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Dr Livingstone, I Presume?

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Dr Livingstone, I Presume?

This month marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Dr David Livingstone, perhaps the best-known Christian missionary from Scotland. Jackie Macadam brings together his life and legacy.

THE MAN DAVID LIVINGSTONE. It’s hard to separate the man from the myth. Born in March 1813 to a large family steeped in Christianity, in the small Scottish mill town of Blantyre, he started working as a boy with his brother, mending the broken threads in the huge weaving machines in the local mill and moving on to be a spinner until his mid twenties to help support his family. But David was intelligent and aspirational, and in 1836 he entered Anderson’s College, Glasgow, to study medicine. A year later he was in touch with the London Missionary Society and in December of 1840, after completing his medical studies, and being ordained a missionary, he sailed for South Africa. The physical timeline of his life is not in dispute and where modern interpretations might not be as kind to him as the way he was thought of in his own time, there can be no doubting that he was an extraordinary and fascinating man; bold, driven, intelligent and persistent. Livingstone had not wanted to go to Africa. He’d hoped to be sent to China to work there as a medical missionary, but the outbreak of the Opium Wars forced a change of plan.

A meeting in 1840 with LMS missionary, Robert Moffat, piqued his interest in the work being done in Southern Africa, especially in the ongoing campaign against the slave trade. He also became interested in the independent and African-born daughter of Robert Moffat, Mary. The couple married in 1844.

He explored the African interior in the early 1850s, becoming the first European to see the Mosi-oa-Tunya (‘the smoke that thunders’) falls, which he, in keeping with the traditions of the times, renamed Victoria Falls, in honour of his Queen. The expeditions at the time could take many years of travelling through remote and dangerous territory. Danger from disease, warring and suspicious tribes, wild animals and accidental death was always present. Medical help was basic and antibiotics still unheard of.

Livingstone was arguably more interested in exploring than evangelising, and following a demand from the LMS that he concentrate his efforts on ‘converting the natives’, he resigned from the society in 1857. After being appointed Her Majesty’s Consul for the East Coast of Africa a short time later, he was funded by the British Government to return to Africa as head of the Zambezi expedition to investigate the natural resources of southeastern Africa and open up the Zambezi river.

Lasting from March 1858 to the middle of 1864, it was not an entirely happy experience for everyone involved. Members of the expedition were at times scathing of Livingstone’s leadership and abilities, some describing him as ‘secretive, self-righteous and moody’. The expedition artist was dismissed for theft – a charge he vigorously denied – and the failure of the attempt to negotiate the Cabora Bassa rapids brought the expedition to a premature halt. Taking an alternate route they subsequently found their way into Malawi. Technically, in the eyes of the funders, the British Government, the expedition was a failure, having not managed to find a way into the interior of the continent, and Livingstone found raising funds thereafter more difficult. It had also been a personal tragedy for Livingstone as Mary had succumbed to malaria in 1862. In 1866 Livingstone again returned to Africa, this time to Zanzibar in an attempt to find the source of the Nile.

This time he travelled up the Rovuma Valley and past Lakes Mweru and Bangweulu before arriving, in March 1869, at Ujiji suffering from pneumonia. In September the same year he reached Bambarre and to the Luama river before returning in December to Bambarre. The following year he set out north, but again fell ill and returned to Bambarre after six months. For his contribution to western science’s understanding of the region, he was awarded the gold medal of the Royal Geographical Society of London and became a Fellow.

The year 1871, was one of the defining moments of Livingstone’s career, when in November, the elusive explorer was ‘found’ by Henry Morton Stanley, sent to track him down by the New York Herald and The Telegraph newspapers, who uttered the memorable words: ‘Dr Livingstone, I presume?’ Though Livingstone’s health was by now failing, he continued exploring and charting rivers and lakes until, seriously ill from a combination of dysentery and malaria, he died, in May 1873. After his death Britain demanded his body be returned, but the people he had lived with for the last years of his life refused. Eventually they relented – but buried his heart under a Mvula tree, claiming that Britain could have his body – but his heart belonged in Africa.

His remains were interred at Westminster Abbey in 1874. The inscription on his grave, situated in the centre of the nave, close to that of James Rennell, founder of the Society for African Exploration, reads: ‘Brought by faithful hands over land and sea, here rests David Livingstone, missionary, traveler, philanthropist.’


Read more about the life of Livingstone in the March issue of Life and Work. You can buy a subscription to the magazine of the Church of Scotland here.