My interest was rekindled by a visit to the newly reopened Livingstone Center in Blantyre. The exhibit, for the first time, highlights Dr Hismeh’s role in restoring contact with Dr David Livingstone in Ujiji near the shores of Lake Tanganyika on November 10, 1871.
Selim Hismeh was born in 1855 on the slopes of Mount Zion in Jerusalem into a Christian family.
The young Selim had to prove that he had a gift for languages and, finally, he found himself employed by Henry Morgan Stanley.
He came to Stanley’s attention on the island of Zanzibar aged 16 or 17. He is said to have learned English as the British increased their presence in East Africa. However, it is his knowledge of Arabic that makes him useful to Stanley.
Arabic was the most useful language in East Africa due to the slave trade, which Arabs had been involved in for many centuries. Many Africans learned Arabic and eventually a form of Arabic called Swahili evolved. Widely adopted, it allowed Africans to communicate with slave traders and other African tribes.
It is said that Selim was the first person to meet Dr. Livingstone who, at that time, in 1871, was in failing health; he died in 1873.
Selim was paid in 1872 when Henry Morgan Stanley reached Port Said; Stanley gave him £35 – the equivalent of around £13,000 today. Selim, having heard that Stanley earned a lot by lecturing, decided to go to America in 1881. His own lectures were well received, especially since he wore Arab dress.
In 1883 Selim Hismeh was living in Lanark where he studied to become a doctor at the University of Edinburgh. He got his license to practice but it didn’t bring him happiness.
He lived a fairly solitary existence in Lanark, dying at 197 High Street in his fifties on 29 June 1910. His death was witnessed by James Mackenzie who set his headstone in St Kentigern’s churchyard.