S2A3 Biographical Database of Southern African Science

Serpa Pinto, Major Alexandre A da Rocha de (exploration)

Born: 20 April 1846, Portugal.
Died: 28 December 1900, Lisboa, Portugal.

A.A. de Serpa Pinto, Portuguese explorer, emigrated to America with his parents in 1848, when he was two years old, but the family returned to Portugal in 1858. That same year he entered a military college, where he received his education. In 1864 he was commissioned in the battalion of Chasseurs and five years later fought against the rebel chief Bonga in Mozambique. He travelled overland up the Zambezi and its tributary the Shire, and then sailed to the Comoros, Seychelles, and India, returning to Portugal in 1871.

In 1877, then a captain in the 4th Chasseurs, the Portuguese government sent him as leader of an expedition to survey the Congo and Zambesi basins and other rivers in West Africa, accompanied by Captain Brito Capello and Lieutenant Roberto Ivens of the Portuguese navy. They arrived at Luanda, Angola, early in August, but finding that H.M. Stanley* had already explored the Congo basin decided to begin their journey overland from Benguela, where Serpa Pinto arrived on 17 September. As a result of disagreements with his companions he set out without them, first east to Belmonte (March 1878) and on to the upper Zambezi River at Lealui (Zambia, August 1878). With the help of a local chief he travelled down the Zambezi in boats, reaching Impalera (or Impalila) Island at the confluence of the Chobe and Zambezi Rivers in October. There he met other travellers, including Dr Benjamin F. Bradshaw*. Travelling in between attacks of fever he visited the Victoria Falls and via Soshong (31 December 1878) in present Botswana reached Pretoria in February 1879 after many hardships. There he met F.C. Selous* and soon continued to Natal. He left Durban for Portugal on 19 April, travelling via the east coast of Africa. A brief account of his journey, "Major Serpa Pinto's journey across Africa..." was published in the Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society and Monthly Record of Geography in August 1879.

The expedition established Serpa Pinto's reputation as an explorer and earned him the founder's medal of the Royal Geographical Society and the gold medal of the Paris Geographical Society. His manuscript of the journey was translated into English and published under the title How I crossed Africa: From the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean, through unknown countries... (London, 1881, 2 vols). The book was also published in Portuguese, French, German, and Swedish, all in 1881. He was a reliable observer and in addition to his adventures also described the local people. The book contained a number of tables summarising his meteorological observations while travelling (atmospheric pressure, air temperature, direction and force of surface winds, and state of the weather), making it, from a meteorological point of view, one of the best southern African travel narratives. At the annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1879 he contributed a paper, "On the native races of the head-waters of the Zambesi", which was published (or summarised) in the association's Report for that year. He also collected plants on his journey. An account of these was published by W.P. Hiern and C. de Ficalho (in Portuguese) in 1883.

In November 1884 Serpa Pinto, accompanied by Augusto Cardoso, led an expedition from the town of Mozambique to Lake Malawi. However, ill health forced him to retreat to Quissanga, opposite Ibo Island, in February 1885. An account of this journey was published in a French journal that same year. In 1889 he was appointed governor of Mozambique, and the next year commanded a military expedition to extend Portuguese sovereignty up the Shire River, but without success. In 1894 he became governor of the Cape Verde Islands. Upon returning to Portugal he was promoted to general, while King Carlos bestowed the title of Viscount on him. The town Serpa Pinto in Angola was named after him.

List of sources:
Bullock, A.A. Bibliography of South African botany. Pretoria: Department of Agricultural Technical Services, 1978.

Mendelssohn, S. South African bibliography. London, 1910.

National Union Catalogue, pre-1956 imprints. London: Mansell, 1968-1980.

Rosenthal, E. Southern African dictionary of national biography. New York: F. Warne, 1966.

Royal Society of London. Catalogue of scientific papers [1800-1900]. London: Royal Society, 1867-1925.

South African bibliography to the year 1925. London: Mansell, 1979 (Vols 1-4) and Cape Town: SA Library, 1991 (Vol. 5).

Standard encyclopaedia of southern Africa (SESA). Cape Town: NASOU, 1970-1976.

Tabler, E.C. Pioneers of Rhodesia. Cape Town: Struik, 1966.

Venter, R.J. Bibliography of regional meteorological literature. Vol. 1. Southern Africa, 1486-1948. Pretoria: Weather Bureau, 1949.

Compiled by: C. Plug