The real 'John Ross'

2008-04-25 00:00

Charles Rawden Maclean was born in Fraserburgh on August 17, 1815. Like his father, a retired navy officer, Maclean looked to the sea for a career and was apprenticed to James Saunders King, captain of the Mary bound for southern Africa. He was not, as some accounts have it, a runaway who used a false name.

On September 30, 1825, while taking supplies to Port Natal (Durban), where Francis Farewell and Henry Francis Fynn had established a settlement the year before, the Mary was wrecked on the bar.

Maclean stayed in Natal until 1828, spending much of his time at KwaDukuza, the royal homestead of Zulu king Shaka kaSenzagakhona. “He kept me with him, first as a sort of rare pet animal, on whom he bestowed a large of amount of genuine kindness ... and latterly as a confidential companion,” wrote Maclean in a letter to 'The Times'.

In 1827 Maclean went on the journey that became associated with “John Ross”. He clearly attached little importance to the journey himself, briefly referring to it as “a six month’s absence on a long and somewhat perilous journey from Natal to Delagoa Bay”. Maclean

did not travel alone but with “Langalibalele ... a chief appointed by King Shaka, to command a party of 30 warriors charged with (my) escort”.

The legend of “John Ross” (and the name) comes from Nathanial Isaacs whose deliberately sensational Travels and Adventures in Eastern Africa (Natal) was published in 1836. Isaacs, one of the Port Natal settlers, wrote that “we were in want of many things which we might obtain from Delagoa Bay... among other necessaries, we were greatly in want of medicines — when John Ross, Lieutenant King’s apprentice, a lad of about 15 years of age, acute, shrewd and active, was appointed to go on the journey”.

Isaacs further embellishes the story for his English readers. “John Ross is, doubtless, the first European who ever accomplished a journey (by land) from Natal to Delagoa Bay and back. When I look at his youth and reflect on the country through which he had to pass, and that he had to penetrate through wild, inhospitable and savage tracks ... when I look at this, and also reflect that the whole surface of the country was infested with every species of wild and ferocious animal, and every venomous creature, all hostile to man, I cannot but conceive the journey of this lad as one that must be held as exceedingly bold, and wonderfully enterprising.”

Maclean left Port Natal at the end of 1828 and a decade later had become a sea captain operating from the sugar producing island of Saint Lucia in the West Indies.

In the early 1850s Natal became a topic of interest in Britain and Maclean began writing articles of his youthful experiences for The Nautical Magazine and Naval Chronicle. These were subsequently collated for publication in The Natal Papers of “John Ross” edited by Stephen Gray.

In his 50s Maclean retired and invested in a tiny steamship, Penelope. But the day after she was delivered Maclean fell asleep at the wheel and drove her on to rocks.

He never recovered financially from the disaster. Two smaller vessels that he owned were a constant drain on his finances and he took on multiple jobs and posts to make ends meet, sitting on various councils, education and health boards as well as being a magistrate and coroner.

In 1880 he was granted leave of absence for illness and while travelling to Britain died on board the RMS Larne just before she put in at Southampton.

So how did Maclean become “John Ross”? “The name was cooked up by Isaacs who called him ‘John Ross’ because he couldn’t remember his name,” explains Gray. “‘John Ross’ was a type: the Scottish sailor boy. Maclean thought the ‘John Ross’ legend was just silliness.”

“Maclean had a terrible enmity with Isaacs,” says Gray. “They couldn’t be two more contrasting characters. Maclean was so liberal-minded. He ran all his ships with freed black slaves and was often the only white aboard, whereas Isaacs bought an island off West Africa and kept slaving until the 1880s.”

Maclean’s letters to the press in Saint Lucia and an article in The British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Reporter in 1846 reveal him to be a man “who believed in human rights for all British subjects without regard to distinctions of race,” says Gray. “The theme of liberty colours everything he wrote to do with European-African affairs.”

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