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What’s the future for Africa’s oldest motor ship?

Posted on: October 17, 2014 11:13 AM
The ship was introduced to the waters of Lake Malawi by an Anglican missionary society the Universities' Mission to Central Africa in 1901
Photo Credit: Thomas Miller
Related Categories: Africa, Central Africa, health, malawi

By Bellah Zulu, ACNS

[Visit for many more photos of the ship past and present]

The story of a Malawi ship named after Anglican missionary Chauncy Maples, is one that is as fascinating as it is saddening.

Though initially meant for mission work the MV Chauncy Maples has changed names and even purposes along the way. It is currently docked on the shores of Lake Malawi at Monkey Bay, awaiting its ultimate fate.

The MV Chauncy Maples, initially called the SS Chauncy Maples, is a 113-year-old ship introduced to the waters of Lake Malawi by an Anglican missionary society the Universities' Mission to Central Africa in 1901. It was primarily meant for use as a mobile mission station and since then, has traversed the vast and often treacherous waters of this great African lake.

Chauncy _maples _laid _up _2010

In recent years, the Chauncy Maples Malawi Trust, a partnership between the Government of Malawi and other companies such as Thomas Miller, the Fundação Manual António da Mota and the current owners of the ship Portuguese company called Mota-Engil, has been planning to renovate the ship and give this “Lady of the Lake” new life as a floating health clinic to attend to the health needs of the rural communities along the shores of the lake.

Uncertain future

But it seems this dream of turning the ship into a floating clinic may not happen anytime soon, if at all. Belinda Coote, the Chief Executive Officer of the Chauncy Maples Malawi Trust said: “Sadly the project to renovate the ship and bring her back into commission as a mobile clinic has had to be put on hold, pending a number of decisions by its owners, the Portuguese construction company, Mota-Engil.”

The Trust website also revealed ,"We have encountered new technical problems and increased costs and as a result are currently reviewing the options to achieve our aim of bringing healthcare to the villages of Lake Malawi, while at the same time examining the best way to use Chauncy Maples."

However, the Rt Revd Brighton Malasa, current Bishop of the Upper Shire in Malawi where the ship is docked, is against the idea of turning the ship into a floating clinic.

Medical ship or something else

“I think the ship can better be used for something else as turning it into a floating clinic will limit the service to the people along Lake Malawi shores only,” argued Bishop Malasa.

The bishop proposed that the most viable way to provide health services to the people of Malawi and other countries that boarder Lake Malawi, such as Tanzania and Mozambique, would be to have mobile vans that can transport the medical team to hard to reach areas.

“For me, the idea of a mobile clinic is not bad, but we do not need the old ship to do that, we need vehicles that can run up and down the hard to reach areas of Malawi,” he said. "Malawians still struggle to access medical services and people are travelling long distances to get to the nearest clinic.”

Bishop Malasa argued that maintaining such an old ship would require a lot of money and using the vessel would be “risky to the personnel and patients using it.”

Despite the current challenges and uncertainties of the project, the contributions of the ship to spreading Christianity in Central Africa over more than a century needs to be recognised, appreciated and even shared.

A giant puzzle

This great ship was actually designed by a renowned British engineer Henry Brunel and Sir John Barry. Henry’s father Isambard Kingdom Brunel designed the first iron steamer to cross the Atlantic, the SS Great Britain. Henry and his father are credited for having designed many other historical structures across the United Kingdom including buildings, tunnels and bridges among others.

The ship was build between 1898 and 1900 by a company called Alley & McClellan of Glasgow, Scotland at a cost of £13,500. In order to transport the ship to Lake Malawi, it was disassembled into 3,481 parts. But one part had to be transported in one piece; the 11-ton boiler, which was shipped to East Africa and then towed on a barge and pulled overland by at least 450 local African tribesmen, called the Ngoni.

But due to the hidden numbering system, it was not until 1901 that the engineers in Malawi successfully worked out this huge jigsaw puzzle to re-assemble the Chauncy Maples and have it successfully launched on the Lake. It’s said that the whole assembly process took about two years.

Named after a remarkable Anglican

The boat was named after Chauncy Maples, a British clergyman and Anglican missionary who founded an Anglican Mission on Likoma Island in Nyasaland (Malawi) in Central Africa. He was born in 1852 and at the age of 24 years in 1876, he sailed for Zanzibar and helped set up clinics and schools for released slaves.

TRUST_malawi _Chauncy Maples

The Revd Chauncy Maples

He was consecrated bishop of the whole area but unfortunately, while on the way to take up his duties, his steel boat he was travelling in capsized during a storm on the lake and Maples and another lay missionary drowned.

One ship, many lives

During its early years, Anglican priests would use the ship to regularly visit congregations, inspect schools and pay teachers. However it was also used as a hospital with its upper deck being used as a sick bay to take on board anyone who needed to be admitted to hospital.

Being the only form of reliable form of transport along the lake at the time, she was also used as a post office. At the beginning of the First World War, in 1914, the ship was almost immediately taken over by the Government, and though mainly used for transport, she was at least once engaged in battle when, in May 1915, the Chauncy Maples and another ship attacked a German ship called the Wissmann.

It was only in 1956 that a firm from Salisbury bought and converted the ship into a fishing trawler. Later in 1965, immediately after Malawi’s independence, the Government bought it and converted it to a passenger and cargo vessel. It was at this point that it was completely rebuilt and renamed MV Chauncy Maples signaling the beginning of a new life. It was used for many years, though increasingly less and less, with the introduction in 1981 of another passenger ship called the Mtendere.

TRUST_malawi _MVChauncy Maples 50s

The 'Jubilee Voyage' in 1951, to celebrate 50 years of service. The Chauncy Maples would make her final journey for the Mission in August 1953

Built to last

A formal inspection done as far back as 1992 revealed little damage to the riveted steel hull and this was mainly attributed to the higher quality of steel produced during the years that it was built. Though a single skin hull no longer complied with regulations, she was granted an exemption on the grounds of historical importance. However, she remained docked at Monkey Bay and enjoyed brief fame as a floating bar for the locals.

This seemed liked her fate until a British teacher and author, Janie Hampton, visited Malawi in 2009. She heard about the Government’s plans to renovate the ship into a clinic and spearheaded the establishment of the Chauncy Maples Malawi Trust to fundraise for the project and subsequently help in the “relief of sickness and the provision of health care to people living around the shores of Lake Malawi in Malawi, Mozambique and Tanzania.”

In January 2012 the MV Chauncy was finally brought ashore for the continuing restoration work. The hope was that once again, the vessel would return to the task for which she was conceived: a floating clinic with a medical team to “provide support and treatment to people living around the shores of Lake Malawi.”

But despite the disagreement that surrounds the Chauncy Maples' future, it is hoped that renovation works will continue to give future generations a glimpse into her exciting past.

Perhaps one future might mirror her peer the SS Great Britain, well restored and docked at Bristol Harbor, as a museum and constant reminder of her glory days.