Explorers 11. Livingstone

The Big One, but David Livingstone (1813-1873) – is not my kind of explorer. He certainly explored, but he didn’t study. My kind of explorer searched for knowledge of the local fauna and flora, found new birds, new frogs, new bugs and new plants. One of them wrote he explored ‘in pursuit of knowledge,’ but Livingstone was in pursuit of something else. He was focused on ‘Christianity, Commerce and Civilisation’ – euphemism, I think, for ‘Conquest.’ Rather than ‘exploring,’ he was very much ‘on his own mission!’ Livingstone fans, be prepared to be annoyed!

In 1840, while studying medicine in London, Livingstone met missionary Robert Moffatt, on leave from Kuruman a missionary outpost in South Africa, north of the !Gariep River. He was excited by Moffat’s vision of expanding missionary work northwards, and he was also influenced by arguments that the African slave trade might be destroyed through the influence of ‘legitimate trade’ – trade by England rather than trade by the Arabs? – and the spread of Christianity.

His first journey on arrival was from Port Elizabeth to Kuruman by ox wagon, guided by three local men: ‘I enjoy African Travel; the complete freedom of stopping where I want, lighting a fire to cook when I am hungry. The novelty of sleeping under the stars in thinly populated country makes a complete break from my cramped and regulated past existence in Scotland.’

In his missionary work, Livingstone perhaps displayed varying degrees of missionary zeal:

– He was obliged to leave his first mission at Mabotsa in Botswana in 1845 after irreconcilable differences emerged between him and his fellow missionary, Rogers Edwards, and because the Bakgatla were ‘proving indifferent to the Gospel.’ |Maybe they were asking Why?

– He abandoned Chonuane, his next mission, in 1847 because of drought and the proximity of the Boers and his desire ‘to move on to the regions beyond.’

– At Kolobeng mission Livingstone ‘converted’ Chief Sechele, but only a few months later Sechele ‘lapsed’ – came to his senses? What exactly is wrong with my own belief system? he may reasonably have asked himself? Livingstone left Kolobeng, convinced that the best long-term chance for successful evangelising was to explore Africa in advance of European commercial interest and other missionaries by mapping and navigating its rivers which might then become ‘highways’ into the interior. In other words, he thought his best missionary work would be to stop doing missionary work?

– Livingstone preaching the gospel to bemused Africans. Like other missionaries of the era he had a low success rate and is credited with only a single successful brainwash –

Maybe they were thinking:

colonists arrive

Livingstone was, to put it mildly, not easy to get along with. Expedition members recorded that Livingstone was an inept leader incapable of managing a large-scale project. He was also said to be secretive, self-righteous and moody, and could not tolerate criticism, all of which severely strained the expedition and which led to his physician John Kirk writing in 1862, “I can come to no other conclusion than that Dr Livingstone is out of his mind and a most unsafe leader.”

So bugger them, he often traveled alone. Well, ‘alone’ colonist-style:-

He traveled north and west, alone, with 27 African guides and warriors loaned by the chief of the Kololo in the Linyanti / Makololo region. They reached the Atlantic after profound difficulties and near-death from fever, then returned to Linyanti / Makololo. Then, alone, with 114 men loaned by the same chief, he set off east down the Zambezi. On this leg he was shown the magnificent Mosi-oa-Tunya, a waterfall local people knew and called by a beautiful name – which he re-named some arbitrary name without consulting them (I know, I’m being hard on the poor man – not).

– Makololo bottom centre – see our – guided – visit there

He successfully reached the Indian Ocean, having mapped most of the course of the Zambezi river, becoming the first – oh no, hang on! – the fourth person to record an ocean-to-ocean crossing of south-central Africa.

  • local traders had crossed from Angola to Mozambique;
  • Portuguese traders had already penetrated to the middle of the continent from both sides;
  • two Arab traders crossed the continent from Zanzibar to Benguela;

The British press, of course, saw it otherwise. An early example of fake news, which made Livingstone famous. He was first, as non-British accomplishments were little known or cared about, or cared for, by the British press.** Jingo!

After this, Livingstone moved north, out of my southern African interest area for this series of amateur articles on explorers, so we’ll let him go. There’s lots more one can read about him and his sainthood (or the British jingo equivalent). He died in Zambia at 60, of fever and dysentery, regretting he hadn’t spent more time with his kids.


Read more then – there are endless sources including critics and apologists! Just on ‘Livingstone and Stanley’ there are over 1766 books! They are both saints, they are both devils. Depends who wrote about them; wikipedia; London School of Economics LSE blog – Yvonne Kabombwe; 15 interesting things; BBC History; LSE blog Imperial Obsessions conference – Joanna Lewis; livingstoneonline.org; Livingstone’s uncensored diary; Stanley: A fake rascal;


** Here’s an example – ‘Livingstone’s subsequent explorations took him far from the Victoria Falls, and he never saw them again. Following Livingstone’s visit to the Falls, and that of William Baldwin in 1860, ‘a few Boar hunters are known to have visited the Falls in 1861 but it is known that only one, Martinus Swartz, survived the return journey.’ – So let’s just say Thomas Baines was third to reach the falls, shall we, old chap?

1 Comment

  1. Jon Taylor says:

    Good stuff – keep up the research. Just enough info for my brain.


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