Who was David Livingstone?

David Livingstone (1813-1873) was a Scottish doctor, missionary, and abolitionist who lived in Africa for most of his adult life. Today, he is considered one of the greatest “explorers” of the nineteenth-century and remains an iconic figure in Britain and many parts of the world.

In three long visits between the years of 1841 and 1873, Livingstone made contact with many African cultures, recorded local medical practices, took part in far-ranging geographical exploration, and worked tirelessly as an abolitionist. His writings illuminate European imperialism and colonialism, African history, and the nineteenth-century slave trade, all of which continue to affect contemporary geopolitics.

fig 1
Photograph of David Livingstone by Annan. © David Livingstone Centre

Livingstone grew up working in the cotton mills of Blantyre, Scotland. The London Missionary Society initially sponsored his work, but the Royal Geographical Society and the British government helped fund later expeditions. These different institutional affiliations — bringing together religion, science, and government — reveal much about how the Victorians imagined, created, and maintained their empires. Today, Livingstone’s extensive manuscript legacy also allows us to study the development of scientific and political networks across the Victorian globe.

Livingstone’s letters offer striking meditations on his first-hand impressions of East African slavery:

“I once saw a party in the slave yoke singing merrily & thought my these fellows have taken to it kindly […] – I asked the cause of their mirth & was told that they laughed at the idea ‘of coming back after death and haunting & killing those who had sold them'” (Letter to Horace Waller, 5 Feb. 1871 ).

Through such descriptions, Livingstone championed the rights of Africans and helped bring an end to Zanzibar’s notorious East African slave trade.

Figure 2. Iron mask with gag used for punishing slaves. © David Livingstone Centre / Livingstone Online.
Iron mask with gag used for punishing slaves. © David Livingstone Centre / Livingstone Online.

Because of the breadth of Livingstone’s writings and experiences in precolonial Africa, his manuscripts contain a range of otherwise unavailable information. Thanks to his skills as a medical observer, geographer, natural historian, and cartographer, Livingstone’s field diaries, for instance, describe African diseases, medical practices, and technologies; record zoological, botanical, and geological information; and catalogue geographical, magnetic, and astronomical data.

Livingstone’s three long-term visits to Africa (1841-56, 1858-63, 1866-73) took him through the countries that today constitute South Africa, Botswana, Zambia, Angola, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Mozambique, Tanzania, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He became the first European to visit a range of African tribes unknown to Europeans, to cross Africa from coast to coast, and to describe Victoria Falls and many other interior geographical features. Together, his manuscripts, which are scattered across archives in the UK and elsewhere, represent an important primary resource for literary scholars, historians, scientists, geographers, and anthropologists.

Portion of a map from Livingstone’s Last Journals (1874), showing his route (in red) through the Central African lakes region. Livingstone completed part of this route in the company of Henry Morton Stanley. © National Library of Scotland.
Portion of a map from Livingstone’s Last Journals (1874), showing his route (in red) through the Central African lakes region. Livingstone completed part of this route in the company of Henry Morton Stanley. © National Library of Scotland.
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