David Livingstone, 1813-1873

Missionary-explorer, explorer-missionary. Although the emphasis in David Livingstone’s life’s work alternated, both vocations are united in his legacy as the most revered and influential foreign traveler to the African continent. His journeys--conducted on foot, by oxcart, canoe, and boat, and on the shoulders of native companions--spanned thirty-two years and covered forty thousand miles of terrain virtually unknown to Europeans. He was the first white man to cross the continent (west to east) and the first to view Victoria Falls, which he named. Although Livingstone is known to have converted only one African to Christianity, a friend who was a Bakwain chief, he showed vast possibilities for the missionaries who followed his path of practical benevolence. As a recent biographer put it: “Through him, the centre of Africa ceased to be a dark, unknown space on the map and became a real place, full of interesting human beings [and] wonderful wildlife. . . .”

I think I would rather cross the African continent again than undertake to write about it. I intended on going to Africa to continue my studies; but as I could not brook the idea of simply entering into other men's labors made ready to my hands, I entailed on myself, in addition to teaching, manual labor in building and other handicraft work, which made me generally as much exhausted and unfit for study in the evenings as ever I had been when a cotton-spinner. The want of time for self-improvement was the only source of regret that I experienced during my African career.

—Livingstone, from preface to Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa (1857)

Born in Blantyre, Scotland, the second son of strict Calvinist parents, Livingstone was working long hours in the textile mills there by the age of ten. In an early display of the concentration and determination that would characterize his whole life, he learned Latin from a textbook propped up against a spinning jenny, undisturbed by the noise of the machinery. (Considering that only 10 percent of child factory workers achieved partial literacy, Livingstone was already proving himself a rarity.) In 1834, he resolved to become a missionary after reading a pamphlet by Karl Gutzlaff of the Netherlands Missionary Society, appealing for missionaries trained in medicine to be sent to China. At the age of twenty-three he began his medical studies at Andersonian University (Glasgow) and later applied to and was accepted by the London Missionary Society (LMS). Originally hoping to be sent to China, he changed his goal to South Africa after hearing Robert Moffat speak about his experiences there. Moffat was one of the most successful missionaries of his generation and was considered an LMS model, having worked in Africa for many years and established a settlement in Kuruman (South Africa). The two men became lifelong friends.

At a public meeting on 1 June 1840, Livingstone heard Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton of the Society for the Extinction of the Slave Trade and for the Civilization of Africa offer a plan to resolve the problem of slave trading in Africa: open up the country to trade in other commodities that the inhabitants could produce or grow. As a leader of the antislavery movement, Buxton passionately believed in bringing the three Cs to the continent: Christianity, Commerce, and Civilization. It was a eureka moment for Livingstone: here was the way forward in Africa, to which he would devote the rest of his life.

With his certificate of ordination in hand, Livingstone sailed for Africa in December 1840. He spent the next several years journeying around southern Africa, visiting mission stations and developing the modus [modi? plural] operandi of his missionary life: traveling with few Europeans (he was never a team player), immersing himself in native language and life, sometimes offering his medical services and scientific advice (on irrigation, for example), teaching, and preaching. His visit to the LMS “jewel,” Moffat’s Kuruman settlement, was a disappointment. It seemed minuscule and inadequate, and perhaps confirmed his belief that he could better spend his time traveling than staying put in one spot, hoping to convert only a few local natives. Livingstone wanted to throw as wide a net as possible.

In January 1845, he married Mary Moffat, the missionary’s daughter, who traveled with him for brief periods at his insistence, despite pregnancy and her mother’s objections. Livingstone eventually sent his wife and four children back to England in 1852, essentially to rely on the benevolence of the LMS, family, and friends, and was not to see them for four and a half years. In the period between 1849 and 1856, his explorations took him to Lake Ngami across the Kalahari Desert, to the Zambezi River, and from there west to the Atlantic Ocean at Loanda (today’s S~o Paulo de Loanda, Angola). He turned down a chance to return to England, but entrusted his reports, maps, and letters for transport. The ship went down with all hands except one, and all of Livingstone’s papers were lost, forcing him to re-create everything. He followed his track back to Linyanti (in Botswana) and then decided to assess the possibilities of the Zambezi as a highway into the heart of Africa by following it to the Indian Ocean. He reached Victoria Falls in 1855, confirming what he had heard from natives for many years. “Scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight,” he wrote. It was the only site in Africa that he named with English words.

“The Victoria Falls, of the Leeambye or Zambesi River, Called by the Natives Mosioatunya (Smoke Sounding).” From David Livingstone’s Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa, Including a Sketch of Sixteen Years’ Residence in the Interior of Africa . . . (London, 1857). [Rare Books Division]

Bell of the Pioneer. Gift of George W. Lyon, Class of 1896. [Museum Objects Collection]

Livingstone reached Quilimane on the coast of Mozambique on 20 May 1856, but he got there by cutting across a loop of the Zambezi to Tete, inadvertently missing the Kebrabasa Rapids, a drop of about six hundred feet. Hence, he was unaware that the river was not navigable when he arrived in London at the end of the year to promote its potential to the British government.

In the meantime, the LMS had informed him that his expeditions were not the kind of gospel work it expected of him, and he resigned the next year. In England, he was feted as a national hero. His book Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa, written in six months, became an immediate best-seller, with seven editions published in rapid succession. Livingstone was suddenly a wealthy man. He lectured about the commercial possibilities of Africa and convinced the government to sponsor an expedition up the Zambezi River to gain knowledge of natural resources and to encourage the natives to trade with England as an alternative to the slave trade. He was given a consulship in the District of Quilimane with a salary of £500 and was back in Quilimane on 14 May 1858.

The Zambezi expedition was a disaster. Livingstone did not get along well with his British team, including his brother Charles, and at times showed indecisive and poor judgment. The Zambezi and Shire rivers were not navigable by the small steamboats, the Pioneer and the Lady Nyassa, sent from England. There were encounters with slavers. (Among the slaves who were freed was a boy named Chuma, who would serve the explorer loyally for the rest of Livingstone’s life.) Mary Livingstone joined her husband in January 1862; several months later she contracted malaria and died at Shupanga (Mozambique). A bereaved but determined Livingstone continued to explore Lake Nyassa and surrounding areas, including a 750-mile trek on his own. The expedition was recalled by the British government in the summer of 1863. Because he had paid for the Lady Nyassa out of his own pocket, Livingstone decided to sail it to India rather than sell it to Portuguese slave traders. The courageous 2,500-mile crossing of the Indian Ocean, from Zanzibar to Bombay, was accomplished in May and June 1864, but the £2,300 Livingstone received for the Lady Nyassa was quickly lost in the financial collapse of the bank in which he invested the money. He had risked his life, and those of his companions, for nothing.

Back in England in 1864, the Burton-Speke Nile controversy was attracting great attention. Gradually Livingstone convinced himself that an expedition that combined geographical objectives—a search for the sources of the Nile—with an antislavery crusade would attract financial support. The government, however, would contribute only a third of the resources he needed; the rest came from his friend James Young, the inventor of paraffin. Livingstone returned to Africa via Bombay to pick up the African friends he had left there. On 16 March 1866, he landed on the east coast near the mouth of the Ruvuma River, the boundary between today’s Tanzania and Mozambique, with a hand-picked party of about thirty Africans. His goal was to pass the southern end of Lake Nyassa and then to head north toward the region south of Lake Tanganyika, where he believed the Nile’s source would likely be found. With high hopes of repeating his earlier triumphs, he wrote in his journal: “The mere animal pleasure of traveling in a wild unexplored country is very great. . . . Africa is a wonderful country for appetite.”

Livingstone failed, however, to approach the geographical problems logically and was increasingly confused. He rejected Sir Roderick Murchison’s advice to determine first whether a river at the north end of Lake Tanganyika flowed northward to the lake, Lake Albert, that Sir Samuel White Baker had recently discovered and named. (None does.) This preliminary work would have narrowed the search to the area around the southern and western sides of Lake Albert. (Ultimately, Livingstone came to believe that the Lualaba River was the Nile’s source—it is really one of the sources of the Congo—but he did not live long enough to trace it north.) After 1871, when he was found at Ujiji by Henry Morton Stanley, Livingstone traveled around the Lake Bangweolo region, west and south of Lake Tanganyika, until, weak and ill and in intense pain, he had to be carried in a litter. He died in the village of Chitambo (in today’s Zambia); his companions found him kneeling beside his bed in the posture of prayer. He was sixty years old.

Remarkably, Chuma and Susi, Livingstone’s loyal African followers, decided to bury his heart but preserve his body and carry it back to the coast, where they arrived in February 1874 after a ten-month ordeal. Livingstone’s body was brought back to England, and he was buried in Westminster Abbey as a national hero. Stanley was one of his pallbearers. In one of his last letters, Livingstone wrote: “All I can say in my loneliness is, may Heaven's rich blessing come down on every one—American, English, Turk—who will help heal this open sore of the world.” More than any of his contemporaries, Livingstone succeeded in seeing Africa through African eyes. One month after his death, Great Britain signed a treaty with Sultan Barghash of Zanzibar, halting the slave trade in that realm. The infamous slave market of Zanzibar was closed forever.

David Livingstone, 1813-1873