LEIGH'S MISSIONARY 'SPY' - OR WAS HE?
The history of Madagascar is complicated but under King Radama I (1810–28), who was recognized by the British government as King of Madagascar, and a treaty in 1817 with the British governor of Mauritius, the slave trade was abolished in return for British military and financial assistance. Missionaries from the London Missionary Society began arriving in 1818 but under increasing pressure from the British and French to dominate political and cultural life of the Island Queen Ranavalona I (1828–61) issued a royal edict prohibiting the practice of Christianity and pressuring most foreigners to leave the Island. Residents of Madagascar could accuse each other of various crimes, including theft, Christianity and especially witchcraft.
Succeeding his mother, Radama II (1861–63) attempted to relax these policies, but was overthrown by an alliance of Andriana (noble) and Hova (commoner) courtiers, who sought to end the absolute power of the monarch.
British consultants were employed to train and professionalize soldiers and Christianity was declared the official religion of the court in 1869. A British type legal system was introduced courts were established in the capital city and there was also success in defending Madagascar against several French colonial incursions.
Queen Victoria commented ‘Are we to let the French go on taking what they like with impunity?’ But the British government did not want to get involved.
In 1883 the French Minister of Marine and Colonies ordered Admiral Pierre, who commanded the Indian Ocean Division of the French Navy, to deploy ships to protect French assets in north western Madagascar. An ultimatum was then issued to Queen Ranavalona II to recognise French Protectorate rights on the coast, guarantee the right to property ownership to French landholders and pay a million francs to France. If she didn’t agree the Admiral was ordered to bombard and capture Tamatave and establish French rights forcefully.
The response to this ultimatum led Admiral Pierre’s warships to open fire. The city was occupied the next day but this opened up a can of worms between the French and British on the Island. The arrest and imprisonment of the missionary, Rev George Shaw, was one such incident.
Mrs Shaw wrote a letter to the Governor of Mauritius asking for assistance. She had come out with other missionaries on HMS Taymouth Castle to find her husband incarcerated. She sought an interview with Admiral Pierre only to be met by one of his officers, and requested to see and stay with her husband or at Tamatave while he was imprisoned. She stated that some time before the French attacked some of her husband's personal native friends, teachers in the school and pastors in his congregation had left a quantity of property in her husband’s care, believing it would be safe as he was a British subject and because he had been made president of a committee of safety that had been formed to protect life and property from pillage and incendiarism.
Her requests were denied.
After considerable correspondence and newspaper coverage as well as debate in the House, the case against him was dropped and he was released with an offer of 1000 francs compensation from the French Government.
This and other incidents caused uproar in Parliament and Queen Victoria commented that by keeping its distance the British Government had not acted in a ‘proper spirit of chivalrous honour.
In a quiet corner of Leigh Cemetery on the London Road is a monument to Rev George A Shaw of Madagascar.
Well wouldn’t you be intrigued?
Rev Shaw died in 1917 aged 74 and had been living at Sunnyside, Chalkwell Gardens (part of Leigh Road which no longer goes by that name).
In 1911 he is recorded as a Retired Foreign Missionary with the London Missionary Society.
There is nothing else on the grave which gives any indication of his life and works—but oh what a story it was!
George Andrew(s) Shaw was born in the Clerkenwell District of London in 1843. He started his working life as a merchant’s clerk but became a missionary with the London Missionary Society and in 1865 married Emily Maria Prior from Woodford. And there the story would have ended, but George managed to get himself embroiled in an international incident which hit the papers in England and around the world.
Rev Shaw had quarters in Tamatave running a medical dispensary.
When Rev Shaw got home he was immediately arrested on a charge of poisoning the French soldiers, and imprisoned on board a French ship and denied communication with the outside world for 45 days. The charge against him was aiding the local government by hiding them from the French in Tamatave and generally being anti-French.
Following his release and return to England, Rev Shaw recuperated from his ordeal and began to tell his story to vast crowds and wrote at length about Madagascar and its people .
Sometime after 1901 he moved to Pembury Road, Westcliff and later Sunnyside, Chalkwell Gardens where he died in 1917.