Laws, Robert

Reference code(s): GB 0237 Edinburgh University Library Gen. 561-563 and Edinburgh University New College Library MSS LAW
Held at: Edinburgh University New College Library
Title: Laws, Robert
Date(s) of contents: c 1861-1934, 1954
Level of description: Fonds
Extent and medium: 3 boxes at Edinburgh University and 1 volume at Edinburgh University New College Library


Name of creator(s): Laws, Robert (1851-1934)

Administrative/Biographical history: Robert Laws was born on 28 May 1851 at Mannofield, Aberdeen. He was the son of an Aberdeen cabinetmaker, was educated at the Free East Church School, Aberdeen, then became an apprentice cabinet maker while studying in the evenings to achieve university entrance qualifications. He read arts and medicine at the University of Aberdeen, 1871-73 (graduating MA 1872), then studied divinity at the United Presbyterian Theological Hall, Edinburgh, while taking medical classes at Glasgow University and Anderson College, Glasgow, qualifying in both disciplines in 1875. Between 1873 and 1875, Laws was an agent of the Glasgow City Mission in smallpox and fever hospitals in the Glasgow area. In 1875 he was ordained by the United Presbyterian Presbytery of Aberdeen, being awarded the MB ChB degree, and the same year was appointed as missionary of the Free Church of Scotland Mission, Livingstonia, Nyasaland (now Malawi).

Laws joined the new mission as a medical officer, and second in command to Lieutenant E.D. Young. Young left the mission after two years, and Laws replaced him as head of the mission in 1878. He remained in post until retirement in 1927, and during his fifty years of service built a solid and stable base from which many other local and regional church, educational and social projects were successfully initiated. For a time he was also Principal of the Overtoun College, Livingstonia, and in 1894 was sent as a deputy to begin the Hope Waddell Training Institution in Calabar, now in Nigeria. After the First World War he encouraged the mission's members to form Native Associations, which later, in 1938, became the Nyasaland African National Congress. During his career as a missionary, Laws developed a Christian community of some 60,000 including African pastors, and founded over 700 schools which, on his death, were educating 44,000 pupils. His success was officially recognised when he was appointed moderator of the General Assembly of the United Free Church in 1908.

Laws never entered into African culture and society to the extent of some of his colleagues but acquired a good knowledge of the local languages. He translated the New Testament into Nyanja, published an English-Nyanja dictionary, compiled a Gunda-English and English-Gunda vocabulary, and published works in the Tonga language. He spotted and encouraged many talented individuals including David Kaunda whose son Kenneth was Zambia's first president. He also encouraged the formation of native associations which, in 1938, combined to form the Nyasaland African National Congress. For three years from 1913 he was a senior unofficial member of the Nyasaland Legislative Council. Laws married Margaret Troup Gray at Blantyre in 1879 and they had a daughter, Amelia, who was born in 1886 and who worked as a nurse in Europe during the First World War. He was awarded an honorary degree (DD) from Aberdeen in 1891 and received the LLD. in 1925. He was elected FRGS in 1884 and FRSGS in 1900. He was awarded a CMG in 1923 and in 1928 received the Freedom of the city of Aberdeen. Robert Laws died in London on 6 August 1934 and was buried at Aberdeen.

See also:
William Pringle Livingstone, Laws of Livingtonia: a narrative of missionary adventure and achievement (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1921).
Robert Laws, Reminiscences of Livingstonia (Edinburgh, London: Oliver & Boyd, 1934).
John McCracken, Politics and Christianity in Malawi, 1875-1940: the impact of the Livingstonia Mission in the Northern Province (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977).
Hamish McIntosh, Robert Laws, servant of Africa (Carberry: Handsel, 1993).

Custodial history:

Immediate source of acquisition: The papers were presented to Edinburgh University Library in 1962 by Laws' daughter, Amelia N. Laws of Edinburgh. The Glasgow City Mission diary was loaned to New College Library in 1993 by the Church of Scotland's National Mission board.


Scope and content/abstract: The papers consist of: diaries describing Laws' life as a missionary (1873, 1878-84, 1894, 1905); vocabularies and grammars of African languages and dialects including Nyanja (or Mang'anja or Chinyanja), Tonga, and Tshinyanja, with translations of hymns, verses and parts of the bible (c 1875-1922); Kirk session notes (1913, 1917); correspondence (1861-1931) including letters from Laws' family, letters from Margaret Laws at Bandawe to her family, reminiscences of Laws' life and correspondence about the presentation of Laws' CMG; reviews and press cuttings relating to Laws' Reminiscences of Livingstonia (1934); press cuttings, articles, pamphlets and other printed material about Livingstonia and Laws including obituaries (1876-1934, 1954); personal items such as birth and marriage certificates, passports, notebooks from attendance at Heriot-Watt College (1899-1900), medical notes made by Laws, and pictures and correspondence about King's College Aberdeen; ground plan of the site of Livingstonia Mission Institute (1899); and pictures and photographs of Laws, the CMG ceremony, Laws' family and the mission station. Some of the items have been annotated by Amelia Laws. Edinburgh University New College Library holds a diary (1873-1875) kept by Laws whilst working for the Glasgow City Mission in Glasgow fever hospitals describing his patients and conditions in the hospitals.

System of arrangement: The material is in three boxes. The first box contains diaries (Gen. 561/1-3), African language items (Gen. 561/4-14), Kirk Session notes (Gen. 561/15), medical notes (Gen. 561/16) and Heriot-Watt notebooks (Gen. 561/17-19); box 2 contains files of correspondence, personal papers, articles and photographs (Gen. 562/1-10); and the third box contains more African language material (Gen. 563/1-15). The Glasgow City Mission diary is held separately at New College Library (MSS LAW).


Language: English and African dialects.

Conditions governing access: Contact the repository for details.

Conditions governing reproduction: Contact the repository for details.

Finding aids: Alphabetical Index to Manuscripts held at Edinburgh University Library, Special Collections and Archives. The collection is mentioned in the Edinburgh University Library subject checklist (C3) Manuscripts on Africa. The diary is listed in the New College Inventory of Manuscripts.


Related material: According to a note in Gen. 563 Amelia Laws made donations of material to St Nicholson Church Aberdeen, Aberdeen Museum, the Royal Geographical Society and the Wellcome Library. Other sources include material at the National Library of Scotland and papers at Aberdeen University Library. The papers of Professor George Shepperson at Edinburgh University Library contain some original Laws documents. These include: Laws' correspondence with David Clement Scott, Horace Waller, Frederick Lugard (copy only), and the Jumbe of Kota-Kota (c 1885-1890) and Shepperson's correspondence about sources (Box File 24 and Malawi file); copy of a silver wedding address for the Laws (1904, wallet C); and papers and correspondence about the Chilembwe uprising (1916, File 14, folder 3). J. McCracken in his Politics and Christianity in Malawi (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977) also mentions the National Archives in Malawi and Zambia as sources. The papers of Robert Laws' daughter, Amelia Laws, are at Edinburgh University Library (reference: GB239 GD18). The papers of another Livingstonia missionary, Alexander Gillon MacAlpine (1869-1957, missionary 1893-1933), are at Edinburgh University Library (MSS 3086-3090).

Copies: Edinburgh University Library Special Collections has a microfilm of the collection (Mic. Dup. 553). A copy was sent to the National Archives of Malawi in 1984.


Archivist's note: Compiled by Caroline Brown, Edinburgh University Library, Special Collections and Archives.

Note: The biographical history was compiled using the following material: (1) Records of the Arts Class, 1868-72, University of Aberdeen, 2nd edition, Stephen Ree (ed.) (Aberdeen: A. King, 1892). (2) Who Was Who, Vol.3. 1929-1940, 2nd edition (London: Adam and Charles Black, 1967). (3) The Dictionary of National Biography. 1931-1940 (OUP London: Geoffrey Cumberledge, 1949). (4) Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions Gerald H. Anderson (ed.) (New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 1998).

Date(s) of descriptions: 7 July 2000

Linguistic work
Nyanja language
Politics and government
Tonga language

Personal names
Laws | Robert | 1851-1934 | Free Church of Scotland missionary

Corporate names
Free Church of Scotland
Glasgow City Mission
Livingstonia Mission | Malawi

Southern Africa