J.T. Last - 1849-1933 - Collectors in East Africa - 2

By Bernard Verdcourt

Extracted from The Conchologists’ Newsletter, No. 74, pp. 248–249, published September 1980

Joseph Thomas Last was born at Tuddenham in Suffolk in 1849 * and ordained in 1872 at the Church Missionary College. In October 1874 he set out for East Africa and was established at the mission at Kisulutini. According to the records the "connexion was closed" in 1876 and he returned to Britain, the reasons not being stated.

In November 1877 he was re-engaged and appointed to the Usagara Mission at Mpwapwa. In 1880 he founded a new station at Mamboya in the Nguru mountains and from our point of view this was the most important act of his career. The Ngurus form one of the links in a chain of upland evergreen forests which are remnants of a once more continuous forest cover that allowed the migration of southern and western elements. The Kenya coastal forests and the Usambaras are the northern units in this chain. These forests are quite rich in molluscs and Last made interesting collections at Mamboya – in fact some of his finds have never been re-collected.

He obviously searched systematically for small species in the brief leisure time which would bave been available to a busy missionary. At this period one of the mission letters home states "Mr. Last has put up a shed for use as a church" and indicates that he was well received by the local chief who was pleased with Last’s efforts on behalf of his tribe. "Recently he went to Zanzibar and took the Chief’s son and nephew, neither of whom had seen the sea before and went into raptures of delight. He was accompanied by several released slaves for whom he obtained letters of freedom from Kirk". It is clear that he was one of those missionaries who was fortunate in having pleasanter natives to deal with and a physique to resist tropical diseases.

After seven years continuous residence in East Africa he returned to Britain in December 1884. Later he was in the service of the Royal Geographical Society and Imperial British East Africa Company. He visited Portuguese East Africa in 1885 on behalf of the Royal Geographical Society and explored the Namuli Mountains and also travelled in Madagascar; he became a Fellow of the Society in 1895. He became Commissioner for Slavery for the Island of Zanzibar in 1897 under the administration of Sir Lloyd Mathews. It was Last who discovered the well known limestone caves at Makunduchi in Zanzibar.

In September 1880 he had married Annie Jackson who was the first European lady to reside in the Nyanza Mission and to penetrate with her husband into the Nguru country. A note in the Church Missionary Intelligencer says "our friends will be interested to know that the lady who is to be Mrs. Last sailed last month with Mr. Taylor and Mr. Biddlecombe; she will be the first English woman to go into the interior". Like so many pioneers she did not last long and died at Mamboya in March 1883. He must have married a second time because the short obituary in the Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society states "he leaves a widow and six children of whom one J. S. Last is now a District Sub-Commissioner in the Zanzibar Government" – thus carrying on his father’s association with that island. Last himself "a man of robust and virile personality" with "ability energy and an unrivalled knowledge of Swahili" died 50 years later at Shortlands in Kent in December 1933.

He also collected many interesting plants, particularly in Zanzibar, and several are named after him. His namesake H. Last (no relation) tells me that H. W. Bates named a large carabid beetle Chlaenius lastii after him. There is in the Natural Science Museum at Bognor Regis a collection of marine shells labelled the Last Collection formerly in the possession of the late Dr. Joseph George Turner. Although the initials of this Last were not recorded it is known that the collection was made in the last years of the nineteenth century in Zanzibar so it is almost certain it was the work of J. T. Last. It contains a juvenile specimen of Conus cholmondelyi Melville. My thanks are due to Miss Kathleen Smythe for information about this collection.

Last’s very important collection of snails from the Nguru Mountains was written up by E. A. Smith in his paper ‘List of Land and Fresh-water shells collected by Dr. Emin Pasha in Central Africa with description of new species’. Ann. Mag. nat. Hist. (series 6) 6: 146–168 pl. 5, 6 (1980). Despite the title the paper deals mostly with Last’s material and describes over 30 new species from his collection including Hyalinia lasti (now in Thapsia), Buliminus lasti (now in Pseudoglessula) and Subulina lasti.

*My own notes from missionary society records give 1849 for the date of birth; H. Last told me he assumed it was 1847 since J. T. Last was in his 86th. year when he died in 1933 according to an obituary in the Geogr. Journ. I personally checked the registers at St. Catherine’s House and his death is confirmed as being in the last quarter of 1933 in the district of Bromley at the age of 85; there is a record of the birth of a Joseph Last in the first quarter of 1849 in the district of Woodbridge; since Tuddenham is near Woodbridge I think this must be relevant and he would then have died in his 85th. year.

B. Verdcourt

[For list of species described from material collected by Joseph Last refer to Collectors in East Africa, No. 19: Supplement to Parts 2, 3 and 4, published September 1993.]