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David Livingstone Biography And Visits

The upper reaches of the Nile near Rusumo Falls. This image is copyright free

David Livingstone was born into a devoutly religious family in Blantyre, Scotland on 19th March 1813. Life was undoubtedly hard for the family. By the age of ten, David was working twelve hour days in the cotton mill close to his home, which can still be seen at the David Livingstone Centre. Outside of these long working hours, life revolved around the church. As David grew up, he followed his father Neil - a door to door tea salesman and Sunday School teacher - in his earnest Christianity. But earnest and devout though he was, David Livingstone insisted on reading about natural history and science. Neil feared his son's faith would be undermined by studying these subjects. This risk was headed off by a book called Philosophy of a Future State by amateur scientist and church minister Thomas Dick. Modern science as it developed in the nineteenth century set itself against a traditional religious outlook in many ways, not least in the suggestion that there was no definable goal to which life was leading. This was the crucial point which Dick took issue with in his book. Science, according to Dick, continued to demonstrate a clear purpose, and continued to suggest that God had a plan which would eventually be fulfilled. Dick, for example, took discoveries in astronomy indicating a vast and seemingly unending universe; he then suggested that the universe, big as it seemed, could not possibily be arranged so that getting to the top of one hill top only reveals another in the distance. There had to be a final hill which would reveal the ultimate view. This was "proved" by the fact that everyone knew that God was good, which meant God wouldn't allow man to search forever without finding the answer to life's mystery. Philosophy of a Future State made a great impression on Livingstone, second only to that of the Bible.

David Livingstone's life of travel began in the 1830s when Karl Gutzlaff, a missionary working in China, made an appeal for missionaries through evangelical churches in Britain. The message reached the Independent Church of Hamilton where David Livingstone worshipped with his family. In August and September 1837 two letters were sent to the London Missionary Society, the first written by Rev'd John Moir, the second by Livingstone himself. On the strength of these letters an invitation to join the Missionary Society was made, and by 1841 Livingstone was in Cape Town working as a missionary doctor. Missionary work followed for the period between 1841 and 1852, in Bechuanaland, southern Africa. Mary Moffatt, daughter of senior missionary Robert Moffatt became Mrs Livingstone in January 1845. But Livingstone had no time for family life. He was a man who put his work before everything. On September 15th 1851, on the Zouga River, Mary gave birth to her fifth child. This event merited only one line in her husband's journal. Details of alligator eyes, and the use of ipecacuanha in the treatment of dysentery were more important. It was from this point onwards that travel became an overriding obsession. The Boers pulled down Livingstone's home at Kolobeng, Mary and the children went back to England, and Livingstone was left to follow his African obsessions.


Newstead Abbey: this image is by Simon Johnston and is copyright free

Now unencumbered by his family, Livingstone made the first of his epic journeys, the trans-Africa expedition of 1853 - 56. This journey, which extended from the coast of Angola across Africa to the mouth of the Zambesi in Mozambique, was an incredible feat of endurance. This 2000 mile trek took Livingstone through the upper reaches of the Zambesi, which like the Nile flooded once a year and provided a fertile valley in which to grow crops. Potentially this seemed to be an area which offered great hope for colonisation. Returning to Britain in late 1856, he found a country that needed a hero, to offset disastrous wars in the Crimea and China. Livingstone was willing to play that role. He became a symbol of an idealised kind of imperialism, based on paternal Christian values, and opposition to slavery. A speech given by Livingstone at the Royal Geographical Society on December 15th 1856 was a triumph. The following year of 1857 was spent in England, often staying at grand Newstead Abbey, owned by fellow explorer William Frederick Webb, attending civic functions arranged in his honour, and generally playing the heroic role expected of him. In late 1857 the government announced that it was to contribute £5000 towards the cost of an expedition on the Zambesi. This expedition, it was hoped, would build on the potential identified for colonisation there. Livingstone was also made a British consul, which paid £500 a year. With money from his best selling book Missionary Travels, David Livingstone, son of a door to door tea salesman was now a man of independent means, and an official explorer by appointment of HM government. This was the high point of Livingstone's career. Everything seemed to suggest that the next challenge of exploring the Zambesi would only add to a great reputation.

1858 - 1863 saw Livingstone battling through his state sponsored expedition on the Zambesi. The aim was to chart the river and use it as a highway into areas suitable for colonisation in south east Africa. Whereas earlier journeys had been made with Livingstone virtually alone with his native bearers, the Zambesi expedition included a number of young idealistic university men who had all been impressed by the glamorous Livingstone myth. All of them eventually were forced to compare heroic image with uncomfortable reality. While it is obviously true that leaders have to show the way ahead and give a sense of direction, Livingstone's sense of obsession in reaching his destination was so great that any ruthless compromise was acceptable in getting there. This sense of ruthless purpose would remain undimmed even when it became clear that the Zambesi was not easily navigable and didn't offer a highway to anywhere. This reality was simply not accepted. Huge risks were taken to pass rapids at Kebra Basa, and it was abundantly clear after this hazardous passage that the Zambesi was not navigable by boat. Livingstone simply refused to accept this, and dismissed the problem of the Kebra Basa rapids as one to be solved by a high tide. John Kirk, the expedition's botanist and medical officer wrote in his journal for 25th September 1862: "Dr L is a most unsafe leader. He never thinks about getting back. All he cares for is accomplishing his object at any risk whatever. It is useless to make any remark to him" (quoted Northcott P93). Kirk even questioned Livingstone's sanity. On 18th September 1862 he wrote: "I can come to no other conclusion than that Dr L is out of his mind." The polar explorer Ernest Shackleton during an attempt to reach the South Pole turned away with about one hundred miles to go. He later told his wife he thought she would prefer a live donkey to a dead lion. Livingstone would always choose the dead lion. As well as utter recklessness regarding safety, Kirk also observed Livingstone's sometimes brutal treatment of native workers on the expedition. In his journal entry for 18th July 1859, Kirk wrote: "This forenoon the Doctor himself had enough to do to manage the men. The head ones would not work and gave a look of defiance at the Doctor when he ordered them into the water to shove the ship off the bank. In a minute he was after them with a cook's ladle... This was following the advice he had given me in the morning to break their heads if they do not do as I told them" (Northcott P93). Livingstone was committed to causes, and fighting slavery was one of them. No doubt he was sincere in his support of the anti slavery movement, but like many people who embrace a cause, Livingstone was more interested in the issue as a idealised idea. While he supported the vision of ending slavery he did not see the irony of treating his native workers poorly. The cause mattered before people, even if ironically the cause was about people.

In February 1862 a scathing attack appeared in The Times, criticising Livingstone for achieving very little on his Zambesi expedition, a claim which unfortunately was true. As his biographer Cecil Northcott says: "There was no mission settlement to point to, and no signs of the wheels of industry turning to the advantage of either the western world or Africa. He had failed as a commander of men and expedition leader, and in so doing had seriously undermined not only his own physical health but his reputation as a heroic great man" (David Livingstone P88). Livingstone was recalled by Whitehall, an order which was answered by a defiant 700 mile trek through Nyasaland, followed by a 700 mile sea journey across the Indian Ocean to Bombay. The return journey to England was finally made in June 1864. Back in England the out of fashion explorer was in poor health, the result of tropical disease, exhaustion, and his own ill-advised self inflicted medical treatment. After recovering for a few months at Newstead Abbey, Livingstone's incurable restlessness sent him back to Africa to explore the wilds around Lake Tanganyika, a journey which his now frail body was unlikely to withstand. The expedition began in March 1866 on the Rovuma river, which, like the Zambesi, turned out to be un-navigable. Into the following year a reckless march to establish a base at Lake Tanganyika saw two bearers desert, one carrying off a vital medicine chest. Livingstone carried on regardless, stricken with fever and falling into the hands of Arab slave traders. It was now that he started dreaming of his greatest ever final destination, the source of the Nile. This wasn't just a geographical goal, it was also a religiously inspired symbolic goal, linked with Biblical stories. Discovering the source of the Nile would be something to show that there was a great final culmination to which his life, and all life, was leading. Meanwhile the outside world was curious about what had happened to Livingstone, who had not been heard from for several years. Sensing a good story, newspaper proprietor James Gordon Bennett sent journalist and adventurer Henry Morton Stanley on a mission in search of the lost explorer. Stanley finally found him in November 1871 at Ujiji, in what is today western Tanzania. It is at their first meeting that Stanley is supposed to have said: "Dr Livingstone I presume". Stanley provided plentiful food and medicine for the exhausted Livingstone, who recovered enough strength to throw himself one last time towards his great goal. Convinced that the Nile rose as fountains in the Katanga area in today's Congo, the obsessive search continued through 1872, with Livingstone eventually becoming so weak that he had to be carried by his bearers. He finally died of dysentery and malaria on 1st May 1873.

You could say Livingstone never found what he was looking for, and his life indicates the inadvisability of living your life on some kind of golden promise in the future. Perhaps it might be useful to think of Livingstone in terms of a story from the book that had the greatest importance to him, The Bible. In Genesis Chapter 28 Jacob has a vision of a ladder stretching up to heaven, on which angels are ascending and descending. In his vision Jacob is promised numberless descendents. This is a great vision of the future for Jacob, so he sets about finding himself a wife to start having all these children with. He chooses a girl called Rachel, whose father Laban asks for seven years work in exchange for Rachel. Jacob agrees and does his seven years. But at the end of this time Laban tricks Jacob by sending his eldest daughter Leah into Jacob's tent instead of Rachel. The excuse is that Leah is the eldest daughter and custom demands that elder daughters get first crack of the whip. Jacob is then obliged to do seven more years work for Rachel, which he endures only to discover that Rachel is unable to have children. This sets in motion a complicated and fraught chain of events for Jacob. Jacob loves Rachel, but she cannot have children. Jacob does not love Leah, but she is able to have children, and proceeds to bear him four sons. The confusion builds in Chapter Thirty when Rachel, jealous of Leah's sons, offers Jacob her hand maid Bilhah, an invitation which Jacob graciously accepts with the result of two more sons. Leah, who has given up bearing children by this time, sees what has happened with Bilhah, and not to be outdone offers Jacob her hand maid Zilpah. Jacob again accepts, and two more sons are the result. Leah then eats mandrake, an aphrodisiac, and has one last son by Jacob. Jacob seems to be getting sons everywhere except where he expected to get them, with Rachel. Eventually, God decides that Rachel should get just a small break, and she does manage to have one child with Jacob. Jacob finally reaches his goal of having a child with Rachel, but he had nine other sons in the confusion and frustration on the way. For Jacob the journey was the destination. Perhaps David Livingstone should have taken more notice of this story. In many ways he did not find what he was looking for. He did not find a navigable route on the Zambesi leading to a promised land of fertility. He did not find the source of the Nile. But in all the confusion along the way he did find lots of things. He added Victoria Falls, Lake Ngami, and Lake Bandweulu to Western geographical knowledge. On the Zambesi expedition he found Lake Malawi, his biographer Cecil Northcott suggesting that the eventual existence of the state of Malawi rests on this discovery. Important contributions were also made to the mapping of parts of Lake Tanganyika, Lake Mweru, and the course of many rivers, especially the upper Zambesi. It was as though he found all of these things by accident on the way to somewhere else. Jacob in his vision of a ladder did not see angels all heading upwards in one direction to the top. They are described as "ascending and descending". Perhaps the story of Jacob's ladder actually presents a picture that is close to that of science, a picture of a continuous journey rather than one with a final destination. Perhaps Bible stories are often wiser than the people who read them.

A man with a strong sense of direction can, even in their ruthlessness win devoted followers, as the life of many a dictator has shown. Although over the years Livingstone had alienated many people, the bearers in the company of which he died were inspired to carry his body a thousand miles to the African coast, for final shipment back to Britain. Livingstone lay in state at 1 Saville Row, then the headquarters of the Geographical Society, before being buried at Westminster Abbey.