Livingstone, David (1813- 1873), was the greatest explorer-missionary
in Africa of the 19th century. He was responsible not only for opening up the
southern half of that continent but also for disclosing to the civilized world
what he called "the running sore of Africa," the slave trade, as
practised in the interior.
Born at Blantyre in Lanarkshire, Scot., on March 19, 1813, the second son of
humble parents, Neil and Agnes Livingstone, he went to work in a cotton mill at
the age of ten. Even at that early age his energy and powers of concentration
showed themselves so that, largely self-taught, he was able, by the time he was
22, to study Greek, theology and medicine at college courses in Glasgow. As a result he took a medical degree in 1840, having been accepted
earlier by the London Missionary society as a candidate for the mission field.
Posted by the society to their mission at Kuruman in southern Africa, he landed
in 1841 at Algoa bay. he at once showed the two qualities which made him the
great traveler-missionary he soon became, the ability to cope with all the
practical difficulties of journey by ox-wagon, horse or on foot, and a quick
understanding of and sympathy with the native African. He was in fact so
competent in these things after his ten weeks´ journey to his base that after a
few weeks there he pushed on with his wagon for another 200 mi., farther than
any missionaries had yet penetrated, to seek a place for a mission where none
had been before. His next step was to go alone to establish it, so as to learn
the native language and explore the possibility of training native teachers.
At this stage Livingstone was plainly the devoted missionary, dedicated to his
task of spreading the gospel. He differed from his colleagues in desiring to
push far afield instead of wishing to remain in some degree of comfort at
Kuruman, and he was already very forceful in his attitude to the Boers whom he
regarded as thwarting the work of the missionaries. In following out this
independent policy he spent the next seven years building missions, learning the
languages and becoming a master at all the skills required for life in such
remote places. It was at one of his early mission stations that he was wounded
by a lion; he recovered, but at the cost of losing most of the power in his left
arm. While convalescing at Kuruman he courted and married Mary Moffat, daughter
of the veteran missionary, a step which he admits he took partly in pursuance of
his duty as a missionary, though in fact it was also a love match. In the course
of his travels he made friends with several sportsmen-hunters, including
William Oswell, whose character sorted well with his own and whose wealth was to
be the means of a new phase in his missionary career.
Livingstone was intensely interested in what lay ahead of him in what he always
called the "dark interior," and by questioning he learned of a
mysterious lake Ngami to the northwest and, more to his purpose, of the powerful
and enlightened chief of the Makololo tribe, named Sebituane, still farther
north, under whom he hoped to establish a mission station beyond the range of
both the Boers and the militant tribe of the Matabele.
With both these objectives in their minds, Livingstone and Oswell made a journey
in 1849 across the difficult tract of the Kalahari and reached Lake Ngami and
the swamps of the great Okavango river. The presence of tsetse fly and the
obstruction of a local chief prevented their going on to Makololo territory. The
next year he tried again, taking his wife and small children with him, as he was
afraid they might be molested by the Boers, but the party got malaria at Lake
Ngami. The next year he was successful when, with his family and Oswell, he
followed a new route and found Sebituane on the Chobe river. the friendship
between thes two remarkable man, the great missionary traveler and the strong
and wise black dictator, is the best example of how thoroughly Livingstone
understood the African, for though it lasted only three weeks before Sebituane
died of pneumonia, yet it was to colour the next four years of his wanderings.
It was there that Livingstone first come into direct contact with the slave
trade and where he first formed the opinion that the only way to fight it was to
undercut it as an industry by bringing trade from the coast by cheaper means. It
was at this stage that his missionary fervour became diluted by the more practical
need to combat the iniquities of slavery. He felt that he was the man to explore
Africa for trade routes and that became his principal aim thereafter.
The decision meant that his duty as a husband and father must take second place
to his duty as a reformer and explorer, and reluctantly he decided to send his
wife and family home to England and continue alone with his efforts to undercut
slavery. Much criticism has been leveled at him for this action but never then
or later did he allow his marriage to come before his avowed dedication to his
mission and exploration. He returned alone in 1853 to Sesheke, in headquarters
on the Zambezi of Sebituane`s successor, his nephew Sekeletu, a weaker chief but
one who befriended him and helped him to carry out his journeys.
In Nov. 1853 he started on his famous journey through unknown country to the
west coast of Africa with 27 men lent by Sekeletu. He still hoped to find a site
farther up the Zambezi healthy enough for a mission station but without success,
and he himself began to have severe bouts of fever - now fewer than 27 before he
reached the coast, after six months of hardship and danger from hostile tribes.
He kept a very full diary and his surveying produced a map which for parts of
the route was the only trustworthy one until well into the 20th. century.
There is nothing that shows the character of this remarkable man so well as his decision
on arriving at Loanda. Reaching his goal as a very sick man, broken in health
though triumphant in success, he was at once incited by the captains of ships,
including three British men-of-war, to take passage back to England, to health,
to his family, to honours. It hardly occurred to him to accept, even when
closely pressed. He had brought his men to a place whence they could not return
by themselves, therefore he must take them back again. What seemed to him common
humanity showed to the world as a degree of Christianity and a deep sense of
brotherhood with the African which has rarely been equaled. He took his party on
the even longer and more perilous journey back to Sesheke and was surprised to
find his return welcomed almost as a miracle. For himself there was the
disappointment that the route he had followed would not serve his great purpose
of trade to undercut slavery: he now had to find a route to the east coast of
Sekeletu gladly furnished him with the means of following down the Zambezi to
the sea, supplying over 100 of his tribesmen, and he started eastward in Nov.
1855. Only 50 mi. on his journey he discovered the great falls (Victoria falls),
of which he had heard, and took this wonder feature of Africa as a
disappointment rather than as a reward of exploration, since it was a barrier to
the navigation he hoped to find practicable down the river. half of the journey
was through quit unknown country, but by comparison with the Loanda route it was
straightforward, and on arrival at the coast he was given hospitality by the
Portuguese, before finding a ship to take him to England, leaving his Makololo
in apparently good hands until he could return to lead them back again. In
England he was received with honours and acclaim, forced into a limelight which
he disliked and obliged to give lectures, which was a burden to him for he had
always been a poor speaker. During the years of his stay in England he wrote his
book, Missionary Travels, one of the classics of explorer narratives, not
without literary merit.
Before leaving Africa he had received a letter from the directors of the London
Missionary society which in polite language made it clear that they did not
approve of the apparent diversion of his efforts from settled missions to
exploration. It was a great shock to him, since he felt himself just as sincere
a missionary as ever, but he accepted a severance from the society after 16
years of service.
His fame was to be the undoing of his plans. He had purposed to go back, alone,
to take his Makololo back to their tribe, hoping to do it by water up the
Zambezi and complete a survey for a trade route. Instead he found himself
appointed as a peripatetic consul to the Zambezi region and in command of an
official expedition under the aegis of the foreign office. He was given carte
blanche for the arrangements and to a less extent for the selection of the
personnel, and this exposed a weakness which neither he nor anyone else had ever
expected. He had proved himself a master at commanding and organizing African,
never suspecting that he could prove a failure at managing white colleagues and
a large expedition, as, in lieu of any other office, "moral agent."
Sailing from England in March 1858 there began an expedition which lasted for
six years of disharmony and frustration, thought, strangely enough, it had far
more important consequences than his former explorations. He hound that there
were myriad obstacles to the navigation of the Zambezi, but, to balance that, he
discovered Lake Nyasa and a feasible rout to the interior. He took many of his
Makololo back to their tribe as he had promised and came back, largely by canoe,
down parts of the great river. He explored more of Portuguese East Africa than
any one had thought possible, yet in doing so he opened a way for the slave
trade. He saw the commencement of the Universities mission to Nyasaland only to witness
disaster and retreat come upon it. Only one of his team, John Kirk, came out of
the venture with full credit, second only to his leader in fortitude and
singleness of purpose.
Livingston´s own exertions were as incredible as ever but marred by his
inability to command, and his persistence in clinging to the cause of most of
the bickering, his own brother. A crowning sorrow to him was the loss of his
wife who had, at his instance, come to join him and died of fever on the banks
of the lower Zambezi. When he was recalled by the foreign office in 1864 he was
a disappointed man and his narrative, written in collaboration with his brother,
is a poor record of the failures intermingled with successes.
After a comparatively quiet year in England writing his book, Livingstone was
persuaded without difficulty by his influential friend, Sir Roderick Murchison,
to go back to Africa with the dual purpose of finding out more about the slave
traffic in the interior and discovering the sources of the great rivers Zambezi,
Congo and Nile. This time he was once more to be the only white man, commanding
a curious mixture, of Indians, mission boys and local carriers, 60 in number,
together with animal transport. They landed at the mouth of the Rovuma river in
April 1866 intending to pass round Lake Nyasa far from the influence of the
Portuguese, with whom he was no longer persona grata. But the skill of
the master traveler had gone and in five months he had lost by desertion or
treachery all but 11 of his men.
Only past Lake Nyasa he was in unknown territory and back to his old practice of
observing everything, mapping and even taking daily records of rainfall,
temperature and barometric pressure, a model of scientific exploration. He was
often a prey to his old enemy, dysentery, and for the second time in his life,
lost his chest of medicine, again by robbery. His situation was now desperate.
Reduced to a party of nine men he could not turn back and he was forced to seek
help from the Arab traders, who were kind to him mainly because they dared not
let him return to the coast to tell the tale of their misdeeds. so for the next
four years there was the strange paradox of the great opponent of the slave
trade associating with those who lived by it, and being dependent on them.
During that period he discovered the southern and of Lake Tanganyika, and Lakes
Mweru and Bangweulu.
The ardent missionary in him was still there but was being turned by
circumstance into a great geographer and explorer. He knew he was in the region
where the Congo and the Nile must have their sources and was determined to
settle that problem. In 1869 he reached Ujiji, the headquarters of the trade in
ivory and slaves, but as a desperately ill man, and only to find the stores
which had been send from the coast plundered and dispersed. It is doubtful
whether the Arabs would have allowed him to go down to Zanzibar even if it had
occurred to him. Instead, he spend the next two years striving to explore the
upper Congo which he hoped might turn out to be the Nile, and there he witnessed
a wholesale massacre by the slave traders which finally turned him from further
association with them. He struggled back to Ujiji at the risk of his life, a
broken and disappointed man.
Help then arrived in the form of the journalist-traveler, Henry Morton Stanley,
send out by his American newspaper with the bare instruction of "Find
Livingstone." Together they discovered that Lake Tanganyika could not be
part of the Nile system, but Stanley could not persuade Livingstone to return
with him to the coast. He had become strangely dedicated to the task of finding
the source of the Nile, the geographer in him was now pre-eminent. In Aug. 1872
he received reinforcements of stores and men sent back to him by the loyal
Stanley and he started on his last journey with the best party he had ever had,
proposing to go to the south of Lake Bangweulu to find the source of the Nile or
the Congo, he was never sure which it would be.
He took the difficult route down the east side of Lake Tanganyika so as to
complete his survey and found himself entangled in the swampy region of Lake
Bangweulu in the middle of the rainy season. for once his magnificent navigation
was at fault, because of an accident to his sextant, and for a while he while he
was lost. His attacks of dysentery were now almost continuous, but impatient to
finish he started across the great swamps and reached the southern side a dying
man, though continuing his mapping to within a day of his death, at a tiny village
called Chitambo´s in the district of Ilala.
the epic story of how his men embalmed his body and took in with his papers back
to Zanzibar is perhaps the finest epitome of his live; he had become the
"beloved master" of thousands of Africans and the remnant of these
dared all risks to take him back to his own countrymen.
In the history of exploration there are other instances of lone travelers
sojourning for years in far countries, but none is so well documented by the
writings of the man himself. A poor speaker but a forceful writer with a
delightful, it sardonic, humour, he lives now largely through his letters. Like
many other great men he had the faults of his virtues. His failure as a leader
of white man is an instance; for as his grandson, Hubert Wilson, has said,
"He could only see black and white, he had no nation of grey." As a
traveler and an observer he was supreme, but his fame really rests on his
dedication to the welfare of the African, diverted by the slave trade from straightforward
teaching of the gospel to other means of saving the people he had looked upon as
brothers from his very first acquaintance with them.