Analog Photographer, Printmaker

The Calotypes of Sir John Kirk: Zambesi

Sir John Kirk is best known as a British diplomat who was hugely influential in finally ending the slave trade in East Africa, during his many years spent as British Consul in Zanzibar. If you want to know more about his life in this respect then read the superb book “The Last Slave Market” by Alastair Hazell which is really excellent.

Kirk was also an accomplished photographer, preferring calotype to collodion because of the climatic conditions he found himself in. He accompanied David Livingstone on his Zambesi expedition (1858 – 1864) and took his camera and chemicals and made calotype images along the way. The official expedition photographer was Charles Livingstone, brother of the explorer. Charles Livingstone was a deeply unpleasant character. He was supposed to be the expedition photographer but had no experience in photography having only learned the technique of wet collodion in the weeks before the expedition. However, he seems to have had quite an influence over his brother and was malicious and lazy. Few of his images have survived despite his having sold his collodion plates to the Foreign & Colonial Office on his return.

In contrast, quite a few calotypes by Sir John Kirk survive. To my mind the most striking image is of the Elephant Marsh in Malawi (a print of which is held by the National Library of Scotland and is one of my favourite calotypes from the nineteenth-century). The expedition travelled up the Shire river (pronounced Shee-Raay) and “discovered” Lakes Shirwa and Niassa.

The plan is to head off up to Caia and then go left along the Zambesi. Today, Caia can be reached by car along the EN1 road from Maputo in two days. I don’t plan to take a boat up the Zambesi, that would be fun though. I plan to drive a route from Caia upriver, getting as close as I can to the original Livingstone-Kirk routes and to go into Malawi and visit the Elephant Marsh and make a calotype along the same lines of that made by Kirk, as a homage to the man. Obviously I need to make up enough calotype paper to do justice to the endeavour but I will be taking a red ice-fishing tent (the Eskimo QuickFish 3) within which to develop my negatives on the road. As I plan to use dry processes (Pélegry and/or Baldus) I could just wait until I returned to Maputo but ideally I’d like to see the results in the field.

I have a copy of Kirk’s Journal from the Zambesi expedition which was written for the private use of his family but contains frank observations about the Livingstone brothers and other people he came across.

I managed to find a first-edition of Livingstone’s account of the Zambesi expedition, “Narrative of an Expedition To The Zambesi And Its Tributaries…”, published by John Murray in London in 1865. The great thing about this copy of the book is that it still contains the original highly detailed map of the routes they took.

It also has a beautiful front cover which pretty much says it all (note the Portuguese guy on the far right – he’s originally from the Alentejo judging by the cork-cutter’s axe):

Livingstone's Account of the Zambesi Expedition (1858-1864)

Livingstone’s Account of the Zambesi Expedition (1858-1864)

And here is the map legend, followed by a scan of only part of the full map, showing the Elephant Marsh:



Part of Livingstone's Map of Zambesi Expedition

Part of Livingstone’s Map of Zambesi Expedition

The black arrow indicates the location of the Elephant Marsh.

I was reminded, as I scanned the map, that this particular book ought really be in the care of the a library.