William Cooper Thomson

William Cooper Thomson was a missionary in Nigeria. Born 11 January 1804 in Balfron, he was the son of John Thomson and Elizabeth Cooper, and a nephew of Alexander Greek Thomson.

Described as ‘the eldest of the second family’, William was a brilliant student. He acted during one session for the Professor of Humanity in Glasgow University. He had great linguistic gifts. Latin and Greek, French and Italian, Hebrew and Chaldee, Syriac and Arabic he mastered with what seemed ease. He graduated MA from Glasgow University in 1824.

In Balfron he taught French to a Highlandman who, in turn, taught him Gaelic. During the summer vacation he is mentioned as ‘having been most useful on his father’s farm during the summer vacation from Glasgow University’.

Later he showed a remarkable capacity for mechanics. He seems to have anticipated the discovery of the screw propellor. His studies in gunnery led to the invention of a gun which he called the Govanade. With youthful precipitance he fell in love, married, and had to settle down to work for the maintenance of his home. This gave the death-blow to hopes of entering the ministry which he had cherished. He turned to the teaching profession, for which he was well equipped.

Leaving Balfron, he lived for a time in Glasgow, and removed to London in 1834. His thoughts were directed to Sierra Leone, where the Church Missionary Society (CMS) required one with linguistic gifts for the work of translation. The region was known as ‘The Englishman’s Grave’, but, notwithstanding, he offered his services, was accepted, and sailed thither with his wife and family in 1837. One of his sons died with his wife “within a year having fallen a victim to the climate.

William Cooper Thomson arrived in Africa at a point when the CMS was attempting to revive itself in Sierra Leone following the failure of earlier missionary attempts. Much of the emphasis was on education.

Cooper Thomson (sic), the CMS linguist, led the mission to Timbo, starting off in December 1841 accommpanied by his twelve-year old son, who had been born in Sierra Leone. Well received at Timbo he proposed to go further, but was delayed by war. In 1843 he died.

His son, Billy (William Cooper Thomson Jr), who returned from Timbo with the news, later became a missionary himself at Calabar. The bleeding-heart vine Clerodendrum thomsoniae, which was discovered by Billy, was named after his first wife, who died in 1858.

William Cooper Thomson Snr’s nephew, George Thomson was a missionary in Cameroon.