Selim Hishmeh, interpreter for Stanley

2014 Selim HishmehIn a Cemetery in Lanark, there is a headstone as this picture sent in with thanks to Robert Stewart. The grave is of Selim Hishmeh and i think interesting enough to post here on Blantyre Project, if for only his remote connection to David Livingstone.

I had to increase the contrast quite a bit so that it was more readable.:

Erected by
in memory of
Dr Selim Hishmeh
a native of Jerusalem
and who was
H.M. Stanley’s guide
when he found
Dr Livingstone
in South Africa
Died at Lanark
28th June 1910.

Hishmeh was boy interpreter and guide to H. M. Stanley whilst on his famous search for Dr Livingstone in central Africa during 1871. Hishmeh, a Palestinian Christian, was born not far from Mount Zion in Jerusalem. He had been recommended to Stanley by a local school teacher whilst he had been visiting Jerusalem.

In his book “How I Found Livingstone” Stanley credits Selim Hishmeh with saving his life and is highly complementary about the skills of his guide. There is also a suggestion in it that Selim was the first of the party to see Dr Livingstone and is quoted as saying “I see the Doctor, sir. Oh what an old man! He has got a white beard.” In the later book on Stanley by Frank Hird “Stanley: An Authorised Biography” the author states that Hishmeh was “the first to see Livingstone.”

Selim himself did claim that not only had he been the first to spot Livingstone but also the first to greet him. So perhaps the famous phrase “Dr Livingstone I presume” was not the original greeting given when the search party reached Ujiji.

After the search was over Stanley and his party travelled back to Europe via Aden and Port Said where he paid off Selim Hishmeh. This severance pay included a bonus of £33 and a strong reference. [Using average earnings as a basis then today this would be the equivalent of £16,400]

Little is known about the activities of Selim over the next nine years but by 1881 he was in the U.S.A. where he is described as “American Consulate at Jerusalem and discoverer of Dr Livingston at Ujiji.” He was travelling with his cousin Joseph Hishmeh and was booked to give a lecture at Dirogo Four Corners a small settlement near Lewiston, Maine. He is also recorded at about the same time as giving a lecture at the small town of Lynn, Massachusetts. It was whilst here that a local photographer took several photographs of him. One of which is reproduced here.

This shows Selim in traditional Arab dress. Another photograph was of him with Turkish style clothing and on one he wrote “Sheik, Selim Hishmeh, guide of Stanley and first Discoverer of Dr David Livingstone.” Touring and giving lectures is the most likely way in which Hishmeh found his way to Britain and eventually to Scotland.

In October 1883 the Hamilton Advertiser reported on a talk given by Selim at the United Presbyterian Church Y.M.C.A. in Stonehouse. The article states that he was the “first discoverer of Dr David Livingstone.” When he settled in Lanark is not known but an article in the same paper published shortly after his death states that with the help of “a few influential men” he qualified as a doctor in Edinburgh University.  This is confirmed by an entry in the 1891 census where Selim is to be found living as a lodger in Castlegate, Lanark in the home of Jean Ritchie and her family. He is listed as being a medical student.

He later qualified Licence of the Royal College of Physicians, Edinburgh for he is known to have practiced in the town and elsewhere and assisted other doctors in different places. He also continued from time to time to lecture on “Stanley’s Search for Livingstone”.

Whilst living in the town he continued to wear the costume of his native land and as late as 1940 his fez was housed in one of the cabinets of the Museum which used to be in the Lindsay Institute, Hope Street. During the last years of his life he became increasingly withdrawn, spent a good deal of his time travelling the country and lost touch with most of his friends.

Having lodged in Castlegate, Lanark with the Ritchie family then with a Miss Purdie in Wide Close he later lived in a house at 107 High Street and it was here that he died aged 51 on 29th June 1910. The cause of death was recorded as “cirrhosis of liver”. Whilst he seems to have grown away from many of his friends during the last years of his life at least one remained. Dr Hishmeh’s gravestone bears the inscription “Erected by J. C. M.”. This was James C. MacKenzie who lived at Chapland Road, Lanark and is the witness recorded on the doctor’s death certificate as “acquaintance”. At least there was one man whom as a friend cared enough for this individual, so far removed from his birthplace, to have erected a stone.




Add a Comment
  1. I found this article so interesting. I do research into early interpreters and have been reading about Stanley’s travels in search of Livingstone Of course Selim’s name comes up often in the literature. How nice to find out a little bit more about the man.
    Would it be OK for me to put a link to your piece when I publish my post on my website?

  2. Thanks for posting. Bruce Fumey has done a video on this story, using the above info, which can be found here:

  3. Of course Alison. Feel free to share the Blantyre Project wherever possible, to as many people as possible! Selim is on the census information, so it’s easy to find what addresses he stayed at whilst living in Lanark. What i’m puzzled is that how he chose and ended up in Lanark to settle down.

  4. This is so interesting – I knew some of this, but not all. He also visited Shuttle Row, the birthplace of David Livingstone, while living in Lanark – the woman who lived in the Livingstone’s home would charge visitors a penny a time to see the room, and get them to sign a guest book. I can’t remember the exact year, but Selim Hishmeh was one of the visitors who signed the book (which we still have here).

    This is also very timely, as some of his descendents, now living in America, are currently visiting Scotland to do some research on Hishmeh for a magazine article his great-grandson is writing about him. I hope you won’t mind me sending them a link to this?

Leave a Reply