We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
  David Livingstone (1813–1873), by Thomas Annan, 1864 David Livingstone (1813–1873), by Thomas Annan, 1864
Livingstone, David (1813–1873), explorer and missionary, was born on 19 March 1813 at Blantyre, Lanarkshire. He was the second son of Neil Livingstone (1788–1856) and his wife, Agnes (1782–1865), daughter of David Hunter. Neil's father, also Neil, had been a tenant farmer on the island of Ulva, off Mull, who in 1792 had left with his wife and seven children for the cotton mills of central Scotland, and found work in Blantyre, on the River Clyde, with H. Monteith. His sons became clerks for the firm, though Neil, the youngest, was soon apprenticed to the firm's tailor, David Hunter, whose daughter Agnes he married in 1810. The younger Neil then became a self-employed tea dealer. His first child, John, was born in Glasgow, but the family soon returned to Blantyre; they took over the one-room tenement in Shuttle Row, a block owned by Monteith's mill, in which Agnes had grown up.

Early life, 1813–1841

In that tenement David Livingstone was born. As other children arrived, the family struggled to make ends meet, and from the age of ten David was employed in the mill (as John had been) as a ‘piecer’, tying up broken threads on spinning jennies for twelve hours a day. Yet David and a few other children still had the energy and will-power after work to put in two hours at the village school. Such determination was to be characteristic of the grown man, but study was also a family trait. Reading, conjoined with religion, was taken seriously by both Livingstones and Hunters. Neil Livingstone, a strict teetotaller and Sunday school teacher, distributed tracts; he interested himself in missionary work and accounts of foreign travel. He raised his children in the Church of Scotland, and vainly pressed religious literature on David, who preferred not only travel books but also science, which Neil distrusted as hostile to faith. Limestone quarries aroused David's interest in geology; if he feared for his soul, it was due to his fascination with the astrology embedded in Culpeper's Herbal, one of his aids to the collection of medicinal plants.

In 1832, at a time of crisis in the Church of Scotland, father and son both reached a spiritual turning point. David came across recent books by Thomas Dick, a minister and amateur astronomer. These gave him the assurance he had been seeking that science could be reconciled with Christian belief. Meanwhile, a sermon by a Canadian preacher prompted Neil to leave the Church of Scotland for a Congregational church in Hamilton, near Blantyre; he was soon followed by David. Both heard the Glasgow Congregationalist Ralph Wardlaw declare that atonement was not confined to a predestined elect. Both were introduced through the Hamilton church to the liberal theology of the American Charles Finney. In 1834 Neil brought home a pamphlet by Karl Gutzlaff appealing for medical missionaries for China. David seized on this to prove to his father that his own growing ambition to study medicine could serve religious ends. For the past three years he had been working as a cotton spinner, and by 1836 he had saved enough to enter Anderson's College in Glasgow as a medical student; he also took Greek classes at Glasgow University and attended divinity lectures by Wardlaw. David is likely to have been impressed at this time by the anti-slavery campaign in Glasgow, in which Wardlaw was prominent.

In 1837 the Hamilton church put David in touch with the London Missionary Society (LMS), which was in effect a Congregational body. In April 1838 the Blantyre mill refused to let David continue to earn money for college fees through vacation work, and in August he went to London for an interview. He was sent for a probationary year of scriptural studies to a clergyman in Chipping Ongar, Essex. Livingstone had hoped to be sent in due course to China, but by June 1839 this had become problematical (the First Opium War broke out in September). The LMS proposed to Livingstone that he should go to the West Indies; Livingstone preferred South Africa. The LMS continued his training, and in January 1840 he moved to London for lectures on anatomy and medicine, where his teachers included Richard Owen and James Risdon Bennett. In the same year he met Robert Moffat, on leave from the LMS outpost at Kuruman, north of the Orange River and well beyond the limits of Cape Colony. Moffat excited Livingstone's imagination with talk of work to be done still further north. In June 1840 Livingstone attended the meeting at Exeter Hall which launched the ill-fated Niger expedition of 1841–2; he heard T. F. Buxton expound the strategy of undermining the slave trade through ‘legitimate trade’ in conjunction with the Christian gospel. Later in 1840 Livingstone returned to Glasgow for examinations; in November he became a licentiate of the Faculty of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow. Back in London he was ordained, on 20 November, in Albion Chapel, London Wall, which belonged to the Congregational Union of England and Wales.

South Africa, 1841–1852

The LMS assigned Livingstone to Kuruman, and on 8 December 1840 he sailed for South Africa. Gales forced the ship to put in at Rio de Janeiro, where Livingstone spent some time ashore; he reached Simon's Bay on 15 March 1841, having learned the rudiments of navigation from the ship's captain. He spent three weeks in Cape Town, and stayed with the veteran LMS missionary John Philip, a champion of Africans against the demands of white colonists for land and labour. Divisions among white Christians provoked Livingstone to write home, ‘I would never build on another man's foundation. I shall preach the gospel beyond every other man's line of things’ (David Livingstone: Family Letters, 1.31), a phrase that recurs in later letters. At the end of July he reached Kuruman. He was not impressed by it as a mission centre: there seemed to be far too few people. Rogers Edwards, one of the two artisan missionaries at Kuruman, had already decided to visit the Kwena, a seTswana-speaking people 250 miles to the north-east. He set off with Livingstone in October, and they were away for six weeks. They identified a site for a new mission, but Livingstone was looking still further afield: he was sure that the northern Tswana would welcome missionaries as allies at a time of growing insecurity. The region was disturbed by the advance of trekboer Afrikaners into the Transvaal, to the east, while the Ndebele (Matabele), though now settled far to the north, near Bulawayo, were still feared as raiders. The scale of violence increased as traders and hunters, European and African, took firearms ever further into the interior.

In the course of 1842, Livingstone made two more long journeys northwards, and by June he was fluent in seTswana; he then worked at Kuruman as a preacher, doctor, builder, and printer, and also travelled northwards again. In December 1843 Robert Moffat returned with his family to Kuruman; in January 1844 Edwards, Livingstone, and an African teacher named Mebalwe founded a mission at Mabotsa, among the Kgatla. On 2 January 1845 at Kuruman, Livingstone married Moffat's eldest daughter, Mary (1821–1862); in January 1846 she gave birth to a son, Robert. Meanwhile, Edwards had left Mabotsa after a quarrel with Livingstone, who himself began work to the north-east at Chonuane among the Kwena, whose chief, Sechele, soon learned to read. Livingstone believed that the LMS should make more use of African evangelists, and at Kuruman in March 1847 the annual LMS district committee unanimously supported his proposal to assess the number of African converts suitable for training as teachers. However, Livingstone had a low opinion of his colleagues, apart from Moffat; he already had a more acute, and more tolerant, understanding of African custom and belief, and he sent the directors in London his views on mission strategy as well as tactics.

In May 1847 Mary gave birth to a daughter, Agnes; in July the Livingstones returned to Chonuane. The water supplies there had proved inadequate, so together with Sechele they moved west to Kolobeng, near the present Gaborone. While Mary started an infant school, David began writing a philological analysis of seTswana. In October, Livingstone made the only convert of his career: he baptized Sechele after the chief had sent away all but his senior wife. When he took back one of his rejected wives, Livingstone suspended him from communion. Drought made it likely that the Kwena would move yet again: altogether, the prospects for Livingstone's mission seemed far from promising, whether among the Kwena or among people under Boer influence to the east.

However, Livingstone now had a new field in mind. Ever since his arrival at the Cape he had been intrigued by stories of a lake in the far interior (in fact, Lake Ngami). In 1847 he had proposed going there with Moffat; in 1848 he secured as companion William Cotton Oswell, a wealthy sportsman who had visited Mabotsa in 1845. Livingstone dispatched his family (now including a second son, Thomas) to Kuruman. Oswell reached Kolobeng in May 1849, with the horses, oxen, wagons, and supplies required for a year-long expedition. The moment was propitious: not only was this the right season to cross the Kalahari, but Livingstone had just been visited by envoys from the Tawana, near the lake, who wanted a resident white man: there was also the possibility of meeting Sebituane, the Kololo chief, known to Sechele, who had recently settled north of Lake Ngami. The expedition, including a trader, J. H. Wilson, reached the Botletle River in July and followed it westward to the lake. The lake made less impression on Livingstone than the river, which was connected to rivers further north and opened out ‘the prospect of a highway capable of being quickly traversed by boats to a large section of well-peopled territory’ (Livingstone's Missionary Correspondence, 133). Since the Niger expedition had failed, Livingstone believed that of all the missionaries in Africa he now had ‘the key to the Interior’ (ibid., 140). Without a boat, however, it proved impossible to advance northward, and the expedition returned to Kolobeng.

Livingstone's set purpose now was to reach Sebituane. Oswell agreed to return with a boat, but before he got back from the Cape, in May 1850, Livingstone had already set off northward, this time with his family and Sechele. They reached the Botletle, where Oswell caught up with them, but two of the children fell ill, and the Livingstones got back to Kolobeng just before a second daughter was born (she lived for six weeks). This ill-conceived journey was an early example of Livingstone's erratic judgement when gripped by a powerful idea, but it only stiffened his resolve to find ‘a passage to the sea, on either the Eastern or Western coasts … the Bechuana Mission was virtually shut up in a cul de sac’ (Livingstone's Missionary Correspondence, 157). Besides, envoys of Sebituane arrived at Kolobeng with gifts of cattle for the Tswana and requests that they help the whites to visit him. Moreover, while the family were at Kuruman recovering from their ordeal, news came that Livingstone had been awarded 25 guineas by the Royal Geographical Society (RGS) for discovering Lake Ngami. This had, in truth, been a joint effort, but Livingstone had got in first with his report.

Oswell returned to Kolobeng in 1851, with fresh supplies and animals, and set out once more for the north, this time ahead of Livingstone, who had defied a plea from Mary's mother to leave his family behind. Learning that another group of white travellers were on their way to the Kololo, he risked a short cut across the desert north of the Botletle. The party nearly died of thirst, but reached the Chobe River. Livingstone and Oswell went on to meet Sebituane, who had recently conquered the Lozi kingdom on the upper Zambezi. Sebituane barely had time to express his urgent desire for guns before he died suddenly of pneumonia. None the less, Livingstone now knew that there was a great river to the north, and on 4 August 1851 he and Oswell reached the Zambezi, near Sesheke. This indeed seemed the hoped-for highway to the east coast; moreover, many people understood seTswana. These facts were the more significant since slave traders from Angola now visited the upper Zambezi. Recalling Buxton, Livingstone looked to a legitimate trade in English manufactured goods to undermine this slave trade. First, though, it would be necessary to find a more healthy site for a mission and trading station than the malarial swamps to which Sebituane had retreated for fear of Ndebele attacks. Livingstone rejoined his family and took them back south; a third son, named after Oswell, was born en route. The party duly reached Kolobeng but then went farther south, since Livingstone had decided to send his family to Britain while he made a fuller exploration of the Zambezi. In March 1852, helped by Oswell, the Livingstones reached Cape Town; Mary and the children embarked for Britain, where they spent the next four years, without a settled home, dependent on handouts from the LMS.

The crossing of Africa, 1852–1856

Livingstone had other business in Cape Town. He had a troublesome uvula excised. With Oswell he composed his first direct communication to the RGS, a report on their recent journey. From the astronomer royal, Thomas Maclear, Livingstone learned how to make observations with sextant and chronometer; thereafter he regularly sent his results to Maclear. With further help from Oswell, he fitted out his new expedition and enlisted George Fleming, who had worked for Oswell, to accompany him with trade goods for buying ivory on the Zambezi. On their return to Kuruman news came of a Boer attack in August on Sechele's people, and the sacking of Livingstone's house at Kolobeng. Livingstone considered that the Kwena had been justly punished for rejecting the gospel; besides, he had already declared, ‘We ought to give all if possible a chance, and not spend an age on one tribe or people’ (David Livingstone: Family Letters, 1.14). In face of the Moffats' disapproval he turned his back on Sechele and in December started for the north. On 23 May 1853 he and Fleming reached Linyanti, the Kololo capital on the Chobe.

Livingstone's conviction that he was the favoured instrument of providence was reinforced by the welcome he received from Sekeletu, Sebituane's eighteen-year-old son and successor, to whom he gave powder and ammunition. The search for a mission site was fruitless: the upper Zambezi valley was malarial, and Livingstone himself suffered several attacks of fever. The highlands downstream sounded more promising, but were vulnerable to the Ndebele. Meanwhile, Livingstone's search for a trade route to the sea was influenced by meeting two Portuguese traders who had come from the west coast. Sekeletu was eager to co-operate: he organized an expedition under two Kololo headmen to open up trade with Luanda. In November 1853 Livingstone set off once more up the Zambezi with this party; Fleming in due course went south.

Once the expedition had left Kololo-controlled territory, Livingstone depended heavily on his African companions as interpreters, for he could no longer communicate through seTswana. Their progress was smoothed by Sekeletu's presents of oxen and beads for chiefs, but they soon had to give up travelling by canoe, and as they struck out westwards (Livingstone riding on an ox), the going was very difficult, for the rainy season had set in. The prospects for wagon traffic were further blighted by the tsetse-fly, which was liable to kill domestic animals. Slave trading in the region had raised prices, and when the expedition reached the Kwango River, on 4 April 1854, they had exhausted their trade goods and sold much of the ivory intended for the coast. Soon afterwards they reached Kasanje, a Portuguese military and trading post where Livingstone was made welcome. On the last stretch Livingstone had a severe attack of malaria; he collapsed when he reached Luanda, on 31 May, at the house of Edmund Gabriel, the local British commissioner for the suppression of the slave trade. Yet he declined a passage to England: he wished to see whether a route from the Zambezi to the east coast might be easier than that to the west. He duly set off on 20 September, with presents for Sekeletu from the government of Angola.

The return to Linyanti took almost a year—twice as long as the outward journey. Sekeletu was sufficiently impressed by the travellers' tales and presents to send another expedition with ivory to Luanda, in the care of an Arab from Zanzibar, Said b. Habib, who had already been to Benguela. (This enabled Livingstone to dispatch to one of his Portuguese hosts a model of the Crystal Palace, which he had received from his sister Agnes by way of the Ndebele king Mzilikazi, who had forwarded to the Zambezi mail brought north by Moffat in 1854.) News of the route from Zanzibar intrigued Livingstone, but he held to his intention of finding a water route to the east coast. Sekeletu was also keen on this project, and on Livingstone's behalf he fitted out a new expedition, led by Kololo; and Livingstone agreed to sell a consignment of ivory for Sekeletu.

The expedition set off for the Zambezi in November. Not far below Sesheke it came to the colossal waterfalls known locally as Mosi-oa-Tunya, ‘the waters that thunder’; Livingstone named them after Queen Victoria. The party then moved away from the valley, to the plateau beyond the north bank. By the time they reached the Kafue River, Livingstone was sure that this fertile country, ‘well adapted for cattle and health’, was just what he sought for a mission (Livingstone's African Journal, 348). In December they rejoined the Zambezi not far above Zumbo, crossed the river further down, and followed the right bank down to the Portuguese settlement at Tete. As a result Livingstone failed to see the formidable cataracts of Quebrabasa, which he persuaded himself were only a ‘small rapid’. They reached Tete on 2 March, and Livingstone found the governor very hospitable, as indeed most Africans had been throughout this journey. He left most of his companions at Tete, where they were given land to cultivate; Livingstone intended to accompany them home when he returned from Britain. From Tete he proceeded down river by canoe, with his chief guide and interpreter, Sekwebu, who was anxious to see Britain. In May, enfeebled by fever, they reached the seaport of Quelimane, where Livingstone left Sekeletu's ivory. In July they took ship for Mauritius, but rough seas so unbalanced Sekwebu's mind that he drowned himself. Livingstone grieved at the loss of a ‘very good friend’; ‘he was my right hand man and contributed greatly to my success’ (David Livingstone: Family Letters, 2.291). In Mauritius, Livingstone recuperated before going home by way of the Red Sea. Mary met him at Southampton on 12 December 1856.

Livingstone had intended to stay only a month or two in Britain: he did not reckon with the problems of the LMS, or the effects of his own celebrity. His reports on the journeys between 1849 and 1851 to Lake Ngami and the Zambezi had been published by the RGS. Its president in 1851–2 (as in 1856–7 and between 1862 and 1871) was the geologist Sir Roderick Murchison. British exploration in Africa was currently at a low ebb, even if the German Heinrich Barth had in 1849 gone overland to west Africa with British support. Livingstone had sent Murchison ten letters during his crossing of Africa between 1854 and 1856, and these too had been duly published. By the time news of Livingstone's arrival at Luanda reached London, Murchison had prompted the RGS, in 1855, to award Livingstone its annual gold medal. Livingstone, in turn, was acquainted with Murchison's work; at Sesheke, in October 1855, he had read Murchison's argument that the structure of Africa was basin-like, shaped by ridges near the coasts—a theory confirmed by his own laborious travels. It was thus to Murchison that Livingstone had turned when, on reaching Quelimane in May 1856, he learned that the directors of the LMS ‘were restricted in their power of aiding plans connected only remotely with the spread of the Gospel’. The LMS was, as it happened, heavily in debt, and understandably reluctant to reach out into ‘untried, remote, and difficult fields of labour’ (Livingstone's Missionary Correspondence, 277). Livingstone, however, was deeply wounded by this advice, which directly challenged his own conception of mission work. On the way to Mauritius, Livingstone told Murchison that he would prefer to work in Africa as a ‘private Christian’ (Livingstone, Zambezi Expedition, ed. J. P. R. Wallis, 1956, xx). He also painted a rosy picture of the commercial prospects for British enterprise on the Zambezi, even implying the possibility of new sources of cotton to replace the slave states of the USA.

In Britain, 1856–1858

Within days of Livingstone's return to Britain in 1856 the RGS held a special meeting, on 15 December, to bestow on him its gold medal; on the next day the LMS held a reception for him, chaired by Lord Shaftesbury. Over Christmas and the new year, Livingstone visited his mother and sisters in Hamilton (his father had died in February 1856), after which he began work in London on a book to be published (through Murchison's good offices) by John Murray. In April Murchison induced the foreign secretary, Lord Clarendon, to employ Livingstone as a consul in central Africa. Livingstone himself concealed this from the LMS, even after persuading its directors (on the strength of his recent information about the Kafue plateau) to support a Zambezi mission led by himself, coupled with a mission by Moffat to the Ndebele.

Surrounded by his family Livingstone wrote his book in great haste, at first in lodgings in Sloane Street and then, from May to August, at Hadley Green, Barnet. The title, Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa, evokes earlier accounts of southern Africa, notably by Philip and Moffat, but Livingstone's book stands out from these by reason of its intellectual breadth. Throughout his sixteen years in Africa, Livingstone had kept himself supplied with reading matter on religion, medicine, natural history, and physical anthropology. He had, moreover, maintained an extensive correspondence with friends made in Glasgow, Ongar, and London. And from 1851, aware of his growing reputation as an explorer, he kept a journal. Here he recorded a miscellany of ruminations and minute observation which attest to a wide-ranging curiosity about the human race and the natural world, and owe much to his medical training. When he came to write his book, he enriched a stirring narrative, told in conversational style, with insights acquired by informed eyes and ears, as well as with shafts of caustic humour.

However, Livingstone aimed to do more than instruct and amuse. Murchison (who ensured that the book was dedicated to himself) might value Missionary Travels as a commercial prospectus and confirmation of his own theories; Livingstone conceived it as propaganda for the campaign against the slave trade and for his own role in spreading knowledge of the Christian gospel. The book was a highly self-conscious presentation of a career which Livingstone had come to believe was divinely ordained. This coloured his reporting. He now believed that legitimate trade was a precondition for the spread of Christianity. He thus had a reason not only for noting economic resources but for exaggerating them. Besides, his lifelong fear of being ‘cut out’ by other travellers led him to imply that he was the first European to travel between Angola and the upper Zambezi. Missionary Travels fails to mention either Silva Porto or Ladislav Magyar, who did so in 1853, let alone earlier crossings of the continent by African-Portuguese or Arab traders. But these are flaws in an avowedly popular work of unusual humanity. It is untouched by the ‘pseudo-scientific racism’ of mid-century anthropology, and while Livingstone looked to the ‘Anglo-American race’ to promote liberty and progress he could also assess African behaviour in terms of environment and history, making cross-cultural comparisons to support his arguments. He concluded that Africans are ‘just such a strange mixture of good and evil, as men are everywhere else’ (Livingstone, Missionary Travels, 510).

Livingstone spent the latter part of 1857 on a speaking tour. To one listener he appeared:
plainly and rather carelessly dressed, of middle height [he was 5 ft 8 in.], bony frame and Gaelic countenance, with short-cropped hair and moustachios … His face is deeply furrowed, and pretty well tanned … when excited, a varied expression of earnest and benevolent feeling, and remarkable enjoyment of the ludicrous … passes over it … When he speaks to you, you think him at first to be a Frenchman; but as he tells you a Scotch anecdote in the Glaswegian dialect, you make up your mind that he must be, as his face indicates, a countryman from the north. (G. Seaver, David Livingstone, 1957, 286–7)
In Dublin, Livingstone addressed the British Association for the Advancement of Science; in Manchester, the chamber of commerce. He also spoke in Glasgow, Blantyre, Edinburgh, Leeds, Liverpool, Birmingham, and Oxford—where, as in Glasgow, he received an honorary degree. In Cambridge, on 4 December, he was introduced at Senate House by William Whewell and the geologist Adam Sedgwick. A large audience cheered his concluding appeal for missionaries:
It is a mistake to suppose that any one, as long as he is pious, will do for this office. Pioneers in everything should be the ablest and best qualified men … I beg to direct your attention to Africa … do you carry out the work which I have begun. (J. Simmons, Livingstone and Africa, 1955, 79)
By this time, Missionary Travels had appeared. The first impression, of 12,000, was sold out before publication in November, and 30,000 were sold in Britain by 1863. Livingstone had meant the book to make money; it earned him over £8500. A compelling drama of self-improvement, expanding knowledge, and non-sectarian Christian fortitude, it was admired by Charles Dickens, no friend of missionaries, whose own precarious early life had resembled Livingstone's. Missionary Travels quite eclipsed the austere erudition of Barth's Travels and Discoveries in North and Central Africa (1857–8).

Well before the end of 1857 Livingstone had become a national hero. Early in 1858 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society and in February he had an audience with the queen. To help him get back to Africa was a matter of public concern. The travels which made him famous had been financed by well-wishers in Africa, especially Oswell and Sekeletu. His return might be assisted by public subscriptions (£2000 was raised in Glasgow), but there was pressure on the government (notably from Manchester businessmen and the British Association) to provide Livingstone with a steamship for use on the Zambezi. Although preoccupied with the Indian mutiny the prime minister, Lord Palmerston, was responsive, while Lord Clarendon had already promised Livingstone a consulate and had recently funded William Baikie's trading expedition on the Niger and supported exploration in east Africa by Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke. Late in October 1857 Livingstone clarified his own position by formally resigning from the LMS. On 1 December he sent Clarendon plans for a Zambezi expedition, which he expected to last two years; on 11 December parliament approved a grant to this end of £5000. The expedition was to include several Europeans besides Livingstone; in choosing them he was given a remarkably free hand, though Murchison ensured that they included scientists whose work could have practical results. Livingstone chose Norman Bedingfeld, whom he had met in Luanda, as steamship commander, and George Rae, from Blantyre, as engineer. Murchison chose as geologist Richard Thornton, a recent graduate of the School of Mines; as economic botanist, John Kirk, a young physician; and as artist to the expedition, Thomas Baines, who had lately worked for the RGS in Australia. Finally, and crucially, Livingstone created the nebulous post of ‘moral agent’ for his younger brother , who had recently returned to Britain from the USA (he had gone there to study in 1839 and had become a pastor in New England).

The Zambezi expedition, 1858–1864

For the government the aim of the expedition was to assess the prospects for British trade up the Zambezi. This involved negotiations early in 1858 with the Portuguese, whose maps were limited and patchy but who claimed authority as far west as Zumbo and confined foreign traders to the mouth of the Zambezi. They exempted the expedition from import duties, but otherwise held firm in opposing free trade and accepted Livingstone as British consul only for Quelimane. This put in question the ultimate purpose of the expedition and Livingstone was duly angered; besides, he privately cherished the hope that the expedition might result ‘in an English colony in the healthy highlands of Central Africa’ (G. Seaver, David Livingstone, 1957, 308), albeit very different in character from the British in South Africa, of whom he was highly critical. He had in any case kept up pressure on the LMS for a Kololo mission, even though he would not take part in it; the LMS, against its better judgement, appointed its own team.

The Zambezi expedition left Birkenhead on 10 March 1858, on the steamship Pearl, which carried, in three sections, a steam launch which had been hastily built by Macgregor Laird. This was called the Ma-Robert, the African name for Mary Livingstone, who was on board with her youngest son Oswell: the other children had been left with relatives and were supported by a trust fund from their father's literary earnings. It then became clear that Mary was pregnant, and she and Oswell were left behind at Cape Town to be taken to Kuruman by her parents. The Pearl reached the Zambezi in mid-May but was too large to sail, as intended, through the delta and up to Tete; instead, stores had to be taken up in relays by the Ma-Robert. Meanwhile, Bedingfeld fell out with Livingstone and resigned. Livingstone took over the Ma-Robert, which often ran aground on sandbanks and also consumed a great deal of firewood. In November and December, Livingstone and Kirk investigated the Quebrabasa cataracts. Kirk realized that these were an insuperable obstacle to navigation. Livingstone refused to admit this; indeed, he asked the British government to supply a more powerful steamer, and asserted that the whole expedition expected the cataracts to be submerged when the river was in flood.

However, Livingstone now had in mind an alternative to the Zambezi as a ‘highway’ to the interior. This was the Shire River, which joins the Zambezi below Sena, from the north, and which was said to flow from a large lake. By 9 January 1859 Livingstone and Kirk had ascended 100 miles up the Shire; again they encountered cataracts, and again Livingstone made light of them. Moreover, Livingstone's first glimpse of the hill country above the Shire convinced him that this, as well as the Kafue plateau, was suitable both for a mission and for a cotton-exporting British colony, even if the slave trade was also on the increase here. In March and April, Livingstone, Kirk, and others reached Lake Shirwa, north of the highlands. Backbiting by Charles Livingstone caused David to dismiss Thornton in June, and Baines in July. In August the Livingstones, Kirk, and Rae, with several Kololo resident in Tete, went once again up the Shire; on 17 September they reached the south end of Lake Nyasa. There was little more that Livingstone could do to further his designs until he knew whether the government would prolong the expedition beyond its allotted two years and replace the Ma-Robert. He was committed to escorting the Kololo back to the upper Zambezi, but the journey would not be practicable before a new harvest in the countries upriver. Rae went home in March 1860 to advise on the construction of a steamer which could be carried in sections past the Shire cataracts and placed on Lake Nyasa. Meanwhile, Livingstone was considering yet another possible water route to the interior: the Rovuma River. This later formed the northern frontier of Mozambique; to Livingstone it appealed because it lay well beyond the sphere of the Portuguese, whom he not only saw as an obstacle to any future British trade but now believed to be implicated in the expanding slave trade of east central Africa.

In May 1860, two years later than he had originally intended, Livingstone, with Charles and Kirk, set off from Tete with those few Kololo who wished to go home. On the middle Zambezi, they found outcrops of coal, supplementing those examined (and mined) by Thornton near Tete. In August, Livingstone delivered to Sekeletu goods he had ordered in 1856, though not the sugar mill (which remained at Tete) or the rifles and ammunition. The Kololo told Livingstone of the disastrous LMS mission, which had reached Linyanti in April 1860: of the Europeans three out of four adults had died and three out of five children, while four Africans had also died. During this Zambezi journey the Livingstone brothers quarrelled bitterly; David came to think he had relied far too much on Charles. Yet neither Charles nor Kirk (who loathed Charles) thwarted David's foolhardy impulse, on the way back, to descend the uppermost Quebrabasa rapids in canoes: Kirk nearly drowned, and lost his notes, drawings, and instruments. At Tete, Livingstone found a dispatch from London extending the expedition for a further three years. This decision had not been taken lightly. Ministers were unexcited by Livingstone's visions of British colonies in tropical Africa, whether of master farmers or the urban poor, which were ‘only to be reached by forcing steamers up cataracts’ (G. Martelli, Livingstone's River, 1970, 108). Eventually, however, his shift of focus to the Shire highlands was approved, along with his proposal to explore the Rovuma, and a new steamship was sent out.

Missionaries were also coming to join him. Livingstone had tried in 1859 to interest the Church Missionary Society in the Shire highlands; he also approached the bishop of Cape Town, Robert Gray, who had already reported that Anglicans in the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, Durham, and Dublin were planning a mission to central Africa. By the end of 1860 this had been organized under the leadership of Charles Mackenzie. In December, Livingstone descended the Zambezi and abandoned the leaking Ma-Robert on a sandbank. In February 1861 he met the missionaries, who had just arrived from Cape Town, together with his new ship, the Pioneer. Livingstone insisted that Mackenzie join him on a reconnaissance of the Rovuma. This diversion proved fruitless: the Pioneer could get only 30 miles upriver. Its master resigned, since Livingstone would not accept him as second in command of the expedition. It was not until July that the Universities' Mission to Central Africa (UMCA) established itself in the Shire highlands, at Magomero. This was a Manganja village harassed by Yao slavers. By entrusting abandoned slaves to the mission, and burning a slavers' village, Livingstone plunged the UMCA fatefully into local politics.

Livingstone's next concern was to explore Lake Nyasa. In August, with Charles, Kirk, and an Irish seaman, John Neil, Livingstone set off northwards with a four-oared gig. Just below the lake he noted that mosquitoes ‘showed … the presence of malaria’, but did not guess at a causal connection, despite being aware that tsetse-flies and ticks were vectors of disease. Once on the lake he hoped to find an outlet to the Rovuma, but he followed the western shore and, delayed by equinoctial gales, turned back at Nkata Bay for want of food. The country they had seen was troubled by Arab slavers, and also by Ngoni raiders. From the lower Shire, in November, Livingstone took the Pioneer down to meet new arrivals. At the end of January a ship from the Cape brought Rae with the new portable steamer, Lady Nyassa. Livingstone had had to pay for this himself: the Admiralty considered that he ‘has already discovered more country and more people than he can deal with’ (G. Martelli, Livingstone's River, 161). There was also Mary Livingstone, who after the birth of another daughter, Anna Mary, at Kuruman in November 1858 had returned to Scotland. On this latest voyage she was escorted by James Stewart, a young Scots minister who had decided on his own initiative to assess the prospects for a Scottish mission in the Zambezi region.

It took over four months to assemble the Lady Nyassa at Shupanga; meanwhile news came in March of the death of Mackenzie and another missionary, and on 27 April 1862 Mary Livingstone died. (The use of quinine as prophylactic or cure for malaria was still at an experimental stage; Livingstone himself had, from at least 1853, relied much on pills combining quinine and mild purgatives.) Livingstone pressed on; the Lady Nyassa was launched in June, but by then the Zambezi was too low to allow ascent and instead he took the Pioneer, with Charles, Kirk, and Rae, back to the Rovuma, which this time they entered in sailing boats. Livingstone's determination to get the boats through every shallow forced Kirk (who in February had declared him ‘always very good company’) to conclude that ‘Dr L. is out of his mind … he is a most unsafe leader’ (Zambesi Journal … of John Kirk, 567, 475, 482). Livingstone himself was aware that such frantic activity was a means to keep grief at bay. After 160 miles, even he had had enough. By December they were back at Shupanga, where they met a disenchanted James Stewart on his way home.

The year 1863 was still more depressing. In January the Pioneer and Lady Nyassa went up into the Shire valley. This was now a scene of horror: there were corpses in the river and along its banks, victims of drought as well as slave raids. The river was so low that it was April before the ships reached the cataracts. It was here that Richard Thornton died (after his dismissal in 1859 he had travelled in east Africa, and in 1862 returned to the Zambezi delta, where Livingstone had reinstated him). The rest of the expedition suffered severe dysentery, and on 19 May Kirk and Charles Livingstone left for Quelimane. Livingstone himself, with Rae, began to dismantle the Lady Nyassa and to build a road past the cataracts, but famine threatened food supplies. At this critical juncture, on 2 July Livingstone received a letter from London recalling the expedition. The ships could not get downriver until the end of the year, so Livingstone decided to investigate the sources of the slave trade to the north-west. With Thomas Ward, a steward on the Pioneer, he reached Lake Nyasa at Nkhota Kota and then travelled west for 100 miles. He got back to the ships on 1 November and reached the Zambezi mouth in February 1864, after learning to his fury that the UMCA, now much depleted, had decided to withdraw. From Mozambique the Pioneer returned to the Cape, while Livingstone and Rae took the Lady Nyassa to Zanzibar. With a crew of twelve but without Rae, Livingstone sailed the little ship across to Bombay just before the monsoon broke. He left her in Bombay, where she was later sold unprofitably; he was back in London on 23 July.

In Britain, 1864–1865

This time Livingstone's reception was subdued. The Zambezi expedition had cost much more, and achieved much less, than expected. At least £30,000 had been spent on it (as much as on the Niger expedition of 1857–60). It had involved the deaths of Thornton and Mary Livingstone, and also missionaries of the LMS and UMCA, as well as several sailors. It had lasted six and a half years, though scarcely eighteen months were spent on travel above the Shire and Zambezi cataracts and on the Rovuma, due to sickness and logistical problems. The geographical and scientific results seemed hardly commensurate with the effort expended, and plans to check the slave trade had come to nothing. Stewart had identified:
the fallacy in Livingstone's method. He meets a difficulty, overcomes it by an amount of perseverance and an expenditure of strength and money which men will put forth once or twice but which it would be ruinous to carry out as a rule.
Kirk was driven to write to Stewart in 1864, ‘in him I believe all kindly feelings to be absolutely extinct’ (J. P. R. Wallis, ed., The Zambesi Journal of James Stewart, 1952, 264, 228).

Fortunately, this was untrue. Livingstone regretted that he had seen so little of his children, and in August 1864 he rejoined his family, in Hamilton, though Robert had gone to the USA (and later that year died fighting for the north in the civil war). Livingstone then visited the west highlands, including Ulva, as the guest of the duke of Argyll. From September 1864 to April 1865 Livingstone and his elder daughter Agnes were at Newstead, in Nottinghamshire, the home of W. F. Webb, whom he had known in south Africa. Here he worked on a second book. This had originally been planned as a pamphlet in which to accuse the Portuguese of fostering the slave trade in central Africa; however, Charles made his own journal available, and David drew extensively on this. The Narrative of an Expedition to the Zambesi and its Tributaries (1865) shows some of the qualities of Missionary Travels, but it is more impersonal and much more tendentious. Given the quarrels and reverses which marred the expedition, there was much for which Livingstone could attract blame, and he sought to direct it elsewhere.

Livingstone was intent on returning to Africa. On his way home he had learned more about the Arab slave trade and had glimpsed possibilities for legitimate trade with India. He was, moreover, convinced that he could throw light on the Nile problem. In 1862 Speke had found that the White Nile flowed from Lake Victoria, but Livingstone did not believe this was the whole answer: since at least 1857 he had thought that the source of the Nile was close to that of the Zambezi. He wanted to outshine Burton as well as Speke, and by November 1864 he had agreed with Murchison that he would try to ‘settle’ the watersheds of central Africa, though he insisted that he remained primarily a missionary. He planned to return to the Rovuma, pass to the north of Lake Nyasa, look for the Nile headwaters, and then make for Ujiji, on Lake Tanganyika; but he still hoped to find a site for a trading mission. The expedition was to be small-scale, without a steamboat, and without other Europeans. The RGS put up £500, as did the British government; and £1000 came from James Young, a friend from Livingstone's student days in Glasgow, who had made a fortune from distilling paraffin. Livingstone was appointed to a roving consulship outside the Portuguese sphere, without salary or pension. As the time for departure approached he continued to spend much time with Agnes: a month in London, and two months in Scotland (where he attended his mother's burial in June). In August he settled Agnes in a finishing school in Paris, before taking ship from Marseilles.

The last journey, 1866–1873

In Bombay, Livingstone recruited several sepoys, and twelve Africans from mission schools, including four whom he had brought across in 1864. His host in Bombay was the governor, Sir Bartle Frere, who in January 1866 gave the party passage in a government ship to Zanzibar. Here Livingstone added ten men from the Comoro Islands. Once on the mainland the expedition soon ran into trouble. It took four months to reach Lake Nyasa, past frightful evidence of slaving, and by then the sepoys had been dismissed. Rumours of war obliged Livingstone to go round the south end of the lake, where the Comorans gave up. In January 1867, soon after crossing the Luangwa River, the chronometers were damaged, which caused persistent error in observations of longitude. Then a temporary porter made off with the medicine chest. Livingstone was aiming for Lake Bangweulu, which he believed to be linked to Lake Tanganyika (and thus, he thought, to the Nile), but it was now the rainy season, and the country in that direction was so swampy that he made directly for Lake Tanganyika, visiting the Bemba king Chitimukulu.

Henceforward, progress was repeatedly interrupted by local wars and by illness. Livingstone received much help from Arab and Swahili traders, but he suffered from pneumonia, dysentery, ulcers, and haemorrhoids. Between November 1867 and July 1868 he reached Lake Mweru and Lake Bangweulu, and visited the Lunda king Kazembe, on the Luapula. In March 1869 he got to Ujiji, where he found few of the stores he had ordered from the coast. He now thought it likely that the upper Nile was to be identified with the Lualaba River, west of Lake Tanganyika, but he did not reach this until March 1871, after receiving further supplies relayed by Kirk, now vice-consul in Zanzibar. At Nyangwe, Livingstone vainly sought canoes to explore the course of the Lualaba, and rejected Arab help after a massacre of local Manyema in July. He returned to Ujiji in October to find little left of the goods from Zanzibar funded by the British government (at Murchison's insistence). Instead, he was relieved in November by , who had been told to ‘find Livingstone’ by the editor of the New York Herald and who traced him to Ujiji, there greeting him with the famous and premeditated salutation, ‘Dr Livingstone, I presume?’ (H. M. Stanley, How I Found Livingstone, 1872, 412). They travelled together to the north end of Lake Tanganyika and proved that it had no outlet there. They parted on 14 March 1872 at Tabora, on the caravan route to the east coast, where Livingstone waited for fresh supplies to be sent up by Stanley. These arrived in August, along with the fifty-six porters who had contracted to work for him, and the five remaining from his original team.

Livingstone resumed his quest. He was not sure that the Lualaba was the Nile, but his obsession with finding the Nile's ultimate source drove him to seek not where the Lualaba went but where it came from. Thus he went south from Tabora to the south-eastern shore of Lake Tanganyika, and returned to Lake Bangweulu. However, his attempt in 1872–3 to traverse the ‘sponges’ around the lake and push west was confused by the faulty longitudes of 1867–8 and was further delayed by heavy rains and by his own debility. By April 1873 he was bleeding profusely and soon had to be carried in a litter. He died during the night of 30 April at the village of Chitambo, a Lala headman. Command of the expedition was assumed by Abdullah Susi, from Shupanga, who with James Chuma, a Yao, and Edward Gardner had accompanied Livingstone continuously. The heart and viscera were buried on the spot, but Susi decided to carry Livingstone's body, duly embalmed, to the coast, along with his effects. At Tabora, Susi's expedition met a search party led by V. L. Cameron; against his advice, the team held firm to their remarkable purpose and reached Bagamoyo in February 1874. Kirk's deputy arranged for the body to be dispatched to England. On 18 April 1874 Livingstone was buried in the nave of Westminster Abbey. The pallbearers included Oswell, Kirk, Stanley, and Jacob Wainwright, one of Stanley's recruits for the final journey from Tabora. Murchison—‘the best friend I ever had’ (Last Journals, 2.205)— had died in 1871, but Robert Moffat was there, and James Stewart.

Significance and reputation

In death Livingstone became once more a national hero. The Treasury paid £500 for the funeral; Gladstone awarded a pension to Livingstone's daughters; and Disraeli's subsequent ministry gave the family £3000. Although Livingstone's Nile theory had already been disproved, he was acclaimed once again as a great abolitionist: his numerous reports on the slavers' advance across Africa from the east coast were seen to have led to the treaty against the trade enforced on the sultan of Zanzibar in 1873. Missionaries soon began to realize Livingstone's vision of rivers and lakes as highways for the spiritual and social regeneration of Africa, even if his views on the commercial function of missions were sometimes more influential than his lifelong advocacy of ‘native agency’. Two Scottish missions—one named Livingstonia and the other Blantyre—went out to Lake Nyasa and the Shire highlands in 1875–6. Both were crucial factors in the British occupation of what became Nyasaland and then Malawi. Meanwhile the UMCA, which had re-established itself in Zanzibar, was at work on the mainland; by 1878 the LMS was on Lake Tanganyika, and the Church Missionary Society was in Buganda, as a result of Stanley's return to east Africa. Stanley himself completed Livingstone's geographical work by reaching the Lualaba and following the Congo to the sea.

Stanley had, of course, taken the lead in reviving Livingstone's celebrity and his book, How I Found Livingstone (1872), presented the traveller as a genial saint. Horace Waller, who had been with the UMCA at Magomero, fastidiously edited Livingstone's Last Journals (1874), a poignant testimony to soul-searching, suffering, forbearance, and tenacity. These books, and their derivatives, contributed to a Livingstone legend which had begun with Missionary Travels. There was a peculiar romance about the lone missionary ever pressing into new country, concerned not to convert but to bear Christian witness by preaching the gospel, giving magic-lantern shows, and speaking against slavery. Livingstone became a symbol of what the British—and other Europeans—wished to believe about their motives as they took over tropical Africa in the late nineteenth century: in effect he redeemed the colonial project. In 1929 the Scottish national memorial to David Livingstone was opened at his birthplace, Blantyre, by the duchess of York; by 1963 there had been 2 million visitors. In Africa, he is still commemorated in the names of two towns: Blantyre, in Malawi, and Livingstone, in Zambia, beside the Victoria Falls.

For half a century after his death Livingstone was the subject of hagiography rather than scholarship. More realistic assessments became possible with access to the papers of Kirk and other members of the Zambezi expedition. The chief work of reappraisal, however, was achieved in Isaac Schapera's magisterial editions of Livingstone's journals and letters up to 1856. During the later twentieth century a complex character came into focus: versatile in practical skills, intellectually curious, strikingly free from religious or racial prejudice, exerting unusual charm, and inspiring at least a few to great loyalty; yet deficient in political sense, tactless, touchy, rancorous, stingy with thanks or encouragement, devious, and callous when other people's interests seemed to conflict with his duty to God. Livingstone's reputation for managing Africans, if not Europeans, rests on the expeditions of 1853–6, which were organized chiefly by Africans, and on Waller's emollient edition of his last journals. None the less, his writings have acquired new value as a rich source for the history of Africans. His pioneering cartography of eastern Angola and what became Botswana, Zambia, and Malawi was but one facet of his skill as an amateur field-scientist in an age of growing specialization. Secular knowledge and material mastery were integral to his missiology: the industrial revolution was part of a divine plan. Livingstone both embodied and transcended the nineteenth-century tension between religion and science, and it was this which accounted for the scale and complexity of his career in Africa.

A. D. Roberts


D. Livingstone, Missionary travels and researches in South Africa (1857) · D. Livingstone and C. Livingstone, Narrative of an expedition to the Zambesi and its tributaries … 1858–1864 (1865) · The last journals of David Livingstone, in central Africa, from 1865 to his death, ed. H. Waller, 2 vols. (1874) · W. G. Blaikie, Personal life of David Livingstone (1880) · David Livingstone: family letters, 1841–1856, ed. I. Schapera, 2 vols. (1959) · Livingstone's missionary correspondence, 1841–1856, ed. I. Schapera (1961) · Livingstone's private journals, 1851–1853, ed. I. Schapera (1960) · Livingstone's African journal, 1853–1856, ed. I. Schapera, 2 vols. (1963) · David Livingstone: South African papers, 1849–1853, ed. I. Schapera (1974) · R. C. Bridges, ‘The British exploration of east Africa, 1788–1885’, PhD diss., U. Lond., 1963, chaps. 5–6 · The Zambesi journal and letters of John Kirk, 1858–63, ed. R. Foskett (1965) · T. Jeal, Livingstone (1973) · G. W. Clendennen and I. C. Cunningham, David Livingstone: a catalogue of documents (1979); suppl. (1985) · David Livingstone: letters and documents, 1841–1872, ed. T. Holmes (1990) · M. Gelfand, Livingstone the doctor (1957)


BL, letters to his wife, daughters, and others, Add. MS 50184 · Bodl. Oxf., letters · David Livingstone Centre, Blantyre, letters and notebooks · Livingstone Museum, Zambia, letters and notebooks · National Archives of Zimbabwe, Harare, corresp., diary, and papers · National Museum, Livingstone, Zambia · NL Scot., corresp. and papers · NL Scot., priv. coll. · RGS, corresp. and papers · Scottish National Memorial to David Livingstone, Blantyre, Glasgow · SOAS, corresp. and papers · University of Strathclyde Library, Glasgow, papers |  BL, letters to Edmund Gabriel, Add. MS 37410 · Bodl. RH, Waller MSS · TNA: PRO, FO 2, 63, 84, 97


S. Newell, miniature, 1840, SOAS, Archives of the Council for World Mission · Cameron, daguerreotypes, 1852, Council for World Mission, London · J. Bonomi, pencil drawing, 1857, NPG · E. Grimstone, chalk drawing, exh. RA 1857, Scot. NPG · J. E. Mayall, photograph, 1857, NPG · H. W. Phillips, oils, 1857, priv. coll. · D. J. Pound, print, pubd 1859 (after photograph by Mayall), NPG · T. Annan, photograph, 1864, Scot. NPG [see illus.] · Maull & Polyblank, photograph, c.1864, NPG · A. R. Hill, bronze statue, c.1869, Edinburgh; related plaster statuette, Scot. NPG · F. Havill, oils, 1874–84 (posthumous), NPG · A. B. Wyon, medal, exh. RA 1875, Royal Geographic Society, London · A. R. Paton, statue, 1876 (after A. Robertson), East Princes Street Gardens, Edinburgh · M. Stewart, oils, 1876, Glasgow Art Gallery · W. Brodie, marble bust, c.1878, Dundee City Art Gallery · J. G. Mossman, statue, 1879, Cathedral Square, Glasgow · W. R. Dick, statue, 1934, Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe · T. Huxley-Jones, bronze statue, 1953, Royal Geographical Society, Kensington Gore, London · H. N. King, cartes-de-visite, NPG · engravings, NPG · photographs, NPG · woodcuts, NPG

Wealth at death  

£1463 19s. 3d.: confirmation, 3 Oct 1874, NA Scot., SC 36/48/74/705