Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Steere, Edward

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STEERE, EDWARD (1828–1882), missionary bishop in Africa, son of William Steere of the chancery bar, and Esther (Ball) his wife, was born in London on 4 May 1828, and educated, first under Alexander Allen, at Hackney, then at University College school, London. Proceeding to University College, he graduated B.A. of the university of London in 1847, LL.B. in 1848, and LL.D., with gold medal for law, in 1850. The same year he was called to the bar at the Inner Temple, but showed a preference for philosophy and theology, and came under the influence of the tractarian revival. Living chiefly in London, Steere was deeply impressed by the need of earnest work among the poor, and in May 1854 joined a small society, known as the Guild of St. Alban. He had already learned the art of printing, and set up a private press, from which he issued the monthly magazine of the guild. Before the end of the year, on receiving a small legacy from an uncle, he gave up his chambers, and in May 1855 he founded in connection with the guild a sort of brotherhood at ‘The Spital,’ near Tamworth. The scheme did not answer his expectations, and in response to the appeals of friends to carry out an earlier intention, he was ordained at Exeter Cathedral on 21 Sept. 1856.

Steere's first curacy was at King's Kerswell, Newton Abbot, Devonshire. In the summer of 1858 he was invited to undertake the sole charge of Skegness and curacy of Winthorpe, Lincolnshire, by the vicar of Burgh-cum-Winthorpe, William George Tozer. He was admitted priest at Lincoln Cathedral. Skegness was then a straggling village which had long been without parochial care, but Steere made his reputation among the fishermen as a ‘downright shirt-sleeve man and a real Bible parson;’ while the Wesleyans ‘came to church in the morning to please him.’ In the autumn of 1859 he became rector of Little Steeping, at the foot of the Wolds. Towards the close of 1862 he obtained leave of absence in order to accompany his friend Tozer, the new missionary bishop of the universities mission to Central Africa, to the Shiré. On 19 May 1863, after narrowly escaping being drowned in a storm, he landed at the mouth of the Zambesi. For many months the newcomers failed to make much progress, until in August 1864 they fixed their headquarters at Zanzibar, then the centre of the slave traffic. Here the missionary work was begun with a few slave boys, and by the middle of 1866 had so well advanced that Steere was about to return home, when the bishop fell ill, and was ordered to England, leaving him in charge of the mission. Steere had already compiled a handbook to the Swahili language, reduced to writing the dialect of the Usambara country, and produced a Shambala grammar, which he printed with the aid of native boys. Having thus overcome the linguistic difficulties, Steere inaugurated a mission on the mainland, arriving in August 1867 at Vuga, the capital of the Usambara country. A year later he set sail for England.

On settling down again in Lincolnshire his spare time was at first entirely occupied with the Swahili translations for the Bible Society. At the church congress at Nottingham in 1871 he delivered an important address upon the duty of the country as regards the slave trade. When news came in 1872 of Bishop Tozer's ill-health, he volunteered to return to Zanzibar. He went out in the same ship as the Livingstone search expedition, the members of which he instructed in the native language on the voyage. By April 1872 he was left almost alone to face the work of the mission. Yet before the end of 1873 he had made good progress towards erecting an English cathedral on the site of what had formerly been the Zanzibar slave-market.

Only after several refusals did Steere accept the nomination as bishop of Central Africa; returning to England, he was consecrated at Westminster Abbey on 24 Aug. 1874. The rest of the year was spent in gathering new workers and rousing fresh interest; his headquarters were in Euston Square, but he constantly lectured or preached in provincial towns. He left England on 11 Feb. 1875. One of his earliest efforts was to bring the Nyassa district within his scope; he started with a party, but was compelled to continue his journey alone from the coast inland to Mwembe, the residence of the chief Mataka. The journey occupied him from August 1875 to February 1876. Later in this year he visited one of the mainland missions, and towards its close started on the expedition for founding the Masasi station, from which he returned in ill-health in January 1877. In February he sailed for England, and, as soon as he was recovered, devoted himself to preaching and lecturing for the mission. At Oxford he was made D.D.; at Cambridge he was appointed Ramsden preacher. Returning to Zanzibar in November, he found the mission work steadily growing; but his own health was impaired, and he was worried by pecuniary difficulties. In 1879 he issued his complete translation of the New Testament and prayer-book in Swahili, while on Christmas day of the same year he presided at the opening of the cathedral church at Zanzibar. In 1880 and 1881 he pressed on, though not in person, the establishment of the mission settlement towards Lake Nyassa. Early in 1882 his health obliged him to return to England. He got back to work in August, but died at Zanzibar on 28 Aug. He was buried in Christ Church, Zanzibar. Steere married, in 1858, Mary Bridget, daughter of Henry Langford Brown of Barton Hall, King's Kerswell. She died in 1883, leaving no issue.

Steere was a consistent high churchman, but by his width of view he won the esteem of men of every persuasion. His manner and appearance did not suggest the typical divine, nor was the work he was called upon to do purely spiritual. His success as a missionary was due in great measure to his versatility in throwing himself into all kinds of occupation, manual or mental, the ‘architect’ bishop scorning none of the industrial occupations he was anxious to teach the Africans. His linguistic power was great; he carefully studied the Swahili and Yao dialects, each of which he first made practicable as a written language, and devoted much attention to other native dialects (see below); he spoke French, German, and Portuguese, and had some acquaintance with Italian, Spanish, Arabic, and Hebrew, besides Latin and Greek. Besides editing Bishop Butler's ‘Analogy’ (1857) and ‘Sermons and Remains’ (1862), Steere published an ‘Essay on the Existence and Attributes of God’ (1856), written originally for the Burnett treatise competition; an ‘Historical Sketch of English Brotherhoods’ (1856); and an ‘Account of the Persecutions of the Church under the Roman Empire’ (1859; 2nd edit. 1880). Steere's works relating to the mission in Central Africa include an ‘Account of Zanzibar’ (1870), a sketch of the ‘Central African Mission’ in 1873, ‘Walks in the Nyassa Country’ (1876), and ‘Walks in the Zaramo Country’ (1880). His laborious study of East African dialects resulted in ‘Vocabularies of Gindo, Zaramo, and Angazidja’ (1869), ‘Collections for Handbooks’ to the Shambala language (1867), to the Yao language (1871), to Nyamwezi (1871), and to Makonde (1876). But his chief attention was directed to the Swahili language. His ‘Handbook of Swahili’ (1870; 3rd ed. rev. by A. C. Madan, 1884) was followed by ‘Swahili Tales’ (1871, 2nd ed. 1889), and he also translated or revised the translation into this tongue of the New Testament, a large portion of the Old Testament, the prayer-book, and a number of hymns and primers.

[Heanley's Memoir of Bishop Steere, 1889, 2nd ed. 1891; Brit. Mus. Cat.; notes kindly supplied by the bishop's brother, Francis W. Steere, esq.]

C. A. H.