entered into his plans for supplanting the slave-trade by lawful traffic, and at his suggestion engaged George Fleming to go north with him as a trader, and try the experiment.”

It was in this independent context that Fleming ultimately joined Livingstone in returning to the Makololo country in June 1853. The two parted in November 1853 with Fleming travelling back to Grahamstown with a profitable load of ivory.

Fleming’s final known expedition was in 1856 when he was entrusted by the London Missionary Society with the task of carrying supplies to Livingstone, whose exact whereabouts were by then unknown. The two were thereafter reunited at Quelimane in Mozambique. After a further journey to Mauritius, Fleming appears to have remained in Cape Town until his death.

While it is clear that a genuine bond of friendship existed between Fleming and Livingstone the latter’s obsession with taking credit for his supposed ‘discoveries’ along with racial prejudice and the absence of any writings by Fleming himself, has served to obscure his legacy.

NB: The correct location of Mosi-oa-Tuna was between 1851-52 reflected in maps drawn by Oswell and Livingstone, guided by local sources, which were further copied by Anderson, Galton and others, notably including in William Cooley’s 1852 publication “Inner Africa Laid Open.”

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