Photo of the Day

David Livingstone, holding a gun, attacked by a lion. Livingstone had his uvula ( the dangly bit in throat) removed in an operation called a uvulopalatopharyngectomy. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images

Boy Wonder

Dr Livingstone, I presume?

– Henry Morton Stanley 

There are many extraordinary and inspiring stories about Dr David Livingstone. Livingstone was one of the greatest European explorers of Africa, whose opening up the interior of the continent contributed to the ‘Scramble for Africa’.

Livingstone wrote that several African tribes ostracised their members for farting in the presence of strangers. Livingstone (1813-73) was an enthusiastic Scottish missionary, although not particularly successful: he only ever managed to convert one African, a chieftain who lapsed shortly afterwards due to ‘the temptations of polygamy’.
When Livingstone’s mission was closed, he began an exploration of inner Africa. He discovered the Victoria Falls and was searching for the source of the Nile when he lost contact with the outside world for more than five years, prompting Henry Morton Stanley to set out in search of him.
Livingstone suffered from ill health and, even after Stanley found him, he was never well enough to travel home to Scotland. He died of malaria and internal bleeding caused by dysentery in 1873.

Blantyre: David Livingstone’s birthplace Shuttle Row, the tenement house where David Livingstone was born; the building is now part of the David Livingstone Centre, Blantyre, South Lanarkshire, Scotland.

Livingstone grew up in a distinctively Scottish family environment of personal piety, poverty, hard work, zeal for education, and a sense of mission. His father’s family was from the island of Ulva, off the west coast of Scotland. His mother, a Lowlander, was descended from a family of Covenanters, a group of militant Presbyterians. Both were poor, and Livingstone was reared as one of seven children at the top of a tenement building for the workers of a cotton factory on the banks of the Clyde.

His family was pious and poor, seven of them living together in a single-room factory tenement. By the age of ten, David was working in the local mill, 6am to 8pm, six days a week. His sole day off was Sunday, much of which was spent at chapel.

Few children who endured such harsh upbringings at that time ever broke free from their lives of drudgery. Barely one in ten learned to read. Many were left bow-legged and broken by the long days spent clambering over and under dangerous machinery.

But even at an early age, David Livingstone showed himself to be special. After clocking off from his gruelling 14-hour shift each night, he would study for a further two hours at the mill school. Back at home he then continued his reading till midnight. He studied Latin, theology, botany, and maths. He never played. He even read at work, balancing his textbooks on the loom and earning the mockery of his fellow child-workers for his pains.

But it paid off. By his mid-twenties, the poor boy from Blantyre who would one day walk across Africa was studying medicine at Glasgow, working during his vacations to pay for classes. Early in 1840, he listened to a Scotsman called Robert Moffat, just home from Africa, telling of “the smoke of a thousand villages where no missionary has ever been.” His heart was stirred, and with this new focus, he sought more medical and surgical experience in London.

Training with the London Missionary Society followed. In November, aged 27, he qualified as a physician. A few weeks later Dr Livingstone was ordained as a Protestant minister in London.

If he had died that day, if he had never gone to Africa, Livingstone’s accomplishments would have still been mind-boggling. The chances of a working-class factory lad becoming a professional missionary-doctor in the mid-nineteenth century were virtually nil. Historian Tim Jeal calls his achievement “grotesquely improbable.” Put simply, David Livingstone was a boy wonder. “Sometimes,” Jeal wrote, “it is hard not to be chilled by his resilience and almost inhuman perseverance.”

He collected his degree from Glasgow in November, then on 8 December set sail from Southampton on The George, three months later landing at Port Elizabeth.

His first journey took over six weeks by oxcart for the 600 miles to Kuruman where Moffat had settled; later 350 miles farther north to Kolobeng. In 1845 he married Mary Moffat. In a corner of rural Botswana can still be seen the site of their first house, and his dentist’s chair – a great stone at the door! – Also, a little graveyard where his 2-week old daughter Elizabeth is buried beside two other explorers. It is an evocative place, the thorn bushes and thickets still difficult to penetrate, little changed since he was there.

Mary Livingstone is largely forgotten. She had perilous pregnancies (and one miscarriage) due to the long arduous journeys they undertook. In 1852 she returned to Britain with their three surviving children. She was very poorly provided for and in desperation, her faith seems to have wavered. In 1856 Livingstone returned to Britain to write and lecture and gain huge popularity. In 1858 she returned to Africa with him and bore him another daughter. During a journey to the Zambezi in 1862, she died of fever and is buried at Chupanga. He visited Britain again in 1864 and returned to Africa in 1866 via Bombay.

David Livingstone and Family.

Having already spent most of her life in Africa, Mary Livingstone did not share her husband’s zeal for exploring the continent. Although David spent almost as much time away as he did at home, he and Mary still managed to have six children, five of whom survived into adulthood. The Livingstones moved to a mission at Chonuane in 1846, and then to Kolobeng in 1847.

In 1849, Livingstone accompanied William Cotton Oswell on an expedition that led to the discovery of Lake Ngami (in what is now Botswana). In 1851, he and Oswell reached the upper Zambezi River.

After the Kolobeng mission had to be closed in 1852 due to drought, Livingstone embarked on what became a four-year expedition to find a route from the upper Zambezi to the coast. Setting off from Linyati in November of 1853, he followed the Zambezi upstream for several hundred miles before setting out overland and reached what is now Luanda, Angola, in May of 1854. After making his way back to Linyati, Livingstone then set out on the downstream leg of his expedition. In November of 1855, he became the first European to see the Mosi-oa-Tunya (“the smoke that thunders”) falls, which he renamed Victoria Falls in honour of Queen Victoria. When he reached the mouth of the Zambezi River on the Indian Ocean (at what is now Quelimane, Mozambique) in May of 1856, he became the first European to have crossed the width of southern Africa.

By the time Livingstone returned to England in 1857, he was a national hero. Encouraged by the enthusiastic response to his Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa (1857), he began lobbying for support for expeditions that focused on exploration rather than missionary work. After resigning from the London Missionary Society because it refused to support exploratory missions, Livingstone was elected to the Royal Geographic Society, which helped secure him an appointment as Her Majesty’s Consul for the East Coast of Africa.

In March of 1858, Livingstone returned to Africa as head of an expedition to examine the natural resources of southeastern Africa and open up the River Zambezi. The Zambezi proved to be impassable to boats at many points because of rapids, however. In 1859, the expedition followed the Shire River to Lake Nyassa (Lake Malawi), which it explored in a four-oared boat. In 1861, the expedition returned to the mouth of the Zambezi to await the arrival of the Pioneer, a paddle steamer carrying missionaries charged with establishing a mission on the Shire River. Mary Livingstone was also on the boat, and for one of the few times in their marriage, she chose to accompany her husband on his expedition. Unfortunately, she died of malaria on April 27, 1862. Although Mary’s death left him deeply saddened, Livingstone chose to continue his explorations.

Attempts to navigate the Ruvuma River failed because of the continual fouling of the paddle wheels from the bodies thrown in the river by slave traders, and Livingstone’s assistants gradually died or left him. By 1864 the British government had decided that the Zambezi Expedition was a failure, and Livingstone was recalled to England. Although Livingstone had failed to find a navigable route up the Zambezi and/or its tributaries, his Narrative of an Expedition to the Zambesi and Its Tributaries (1865) sparked enough scientific and popular interest that he was able to secure support for another expedition.

What’s up, Doc? David Livingstone, 1813 – 1873. Missionary and explorer. Livingstone was close, but he did not manage to find the source of the Nile. He became a hero in Victorian England for his discoveries and construed disappearance in Africa.

In January of 1866, Livingstone returned to Africa, this time to Zanzibar, from where he set out to seek the source of the Nile River. Although earlier explorers had decided that the Nile arose from either Lake Albert or Lake Victoria, Livingstone believed it actually arose further south and, after assembling a team of freed slaves, Comoros Island traders, twelve Sepoys, and two servants, he set out from the mouth of the Ruvuma River on his search. Although Livingstone’s expedition members began deserting him soon after they set out, he reached Lake Nyassa on August 6, 1866, by which time most of his supplies, including all his medicines, had been stolen. Livingstone then travelled through swamps to the southern end of Lake Tanganyika. With his health declining, he sent a message to Zanzibar requesting that supplies be sent to Ujiji, and then headed west.

Forced by ill health to travel with slave traders, he arrived at Lake Mweru on November 8, 1867, and, in 1868, became the first European to see Lake Bangweulu.

The year 1869 began with Livingstone finding himself extremely ill while in the jungle. He was saved by Arab traders who gave him medicines and carried him to an Arab outpost. In March of that year, Livingstone, suffering from pneumonia, arrived in Ujiji to find his supplies stolen. Coming down with cholera and tropical ulcers on his feet, he was again forced to rely on slave traders to get him as far as Bambara, where he was caught by the wet season.

With no supplies, Livingstone had to eat his meals in a roped off open enclosure for the entertainment of the locals in return for food. On July 15, 1871, while he was visiting the town of Nyangwe on the banks of the Lualaba River, he witnessed around 400 Africans being massacred by slave traders. The massacre so horrified Livingstone that he was unable to continue his mission to find the source of the Nile. Following the end of the wet season, he travelled 240 miles from Nyangwe (violently ill most of the way) back to Ujiji, arriving on October 23, 1871.

While Livingstone was traversing the Lake Tanganyika region, people back in England were getting concerned for his welfare, especially since some of the early deserters from his expedition had reported that he was dead. After nothing was heard from him for many months, a transatlantic venture was organized by the London Daily Telegraph and New York Herald, and journalist Henry Stanley was sent to Africa to find Livingstone. This resulted in their meeting in Ujiji in October 1871, during which Stanley supposedly uttered the famous phrase “Dr Livingstone I presume?” (Neither Stanley nor Livingstone’s diaries confirm that anything close to that phrase was ever said.) Despite Stanley’s urgings, Livingstone was determined not to leave Africa until his mission was complete, and, after getting new supplies from Stanley, Livingstone continued his efforts to find the source of the Nile. After exploring the Lualaba River and failing to find connections to the Nile, Livingstone returned to Lake Bangweulu and its swamps to explore possible rivers flowing out northwards.

The depiction of Livingstone’s 1843 lion attack. Livingstone was once attacked and mauled by a lion, but was saved from death by the intervention of an African servant. (Credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

David Livingstone’s life and death in Africa helped mould the Victorian missionary myth of exploration and sparked the Scramble for Africa. Yet he was never a typical imperialist and he left a powerfully charitable legacy. The deprivations that Livingstone suffered over the 30 years that span his three great expeditions to Africa are astonishing. His first aim had been to bring Christianity to Africa; he died fighting to end the slave trade.

Early on the morning of 1 May one of his group of faithful African followers found the explorer dead, kneeling beside his bed. It is not clear whether he was in prayer, or trying to find a position to lessen his excruciating intestinal pain and the accompanying rectal bleeding. A few days earlier he had written in his journal, “I am pale, bloodless and weak from bleeding profusely ever since 31st March last. An artery gives off a permanent stream and takes away my strength.”

For many years Livingstone had suffered from haemorrhoids but he was too embarrassed to have them operated on. They are unlikely to have killed him, though; his intestines, however, would have been a menagerie of parasitic life. He likely suffered from amoebic dysentery, a prolonged and severe infection of the intestines. In this disease, tiny amoebae found in contaminated water colon – ise the gut and blood seeps out from the ulcers they cause. He had every opportunity to become infected. In a graphic account of his desert crossing back in the 1840s, he boasted, “I have drunk water swarming with insects, thick with mud and putrid with rhinoceros urine and buffaloes’ dung, and no stinted drafts of either . . .”

He certainly also had bilharzia, or schistosomiasis, a disease caused by parasitic worms whose larval stages pass between particular species of freshwater snail and human beings. Livingstone could have become infected with schistosomes when he swam in Lake Nyasa (now called Lake Malawi), which he described as “a heavenly place to bathe”.

The waters close to the shoreline teem with schistosome larvae. The larvae can sense the presence of human bathers and they burrow through their skin. They mature in our bloodstream; female and male worms couple and copulate unrelentingly for years. The female lays hundreds of eggs each day. Some of the eggs get back into the water in faeces and urine, but most lodge in the liver, bladder and bowels, causing bleeding in urine and stools.

Drawing of Stanley’s 1871 meeting with Livingstone. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Despite ever-failing health, Livingstone never gave up his search for the source of the Nile. On May 1, 1873, while staying in Chief Chitambo’s Village (in what is now Zambia), he succumbed to a combination of malaria and dysentery. After his two assistants removed Livingstone’s heart so it could be buried in his beloved Africa, they carried his body over a thousand miles to Bagamoyo on the coast, from where it was sent to Britain. After lying in state at the then headquarters of the Royal Geographic Society, his remains were interred at Westminster Abbey.

Livingstone, abhorred the slave trade still existing (at the time) in southeastern Africa. Doing whatever he could to end the slave trade, Livingstone had one regret, at the end of his life that he had not spent more time with his own children.

Irrespective of the cause of his death, Livingstone’s death initiated a cult. Born into poverty, he self-taught himself to greatness, only to endure profound suffering in the cause of others. “My desire,” he wrote in the 1860s, “is to open a path to this district [Africa] that civilisation, commerce and Christianity might find their way there.” This, he hoped, was the surest way to defeat the trade in human beings. It was a narrative that appealed to both the charitable and the materialistic sides of the Victorian psyche. By the 1880s, well-meaning missionaries were pouring in to Africa, but so were mercantile-imperialists. Livingstone would have been horrified, had he lived, to witness the grotesque “Scramble for Africa” that began in earnest a little more than a decade after his death.

‘Dr Livingstone, I presume?’ is one of the most famous quotes in history and was supposedly uttered by the explorer Henry Morton Stanley in 1871 upon finding the missing missionary David Livingstone. However, the quote is now believed to have been invented by Stanley or his biographer. Stanley’s diary pages referring to the encounter were torn out and Livingstone’s account of the meeting doesn’t mention the phrase.

When Livingstone died in 1873, Stanley resolved to continue his exploration of the region, funded by the Herald and a British newspaper. He explored vast areas of central Africa, and travelled down the length of the Lualaba and Congo Rivers, reaching the Atlantic in August 1877, after an epic journey that he later described in ‘Through the Dark Continent’ (1878).

Failing to gain British support for his plans to develop the Congo region, Stanley found more success with King Leopold II of Belgium, who was eager to tap Africa’s wealth. In 1879, with Leopold’s support, Stanley returned to Africa where he worked to open the lower Congo to commerce by the construction of roads. He used brutal means that included the widespread use of forced labour. Competition with French interests in the region helped bring about the Berlin Conference (1884-1885) in which European powers sorted out their competing colonial claims in Africa. Stanley’s efforts paved the way for the creation of the Congo Free State, privately owned by Leopold.

Sir Henry Morton Stanley. It was Henry Morton Stanley who popularised the term ‘dark continent’ to refer to Africa. Stanley tried without success to get the Zamberi river renamed ‘the Livingstone’.

Henry Morton Stanley’s birth certificate read ‘John Rowlands, bastard’. Stanley was not an especially popular or likeable character. His contemporary, Sir Richard Francis Burton, claimed: ‘Stanley shoots Africans as if they were monkeys.’ Ashley Jackson, professor of imperial and military history at King’s College London and an expert in African colonial history, said: ‘Stanley had one of the biggest kill rates of all the great African explorers in terms of the number of people who died during his journeys, and you can’t gloss over the fact.’
Queen Victoria described Stanley as a ‘determined ugly little man, with a strong American twang’. Florence Nightingale called his book, How I Found Livingstone, ‘the very worst book on the very best subject I ever saw in my life.’
One British newspaper commented that ‘He has no concern with justice, no right to administer it; he comes with no sanction, no authority, no jurisdiction—nothing but explosive bullets and a copy of the Daily Telegraph.’
Recently, some revisionist historians have tried to rescue Stanley’s reputation, but he is still generally remembered as one of history’s total bastards. The only extant statue of Stanley is lying on its side in Kinshasa.

The explorer Henry Morton Stanley (1841-1904), born John Rowlands, grew up in a Welsh workhouse. Aged 18, he fled to the USA as a cabin boy and fought for both sides in the American Civil War. He is the only person known to have served in the Confederate Army, the Union Army and the Union Navy in the American Civil War. When the war ended he became a journalist; his mission to find Livingstone in the African jungle was actually a journalism trip rather than an exploratory one.  His boss at this time was James Gordon Bennett, Jr., whose scandalous, flamboyant and controversial reputation inspired the exclamation ‘Gordon Bennett!’

Born in Denbigh in 1841, Stanley was sent at the age of five to a workhouse in nearby St Asaph where he stayed until he was 15. He emigrated to America aged 18, eventually becoming a journalist. Dispatched by the New York Herald to find David Livingstone, who had gone missing in Africa, Stanley set off in 1871 on an eight-month, 7,000-mile trip accompanied by 200 porters. The goal was accomplished, but not without cost – deserters were flogged and a contemporary, Sir Richard Francis Burton, claimed: “Stanley shoots Africans as if they were monkeys.”

On the second trip in 1874, Stanley, in partnership with The Daily Telegraph, traced the course of the River Congo to the sea. In 1876 he made a deal with King Leopold II to travel back to the Congo, and as a result became associated with the Belgium king’s brutal regime, a link he spent years defending.

A later Stanley expedition was surrounded in controversy when it emerged that European officers had behaved with extreme cruelty, one offering a girl to cannibals. Stanley himself wrote that he had “destroyed 28 large towns” in the Congo. Once he allegedly cut off his dog’s tail, cooked it and fed it back to the dog.

Members of Stanley’s last expedition gave six handkerchiefs to cannibals so they could sketch the process of a native being cooked.

After returning to Britain, Stanley married and served for five years an MP.

There are currently no statues anywhere in the world commemorating Stanley. One stood in Kinshasa, capital of what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo until it was pulled down in 1971; in 2010 British diplomats began considering whether to restore it.

If we followed this criticism to the extreme then we wouldn’t have statues of any figures in the past that have both dark and light sides to their legacy, and then most cities wouldn’t have any statues. We shouldn’t be afraid to celebrate our heritage.

Ashley Jackson, professor of imperial and military history at King’s College London and an expert in African colonial history, said: “It is easy to understand the point of view of the people of Denbigh celebrating a famous son. On the other hand, Stanley today certainly wouldn’t be held up as an unequivocal hero.

“I would compare it to putting up a statue of Cecil Rhodes [the colonial statesman who founded Rhodesia].

“Stanley had one of the biggest kill rates of all the great African explorers in terms of the number of people who died during his journeys, and you can’t gloss over the fact.” Jeal, author of Stanley: The Impossible Life Of Africa’s Greatest Explorer, said: “Stanley was his own worst enemy because he exaggerated what he did and the number of people he shot.

“He was basically an unsophisticated person who had a hard life. Maybe the stereotype of him as a brute is so ingrained now it can’t be changed, but it isn’t right. “It is sad that this sort of postcolonial guilt prevents people from actually trying to understand what happened.”

In 1890, back in Europe, Stanley married and then began a worldwide lecture tour. He became a member of parliament for Lambeth in south London, serving from 1895 to 1900. He was knighted in 1899. He died in London on 10 May 1904.

Do you want:

  • Ad-free access?
  • Access to our very popular daily crossword?
  • Access to daily sudoku?
  • Access to Incite Politics magazine articles?
  • Access to podcasts?
  • Access to political polls?

Our subscribers’ financial support is the reason why we have been able to offer our latest service; Audio blogs. 

Click Here  to support us and watch the number of services grow.