Dr Livingstone, I Presume . . .

Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa, by David Livingstone. . . is a phrase many people have heard of, or quote, while knowing little about the Victorian missionary and explorer behind the expression. Yet Dr David Livingstone (1813-73) and Henry Morton Stanley (1841-1904) were extremely famous figures in their day. Post-colonial interpretations of Victorian involvement in Africa have been less kind, however, and the fame of their exploits has been eclipsed by their more negative aspects, including arms dealing and involvement in local wars. Stanley, in particular, despite his knighthood, has been severely criticised for his involvement in the Belgian Congo, and even in his own life time was considered brutal towards indigenous peoples – Sir Richard Burton commented that ‘Stanley shoots negroes as if they were monkeys’.

However, a controversial memorial to Stanley in the Welsh town of Denbigh, where he was abandoned outside the workhouse as a six-year-old child, has recently re-ignited the dispute over the legacy of British colonialism in Africa, and specifically over the light in which Stanley himself should be viewed.

David Livingstone decided to train as a medical missionary as a way of combining his interest in science with a strict Scottish religious upbringing. (This difficulty was one shared by many in the mid nineteenth century, as scientific discoveries seemed at odds with traditional religious beliefs.) His original plan of travelling to China was prevented by the outbreak of the first Opium War in September 1839, but another London Missionary Society member, Robert Moffat (Livingstone’s future father-in-law), suggested that he went to Africa instead. Hearing Sir Thomas Buxton speak on the possibility of undermining the slave trade though a combination of Christianity and other forms of commerce decided him, and, after his medical graduation and ordination, he left for Africa in December 1840.

As a missionary Livingstone was not a success. He made few converts and had a low opinion of many other missionaries with whom he had dealings. However, his desire to penetrate into the interior of Africa led to his recognition as an explorer, and he was awarded a prize by the Royal Geographical Society in 1851 for reporting his discovery of Lake Ngami. He travelled with the hunter William Cotton Oswell (whose biography we will soon be reissuing), went up the Zambesi, gave the Victoria Falls their familiar name, and sent observations to the Astronomer Royal in Cape Town, Thomas Maclear. On his return to Britain in 1856 he found himself a celebrity, due to the publication of his letters by the president of the R.G.S., Sir Roderick Murchison. Invited to give many lectures about his travels, at venues including Cambridge, Livingstone hurriedly wrote his first book. Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa (1857) was based on his diaries, and its first edition sold out before the publication date. He subsequently received government and private funding to return to Africa leading an expedition (with both scientific and commercial aims) along the Zambesi from 1858 to 1864. However, Livingstone’s stubborn conviction of the correctness of his own plans led to many rifts among the explorers (several of whom, including Livingstone’s wife Mary, died of malaria), and achieved little, although over £30,000 had been spent.

His second book, The Narrative of an Expedition to the Zambesi and Its Tributaries (1865), was marred by his attempts to blame others for the failure of the expedition. He returned to Africa (via India) in 1866, wishing to repair his somewhat damaged reputation, which had been eclipsed by the exploits of John Hanning Speke and Richard Burton in search of the source of the Nile. The governor of Bombay, Sir Bartle Frere sent him by official ship to Zanzibar, but illness and logistical problems, combined with tribal warfare, made his efforts to find a way to navigate from Lake Tanganika to the Nile impossible. It was at this point that the Welsh-born journalist Henry Morton Stanley arrived at Ujiji, having been commissioned by the New York Herald to find Livingstone, who had not been heard of for two years. He had set out with 200 porters on 21March 1871, and made his celebrated (and possibly fictitious – he destroyed the relevant pages from his diary) remark in November of that year. The two parted company the following spring, Livingstone still determined to seek the ultimate headwaters of the Nile.

He died on 30 April 1873, and his embalmed body was brought back by his companions, and subsequently buried with all ceremony in Westminster Abbey. His children were given government pensions, despite the fact that his theories on the source of the Nile had already been disproved, and he had failed as a missionary. His Last Journals were published posthumously by his fellow missionary Horace Waller in 1874. They, together with Stanley’s own account, How I Found Livingstone, helped create the heroic myth of the dedicated missionary and anti-slavery campaigner, who seemed to validate Western colonial policies. Livingstone’s career and character were greatly re-evaluated in the second half of the twentieth century, but his journals remain a rich source on the nineteenth-century exploration and history of Africa.


This entry was posted in Anthropology, History, Religious Studies, Slavery and Abolition, Travel and Exploration and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Dr Livingstone, I Presume . . .

  1. Pingback: On A Mission | Cambridge Library Collection Blog

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