RGS East Africa Expedition 1878-80

Royal Geographical Society Expedition to East Africa
1878-80 led by Keith Johnston & Joseph Thomson
(and the search for the Grave of Scottish Cartographer, Keith Johnston)

Diary Extract – Maps & Images  – Photos – Slide Show  –  Retracing the Route and Grave search 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004
Publications – Bibliography and Map References –  NEW Selous Book

Website created by Mike Shand & Jim McCarthy (UPDATE IN PROGRESS)

Keith Johnston

The Diary of Keith Johnston

Transcribed with Explanatory Notes by James McCarthy
(RSGS unpublished 2000* – see extract)

Perhaps the only remaining unpublished expedition diary of a l9th century explorer, this describes the last journey of the Scottish cartographer who died in Tanzania in 1879.  Keith Johnston was the son of Alexander Keith Johnston of the distinguished Edinburgh map-making firm of W & A K Johnston. He was appointed leader of the Royal Geographical Society East Africa Expedition to find a feasible route from Dar-es-Salaam to the Central African Lakes and spent some months in Zanzibar carefully organising his caravan. However within a few weeks travel in the interior he succumbed to fatal dysentery at the age of 34.

The expedition was taken over by another Scot, Joseph Thomson, who at the age of 21 successfully completed the journey to Lake Nyasa and Lake Tanganyika and went on to become a famous African explorer, notable for the first European crossing of Masailand. Thomson buried his leader under a tree on which he carved Johnston’s initials and the date of his death (28 June 1879) just outside the village of Beho Beho north of the Rufiji River in Southern Tanzania. Beho Beho (Behobeho; Beo Beo; Bero Bero) lies in the northernmost portion of the vast Selous Game Reserve, not far from the grave of Frederick Courteney Selous, the famous hunter and conservationist who the reserve was named after.

As Map Curator to the Royal Geographical Society in 1872, Keith Johnston was a responsible for the verification, interpretation and drawing of maps from the exploration surveys of famous African explorers of the day such as Livingstone, Stanley, Burton, Speke and Grant, in particular the mapping of the Source of the Nile.  Today, Keith Johnston is almost unknown within the fields of geography and cartography and his grave has been lost in the mists of time.

Jim McCarthy has written a biography of the explorer/cartographer Keith Johnston and retraced some of the 1879 route in the summer of 2001 with Mike Shand in an attempt to relocate the gravesite of Keith Johnston, as marked on a 1900 German Map.  Mike Shand revisited Behobeho again in 2002 to continue the search and  made a third attempt to find the lost gravestone in October 2003 still with no success.  A further expedition in November 2004 is currently being considered (see below).  The original gravesite as sketched by William Beardall, was subsequently marked by a large inscribed horizontal Swedish granite gravestone near the original Behobeho village (also named Kwa Mahinda).

Jim McCarthy and Mike Shand would be pleased to hear from anyone who has knowledge of this subject or the area around Beho Beho in the Selous, particularily the location of the former villages of Chiefs’ Mbago, Mgogo and Mahinda.
Contact Mike Shand at: Mike.Shand@glasgow.ac.uk

Jim McCarthy has recently written a Biography of Keith Johnston and was published by Whittles Publishing in 2004.  Further details about the contents of the book and ordering information can be found on the Whittles Publishing website. The book is also available by Order through  BookSource
32 Finlas Street, Glasgow,
G22 5DU, UK.
Customer services: 0870 2402 182
Tel: +44(0)141-558-1366
Fax: +44(0)141-557-0189
Email: orders@booksource.net

SEARCHING FOR THE GRAVE OF KEITH JOHNSTON (putting Keith Johnston back on the map)
(2001 – 2002 – 2003 – 2004)
Mike Shand & Jim McCarthy

(incorporating links to PUBLICATIONS)

March 2001 – Expedition to Dar es Salaam, Zanzibar and Behobeho
Plans are being finalised at present to retrace the route taken by Keith Johnston, Joseph Thomson and their 1879 East Africa Expedition from Zanzibar via Dar es Salaam to Behobeho in Southern Tanzania.  It is proposed that the trip to retrace the route will be undertaken by writer and conservationist James McCarthy and cartographer Mike Shand as far as the Selous Game Reserve.  During the final part of the route from the famous Sand Rivers Lodge to Behobeho, with the assistance of John Corse, (Sand Rivers Lodge Manager and Nomad Safari Guide), an attempt will be made to locate the gravesite and final resting place of Keith Johnston. The search will be concentrated on the gravesite marked on a 1900 German Map and its possible location as identified on  modern Tanzania topographic maps and satellite images.  Reference will also be made to the original route maps made by Keith Johnston and Joseph Thomson kindly made available by Francis Herbert of the Royal Geographical Society.   Modern technology, by way of a Garmin e-Trex Global Positioning System (GPS),  kindly supplied by Colin Nicol of the Glasgow Outdoor Experience (Graham Tiso Ltd), will also be adopted to retrace and map the route from Sand Rivers to Behobeho and assist in locating the gravesite.  The project has been supported by the Selous Game Reserve through the Tanzania Wildlife Division Park Manager Benson Kibonde, Selous Conservation Programme (SCP) and GTZ staff Rolf Baldus and Ludwig Siege.  If time permits an attempt will also be made to climb  Hatambula (Mt. Johnston), the highest mountain in the Selous, following the route taken by Joseph Thomson in his aborted attempt to reach the summit and name the mountain after his leader Keith Johnston.

July 2001- The search for the grave at Beho Beho  (see SLIDE SHOW)
In July 2001 Jim McCarthy & Mike Shand successfully completed the retracing the route of the 1879 East Africa Expedition from Zanzibar via Dar es Salaam to Behobeho in Southern Tanzania.  At Beho Beho with the assistance of John Corse (Sand Rivers),  the area of the gravesite was identified and located within 1-2 sq. kms. with GPS equipment,  the actual gravestone of Keith Johnston was unfortunately not found (partly due to time contraints) and remains to be rediscovered by a future more thorough expedition.  A successful attempt was also made to climb Hatambula (Mt. Johnston), the highest mountain in the Selous, following the route taken by Joseph Thomson in his aborted attempt to reach the summit and name the mountain after his leader Keith Johnston.
PUBLICATIONS  A full illustrated report of the 2001 expedition has been prepared by Jim McCarthy who is also writing the Biography of Keith Johnston.  An article on the Death of Keith Johnston by Jim McCarthy has subsequently been published in the November 2001 issue of the Dar Guide and contains some details of the 2001 expedition.  Click to download or view the Adobe Acrobat version of the November 2001 Dar Guide article (NOTE: File is  2Mb in size) “Keith Johnston – A Forgotton Hero”.

April 2002 – Stranded on the shores of Lake Nyasa
In April 2002 Mike Shand continued on the path of the 1879 East Africa Expedition picking up the route from the Selous Game Reserve and successfully continuing onwards to reach the shores of Lake Nyasa (Lake Malawi) at Matema Beach (where he was stranded by flooding for almost a week – not unlike the problems found by the original 1879 expedition).   Thanks go to Guy Grall (Philips Medical) and Roger Studer (BoST Tour Operator – Best of Southern Tanzania) for there valued assistance and friendship which allowed Mike to return safely to Dar es Salaam.
PUBLICATIONS  A fully illustrated report of the 2002 expedition is currently being prepared by Mike Shand, a paper Death of a Cartographer – in Darkest Africa was presented at the Society of Cartographers annual meeting in September 2002 and will be published in due course.  A PowerPoint Presentation of this paper can be viewed or downloaded. NOTE: File is 11.5Mb in size.  DOWNLOAD now.

October 2002 – Return to Beho Beho
Following a meeting in April 2002 in Tanzania between Mike Shand, John Corse (Chai Bora, TATEPA), Rolf Baldus (GTZ)and Ludwig Siege (GTZ-SCP), the seeds were sown for a second attempt on rediscovering the gravestone of cartographer Keith Johnston during the 2002 dry season around late October time.  The expedition with logistical support by the Tanzania Wildlife Division and the Selous Game Reserve was undertaken during 16-21 October 2002 and covered more of the search area, but still with no success in finding the gravestone.  What we did find was lion, hyena, elephant and buffalo as near neighbours and our bodies shared by well over 150 bush ticks, tsetse fly and mosquito bites.  We also found some pottery evidence from the former villages and a German WW1 water botle.
An article by Rolf Baldus (GTZ) on the 2002 expedition is now available online (in German or in automatically translated English).  An English version of this article is to be published in the magazine “African Travel”.

April 2003
Keith “, by Jonathan Falla.  An article published inScotland on Sundaymagazine 6 April 2003.   Read online article or web page.

May 2003
Search for Scot who charted the Nile by Liam McDougall.  An excellent article published in theSunday Herald” 11 May 2003.   Read online article or web page.

June 2003
“Two Eminent Scottish Cartographers: The Johnstons” by James McCarthy.  Published in Cairt“, the Newsletter of the Scottish Maps Forum, Issue 3, June 2003, available from the National Library of Scotland website.  Download or View the extract as an Adobe Acrobat file (571kb).

Autumn 2003
“Journey into Africa – searching for Keith Johnston” by James McCarthy.  Published in Folio 7, Autumn 2003, a free journal available from the National Library of Scotland website.  Download or View the extract as an Adobe Acrobat file (736 kb).

October 2003
Into Africa in search of Scots hero by Cameron Simpson.  An article relating to the forthcoming 2003 Expedition by Mike Shand and published in theThe Herald” 6 October 2003.   Read online article.  Also featured on BBC Radio Scotland’s newpaper review.

Oct./Nov. 2003 – Final expedition to Beho Beho ?
Further research by Mike Shand into the location of the grave of Keith Johnston or the location of the former villages of Behobeho continues.  Survey records, topographic mapping and aerial photographs by the Directorate of Overseas Survey (DOS) used during the 1950’s and 60’s are currently being investigated for information on the deserted villages at Beho Beho and nearby Hatambula (Mt. Johnston).  The survey records and maps of German geologist Bornhardt from 1897 are also being investigated, Bornhardt was the last recorded person to have seen the gravestone.  Other sources currently being investigated are the 1914-18 WWI British and German records for East Africa, in particular those relating to the Battle at Beho Beho in which the great Africa hunter F.C. Selous was killed.  A third expedition to Beho Beho by Mike Shand will take place in Oct./Nov. 2003 to complete the search of the gravesite location and hopefully find the grave.  The 2003 Expedition has been supported by research grants from the Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland and the British Cartographic Society.  Proposals for a film documentary of the Life and Death of Keith Johnston are also currently being considered by Creative Touch Films for National Geographic International.

The project has been fully supported by the Selous Game Reserve through the Tanzania Wildlife Division Director Mr. E.L.M. Severre andPark Manager Mr Benson Kibonde, the Selous Conservation Programme (SCP) and GTZ expert staff Dr Rolf Baldus and Dr Ludwig Siege.  Thanks also go to Spike Williamson, Doug and Angie MacDonald and their staff at the Beho Beho Safari Camp for their assistance and friendship during the recent expedition and to my younger brother David Shand from Findhorn for his logistical and personal support.  The co-operation of all concerned is greatly appreciated.  See 2004 UPDATES below.

UPDATE – November 2003
For those enquiring there is an update by Cameron Simpson, The Herald 18 November 2003, on my recent expedition to Tanzania.
See: Article in The Herald.Full scientific report with photographs and video clips to follow.

February 2004
“Journey into Africa” The Life and Death of Keith Johnston by James McCarthy.  Published by Whittles Publishing 2004.
Further details about the contents of the book and ordering information can be found on the Whittles Publishing website.
The book is also available by Order through BookSource Email: orders@booksource.net

April 2004
Death of a Cartographer in Darkest Africa …. searching for the grave of Keith Johnston, by Mike Shand.
Download or view article as an Acrobat ‘pdf’ file – size 127kb.
Also available from ‘Maplines’, (Volume 10, issue 1, April 2004) forthcoming Newsletter of the British Cartographic Society.

May 2004
During the 2003 expedition an old poacher, who I have established saw the grave in 1940’s-50’s, has supplied vital leads as to the location of Chief Mbago’s village where Keith Johnston died.  Other new leads continue to surface regarding the search for the grave of Keith Johnston.  A new recording of a sighting of the gravestone has been identified in a personal travel diary from 1899 published in 1912 by German traveller Kurt Pfund,  “Kreuz und quer durch Deutschostafrika “. Thanks to researchers Lorne Larson and Thaddeus Sunseri for this information, which is now being eagerly followed up.

I have not given up the search for Keith Johnston’s grave, I am now considering a ‘final’ search with ground-penetrating radar during the 2004 dry season and am actively seeking funding to support a fourth expedition to Beho Beho.  I hope that one day I will find the lost grave of Keith Johnston and finally put him ‘back on the map’.

December 2004
Unfortunately the 2004 expedition was once again unsuccessful.  With the cost of accessing ground-penetrating radar being prohibitive it was back to digging and probing, but to no avail.  We did however find many more interesting artefacts from the former villages of Beho Beho, including mud brickwork, pottery, glass beads, a metal button and a Victorian coin.  Consideration is now being given to placing a memorial plaque near the location of Chief Mbago’s village.  Some good news however, I have finally put Keith Johnston ‘back on the map’.   The name Hatambulwa (Mt Johnston) has been reinstated on a new ‘Visitor’s Map of the Selous – north of the Rufiji’  which I have recently produced  in collaboration with Rolf Baldus and Ludwig Siege of GTZ and the staff of the Tanzania Wildlife Division (click for extract).  It appears not to be my destiny to find Keith Johnston’s gravestone, however one day the African bush may give up some of its secrets and reveal the location of the grave, if so I will return to Beho Beho.

The project has again been fully supported by the Selous Game Reserve through the Tanzania Wildlife Division Director Mr. E.L.M. Severre andPark Manager Mr Benson Kibonde and GTZ expert  Dr Rolf Baldus.  Thanks also go to Doug, Maretha, Rita, Spike and Zephania and staff at the superb Beho Beho Safari Camp for their assistance and friendship during the 2004 expedition.


In due course I propose to prepare a scientific paper on ‘The Search for the Grave of Keith Johnston’ detailing the research to date and the four expeditions to Beho Beho and have it published as part of the Selous Discussion Paper series.  A collaborative attempt is also being considered to seek funding and investigate the options for placing a memorial plaque to Keith Johnston at Beho Beho.
A Book Chapter on the Keith Johnston grave search expeditions by Mike Shand will also appear in a major new and authorative book on the Selous Game Reserve by Rolf Baldus entitled “Wild Heart of Africa – The Selous Game Reserve in Tanzania”.  The book is due to be published by Rowland Ward in March 2009.  CLICK HERE to preview publication and order online.

Further information relating to the gravestone of Keith Johnston at Beho Beho from an old German Diary, has come to light  through contact with Fritz Klingholz from Bavaria, Germany.  His Grandfather Prof. Dr. Friedrich (Fritz) Klingholz (1861-1921), an Architect, was Deputy Planning Director to the Imperial  Government of German East Africa for the rehabilitation of Dar es Salaam (including his expert area, station buildings) from 1893-1895.  Fritz has informed me that his Grandfather kept a daily diary of his safari from Dar es Salaam to Kisaki and Beho Beho during the period  November-December 1894.  The diary entry for Beho Beho on 6 December 1894 describes Beho Beho as an abandoned village in an interesting area with large anthills and huge mosquitos.  The (very significant) grave of Keith Johnston is described as being of marble (granite) and appearing as “very romantic”.  His Grandfather also states that he took some photographs towards evening, Fritz is now in search of prints or glass plates taken at Beho Beho that may include photographs of the gravestone.


1.  Location Map of Behobeho showing part of the Route taken by the RGS East Africa Expedition (based on Digital Atlas of  Tanzania by Mike Shand).

2.  Old German Map (1900) showing location of the gravesite of Keith Johnston.

3.  Extract from the original route maps  of Keith Johnston and Joseph Thomson drawn during the expedition (from the RGS archives).

4.  The final  RGS maps of the Expedition as published in the RGS proceedings..
           Dar es Salaam -Lake Nyasa.  Click for High resolution or Low resolution copy.
            The complete route Dar es Salaam – L. Nyasa – L. Tanganyika – Tabora – Bagamoyo.   Click for High resolution or Low resolution copy.

5.  Combined satellite and map partly compiled from the Selous Travel Guide produced by the  GTZ  – Selous Conservation Programme.
Click for High resolution or Low resolution copy.

6.  Engraved drawings of the gravesite and Behobeho village  from The Illustrated London News 27 March 1880, based on sketches by William Beardall who visited the grave in 1879 during a preliminary survey of the Rufiji River.

7.  Photograph of the RGS bronze medal awarded to the East Africa Expedition by the Royal Geographical Society.


1.  Extracts from the Diary of Keith Johnston.
2.  Extract from Joseph Thomson’s Report to the Royal Geographical Society.
3.  Extract from Recollections of the Johnston Family by Grace Johnston.

* The transcription of the diary (Acc.No. 11937) was held by the National Library of Scotland (NLS) on behalf of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society (RSGS).  The assistance of Dr. David Munro (RSGS) and Diana Webster (NLS) in making the diary available is greatly appreciated.


BIBLIOGRAPHY and Map References

Bibliographic references to the RGS East Africa Expedition.

Carto-bibliography to follow.

Updated February 2019

GIS Cartographer:

Mike Shand,
University of Glasgow

E-mail:  Mike.Shand@glasgow.ac.uk

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