Why read Livingstone’s manuscripts?

Many critics and historians regard David Livingstone as the single most important British imperial travel writer of the nineteenth century. His writings illuminate European imperialism and colonialism, African history, and the nineteenth-century slave trade, all of which continue to affect our present day world.

In his manuscripts, Livingstone documents the cultures and geography of diverse African populations — their social organization, languages, religions, politics, and technologies. Often such information cannot be found elsewhere. Historian Roy Bridges notes that Livingstone “is the principal and sometimes the only source of information on certain areas of Africa in certain periods.”

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Annotated proof of the “Reception of the mission by Shinté.” Illustration for Livingtone’s Missionary Travels (1857). Trustees of the National Library of Scotland.

Livingstone’s letters and other manuscripts also provide an exemplary case of how scientific and political networks across the Victorian globe were set up. Livingstone, both when abroad and at home, mobilized domestic and foreign resources to create a career mostly spent 5,000 miles from Britain. Livingstone’s correspondence reveals the practicalities of how empires are created and managed.

Livingstone’s three long-term visits to Africa (1841-1856, 1858-1863, 1866-1873) 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 make contact with a range of previously “unknown” African tribes, to cross Africa from coast to coast, and to describe and name Victoria Falls and many other interior geographical features.

David Livingstone in Consular Uniform. David Livingstone Centre / Livingstone Online.
David Livingstone in Consular Uniform. David Livingstone Centre / Livingstone Online.

Consequently, Livingstone’s manuscripts are an exceptional primary resource for a range of disciplines. In recent decades, for instance, scholars have drawn on Livingstone’s primary texts and manuscripts to study a broad range of topics, including:

  • the impact of missionary activity in Malawi
  • the origins of South African apartheid ideology
  • fungi in tropical Africa
  • the role of slavery in Zanzibar’s East African commercial empire
  • collaborative editing practices in the Victorian publishing industry
  • local trade along the Botletli River in Botswana
  • the prevalence of malnutrition in precolonial Africa
  • the contribution of non-Western populations to Victorian geographical discourse
  • climactic variability in southern Africa during the nineteenth century
  • state building in south central Africa
  • the ophthalmological consequences of exposure to tropical environments
  • the role of travel in the construction of nineteenth-century scientific knowledge
  • the development of Victorian travel book illustrations
  • East African urbanization and Central African village market economy

The scope of these studies testifies to the range of unique information available in Livingstone’s texts.

Illustration of Livingstone’s “Ma-Robert” steamer on the Zambezi River. Wellcome Library, London.
Illustration of Livingstone’s “Ma-Robert” steamer on the Zambezi River. Wellcome Library, London.

Access to the manuscripts — only a small percentage of which had been edited to modern standards and published prior to the launch of Livingstone Online in 2006 – can expand our understanding of the production of both nineteenth-century scientific knowledge and nineteenth-century African and British imperial history. The manuscripts also illuminate broader nineteenth-century Anglophone strategies for representing foreign peoples, cultures, and practices. Far from being relics of the past, these strategies continue to influence how Western culture represents people around the world.

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