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Issue 35 - Doctor Livingstone, I presume?

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 35
November 2007


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Doctor Livingstone, I presume?

In the latest of our series on famous Scots, we study the life of Scotland's most famous explorer

David Livingstone was born in Blantyre Mill village on 19 March 1813. The son of a shopkeeper, the young Livingstone lived with his parents, two brothers and two sisters in a one-roomed house beside the cotton mill.

Like the other village children, he began working in the mills at the age of 10 as a piecer, which meant that he was responsible for ensuring that the cotton threads in the machinery didn’t snap. His working day started at six in the morning and did not finish until eight at night, promptly followed by two hours of school.

During the course of his studies he read an appeal on behalf of the Chinese Missions which captured his imagination and made him determined to go to China to work as a missionary.

At 23 he studied medicine and theology at Anderson College in Glasgow, studying in winter and working at the mill during summer, and was eventually accepted as a missionary doctor by the London Missionary Society. However, the Opium War was going on in China at this time, and instead Livingstone was persuaded to go to Africa.

He set sail in 1840 and went to Kuruman in the Kalahari to learn the workings of a mission station. There he met his future wife Mary Moffat, the daughter of another missionary; they were married in 1845 and had four children. His wife shared his zeal to deliver the Christian message and together they began to explore uncharted areas of Africa. It was a hardlife, and during one such expedition their youngest child died, and Livingstone promptly sent his family back to Britain. He chose to remain in Africa and it was from this point that he became more explorer than missionary. He spent most of the next 30 years in Africa, occassionally coming back to Britain where he was increasingly well-known, to give lectures or publish books.

One of his most famous discoveries was made while mapping the upper Zambezi River in 1855: a spectacular waterfall which he named Victoria Falls – he was the first European to see them.

Another of his greatest achievements was the part he played in the abolition of the slave trade. His books on African exploration led to an upsurge in British opinion against the slave traders and the British government was forced to take action.

Towards the end of his life, Livingstone went off-radar and no one saw or heard from him for four years. An American journalist named Henry Stanley was sent by his newspaper the New York Herald to find Livingstone. They finally met near Lake Tanganyika in Zanzibar in 1871, where Stanley uttered the immortal phrase: “Dr Livingstone, I presume?” He brought with him much needed medicine and supplies, which allowed Livingstone to continue his exploration to find the source of the Nile.

During his life Livingstone had almost died several times from disease and attacks by wild animals, but eventually succumbed from fever in 1873, having refused to return to Britain. His followers found him kneeling by his bedside early one morning, having died in prayer. His heart was buried under a Myula tree but his body was transported back to Britain where he was buried with honours in Westminster Abbey on 18 April 1874 – a day of national mourning.

For the Victorians, David Livingstone was recognised as a courageous explorer of Africa, a tireless missionary and a champion of the fight against slavery.Although a great deal of his fame was posthumous and can be attributed to Henry Stanley’s celebration of Livingstone after ‘finding’ him in 1871.

Today he is widely remembered and his life has been commemorated in many parts of the world by exhibitions, monuments, museums, statues and memorials of all kinds, not lesat of all in Scotland.

Places to visit
The David Livingstone Centre

Livingstone’s birthplace in Blantyre is now the David Livingstone National Memorial. At the centre you can share the adventure of Livingstone’s life, from his childhood in the Blantyre Mills to his explorations in the heart of Africa - dramatically illustrated in the historic tenement where he was born. There are many excellent facilities including interpretation, gift shop, tearoom, playground and riverside walks

165 Station Road, Blantyre G72 9BY
Tel: +44 (0)844 493 2207

National Library of Scotland
The most significant custodian of Livingstone manuscripts and materials. Its holdings have recently been increased by the acquisition of the documents in the John Murray Archive.
George IV Bridge, Edinburgh EH1 1EW
Tel: +44 (0)131 623 3700