László Magyar - a Hungarian explorer and map-maker of Southwest Africa

Interestingly enough, the researchers of African studies have not yet compared the life-work of three contemporary Angola-explorers of the 19th century that is the lives and achievements of the Portuguese Silva Porto, the British David Livingstone and the Hungarian László Magyar.
Unlike other European travellers, László Magyar and Silva Porto did not merely explore one area during their travels but lived the life of the natives, hunted elephants and collected wax. Thus their descriptions of a land reflected the way of thinking of a European coloniser as well as that of an African trader. (The first book of António Francisco Ferreira da Silva Porto's ten-volume diary was published in 1986 with the title Viagens e apontamentos de um portuense em África. It was edited by Maria Emilía Madeira Santos at the Library of the University of Coimbra.)
While well-educated László Magyar aimed to give a scientific description of the African way of life, unschooled Silva Porto served the goals of Portuguese colonization in a direct way and was a settler who recorded the events of everyday life. The third of them, David Livingstone was a missionary who enjoyed the support of the largest colonial empire of the time and had the viewpoint of a discoverer.
Comparing the works of the three Angola-explorers illustrates the different approaches of the scientific explorer László Magyar, the Portuguese settler promoting colonization, and the British conqueror-discoverer. However, these approaches meet from time to time.
With the support of the Hungarian National Science Research Grant (OTKA), geographers and cartographers of Eötvös Loránd University started to carry out research into László Magyar's life in order to assess their compatriot's achievements. They were concerned with two problems: the Hungarian and international polemics about László Magyar's geographical discoveries as well as with another unanswered but controversial question: Was László Magyar right when he criticized David Livingstone's historical maps of Angola?
But who is László Magyar? You can some beautiful and interesting documents of his life here in the exhibition. However, I would like to draw him a bit closer to you. I think that a short biography will help you to get an image of this outstanding Hungarian figure.
One of the greatest explorers of Africa, László Magyar was born on November 13, 1818 in Szombathely, Hungary and died on November 9, 1864 in Ponte de Cuio, Angola. He lived in Angola for 17 years his death. His geographical explorations as well as his ethnological research were greatly supported by his father-in-law, the king of Bié. The king's relations as well as his donation of 300 slaves enabled Magyar to go on six exploring journeys in Angola. Unlike other European travellers, he did not only explore one area, but also described the life of the people living there. He was an insider who stayed at a place for a long time and studied African societies, recorded geographical and especially ethnographical data. The African people called him "Mister What-Is-This", because he always put them questions and wanted to learn so much. His main interests were the local people, their habits and the way they administered their societies. This is what made his contemporaries as well as the succeeding generations consider his discoveries to be of international importance.
Let me mention just a few examples. Hungarian scientific circles of the time as well as Hungarian emigrants after the War of Independence in 1848 had a very high opinion of László Magyar and his achievements. Ferenc Toldy and Antal Reguly (A. R. was a linguist who searched for the origins of the Hungarian language. The linguistic map he made as a result of his travels in the Urals and along the River Ob is known all over the world.) found Magyar' s manuscript worth publishing and taking their advice, the Hungarian Academy published it in 1859 under the editorship of János Hunfalvy. [Magyar László dél-afrikai utazásai 1849-57. években, Pest, 1859. László Magyar's Travels in South Africa between 1849 and 1857, Pest (Hungary), 1859.]
The editor of the book, János Hunfalvy drew the attention of the Hungarian as well as the international scientific world to the importance of László Magyar's geographical discoveries. It is his German translation of Magyar's book that made the achievements of the Hungarian traveller known to the international world of science. [Reisen in Süd-Afrika in den Jahren 1849 bis 1857. Pest-Leipzig, 1859. László Magyar's Travels in South Africa between 1849 and 1857, Pest-Leipzig, 1859.]
Bertalan Szemere, a former minister of the Kossuth government (1848), then an immigrant in Paris urged Jácint Rónay to consider László Magyar's discoveries to be of great national importance and asked him to apply to the Royal Geographical Society for material and moral support. [In: The Journal of the Royal Geographical Society. 1854. London - XV. Extracts from the letters of a Hungarian Traveller in Central Africa. Communicated by Dr. H. Rónay. With remarks by Mr. W.D. Cooley. Red February 14, 1853.]. Now let us have a look at László Magyar's achievements. When the first news of László Magyar's travels became known and scientific societies learnt about their scope, many hoped to find the most outstanding explorer of the unknown regions in South Africa. Hungarian as well as foreign scientists hailed Magyar and he was regarded as a famous explorer.
A most reliable assessor of geographical explorations, the German August Petermann showed him his appreciation. Moreover, the famous professor of geography at the University of Göttingen dedicated five chapters to Magyar in his book "Die neuesten Entdeckungen an der Westküste Afrika's" i.e. "The Latest Discoveries in West Africa", published in Leipzig in 1863. In his book "West-Afrika vom Senegal bis Benguela" i.e. "West Africa from Senegal to Benguela", published in Leipzig in 1873, Richard Oberlander expressed his high opinion of him following a detailed study of Magyar's travels. Geographical Societies in Vienna and London also appreciated Magyar's discoveries and he became a celebrity in the world of geographers and geographical explorers.
However, there were heard some counter-arguments that tried to lessen the importance of Magyar's achievements and to a certain extent doubted his reports. They expected him to thoroughly report the results of his explorations, his methods and his proofs.
Unfortunately, the last volumes of his works did not arrive in Europe. Therefore, apart from a few major essays, his travels in Africa became known through his diary fragments and letters. No matter how valuable and interesting they are, they cannot compensate for an expert, scientific report of his observations. Since these fragments and sketches were often written in a hurry and the experiences were not always reported in a well-organized form, it was easy to find mistakes and contradictions in them, so soon reviews became less favourable and László Magyar's reports were regarded as unreliable.
Now let us consider his results and try to assess them.
His ethnographical research constitutes the most important and valuable part of his scientific achievements. He was an excellent observer with very good drawing skills, which were especially shown in this field. Few researchers had such an insight into the life, traditions and morals, good and bad features of the people of the explored territories. The chapters written about the Kimbunda peoples belong to the most valuable ones in his book and the classical description he presented was long unparalleled in literature. However, it is true that few scientists had such a chance and so many opportunities to study the life of the natives: Magyar lived in Bié for several years, stayed in the kingdom of Mwata Yamwo over a year and spent nine months travelling along and between the Cunene and the Cubango (Okowango) rivers. What is more, he made good use of his family relations with the royal family in Bié when carrying out ethnographical research.
While most explorers can only make casual descriptions of the area lying along their route, László Magyar managed to make his records more detailed and reliable since he spent a longer time at a place thus he had an opportunity to become familiar with the land and its people.
László Magyar spent over a decade living among the native people and as a result he learnt their languages. He learnt several local languages including five dialects of the Bunda or Abunda language family. They were as follows: Kimbunda (or Nano), Lovar (Loval), Lunda (Moropu), Munianeka (Humbi) and Kaniama (Ovampo). It means that he spoke the languages of the peoples whose land he travelled around. In the first volume of his books he only dealt with Kimbunda in details. He published a vocabulary list and some sample conversations. (Hunfalvy, who was an outstanding linguist, harshly criticised that chapter. What is more, he refused to publish the vocabulary list attached to the essay on Moluva and Moropu countries. That list contained the Moluva and Ka-Lovar versions of about 200 words.) On the other hand, August Petermann published the whole list in the appendix of the German translation. The vocabulary list as well as the whole essay made good impression on him and he found it reliable and considered it to complete the knowledge they had previously. (Please note that László Magyar spoke five European languages i.e. German, French, Italian, Portuguese and Spanish besides Hungarian although he was not an educated linguist.)
Magyar may have been a good sailor but the study of his maps demonstrates that his knowledge of geography was fairly poor. He was especially hindered by the lack of training in astronomy, which is essential for the reliable determination of geographical position. In his books Magyar mentioned that following an incident in West Africa, he took classes from a professor nauticus for six months in order to perfect his skills in handling instruments. Moreover, his astronomical determinations of position are often mentioned in his works. In his appeal to the governor of Benguela he offered to analyse his recorded astronomical data if commissioned. Nevertheless, his determinations of position were faulty and it can easily be noticed that he did not have much experience in using astronomical instruments if he had any at all.
The worst mistake he made when determining geographical positions was that
he overestimated distances so the places determined were placed farther
south, north or east than they actually are.
Besides astronomical determinations of position, reviews criticise Magyar's distance estimation. When lacking reliable astronomical determinations of position, geographers can make good estimates on distances based on the time spent marching. The problem is that Magyar was not experienced and careful enough when doing so: he greatly overestimated the covered distances. However, the mistakes made were natural and can be explained to a certain extent. Accompanied by just a few men, explorers can quickly and easily determine the daily average distance. But when one has a several hundred strong caravan, which by nature moves along slowly and at an unsteady pace and which is hindered by natural obstacles as well as by its ill-disciplined members and therefore has to stop for days, the determination of the daily average distance is rather difficult if not impossible. László Magyar's distance estimates are far from being useless: it is true that he gave wrong estimates but in general the error is constant and thus his estimates can be used if one compares the lengths of the sections of the journey to each other and relies on his geographical discoveries.
Consequently, his maps are distorted and August Petermann had to redraw Magyar's maps based on reliable determinations of position before he had published the map of the Hungarian explorer's first big inland journey. He kept the original watercourses and his routes untouched and shortened the distances proportionately. (Petermann's Mitteilungen, Gotha, 1860. Table X) Magyar himself knew that his maps could be incorrect so in a letter of August 20, 1856 he asked his father to send him new, larger-scaled maps of South Africa so that he could rectify his own ones. (In the same letter he also asked his father for special paper suitable for drawing maps.) Magyar's descriptions are often fragmented; they abound in unimportant details at the expense of the important ones and are sometimes contradictory, which has unfavourably affected the assessment of Magyar's achievements. It seems that he did not always keep a diary and his memory sometimes failed him. Thus there are sometimes contradictions in the dates given and the chronology of events is also imperfect.
Unfortunately, he did not mark all his journeys in the maps but only the one he described in the text. At the end of his first book (p. 461) he stated that he had only included the normal caravan route from Benguela to Bié in the map and disregarded his various journeys made at various times. His map of Moluva-Moropu country indicated the main routes of his 1850-51 and 1855 journeys while his shorter trips off the main route e.g. the one to the sources of the Cuanza and the Cuango Rivers were neglected. Nowhere did he draw the route of his second big journey to the southeast and thus it can be reconstructed unreliably and imperfectly based on his remarks in his works. He was planning to indicate all his routes i.e. all his journeys in a general world map he was to prepare. Unfortunately this map did never arrive in Europe and László Magyar himself obscured many details of his journeys.
Only those parts of his research and achievements are known which he sent to Hungary or which were published in the contemporary Hungarian and international press.
It passed over 120 years before new research started in the 1980s, when a Hungarian cultural anthropologist, Éva Sebestyén began research into documents concerning László Magyar in the National Archives in Luanda, Angola as well as in the place where László Magyar died, Dombe Grande in Benguela. There she was searching for possible descendants of László Magyar' s first son called Ngonga. She was looking for people of European origin with the same name working on sugar-cane plantations. It turned out that the possible relations are highly questionable - although probable - since the name Ngonga has been very popular in the area and a considerable colony of European and Brazilian origin has lived there since the middle of the 19th century.
The most important document found by the Hungarian scientist is the bequest that lay in the archives of Benguela County Court. The documents are quite legible. They were written 6 days after László Magyar's death by a local notary and it casts new light on László Magyar's life. It reveals his trade relations, the cause of his death as well as the fact that when he died he lived separated from his family. (Based on the medicaments listed in the bequest and the letters Magyar had written to his neighbours, the doctors of the Hospital of Tropical Diseases in Lisbon identified the cause of his death as malaria or tuberculosis or possibly the interaction of the two diseases. They also added that medical treatment in the 19th c. does not correspond to that of the 20th c.)
The compilation of the inventory proves that he had a son under age when he died. In accordance with Portuguese laws of the day it was compulsory to compile an inventory of estate if the dead was European. It was also compulsory to look after the orphans under age until they reached majority. László Magyar's first-born son was living at an unknown place so only the inventory of estate of his deceased father was compiled.
The inventory reveals that László Magyar kept his European way of life as far as it was possible. He had a desk, stationery, foreign language books, and his eating and cleaning habits also demonstrate this. On the other hand, his equipment was barely enough for research even by Portuguese standards. A case full of documents, item No.27 in the inventory may have been of great importance. The second and third volumes of his book may have been in it. Unfortunately, the case as well as other belongings of his were kept in a warehouse and they burnt in the fire of 1866 as the legal guardian of Magyar 's son (Joao Estevez de Araújo) noted it. The notes were found in the County Archives in Benguela.
The Austrian Embassy in Lisbon had failed to forward some letters written by László Magyar to Hungary and they ended up in the National Archives in Vienna. They as well as a document, which Éva Sebestyén believes to be Magyar's death certificate, were found there.
At last, following this short assessment or rather a few words of praise of Magyar's achievements, here is a summary. Nevertheless, his ethnographical studies managed to make his contemporaries appreciate him and before his death both the Hungarian and the Austrian Academy of Sciences had elected him a member. His correspondence, notes, the first volume of his book and his maps reveal an extraordinary man who was left to his own resources to fight for survival in a harsh world. If he had lived the isolated life of a European researcher in Africa, he would have never learnt so much of the African people.