Dr David Livingstone - Missionary and Explorer Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Dr David Livingstone - Missionary and Explorer

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Dr Livingstone, I presume?
- New York Herald reporter Henry Stanley
Southern Africa has many prominent and famous landmarks:
  • Table Mountain, near the city of Cape Town in South Africa, is the only geological feature on Earth that has a constellation (Mensa) named after it.
  • The Limpopo river, one of the largest in Africa, rises from central South Africa and flows through Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and finally into the Indian Ocean. This river is mentioned in Rudyard Kipling's The Just So Stories.
  • The river Zambezi begins to rise in Zambia, flows through Angola and then back into Zambia, snakes its way near the border with Namibia, through Mozambique and into the Indian Ocean.
  • Victoria Falls are also known in the local African language as 'Mosi-oa-Tunya' ('The Cloud that Thunders').

The region doesn't just have famous landmarks, though; it has countries and towns named after famous men, too. Cecil Rhodes, founder of the world-famous diamond company De Beers, had a country named after him: Rhodesia. This was one country before it was divided. Northern Rhodesia is now known as Zambia, while Southern Rhodesia was renamed Zimbabwe.

Another prominent man was David Livingstone.

The Early Years

David Livingstone, second son of Niel and Agnes Livingstone, was born in Blantyre, south of Glasgow, on 19 March, 1813. His father had a warm personality and, although quick-tempered, held deep and noble convictions. Niel was a member of the congregational church, and a good reader. Agnes shared her husband's ideals and the family attended church regularly, observing Sunday as a day of worship on a strict basis.

At the age of ten, David began work in a cotton mill, and often worked long hours for very little pay. When he didn't work, he studied and read a lot. At the age of 23 he joined Anderson College in Glasgow and studied theology and medicine.

Four years after joining the college, now The University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, he received his degree in medicine. During this time he also joined the London Missionary Society, and hoped to become a missionary in China. His hopes were dashed when the first opium war between Britain and China broke out. The society made arrangements for him to go to South Africa. On 8 December, 1840, he set sail for the 'Dark Continent'.

Arrival in South Africa

Arriving in Cape Town in 1841, Livingstone went on to Kuruman, situated south of the Kalahari Desert, where the London Missionary Society, headed by Robert Moffat (whom he'd met in London), was based. Livingstone wasn't impressed with what he saw there. Since he believed his priority was to preach the gospel to those who were willing to listen, and that he shouldn't remain in the same spot, he decided to move further north to Mabotsa, near the Limpopo.

This area was crawling with lions, but he set up a station of his own near the banks of the river. One day a lion sprang out of the bushes and attacked him, ripping his flesh and breaking his arm. This injury prevented him from raising his arm without pain, and he soon returned to Kuruman to convalesce. It was during this time that he met and married Mary, Moffat's daughter.

Marriage and Family

Scottish by birth, Mary had lived in Africa since the age of five. The pair of them got married in 1845 and she soon became pregnant. Despite this and protests by his in-laws, Livingstone decided to move on to Chonuane (now a town in South Africa) with his pregnant wife in tow. He wanted to meet Chief Sechele, head of the Bakwena, one of the major tribes in the region.

In 1847 they reached Kolobeng, now in Botswana. It was here that Mary gave birth to their first child, Agnes. Livingstone built an infant school, as well as a station near the river Kolobeng, believing it would never dry up. The baptism and conversion of Chief Sechele to Christianity, after the chief had denounced all but his first wife, was a first for Livingstone.

It was now that the missionary emphasised the importance of local customs and beliefs, as well as the need to encourage the natives to convert people themselves. But he faced difficulties finding converts he could consider training to be missionaries. He also realised that Christianity was a threat to these African societies and their unity. With this in mind, Livingstone began to make plans for new initiatives.

But he soon began to have problems with his growing family, which by now included two sons, named Robert and Thomas. Before the family could return to Kuruman, their new baby daughter, Elizabeth, died on 15 September, 1850, aged just six weeks.

One problem Livingstone faced at Kolobeng was the fact that the river did dry up. This caused a lot of hardship and suffering, with animals, and eventually people, dying as a result. Another problem was that he was blamed for the difficult situation which Chief Sechele's rejected wives now found themselves in, through no fault of their own. While Livingstone remained to deal with all this, his family returned to England.

The Search

As his family departed from Cape Town, he realised he'd face other major obstacles, especially from the Dutch Boers, who'd robbed and subjected natives to slavery. The Boers opposed Livingstone's efforts, and stooped as low as destroying his home. But he was still determined and went into Makololo Country, now known as Zambia, to build a mission and trading centre. Livingstone had failed to achieve this in 1847, but this time the chief welcomed him.

He came across the Zambezi and envisaged it being a navigable waterway that would aid the opening up of central Africa. Despite suffering repeatedly from diseases such as malaria and dysentery, as well as hunger, Livingstone headed down river. At the same time, he managed to keep careful records which would benefit European knowledge of central and southern Africa. Livingstone went as far as Luanda, now in Angola, west Africa, in search of a connecting river, but failed. He then headed east towards the Indian Ocean.

The Discovery of Victoria Falls

In 1855, three years after he began his journey, Livingstone came across an area where he could hear what sounded like thunder. As he headed in the direction where the sound was coming from, he saw the Zambezi falling into a narrow gorge. Being the first European to see this waterfall, Livingstone named it Victoria Falls, after Britain's reigning monarch.

A year later, Livingstone reached the mouth of the river, in what's now Mozambique, on the south-east coast of the continent, making him the first European to cross the full width of southern Africa. This news spread like wildfire and he was hailed a national hero when he returned home to Britain. Livingstone was honoured by the Royal Geographical Society, and his book, Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa, sold widely across the country.

Livingstone made speeches wherever he was invited, but it was his oration at Cambridge University that led to the setting up of the Universities Mission for Christian Work in Africa. In the meantime, the London Missionary Society indicated that it wasn't convinced he was spreading the gospel in his travels. This led to him having to resign from the society a year later. Chief Sechele had been his only convert; he later went back to his old ways.

Return to Africa in Search of the Source of the Nile

After being appointed as her majesty's consul for the east coast of Africa, Livingstone returned with his wife in 1858. Between then and 1863, with six assistants and utilising countless steam vessels, he explored the Zambezi and Shire River, in what is now southern Mozambique. In 1861, Livingstone assisted the Universities Mission in setting up a mission south of Lake Malawi on the shores of Lake Chilwa, the third largest in the country.

More Tragedy

But soon he was dealt a blow by the death of the mission's leader. Then there was a more personal tragedy: his pregnant wife died in 1862, in the remote village of Shupanga, part of the Mozambican province of Sofala. The cause was malaria, a disease transmitted from one person to another by the bite of a female mosquito.


These blows were compounded by the slave trade, from Lake Malawi to the east coast. There were several occasions when Livingstone encountered marches of slaves who were shackled to each other by means of a chain through a pair of metal rings around their wrists.

In 1864, the government ordered him to return home, where he wrote extensively about the slave trade, as well as his expedition to the Zambezi and its tributaries.

He was immensely popular with the Royal Geographical Society, and it was this that raised private support for the next venture: exploring the watersheds of central Africa. He was to search for the source of the Nile, which was a hotly debated topic in mainland Europe, as was the slave trade. Livingstone never gave up hope of beginning to suppress the progress of what he called this 'enormous evil'. However, this wasn't meant to be.

Final Expedition

What would be his final expedition began in 1866. This time there were two Africans with him: Chuma, a former slave, and Susi, a man who'd been employed earlier. Once again Livingstone tried to travel via the east coast but was unsuccessful. Having gone through the Ruvuma River, which lies on the border between Tanzania and Mozambique, he became feverish and frail, but plodded on. Exploring Lake Malawi, Lake Mweru and Lake Bangweulu, which is situated in the upper Congo river basin in Zambia, he finally reached Ujiji (Tanzania) on the shores of Lake Tanganyika.

Find Him!

Back in England, no-one had received any correspondence from Livingstone, so it was decided by those concerned at the Royal Geographical Society that one of his sons should go and locate him. Robert Livingstone travelled down only to Natal, while his brother Thomas, who had joined the University Mission, was in east Africa already. In the meantime, James Gordon Bennett of the New York Herald decided to send someone in search of the explorer. He sent Henry M Stanley, who wrote: 'No living man shall stop me, only death can stop me, but death, - not even this. I shall not die, I will not die, I cannot die. Something tells me that I shall find him. And I write it larger, FIND HIM.'

On departing Ujiji with some Arab slave-traders, Livingstone headed in a westward direction and in March 1871 reached the Lualaba River. This is the greatest headstream (by volume) of the Congo River, and today lies within the Democratic Republic of Congo. Livingstone was the first European to reach this area. He mistakenly theorised that this was the source of the Nile, and decided to return to Ujiji as his health was deteriorating considerably.

After being forced into a long march, Stanley met Susi, who'd been with the explorer ever since they'd met on a steamer. With the African beside him, the reporter met Livingstone at Ujiji and uttered the now-famous words:

Dr Livingstone, I presume?

Joyful Meeting

The letters and various supplies which Stanley had brought with him in abundance were much appreciated by the now pale, weary, grey-haired missionary and explorer - he was overjoyed. Together the two men spent four months exploring Lake Tanganyika, after which they separated. This was to be the last time anyone would see Livingstone alive. The meeting was a major scoop for the newspaper.

Final Observations

The explorer continued in his efforts to find the source of the Nile, but eventually, with dysentery weakening him, had to be put on a stretcher and carried to Chitambo (now in Zambia). There he made notes on his observations, drew maps and updated his journal. On the night of 30 April, 1873, he took a rest. A few hours later on the morning of 1 May, Susi, upon walking into the tent, discovered Livingstone seemingly praying in a kneeling position — he'd passed away. Livingstone had just turned 60.


Chuma and Susi removed the explorer's heart and buried it at the foot of a nearby tree, then dried and wrapped his body and carried it, along with his papers and instruments, to the Indian Ocean coastal island of Zanzibar. From there, the body was put on a ship to England. His remains finally arrived in London in April 1874, and he was buried at Westminster Abbey. His last journals were published posthumously.


No explorer or missionary has done so much for the African continent as Livingstone; for he travelled across almost a third of the continent for more than 30 years and made careful observations of not just places but people. By the time he passed away the Western world had an intense interest in the 'Dark Continent'. His explorations had revealed that the interior of the continent wasn't an arid wasteland as many believed. And it was through his effort to marshal British interest in the tragedies associated with the slave trade that he managed to provide new and more incentives for European colonisation.


Livingstone's six-week-old daughter's grave is situated in Kolobeng by the river where she died. The temporary mission he built was destroyed by a Boer raiding party - very little remains. But the shell of the house in which he lived with his family has been preserved; it's protected by a fence which was erected in 1935 by a missionary doctor, Dr Shepherd. Mary's grave lies in a forgotten and dilapidated cemetery near a dirt road lying between the Zambezi and a highway in Mozambique.


His oldest child, Agnes, married Alexander Bruce in 1875 and they had four children; Agnes passed away in 1912.

Livingstone's son Robert went to Natal, and later travelled to Boston, US, where he joined the New Hampshire Volunteers, 10th Army Corp. During the American Civil War he used the name 'Rupert Vincent', and was wounded at Laurel Hill in Virginia. He was captured as a prisoner of war and taken to Salisbury in North Carolina, where he later died.

Livingstone's second son, Thomas, left east Africa for Alexandria, Egypt; he died there in 1876.

Son Oswell (1851 - 1892) was raised in Scotland; he married and had one daughter, Kate Agnes (1878 - 1938).

The youngest child, Anna Mary, was born at Kuruman in 1858. She married Frank Wilson in 1881 and raised two children: a son, Hubert Francis1 and a daughter, Ruth Mary. Anna Mary died in 1939.

The Source of the Nile

Livingstone was under the impression that the upper Congo river basin was the source of the Nile. John Speke and Richard Burton, whose own expedition was sponsored by the Royal Geographical Society, found the real source. The scholars of the time refused to believe that the controversy over the source of the Nile could be settled by Speke's claim that it flowed out of a huge lake in central Africa, and denounced him as a charlatan. Speke went on to prove his theory was correct when he went around Lake Victoria and found the outlet of the Nile.


In Zambia, there's an airport and town named after Livingstone. And not far from Victoria Falls you can find a statue of the explorer. There's also a statue of him near the falls in neighbouring Zimbabwe.

In Livingstone's home town of Blantyre, Scotland, there's a David Livingstone Memorial Centre and museum, and his grave at Westminster Abbey is marked. The Royal Geographical Society raised a statue of their gold medal award recipient at its London headquarters.

A range of mountains in southern Alberta, Canada, as well as schools in London and the US, are named after him.

A plaque commemorates the famous meeting between Stanley and Livingstone at Ujiji in October 1871.

His heart remains buried under that tree in Zambia.

1Hubert was an officer in the RAMC during World War I, in Africa, and a medical missionary with the United Free Church at Chitambo. He wrote a biography about his famous grandfather.

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