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Joseph Forsyth-Ingram (1862 - 1923)

Biographical Notes by Charles W. Cowey
From Poems of a Pioneer, by J. Forsyth Ingram, F.R.G.S.
The accompanying volume is composed of selections from the writings and correspondence of one whose life, as far as it has gone, has been crowded with incident and adventure.

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JOSEPH FORSYTH INGRAM, better known, perhaps, by his nom-de-plume of "ODEAN," was born at Belfast, on the 7th of October, 1858. Shortly after his birth his family migrated to Scotland, where the first nine years of the future traveller's life were spent.

In 1864-5 financial ruin, owing to the American War crisis, overtook the Ingram family, and the father, Mr. DANIEL INGRAM, who appears to have been a man of courage and determination, resolved to emigrate, and endeavour to build up his fortunes in a new land, where wider scope and more desperate chances were within reach of those who had the courage to face them.

After wavering for some time in the selection of a future field, the die was cast in favour of South Africa. Chartering a brigantine named the "Lone Star," the family, which consisted of four daughters, three sons, the father, mother, and Mr. THOMAS DAWSON, a son-in-law, set out. At this period such an undertaking required a considerable amount of self-reliance, for the voyage to South Africa meant six months on the high seas. After an adventurous time, during which the vessel was shattered by storms and well-nigh overwhelmed, they arrived in Natal, and settled in the vicinity of Durban.

The financial depression, however, had become world-wide, and Natal was no exception to other lands. Stagnation, poverty, and hopelessness were the portions even of old-established colonists. With his resources crippled by losses at sea, and in a land absolutely without scope of any description, it is not to be wondered at that after four years’ manful struggle the father’s health gave way and he succumbed, leaving his family almost unprovided for on a thirty-acre farm near the Little Umhlanga River, in County Victoria.

A volume might well be written on the struggles of this period, for, as we have said, the bulk of the colonists were poverty-stricken and almost as helpless as the widow and her family. Owing to her indomitable courage and ceaseless devotion to her charge, a few years were tided over, when the subject of this sketch, then a mere lad, went out to seek his own living, and contribute, as much as possible, towards the upkeep of the home.

After four years of country store life at Blackburn, a hamlet in the same county, he commenced his career of adventure, which speedily led him, prior to the Zulu War, into the heart of Zululand, where he became a favourite with the people. Now as a trader, now as a landscape artist, and anon as a newspaper correspondent, he won his way into almost every corner of South Africa, visited and learned the languages of many tribes, and by his published descriptions served to open up avenues of traffic to the cramped and poverty-stricken traders of the Portuguese and English settlements.

As his age increased, so did his field of labour, and after serving through the Zulu and Boer Wars—obtaining a medal for the former—we find him, in 1882, deep in Pondoland. Having described the Umzimvubu (now known as the St. John’s River), and interviewed the King and Chiefs in successful endeavours to ensure security to traders, he returned to Natal, and setting out for Swaziland, spent over fifteen months at the Great Place of King Umbandine. During this period the Boers were most energetic in their endeavours to secure territorial rights in that country.

The presence of an English correspondent at the King’s Kraal was irksome to them, and on more than one occasion Mr. INGRAM’S life was in considerable danger at the hands of the filibusters and adventurers of the frontiers. Owing to the friendliness of the nation, he escaped harm, and succeeded in reporting the state of the affairs to the Commissioner (Col. CARDEW), as he had been requested to do. The King at the same time, through him appealed to the British Government for help—an appeal which, by the way, has only lately been, in a measure, attended to, and that after repeated petitions.

Prior to his visit to Swaziland but little was authoritatively known of the physical features of the country, and the habits and customs of the brave and ingenious people who inhabit it. Full accounts of his explorations and successes appeared in the columns of the Natal Mercury, and also in many other journals throughout British South Africa, England, and America.

In the light of subsequent events, every line in these valuable contributions to the knowledge of the wilder parts of South Africa has been proved to be most correct and reliable, while the effect of his life and example on the hordes of semi-hostile savages tended in no small measure to establish the good feeling now existent between the black and white races of the country.

Returning from Swaziland to Natal, Mr. INGRAM made his first journey up the East Coast as far as Delagoa Bay. A few months later he set out for the far East, and in the course of his journeys through Portuguese Africa succeeded in casting much light on many hitherto but little known regions.

Everywhere it was his custom, acquired, probably, through a close boyish friendship with the late Mr. THOMAS BAINES, F.R.G.S., to endeavour to secure the goodwill of the native chiefs and tribes, who treated him, almost invariably, with distinguished kindness. Alone and unaided, financially or otherwise, Mr. INGRAM travelled along the Zambesi, worked his way inland of Mozambique, and traversed wide stretches of fever-swept and lonely territories, such as Manicaland and the, as yet, almost unheard-of Cheringoma district.

Day by day the results of his observations and researches are being given to the world, thereby serving the true purpose of exploration in assisting in the development of some of the darkest and less trodden parts of South Eastern Africa. During this journey, which extended over a twelvemonth, he suffered shipwreck twice, and endured many hardships. Returning to Natal he found that, owing to the kindness of Sir JOHN ROBINSON, K.C.M.G., R. I. FINNEMORE, Esq., and Colonel BOWKER, he had been elected a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.

After several years of travel, interspersed with intervals of town journalism, he visited England and published his first work, “The Land of Gold,

Diamonds, and Ivory,” which, as a handbook to South Africa, has met with a first-class reception. After twelve months in England, he returned to South Africa as the representative of an influential London company of exploration, whose purpose was the acquisition of concessions in the Umzila country. Owing, however, to the unfortunate Anglo-Portuguese squabble, which particularly affected this country, he was compelled to abandon the enterprise, and, turning his attention once more to journalism, he took up the editorial duties of a daily paper in Johannesburg. After twelve months of this life Mr. INGRAM’S health gave way, consequent on the recurrence of malarial fever, and he was forced to seek the milder and more congenial climate of Natal.

Not content to remain idle even in ill-health, he set out on a pioneering trip to the gold regions of Zululand. After over a year’s determined work, he succeeded in attracting public attention to the auriferous reefs in the country, where machinery is now being erected. Should this industry develop, as there is every reason to believe it will, Mr. INGRAM must be regarded as one of the pioneers to whose efforts the whole Colony will be indebted. Returning to Pietermaritzburg, the Capital of Natal, the author settled down to literary pursuits for some few months, and, in due course, produced his second work, “The Story of a Gold Concession.” This volume was, like its predecessor, well received by the South African Press, and roused considerable interest, for in it a new and delightful field of literature was opened up by the production, in quaint idiom, of a series of native legends, many of which are calculated to be of permanent interest to the anthropological student.

In a measure this work has been continued in the present volume: In his poetry, which for the most part was written in camp, by the wayside, or on canoe-board, is reflected the life which the traveller and settler in Africa is called upon to lead. In the poem entitled “The Colonist” the reader obtains a peep behind the scenes of the early life of the poet.

In “The Traveller’s Return,” all who have experienced the dangers of travel, especially in wild lands, will accord a ready sympathy to the wanderer, who, while glorying in his safe return, yet looks back with longing regret to the days that are past, and the dangers that have been overcome. The descriptive poems are, in every sense of the word, a true reflex of Nature, as seen by the author under circumstances as peculiar as can well be imagined.

In his ethical pieces, deep thought, insight into life, and philosophical reasoning of no mean order can be traced; and it is not unlikely that it is in this direction, more than in his descriptive work, that the subject of this notice may achieve a lasting reputation.

C. W. C.


January, 1893

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