Kate Simpson (Edinburgh Napier University), author
On Wednesday, October 16, 2019 staff from the David Livingstone Birthplace Trust and a group of volunteers got together for the Birthplace Trust’s first Editathon for Black History Month. The aim of the session was to focus on the hidden histories of African individuals who had worked with David Livingstone on his travels in central and southern Africa in the nineteenth century – to bring to light the life stories of people such as Jacob Wainwright, Abdullah Susi, James Chuma, and Selim Hishmeh, all of whose support had been vital to Livingstone’s endeavours.
Every nineteenth-century European traveller encountered local people when visiting other continents, yet often the published narratives and travelogues were written as if those Europeans travelled completely alone, as singular entities in empty lands. This has resulted in histories that often exclude information about the local and/or indigenous peoples who were intrinsic to any journey. Editathons, like that of the Birthplace Trust, are run to try to correct such biases.
In discussing the Editathon’s goals, Elena Trimarchi, learning manager at the Birthplace Trust, said:
Over the years Livingstone has often been spoken about as an individual explorer but so many people helped him, and we want to highlight them. We are trying to emphasize hidden histories that are really important to the story. The story usually focuses on Livingstone, and he was obviously the driving force, but he also had an amazing and dedicated team around him. We have been working to uncover such histories, and the Editathon is a great opportunity to share what we have learned behind the scenes as part of the National Lottery Heritage Fund funded Birthplace Project.
The Editathon was lead by Dr. Sara Thomas, Scotland Programme Coordinator for Wikimedia UK. After scouring of the Birthplace Trust offices for every possible book that might be helpful, the session started with an introduction to Wikipedia editing. Thomas highlighted how vital it is that the correct information is on Wikipedia. Wikipedia is one of the top 10 websites in the world for page views so it can have a significant impact on cultural knowledge.
One of the most important things individuals can do to increase knowledge and awareness around non-Europeans in European history, Thomas noted, is to make relevant information available publicly on Wikipedia. It is the previous lack of visibility of and accessible information about non-Europeans that has inhibited understanding, representation, and the critical interrogation of histories of European exploration.
As Thomas also noted, if something is written about on Wikipedia, it is found more frequently in Google searches and thus is more likely to be written about in the press. Frequent references, in turn, raise awareness and cause users to go back to the relevant Wikipedia pages and write more. For example, although a Wikipedia entry was created for Chuma and Susi in 2007, prior to the Birthplace Trust Editathon their first names had not been recorded.
The day passed by in a flash as the editors shared the vignettes of information they had found and slowly built up more comprehensive narratives of the relevant people. For example after cross searching in books and catalogues from the Royal Geographic Society and Livingstone Online, the editors found that Chuma had also helped organise the men for the expeditionary caravan of Joseph Thomson, another Scottish traveller.
Likewise, Elena Trimarchi and Austin Ndala, a Trainee with the Next Step Initiative, were able to record that Chuma had been baptised by Scottish missionary John Wilson in Bombay with David Livingstone present in 1865.
Anne Martin, Livingstone Online Associate Director and long-time volunteer at the Birthplace Trust, and Douglas Hay, a member of the Birthplace Trust Executive Committee, highlighted that it was actually Susi who was the first of Livingstone’s party to meet Henry Morton Stanley. As part of his job for The New York Herald, Stanley had been instructed to find the supposedly missing David Livingstone. In his regular dispatch back to The New York Herald, Stanley records first meeting Susi:
Suddenly a man – a black man – at my elbow shouts in English, “How do you do, sir?”
“Hello! Who the deuce are you?”
“I am the servant of Dr Livingstone,” he says; but before I can ask any more questions he is running like a madman towards the town.
Rosa Cato and other volunteers at the Birthplace Trust added comprehensive information about the role of Wainwright regarding the events after David Livingstone’s death at Ilala. With Thomas, they also liaised with staff at the Wellcome Trust to use one of the images held by the Trust – that of Wainwright with Livingstone’s coffin on its return to Britain – to embed it on Wainwright’s Wikipedia page.
Ultimately, the day’s work produced:
- 6 articles edited for a total of 76 edits
- 2230 words added
- 30 references added
- 1 new image added to Wikimedia Commons
In the space of 24 hours following the Editathon, users visited the edited articles over 140 times, a point which reinforces the visibility of the relevant pages and highlights how vital such editorial work is in contributing to changing the narrative of explorer histories. The editors also hope to have an article published in the next couple of weeks on Chengwimbe, baptised Matthew Wellington, part of the group who decided to take Livingstone’s body back to the coast.
Wikipedia is often people’s first port of call when searching for information on the internet. As a result, it is vital that the site’s pages accurately reflect the knowledge available. Editathons, such as this one, are an increasingly common kind of social and learning event. They facilitate the repurposing of knowledge into a more widely accessible and open environment.
All in all it was a great day in which the editors actively worked to make visible those individuals who met, guided, supported, and assisted David Livingstone. In fact, the day went so well that the editors are already planning the next one!
A short video about the day can be found here.