John Kirk (explorer)

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John Kirk JohnKirk1908.jpg
John Kirk

Sir John Kirk, GCMG , KCB , FRS (19 December 1832 – 15 January 1922) was a physician, naturalist, companion to explorer David Livingstone, and British administrator in Zanzibar, where he was instrumental in ending the slave trade in that country, with the aid of his political assistant, Ali bin Saleh bin Nasser Al-Shaibani.


Early life and education

He was born on 19 December 1832 in Barry, Angus, near Arbroath, Scotland, and earned his medical degree from the University of Edinburgh, presenting his thesis 'On functional disease of the heart'. [1]


Kirk's daughter, Helen, married Major-General Henry Brooke Hagstromer Wright CB CMG, the brother of the famous bacteriologist and immunologist, Sir Almroth Edward Wright and of Sir Charles Theodore Hagberg Wright, Secretary and Librarian of London Library. Kirk's son Colonel John William Carnegie Kirk was author of A British Garden Flora. The engineer, Alexander Carnegie Kirk, was John Kirk's elder brother.



Dr Livingstone's ship the Ma Robert, photographed on the Zambesi at Lupata by John Kirk David Livingstone's ship 'Ma Robert' - Kirk Photo (5372890864).jpg
Dr Livingstone's ship the Ma Robert, photographed on the Zambesi at Lupata by John Kirk

From 1858 to 1864, John Kirk, accompanied by his assistant Ali bin Saleh bin Nasser Al-Shaibani, an Omani-born historian who lived in Zanzibar, worked with Dr David Livingstone on the Second Zambezi Expedition as a botanist. [2] [3] This visit later encouraged his work to end the East African slave trade, assisted by Al-Shaibani. In this trip, they visited the Zomba Plateau and Lake Chilwa in present-day Malawi, and in September 1859 he and Al-Shaibani accompanied Livingstone up the Shire River to Lake Malawi, which they explored by boat. [4] Kirk found Livingstone an inept leader and in 1862 wrote I can come to no other conclusion than that Dr. Livingstone is out of his mind and a most unsafe leader". [5]

The Kirk Range, which lies west of the Shire River and forms part of the Malawi-Mozambique border, is named after Kirk. [6]

In 1866, Livingstone began his next and final expedition, to find the source of the Nile, from Zanzibar. From Livingstone's subsequent correspondence during the expedition it seems that Kirk remained in Zanzibar and did not continue with the rest of the party. [7] After Livingstone's death in 1873, Kirk and Al-Shaibani pledged to continue his work to end the East African slave trade.

Visit to Somali lands

Kirk arrived in southern Somalia in 1873 during a period of great economic prosperity with the region being dominated by the Geledi Sultanate and the Hiraab Imamate. Trade between the ports of Mogadishu, Merca and the interior Geledi Sultanate flourished during Geledi Sultan Ahmed Yusuf's reign. Kirk noted a variety of other things. Roughly 20 large dhows were docked in both Mogadishu and Merka respectively filled with grain produced from the farms of the Geledi in the interior. Kirk met the Hirab Imam Mahmood who reigned over Mogadishu. The Shabelle river itself was referred to as the 'Geledi river' by Kirk, perhaps in respect of the sheer volume of produce that the Sultanate output. In Barawa there was little grain instead a large quantity of ivory and skins which had already been loaded onto ships destined for Zanzibar. [8] He stated that Sultan Ahmed Yusuf controlled a vast territory stretching from Mogadishu to the Jubba region and had 50,000 troops at his command. [9]


From his appointment in 1865 the British Consul in Zanzibar, Henry Adrian Churchill worked on the abolition of the slave trade on the island, however his heavy workload and the adverse climate took a toll on his health in 1869 and Kirk, who was his physician and Vice Consul, advised him to leave for London for the sake of his health. Churchill left in December 1870 leaving Kirk to undertake his duties as acting Consul. [10]

Kirk, together with his assistant, Ali bin Saleh Al-Shaibani, continued Churchill's work on the slave trade and in June 1873 he received simultaneous contradictory instructions from London on the Zanzibar slave trade, one to issue an ultimatum to Sultan Bargash, under threat of blockade that the slave trade should be stopped and the slave market closed, and the other not to enforce a blockade which might be taken as an act of war pushing Zanzibar towards French protection. Kirk only showed the first instruction to Barghash, who capitulated within two weeks. [11]

In August 1873 he was appointed British Consul in Zanzibar [12] and in 1875 was also appointed Consul in the Comoro Islands, [13] and in 1881 was appointed Consul general in Zanzibar, and made Al-Shaibani as his political advisor with the task of smoothing out tensions between the British and the Sultan of Zanzibar. [14] One of his Vice-Consuls, appointed in 1883, was Lieutenant Charles Stewart Smith, who had earlier served in the anti-slaving patrols launched from HMS London. For years he negotiated with Sultan Barghash, with the help of Al-Shaibany, gaining his confidence and promising to help enrich the East African domain through legitimate commerce. By 1885 the region was larger and more profitable. It is a role that Al-Shaibany proved to be crucial in aiding the British to reach a settlement with Sultan Barghash to abolish slavery in Zanzibar.

He was British Minister Plenipotentiary at the 1890 Slave Act Conference in Brussels. [15] [16]

Other interests


Kirk photographed many scenes and people during his travels in East Africa. Examples include "Hamed bin Muhammed, slave and ivory trader", "Female retainers of Swahili household in gala dress", and "A panoramic view of Zanzibar".


Ochna kirkii Ochna kirkii2.jpg
Ochna kirkii

He was a keen botanist throughout his life and published many papers from his findings in East Africa. He was highly regarded by successive directors of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew: William Hooker, Joseph Dalton Hooker and William Turner Thiselton-Dyer.

He introduced a very distinct and pretty species of orchid to the United Kingdom, subsequently named Angraecum scottianum . [17]


Kirkia which is a genus of plant in family Kirkiaceae. It was previously placed in family Simaroubaceae, but was transferred into Kirkiaceae, together with Pleiokirkia , it was published by Oliv. in Hooker's Icon. Pl. vol.11 on page 26 in 1868. [18]

Also, Gossypioides kirkii , a new species of cotton from East Tropical Africa, [19] Ochna kirkii, an evergreen shrub, and Uapaca kirkiana , a miombo woodland tree of southern Africa, [20] were named after him.


Kirk's red colobus of Zanzibar, Procolobus kirkii, taken at Jozani Forest, Zanzibar, Tanzania. Zanzibar Red Colobus Monkey.jpg
Kirk's red colobus of Zanzibar, Procolobus kirkii , taken at Jozani Forest, Zanzibar, Tanzania.

He studied the wildlife in East Africa and published many papers. He collected many birds from Zanzibar and East Africa. [21] In 1892, he was credited with the third largest elephant tusk among animal trophy hunters. [22]

He collected many specimens of Lake Malawi fish on the Zambezi expedition. [23]


According to sources, [24] Kirk first drew zoologists' attention to the Zanzibar red colobus, [25] which is also commonly known as Kirk's red colobus. This species, Procolobus kirkii, which is endemic to Zanzibar, is named after him.

Also, a species of African lizard, Agama kirkii , is named in his honour, [26] as is a species of African amphibian, Kirk's caecilian ( Scolecomorphus kirkii ) [27] and the fish Kirk's blenny (Alticus kirkii). [28] The Lake Malawi Cichlid fish Protomelas kirkii is named after Kirk.

Awards and decorations


He died on 15 January 1922 aged 89, and was buried in St. Nicholas' churchyard in Sevenoaks, Kent, England.


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  1. Kirk, John (1852). "Functional disease of the heart".{{cite journal}}: Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  2. The Zambezi Expedition 1859-1864 Royal Geographical Society
  3. "Livingstone's Zambezi Expedition". Archived from the original on 13 April 2017. Retrieved 3 September 2015.
  4. Kalinga, Owen J.M.(2012). Historical Dictionary of Malawi. Rowman & Littlefield, 2012. pp. 234-235.
  5. Wright, Ed (2008). Lost Explorers. Murdock Books. ISBN   978-1-74196-139-3.
  6. Kalinga, Owen J.M.(2012). Historical Dictionary of Malawi. Rowman & Littlefield, 2012. pp. 234-235.
  7. "The last journals of David Livingstone in Central Africa, from 1865 to his death", David Livingstone and Horace Waller. John Murray, 1874
  8. Kirk, John (1873). Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society of London, Volume 17; Volumes 1872-1873. Edward Stanford. p. 341.
  9. Kirk, John (1873). Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society of London, Volume 17; Volumes 1872-1873. Edward Stanford. p. 341.
  10. Further Papers respecting the Slave Trade on the East Coast of Africa and the System Pursued for its Suppression pp 31,57,59,60
  11. Lloyd, Christopher (1968). The Navy and the Slave Trade: The Suppression of the African Slave Trade in the Nineteenth Century. Abingdon-on-Thames: Routledge. pp. 264-268.
  12. The London Gazette 1 August 1873
  13. The London Gazette, 24 September 1875
  14. The London Gazette, 30 January 1880
  15. The London Gazette, 24 May 1892
  16. The London Gazette, 22 July 1890
  17. The orchid-grower's manual : containing descriptions of the best species and varieties of orchidaceous plants. Benjamin Samuel Williams, Victoria and Paradise Nurseries. 1885, p119
  18. "Kirkia Oliv". Plants of the World Online.
  19. The Gardeners Chronicle. 24 December 1881, p822
  20. Orwa C, A Mutua, Kindt R , Jamnadass R, S Anthony. 2009 Agroforestree Database:a tree reference and selection guide version 4.0 ( Archived 16 January 2009 at the Wayback Machine )
  21. The birds of Africa, comprising all the species which occur in the Ethiopian Region G E Shelley, London 1905
  22. Horn measurements and weights of the great game of the world: being a record for the use of sportsmen and naturalists Roland Ward, 1892
  23. Kalinga, Owen J.M.(2012). Historical Dictionary of Malawi. Rowman & Littlefield, 2012. pp. 234-235.
  24. "Kirk's red colobus, Procolobus kirkii". Archived from the original on 1 December 2012. Retrieved 28 November 2012.
  25. Inventory Acc.942 Papers of Sir John Kirk GCMB KCB and Lady Kirk née Helen Cooke. National Library of Scotland: Manuscripts Division.
  26. Beolens, Bo; Watkins, Michael; Grayson, Michael (2011). The Eponym Dictionary of Reptiles. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. xiii + 296 pp. ISBN   978-1-4214-0135-5. ("Kirk", p. 142).
  27. Beolens, Bo; Watkins, Michael; Grayson, Michael (22 April 2013). The Eponym Dictionary of Amphibians. Exeter, England: Pelagic Publishing. p. 186. ISBN   978-1-907807-42-8.
  28. Christopher Scharpf; Kenneth J. Lazara (26 October 2018). "Order BLENNIIFORMES: Family BLENNIIDAE". The ETYFish Project Fish Name Etymology Database. Christopher Scharpf and Kenneth J. Lazara. Retrieved 24 February 2019.
  29. International Plant Names Index.  J.Kirk.
  30. "List of Past Gold Medal Winners" (PDF). Royal Geographical Society. Archived from the original (PDF) on 27 September 2011. Retrieved 24 August 2015.

Further reading