Robert Moffat of Ormiston and Africa

Robert Moffat DD (1795 – 1883)

Robert Moffat of Ormiston and Africa

Robert Moffat of Ormiston and Africa

Robert Moffat was born at Ormiston on 21 December 1795 to Robert and Ann Gardener. His mother’s family had been gardeners by profession in the locality for some generations. Robert’s father’s origins are less clear but he was soon to take up with the custom-service, relocating the family to Portsoy when Robert was two. They moved again to Carronshore, on the Forth (around 1806) – and very shortly thereafter Robert ran off to sea!

However, he was shortly back home and became apprenticed as a gardener. As he followed his trade he found himself at High Leigh, in Cheshire. Robert had already been strongly influenced by the faith of his mother; now he ventured further and developed a strong interest in Methodism. This took him to Manchester in pursuit of a newly awakened interest in missionary work. While working as a nursery gardener, he prepared himself for overseas work – which took three years.

On the 18th October 1816, Robert was one of five missionaries dispatched to Southern Africa, arriving at Cape Town on 17 January 1817. His first lodging was in Stellenbosch, just 35 miles from Cape Town, where he learnt Dutch. The following year he headed north beyond the boundaries of the Cape Colony. The succeeding years were the beginnings of a life amongst the African communities. The missionaries preached, but also built school and hospitals and laboured to improve agriculture and relations between different groups. Remarkably, Robert was joined by Mary Smith, the daughter of his Manchester employer. They married in Cape Town at the end of December 1819.

This early period in Africa was beset with problems, both from the authorities at the Cape and through the practicalities of establishing missions far beyond any sustainable supply chain. Although preaching and conversion were the stated objects of the missionary movement those that survived best were educators and exemplars first and foremost. Robert became renowned as a blacksmith and carpenter, as well as exercising his skills in gardening and husbandry. The object was to stabilise the communities in which he and the other missionaries worked, because the area was then in a state of flux dominated by mass migrations and inter-community warfare, in part a result of the societies’ dependence on slavery. Robert found that one of his most effective roles was as a neutral negotiator, with the object of protecting the area around his mission.  Over the years he extended his expertise into linguistics, writing and publishing. He communicated papers to the Royal Geographical Society and in 1842 (during his one period of leave in the UK) published a book on his family’s experiences – he and Mary had 10 children.

On the family’s return to Africa his eldest daughter Mary, a teacher in the mission school, met and married David Livingstone. Like her mother Mary went with her new husband, at least on his earlier journeys. However, as he ranged further afield she spent more time in England and Africa looking after their children. Mary died in 1862 at the mouth of the Zambezi, where she had been waiting for her husband.

Robert meanwhile worked on at Kuruman, his main base, until 1870. By this time he was one of the longest-serving missionaries. Several of his and Mary’s children had predeceased them, many of their companions had died of disease, accident and violence. His superiors had long felt it was time for him to go home – and finally he agreed.

monument to Robert Moffat, Ormiston

monument to Robert Moffat, Ormiston

Robert, Mary, and their youngest daughter returned to England in July 1870. Robert paid a visit to Scotland (and his Livingstone grandchildren in Glasgow) but Mary was failing. She died at Brixton at the end of the year. Robert threw himself into publicising the work he and his colleagues were undertaking. He wrote, published and addressed meetings across the country – successfully attracting large donations to the Missionary Society. One of these events was at Winton Castle, where he was the guest of Lady Ruthven. He also preached at Ormiston Church and sought out surviving relations. From his base in Brixton he kept up his work until just before his death – meeting prime ministers and Queen Victoria and being awarded a degree from Edinburgh University (1872).

Robert died on 10 August 1883. In East Lothian plans for a memorial were instituted, subscriptions came in, and in 1885 the memorial was unveiled in the presence of John Moffat, Robert’s son.




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