Geographical Heroes: David Livingstone

David Livingstone is considered one of the greatest explorers of the African continent.  At a young age David Livingstone was inspired to become a medical missionary upon reading pamphlets printed by British and American churches asking for Christians to come forward to serve in China; he spent two year studying Greek, theology and medicine part-time in preparation.

The Opium Wars meant that that destination was no longer feasible; but through the London Missionary Society he met Richard Moffat, a Scot whose mission was in Southern Africa, and his attention turned there. Livingstone arrived in Cape Town in 1841 and, after a decade working as a missionary in Bechuanaland, where Moffat was based, moved northwards, in search of populous areas to convert, educating himself in local cultures and languages as he did so. With William Oswald he crossed the Kalahari deserrt and discovered Lake Ngami. It was on a second expedition, to the upper reaches of the Zambezi, that he had his frst encouter with the slave trade and resolved o didicate the rest of his life to its abolition.
By now, Livingstone had married Moffat’s daughter Mary, who travelled with him on several of his expeditions, until in 1852 it was decided that it would be wiser for reasons of health, education andsecurity to send her back to Britain with their four children.Betweem 1853 and 1856 he made his great series of journey from Central Africa to the west coast, then right across the continent to east east. He travelled up the Zambezi, returning again after bouts of fever to see if it might prove a passageway into the interior for trade and other outside influences, and in 1855 came across the spectacular falls he named after Queen Victoria. ‘It had never been seen before by european eyes; but scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight’.

Victoria Falls

The following year Livingstone arrived back in Britain to a hero’s welcome. He wrote up an account of his explorations in Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa (1857) which sold an extraordinary 70,000 copies – one of the century’s best sellers – before touring the country for six months giving talks.

Livingstone statue at Victoria Falls

On his next expedition (1858-1864), he planned to take a steamboat on the Zambesi and find a viable route into the interior, but was not so successful , and saw the loss of his wife – who had returned to Africa – and other followers. Now he was sponsored by the government rather than the London Missionary society, who felt he spent too much of his time exploring. He was charged with ‘exploring eastern and central Africa, for the promotion of Commerce and Civilisation, with a view to the extinction of the slave-trade’, and with him went an entourage of ten Africans and six Europeans.

He investigated the lake Chilwa and Nyasa, but the Quebrabasa Falls blocked progress along the Zambesi itself, as did rapids further upstream. In 1863, the government recalled the expedition, and Livingstone came home.

From both economic and political stand points, the expedition had not lived up to the high expectations that Livingstone had encourage back in Britain. What’s more, Livingstone found that his earlier discoveries had been used locally to extend the slave trade. His consolated was that he had collected a great deal of scientific information and created the first stepping stone towards establishing the British Central Africa Protectorate in 1893.

Prompted by the Royal Geographical Society, Livingstone returned to Africa in 185 to resolve once and for all the debate about the source of the river Nile. He reached the lakes Bangweulu and Mweru (1867-8) and, after respite at Ujiji, again struck west and reached the Lualaba, unsure if it was the upper most Nile, or the Congo.

Meanwhile, nothing had been heard of him back home. Then, in 1871, he was discovered (‘Dr. Livingstone, I presume) by H. Stanley, a reporter from the New York Herald sent by his editor to ‘find Livingstone’. Livingstone was by this time ageing and ill, but was boosted by the supplies that Stanley had brought, and together they explored the northern reached of Tangangyika, proving it had not northern outlet – and that Burtons’ theory as to the source of the Nile was incorrect.

Stanley tried to convince Livingstone to return with him but he was determined to have one more crack at the Nile proble,, and returned instead to Lake Bangweulu. Having reached the village of Old Chitambo, he was found one morning leaning by his bedside, as if in prayer, stone dead. his followers buried his heart and embalmed his body with salt, then, over the course of nine months, it was carried to the coast, from where it was taken to be buried in Westminster Abbey.

As well as spreading the gospel, and increasing awareness of the slave trade, Livingstone collated valuable information on botany, zoology, and geology, and navigated b means of precise astronomical observations. He believed that progress had made the European race more advanced, and said as much. He wrote that he had encouraged his white assistance to act ‘as members of a superior race and servants of a government that desires to elevate the more degraded portions of the human family’. However, he also viewed the African with sympathy: ‘The Bakalahari, who live at Motlases wells, have always been very friendly to us and listen attentively to instruction conveyed to them in their own tongue. It is , however, difficult to give an idea to a European of the little effect teaching produced, because no on e can realize the degradation to which their minds have been sunk by centuries of barbarism and hard struggling for necessaries of life; like most others, they listen with respect and attention, but when we kneel down and address an unseen Being in the position and the act often appear to them so ridiculous that they cannot refrain from busting into uncontrollable laughter.

Ultimately he had faith in the capability of the Africa people to rise to the challenges and innovations of modern society. His legacy, therefore, had been as much an instigator of African nationalism as of Western Imperialism’.

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