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Issue 68 - Sir David Livingstone (1813-1873): One of the greatest lines in history

Scotland Magazine Issue 68
April 2013


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Sir David Livingstone (1813-1873): One of the greatest lines in history

As a force for British Imperialism and a campaigner for the abolition of slavery, David Livingstone was both a product of his time and a catalyst for change in British identity.

Livingstone was born to a working class family, the second child of seven, in Blantyre, south of Glasgow. Along with his siblings and peers, he started work at the local cotton mill at the age of 10, working 12 hour shifts and attending school in the evenings. It was a gruelling schedule, but Livingstone was given a thirst for self-improvement by his father, a keen theologian and evangelist. Unlike his father, David Livingstone had a passion for science and sought to reconcile this with his religion.

By the time he was 26 years old, Livingstone had saved enough money to put himself through medical school. He enrolled at Anderson’s College (now University of Strathclyde) in 1836 and soon afterwards joined the London Missionary School, moving to London in 1840. In London he was inspired by another missionary, Robert Moffat, whose daughter he married in 1845.

On the advice of Moffat, Livingstone started out as a missionary in South Africa. His raison d'être was very Victorian: Christianity, Commerce and Civilisation. Livingstone was passionately committed to bringing all of these to Africa.

Over time, Livingstone became more explorer than missionary, unwilling to force his faith on those who resisted it, while his medical supplies and expertise made him welcome among many local tribes. He travelled to places as yet untouched by Europeans and gained a certain amount of trust among the people he encountered.

Eager to unlock the commercial potential of Africa, Livingstone set out to explore the Zambezi River, which he believed would be an essential trade route through the continent. This initial expedition took four years, and in 1855 he came across a spectacular waterfall – Mosi-oa-Tunya or “the smoke that thunders” – which he renamed Victoria Falls after Queen Victoria.

He reached the mouth of the Zambezi in May 1856 and was the first European to cross the width of southern Africa.

He returned to Britain a national hero. He used the opportunity to drum up support for his exploration of the Zambezi and for the abolition of slavery.

Livingstone returned to Africa in 1858, this time funded by Government so that the Zambezi could be mapped and its trade potential understood.

Unfortunately this is where things started to go wrong. His wife died of malaria in 1862 while following him across Africa. His physician, John Kirk, concluded that “Dr Livingstone is out of his mind and a most unsafe leader”. It does appear that Livingstone was not equipped to manage such a large project. People deserted him, his supplies were stolen and he seems to have been better suited to negotiating with local tribes than with his staff and co-workers. An unimpressed British Government recalled him home in 1864.

Again, Livingstone used his time back on home soil to inspire and motivate others.

When he returned again to Africa in 1866, he was privately funded and in search of the source of the River Nile.

Livingstone’s aptitude for leading large expeditions had not improved over time, and he was at the mercy of the people around him. Again deserted and robbed, and forced to rely on slave-traders to give him safe passage and hospitality, Livingstone ‘washed up’ at Ujiji on the shores of Lake Tanganyika.

No one had heard from Livingstone in several months, until fellow explorer and journalist Henry Stanley tracked him down in Ujiji in 1871, prompting the legendary line, “Dr Livingstone, I presume?”

Livingstone’s health had been deteriorating for a long time by this point and he eventually died in May 1873. In death, Livingstone regained his reputation as a hero. His two faithful attendants, Chuma and Susi, carried his body more than a thousand miles to return him to Britain for burial. Livingstone’s myth inspired the next generation of Christian missionaries in the “Scramble for Africa” and was a contributory factor in both the rise and fall of British Colonialism.

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