David Livingstone

From New World Encyclopedia

David Livingstone

David Livingstone (March 19, 1813 – May 1, 1873) was a Scottish medical missionary and explorer of the Victorian era who traveled more than 29,000 miles, crisscrossing one-third of the continent of Africa for more than thirty years. Livingstone's own conversion came when he realized that faith and science were compatible. He believed the best way to share his faith with the Africans was to teach them about the world. Livingstone respected Africans and learned their languages and customs. He was appalled by the way the Dutch and Portuguese colonists treated the African people and his writings told the world about the slave trade.

Livingstone supported his work by writing books about his travels. His geographical, botanical, medical, and social discoveries were extensive.

Early life

David Livingstone was born in the village of Blantyre, South Lanarkshire, Scotland. His father, Neil Livingstone, a religious man, journeyed from place to place as a tea merchant. His family of nine lived in a humble single room in a cotton mill tenement. At the young age of ten, David Livingstone started working in a cotton factory. He had such an intense desire for knowledge that he used part of his first week's earnings to buy a Latin grammar. He set up his book at the factory in such a way where he could study as he worked.

Livingstone worked fourteen hours a day and saved up enough money so that in 1836, he could begin to study medicine and theology at the University of Glasgow. In 1838, he decided to become a medical missionary with the London Missionary Society (LMS), which he chose because of its nonsectarian character. While in London, Livingstone completed his internship and met South African missionary Robert Moffat, who inspired him to go to Africa. Dr. Moffat spoke of the vast, untouched regions of central Africa and the “smoke of a thousand villages where the gospel had never been preached.

In 1840, after receiving his medical license and being ordained, Livingstone sailed to Cape Town for a mission station (just north of Moffat’s) called Buchuanaland (now Botswana). He decided not to settle in one place but to travel around the interior. Livingstone stayed with the local people while learning their languages, preaching, and studying the botany and natural history of the area. When he was not traveling, he built a chapel, set up a printing press, and tended to the sick.

In 1845, he married Mary Moffat, Robert’s eldest daughter, and began a family while moving around setting up new missions, eventually having six children.

One time, Livingstone fatally fired on an attacking male lion but the lion bit into his shoulder and shook Livingstone until it finally died and fell off. This injury limited his use of the left arm but did not affect his adventurous spirit.

The Royal Geographical Society awarded him a prize and a gold medal in 1849 for his discovery of Lake Ngami in the Kalahari Desert.

Victoria Falls

David Livingstone memorial at Victoria Falls
Did you know?
David Livingstone, the first European to see it, renamed the Mosi-oa-Tunya waterfall the Victoria Falls in honor of Queen Victoria

In the period between November 1852 and September 1856, Livingstone explored the African interior, and was the first European to witness the magnificence of the Mosi-oa-Tunya waterfall, which he renamed Victoria Falls for Queen Victoria. He was one of the first Caucasians to make the 4,300-mile transcontinental journey across Africa. The purpose of his journey was to open trade routes, while accumulating useful information about the African continent. In particular, Livingstone was a proponent of the establishment of trade and missions in central Africa. His motto is inscribed in the base of the statue of him at Victoria Falls: "Christianity, Commerce, and Civilization." At this time, he believed the key to achieving these goals was the navigation of the Zambezi River. He hoped to find a route to the Atlantic Ocean that would open up legitimate commerce and weaken the slave trade, since local chieftains would no longer need to cooperate with slave traders to get trade goods. He returned to Britain to try to garner support for his ideas, and to publish a book on his travels.

In 1856, Livingstone returned to England as a national hero and started a six-month speaking tour while preparing his book, Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa (1857). This sold widely and made him financially independent, allowing him to provide for his family and resign from the London Missionary Society. One speech, at Cambridge University, inspired the formation of the Universities Mission for Christian Work in Africa (UMCA, eventually founded in 1860).

Livingstone left for Africa again in March 1858, with his wife and one son. This time he went with an official appointment as Her Majesty’s Consul for the East Coast of Africa.

Zambezi Expedition

Livingstone returned to Africa as head of the "Zambezi Expedition," which was a British government-funded project to examine the natural resources of southeastern Africa. The Zambezi River turned out to be completely unnavigable past the Cabora Basa Rapids, a series of cataracts and rapids that Livingstone had failed to explore on his earlier travels.

The expedition lasted from March 1858 until the middle of 1864. Livingstone was an inexperienced leader and had trouble managing a large-scale project. At Sesheke, Livingstone first observed the great Zambezi River and began the hazardous hike northward.

From the beginning, this journey was riven with difficulties. For the first time, Livingstone contracted malaria as did most of his companions. Livingstone's wife, Mary, died on April 29, 1863, of dysentery, but Livingstone continued to explore, eventually returning home in 1864 after the government ordered the recall of the expedition. The Zambezi Expedition was cast as a failure in many newspapers of the time, and Livingstone experienced great difficulty in raising funds to further explore Africa. Nevertheless, the scientists appointed to work under Livingstone, John Kirk, Charles Meller, and Richard Thornton, did contribute large collections of botanical, ecological, geological, and ethnographic material to scientific institutions in the United Kingdom.

Source of the Nile

Livingstone maintained exceptional popularity with the Royal Geographical Society and the British public. While in England, he gave speeches about the need to take action against the slave trade. His publication, a book called Narrative of an Expedition to the Zambezi and Its Tributaries (1865), brought private support to explore the watersheds (divides between river drainage basins) of central Africa.

In March 1866, Livingstone returned to Africa, this time to Zanzibar (now part of Tanzania), where he set out to seek the source of the Nile River. Livingstone never lost the dream that “civilizing influences” could restrain the slave trade, which he called “that enormous evil.”

Along with his loyal African companions, Sisu and Chuma, he explored the Tanganyika, Mweru, and Bangweulu lakes. The map of Africa was slowly being charted. The source of the Nile seemed so close and even though Livingstone often thought he was on the verge of success, he continued to be puzzled for seven years. In 1871, Livingstone found the Lualaba River, which feeds into the Congo River, and mistakenly thought this river was the "real" Nile.

In Zanzibar, Livingstone saw Arab slave traders massacre between 300 to 400 Africans. Devastated, he returned to Ujiji.

Livingstone completely lost contact with the outside world for six years. Only one of his 44 dispatches made it to Zanzibar. Henry Morton Stanley, funded by the New York Herald newspaper in 1869, led an expedition of nearly 2,000 men to find Livingstone. They started the search into the interior from the eastern shore of Africa on March 21, 1871. It wasn’t until nearly eight months later that Stanley found Livingstone in Ujiji, a small village on the shore of Lake Tanganyika, on November 10, 1871. When Livingstone came out to meet him, Stanley responded with what has become one of history's most famous greetings: "Dr. Livingstone, I presume?"

Together, Livingstone and Stanley continued exploring the north end of the Tanganyika (part of the present Tanzania) until Stanley left him in March 1872. Even though Stanley urged him to return, Livingstone was determined to remain in Africa until his mission to find the source of the Nile River was complete. Stocked up with supplies, Livingstone set off again toward Lake Bangweulu, and continued his efforts to find the source of the Nile. He became so weak with dysentery that he had to be carried on a stretcher and finally couldn’t travel at all.

Death and Social Influence

Livingstone became a frail and weak figure suffering from malaria and internal bleeding caused by dysentery. In the morning of May 1, 1873, his companions found him kneeling by his bedside having died in prayer in Chief Chitambo's village on the southern shores of Lake Bangweulu (now Zambia). His body, carried over a thousand miles by his loyal attendants Chuma and Susi, was returned to Britain. He was entombed in Westminster Abbey where his epitaph reads:

Brought by faithful hands over land and sea, here rests David Livingstone, missionary, traveler, philanthropist, born March 19, 1813, at Blantyre, Lanarkshire, died May 1, 1873, at Chitambo’s village, Ulala. For 30 years, his life was spent in an unwearied effort to evangelize the native races, to explore the undiscovered secrets, to abolish the desolating slave trade of Central Africa. Where with his last words he wrote, “All I can add in my solitude is may Heaven’s rich blessings come down to everyone, American, English, or Turk, who will help heal the open sore of the world.” [1]

Livingstone had relentlessly tried to expose the suffering caused by the slave trade. As he traveled the interior of Africa, he witnessed slave caravans of up to a thousand slaves chained together with neck yokes or leg irons, carrying heavy loads, walking single file thousands of miles down to the sea. If one slave complained, they were immediately speared to death and discarded by the wayside. Livingstone described the destruction to human life caused by the slave trade:

Wherever we took a walk, human skeletons were seen in every direction,… The sight of this desert, but eighteen months ago a well-peopled valley, now literally strewn with human bones, forced the conviction upon us that the destruction of human life in the middle passage, however great, constitutes but a small portion of the waste, and made us feel that unless the slave-trade—that monster iniquity which has so long brooded over Africa—is put down, lawful commerce cannot be established.[2]

Livingstone's letters and speeches, along with the effort of other missionaries, stirred up a public campaign for Parliament to intervene and give pressure to stop the slave trade. As Stanley was leaving him, Livingstone presented Stanley with a letter to be published. Livingstone expressed his concerns and priorities:

And if my disclosures regarding the terrible Ujijian slavery should lead to the suppression of the East Coast slave trade, I shall regard that as a greater matter by far than the discovery of all the Nile sources together. [3]

This dream of Livingstone was realized even though he never found the source of the Nile. In 1871, the outcry of Livingstone and others' antislavery protests prompted the House of Commons to take action. Only a month after Livingstone’s death, England threatened a naval blockade of Zanzibar that forced the sultan to close its slave market forever.

Chronology of Events in Livingstone's Life

1813: Born at Blantyre, in Lanarkshire, Scotland, March 19

1833: Real conversion took place in his life

1836: Entered school in Glasgow

1838: Accepted by London Missionary Society, September

1840: Ordained missionary in Albion St. Chapel, November 20. Sailed on H.M.S. George for Africa, December 8

1841: Arrived at Kuruman, July 31

1842: Extended tour of Bechuana country begins, February 10

1843: Located at Mabotsa, August

1844: Marriage to Mary Moffat of Kuruman

1846: Located at Chonuane with Chief Sechele

1847: Moved to Kolobeng

1848: Sechele, first convert, baptized, October 1

1849: Lake Ngami discovered, August 1

1850: Royal Geographical Society awarded royal donation, 25 guineas

1851: Discovered the upper Zambezi, August 3

1852: Mrs. Livingstone and four children sail from Cape Town, April 23

1853: Journey from Linyanti to west coast, November 11 to May 31, 1854

1854: Awarded silver medal by French Geographical Society; University of Glasgow conferred degree LL.D.; Journey from west coast back to Linyanti, September 11 to September 24, 1855

1855: Journey from Linyanti to Quilimane on east coast, November 3 to May 20, 1856; awarded Patron's Gold Medal by Royal Geographical Society

1856: Arrived in London on first visit home, December 9

1857: Given freedom of the cities of London, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee and many other towns; became Corresponding Member of American Geographical and Statistical Society, New York; Royal Geographical Society, London; Geographical Society of Paris; K.K. Geographical Society of Vienna; Honorary Fellow of Faculty and Physicians of Glasgow; Degree of D.C.L. by University of Oxford; elected F.H.S.; appointed Commander of Zambezi Expedition and her Majesty's Consul at Tette, Quilimane, Senna

1858: Returned with Mrs. Livingstone to Africa, March 10

1859: River Shire explored and Lake Nyassa discovered, September 16

1862: Mrs. Livingstone died at Shupanga, April 27; explored the Yovuma River

1864: Arrived in Bombay, June 13; London, July 23

1866: Arrived at Zanzibar, January 28

1867: Discovered Lake Tanganyika, April

1868: Discovered Lake Bangweolo, July 18

1869: Arrived at Ujiji, March 14

1871: Reached Nyangwe, March 29; returned to Ujiji a "living skeleton," October 23; Henry M. Stanley found him, October 28

1872: Awarded Gold Medal by Italian Geographical Society

1873: Died in his tent at Ilala, May 1

1874: Body buried with honors in Westminster Abbey, London, April 18

Public Honors Awarded To David Livingstone

1850: Royal Geographical Society of London awards him the Royal Donation of 25 guineas, placed by her Majesty at the disposal of the Council (Silver Chronometer).

1854: French Geographical Society awards a Silver Medal.

1854: University of Glasgow confers degree of LL.D.

1855: Royal Geographical Society of London award Patron's Gold Medal.

1857: French Geographical Society award annual prize for the most important geographical discovery

1857: Freedom of city of London

1857: Freedom of city of Glasgow

1857: Freedom of city of Edinburgh, of Dundee, and many other towns.

1857: Corresponding Member of American Geographical and Statistical Society, New York.

1857: Corresponding Member of Royal Geographical Society of London.

1857: Corresponding Member of Geographical Society of Paris.

1857: Corresponding Member of the K.K. Geographical Society of Vienna.

1857: The Faculty of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow "elect that worthy, eminent, and learned Surgeon and Naturalist, David Livingstone, LL.D., to be an Honorary Fellow"

1857: Medal awarded by the Universal Society for the Encouragement of Arts and Industry.

1857: University of Oxford confers degree of D.C.L.

1858: Appointed Commander of Zambezi Expedition and her Majesty's Consul at Tette, Quilimane, and Senna.

1872: Gold Medal awarded by Italian Geographical Society.


  1. Donald R. Wright, David Livingstone. Retrieved June 7, 2013.
  2. W. Garden Blaikie, The Personal Life of David Livingstone. Retrieved June 7, 2013.
  3. How I Found Livingstone, by Henry Morton Stanley. Retrieved June 7, 2013.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Eynikel, Hilde. Mrs. Livingstone: een biografie (in Dutch). Schuyt & Co, 2006. ISBN 9058263479
  • Holmes, Timothy. Journey to Livingstone: Exploration of an Imperial Myth. Edinburgh: Canongate Press, 1993. ISBN 0862414024
  • Jeal, Tim. Livingstone. London: Heinemann, 1973. ISBN 0434372080
  • Livingstone, David. Dernier Journal (in French). Arléa, 1999. ISBN 978-2869594494
  • Martelli, George. Livingstone's River: A History of the Zambezi Expedition, 1858–1864. London: Chatto & Windus, 1970. ISBN 0671204661
  • Philip, M. Nourbese. Looking for Livingstone: An Odyssey of Silence. Toronto: Mercury Press, 1991. ISBN 0920544886
  • Ross, Andrew, and Andrew C. Ross. David Livingstone: Mission and Empire. London and New York: Hambledon and London, 2002. ISBN 1852855657
  • Royer, Galen B. Christian Heroism in Heathen Lands. Elgin, IL: Brethren Publishing House, 1915. ASIN B00086E1O2
  • Seaver, George. David Livingstone: His Life and Letters. Kessinger Publishing, LLC, 2007. ISBN 978-0548444757

External links

All links retrieved January 28, 2024.


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