This year we commemorated the two hundredth anniversary of the birth of the legendary explorer Dr. David Livingstone, one of the most popular national heroes of nineteenth century Britain and by today’s standards, a leading celebrity. With this in mind my wife, Judith and I followed his footsteps in Namibia and Zambia last year. We carried with us a beautiful leather-bound photographically reproduced copy of Livingstone’s best selling Missionary Travels published in 1857. The fine volume published by Time-Life books covers his early journeys.
David Livingstone, a truly self made man, was born at Blantyre near Glasgow and leaving school aged ten, spent fourteen years working in a cotton mill. Strict upbringing in the Church of Scotland led him to become a missionary. However, whilst working long hours at the mill he learned Latin from a grammar mounted in front of his spinning machine. Later he went on to study theology and medicine becoming a qualified doctor and ordained as a member of the London Missionary Society.
Arriving in South Africa in 1841 he was soon journeying into unknown territory and during the next ten years was always on the move, often in the most challenging conditions. Indeed he almost died of thirst, hunger and fever and had to contend with predatory Boers, who thought he was arming the local people against them, as well as with hostile tribes. But perhaps the severest trial came when he was mauled so severely by a lion that he almost lost the use of his left arm. Whilst recovering at the home of a leading missionary he met and married his daughter, Mary, a robust and practical woman, who bore him six children and accompanied Livingstone on his early missionary work and expeditions. Alas his attempts to convert the Africans to Christianity had little success, which he ascribed to their poverty and harassment by Boers and slavers. However Sechele, a chief, whom Livingstone believed had lapsed from his conversion went on to lead thirty thousand Bakwena and by 1892 had created a strange form of African Christianity. Although not approved by all European missionaries he inspired more to follow Jesus than any of them.
But Livingstone was not to witness these extraordinary events. Deciding that the natives would not embrace Christianity until legitimate commerce would bring them bodily comfort and security, whilst reducing the appalling slave trade, he sought a route from the coast to the interior. Seeking a way North he crossed the arid Kalahari desert with his wife and children and went on to discover Lake Ngami. The party had almost died of thirst and owed their lives to the local bushmen. Not wishing to appear as if he were neglecting his missionary duties in favour of exploration he played down this find in his reports sent to England. He need not have worried for the London Missionary Society needed publicity to encourage donors. Also the Royal Geographical Society was so desperately short of funds that their directors had agreed to allow women to attend lectures and had set up social events! They too needed publicity so awarded Livingstone a gold medal!
Sending his family to England in 1853 he next set out on a year’s march accompanied by a party of Makololo tribesmen. Equipped with barter goods, firearms for self defence and a magic lantern to give bible lectures, they headed West. This introduction of technology terrified some of the people and when showing pictures of Isaac about to be killed, the movement of the slide raised Abraham’s dagger and the women in the audience fled.
Almost dead from dysentery and fever, Livingstone reached Loanda and might have died if friendly Portuguese and the surgeon of a British warship had not come to his aid.
When restored to health he declined an invitation from the Royal Navy to return to England and seeking a better way to an ocean, retraced his route with his faithful Makololo facing many hazards. He survived being hurled off his riding oxen and severely kicked by the beast and also an attack by a hippo on his canoe but he seems to have had a guardian angel.
Recruiting more Makololo for a new expedition, he marched East along the Zambezi river where he became the first white man to see massive falls called ‘The Smoke that Thunders’ and named them after Queen Victoria.
There were more narrow escapes from the wildlife and as we followed Livingstone’s path last year we had our own. Whilst seeking a baobab tree the doctor was said to have used as a shelter, we had a memorable meeting with a huge bull elephant in musth. Charging at us in a cloud of dust the giant only stopped five yards short of our open vehicle, before turning his attention to an adjacent termite mound, on which he vented his anger before coming at us again from behind. Thanks to the skill of our Zambian driver, we sped away and I was reminded of Livingstone’s vivid descriptions of his close encounters with these massive beasts.
Taking a short cut, the doctor failed to see the great cataract that blocked the Zambezi at Kebrabasa. Had he done so his plans for the next expedition would have been very different. But pressing on regardless of recurrent malaria he staggered into the Portuguese settlement at Teté. Here he was given a house boat in which to rest but it was filled with bats. Inspite of his illness his medical curiosity was aroused and he bared a leg to see if they would act as vampires. Fortunately they did not.
In May 1856, having covered five thousand miles he reached the coast, becoming the first European to cross Africa from West to East. The Royal Navy took him to England where, much to his surprise, a heroe’s welcome awaited. His book, that I read on the banks of the Zambezi, sold seventy thousand copies in a week and he was widely acclaimed. So much so that the Government made him a consul and funded an expedition to explore the Zambezi.
Returning with a paddle powered river boat and six Britons, Livingstone was confident that he could establish a mission in the interior but was defeated by the Kebvabasa cataract that he now saw with his own eyes. Undeterred he made a new plan and explored the Shiré river that ran North towards a great lake of which he was told. But this river was also obstructed by a cataract so he set out on foot to find Lake Nyasa. Here he saw the Arab slave trade in full swing and witnessed the horrors of, as he called it, ‘The open sore of the world,’ which he determined to eradicate.
Encouraged by Livingstone’s lectures and books, more missionaries including a bishop, came to join him, but although the explorer could lead Africans, he was less successful with his own people. There were personal conflicts and fights with slavers and many, including his long suffering wife, who had come out from England, succumbed to Malaria. Amazingly Livingstone survived although he had fever thirty times.
When the Government recalled the expedition the explorer went home but not this time as a hero. However, encouraged by Sir Roderick Murchison, President of the Royal Geographical Society, he undertook to locate the source of the Nile and was soon back in the dark continent. Travelling alone except for his beloved Africans, he eventually reached a wide river West of Lake Tanganyika that he thought might be the Nile but here he witnessed a terrible massacre of villagers by Arab slavers. Seriously sick, toothless and without supplies, he was reluctantly forced to accept the slavers’ hospitality and it was at the village of Ujiji in 1871 that the journalist Henry Morton Stanley met him, uttering ‘Dr. Livingstone I presume.’
Artist: Not known.
Illustration of when Stanley met Livingstone, 1871
Stanley had been sent out by the New York Herald to search for the great man and bring him supplies that probably saved his life – plus some champagne which they drank from silver goblets! The extraordinary friendship that blossomed between these two men, both of humble birth, later led Stanley to complete the doctor’s quest for the source of the Nile and also to carry on the fight against slavery.
Eighteen months after they parted, Livingstone was found dead, kneeling as if in prayer at Chitambo in what is now Zambia. Finally his body, riddled with disease, had given up. How he survived so long is itself miraculous. Incredibly his loyal servants, Chuma and Susi, made a nine-month, thousand-mile journey to bring his crudely embalmed body to Zanzibar where it was carried to England. Some questioned if the body was that of Livingstone. However, doubt was dispelled when clear marks of the lion’s teeth were seen in the left humorous. On April 18, 1874, in one of the greatest funerals of the nineteenth century, Africa’s most distinguished explorer was buried in Westminster Abbey.
Standing at Chitambo, where Livingstone’s heart is buried, I wondered what had made him a legend. As a missionary his only convert had lapsed. Two missions that went to Africa at his behest had ended in heavy loss of live, although the one on the Shiré was re-established and strongly influenced the development of Malawi. As a geographer he made a series of miscalculations and the river he found was not the Nile but the Congo. However within two months of his death, the Sultan of Zanzibar brought about the end of the Arab slave trade.
I believe it was the impact of his books, the force of his character and his battle against slavery for which he is remembered and revered. That is what made him a legend and why, of all the European explorers, it is his statues that still stand in Africa.