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Dr. David Livingstone

Shanet Clark

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Dr. David Livingstone:

Cultural Approaches to an Important Victorian Figure


In his most well known narrative account of his expeditions, Missionary Travels and Researches In South Africa (1858), David Livingstone gives us this introduction to his coast-to-coast traversa of Africa with his typical understatement and optimism.

"Having sent my family home to England, I started in the beginning of June, 1852 on my last journey from Cape Town. This journey extended from the southern extremity of the continent to St. Paul de Loando, the capital of Angola, on the west coast, and thence across South Central Africa in an oblique direction to Kilimane (Quilimane) in Eastern Africa. I proceeded in the usual conveyance of the country, the heavy, lumbering Cape wagon drawn by ten oxen . . . Wagon-traveling in Africa has been so often described that I need say no more than it is a prolonged system of picnicking, excellent for the health, and agreeable to those who are not over-fastidious about trifles, and who delight in being in the open air."

We can now compare this blithe promotion of African exploration with the posthumously published letter sent out during the same period (on 12 September, 1855) to his father-in-law and fellow African missionary, the Reverend Robert Moffat:

"I am longer away than I intended, but it could not be otherwise without cutting my work down the middle. Disease prevented quick traveling. I have had fever in severe forms twenty-seven times, once with inflammation of a part of the head (meningitis), which kept me down 25 days and left me nearly blind and almost deaf. I can treat it pretty well now, but a sudden check to the perspiration brings on distressing vomiting of large mouthfuls of pure blood . . . I was literally a skeleton by dysentery at Loanda, but soon became stouter than I ever was before."

These two passages, describing the same expedition, show the difference between the popular constructed version of Livingstone’s African experience and the reality as shown by more recently published primary records. We will use both type of sources to look at the inimitable Dr. Livingstone, the African explorer and missionary, a model British mid-Victorian literary and cultural hero. We will show that Livingstone combined many of the strongest strands of identity common to the imperial mid-Victorian period--by personifying science, religion, abolition and empire building--and that he deserves study.

As Antoinette Burton and others have emphasized, four driving social forces marked the Victorian Period. These four internalized assumptions of the period are found deeply embedded in Livingstone’s writings and the writings about Livingstone. First, the values of the Western European Enlightenment are found throughout Livingstone’s writings and underlie the contemporary reception of his life. Secondly, the Victorians in Britain were proud of their success in the abolition of slavery within the Empire in 1833 and led efforts to abolish slavery elsewhere in the world. Livingstone’s writings show this inclination towards abolition in a high degree. Third, evangelical Christianity was a central motif of the period and Livingstone was an actual missionary, although this was not his first priority (as we shall see). Fourth, Victorians after 1859 were deeply affected by Charles Darwin’s Darwinism and its corollary, Social Darwinism. As an African naturalist and ethnologist, Livingstone was linked to this school of thought as well. The Victorian period in Britain was also marked by a fifth universal factor: strong interest in advancing their Empire, specifically through commercial or mercantile efforts to maximize profits in the Empire, and again Livingstone personified this effort. He was a direct proponent of commercial British expansion in South Central Africa. The synthesis of Enlightenment values, abolitionism, evangelism, contemporary natural history with commercial Empire building in the person of David Livingstone make his writings an important subject for historical enquiry.

Victorians perceived Livingstone as a larger-than-life figure and he appeared to his contemporaries as a robust Renaissance man. The combined characteristics of physician, geographic explorer, missionary of the Gospel, linguist and anti-slavery proponent came together to give unprecedented status to Livingstone. But his fame was also a product of technological and commercial changes in the production and distribution of popular literature. His was largely a middle class popularity. Mass produced illustrated magazines, newspapers and inexpensive books all debuted in this mid-Victorian period, and David Livingstone was one of the chief beneficiaries and objects of the new middle class journalism.

As Richard Altick states:

" To the Victorians the printing press, driven by the steam engine, was indeed the most pregnant emblem of their achievement and aspirations. . . . The audience for the literature…was concentrated therefore in the middle class. It was primarily there that printed matter in all its forms became a much more familiar accompaniment to everyday living. "

The popularity of natural science and exploration, as presented to mass middle-class audiences by the newly popularized illustrated magazine and inexpensive book formats, help us understand the great degree of influence Livingstone had in the Victorian period. We can show that this unprecedented public exposure made Livingstone an icon to the mid-Victorian readership, and that the adulation of Livingstone stemmed from his personification of the central trends and ideals of mid-Victorian thought, namely abolition, evangelism, colonization and natural science. His position as a scientist anchored the reception of his total persona, and we will detail his scientific achievements after we first look at the chronology of the period, a short biography and the existing body of Livingstone criticism.


Livingstone’s literary and cultural impact can be better understood in reference to the events of the period. A short chronology of contextualizing events will make his centrality to the classic mid-Victorian period more evident.

In 1837 the reviled William IV died and Victoria ascended the throne of Great Britain, and in 1840 she married her consort, Albert Saxe-Gotha. In 1841 Livingstone sailed for Africa, via India. In 1847 chloroform was used for the first time in surgery (Livingstone’s medical qualifications and status are important in this paper). In 1851 Prince Albert sponsored the Crystal Palace world exhibition. In 1855 the Newspaper Tax was abolished and the first mass circulation daily, the Daily Telegraph, was established in Britain. These set the stage for Livingstone’s watershed publication of Missionary Travels in 1858, which established his fame. Darwin’s Origin of Species was published in 1859. The 1860s, the peak of Livingstone’s career, saw such classic Victorian events as Benjamin Disraeli’s (and Gladstone’s) ascendancy as Prime Minister, the passage of the Second Reform Bill, the abolition of compulsory church tithes, Lister’s antiseptic surgery and the publication of Huxley’s Man’s Place in Nature. Darwin published his Descent of Man in 1871. Livingstone died in Africa in 1873. The publication of Thomas Hardy’s first novel in 1874 may be seen as marking the end of this classic mid-Victorian period in literature and culture. Thus Livingstone occurs at the high tide mark of the classic mid-Victorian period, neither too early, before illustrated magazines, nor too late, when experimental modernism broke forth. Also important to periodization, the enthusiasm for Livingstone’s grand expedition to cross Africa (the traversa) is linked to British insecurities over the civil war in India, the Sepoy Insurrection of 1857.

To understand David Livingstone as an important Victorian figure, we need to briefly recap his own background. His Scottish ancestry and his working-class youth experiences helped to form his identity. His great grandfather died at Culloden, still loyal to the last reigning Stuart King, James II, and disloyal to William of Orange, William III, who ascended the throne in the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688. His father, Neil Livingstone, worked in a “responsible position” at a cotton mill and his mother Mary Hunter Livingstone raised a large family on the River Clyde, north of Glasgow.

David Livingstone worked in the fabric mill from six a.m. to six p.m. six days a week with one-hour mid-day lunches. One of Livingstone’s biographers, Cecil Northcutt, believes young Livingstone read Mungo Park and other popular books on Africa. At 15 the mill spinner was reading “books on travel, geography, botany and chemistry” and he taught himself Latin and Greek during the winter semesters. As a young adult he was admitted into the practice of medicine. Before he left the British Isles for Africa he was ordained an orthodox Congregationalist minister, of the Knox Scot Kirk confession.

Livingstone commenced his missionary and exploration adventures in 1841, but his writings were not widely published until 1858. His death in April of 1873 in Africa was by no means the end of his literary fame, but this period from 1858 to 1873 marks the peak of Livingstone’s popularity and marks the classic mid-Victorian era as well.

The long period from 1841 to his discovery of Lake Ngami in August 1849 forms an opening era, before Livingstone was well known. During this period he remained south of the Kalahari Desert, close to his extremely remote mission in Kolobeng. He was in the ‘Contact Zone,’ living a few weeks march north of the next most remote mission at Karuman and a six-month hike from Cape Town, or “civilization.” Comparison of his exploration maps to post-colonial maps of Africa show Livingstone’s solo adventures predicting and telescoping much of African colonial history. For example he experienced Boer depredations in the Transvaal, he suffered from many Angolan mercenary raids and Livingstone confronted Zanzibar’s Arabic slave-trading oligarchy. These three historically important forces were the principle political forces confronting him to his south, west and east.

Livingstone’s period of greatest celebrity from 1850 to 1873 can be split into two phases. After the publication of the Travels in 1857 his career was ascendant, his public career peaked with the traversa (the east to west crossing of the African Continent) and his subsequent return to a hero’s welcome in Britain. Then, in 1858, he was named Consul to Africa (Consul to Quilimane, technically) and was fitted out by the British Government with 5000 pounds sterling and two ships to navigate the Zambesi River, the Ma-Robert and the Pioneer. This sailing, in uniform, on the heels of the traversa and his potent addresses to all major Scottish and English universities mark the highpoint, the dramatic center of the story.

The final and tragic phase began around the year 1864. Livingstone explores Africa for the sake of exploring Africa, ignoring his own health. He doesn’t quite ‘go native,’ but he gets drawn into the self-destructive activity of playing the role of the famous Dr. Livingstone.

The tragic behavior is the subtext and enduring theme of the Stanley and Livingstone story. David Livingstone was lost, rumored dead (again) and the American reporter Henry Stanley found him, near Lake Nyasa, on November 10, 1871. Cecil Northcutt quibbles at this, pointing out that Livingstone knew where he was at this time and wasn’t “lost.” But knowing one’s own rough bearings, in a jungle with no medicine, beset by mutinous camp followers and having no news flowing in or out for months all show us that Dr. Livingstone, if not lost, then was certainly running out of luck, time and resources. Stanley begs Livingstone to return to the East coast of Africa and to recuperate in Britain, but Livingstone refuses. Livingstone withdraws back into the interior of Africa and then dies in late April of 1873.

This self-destruction was foreshadowed in the earliest period. At Kolobeng and Kuruman (the frontier missions) in the 1840s he had acclimatized his body for the Kalahari trek to Lake Ngami with Oswell and Murray in 1849. He brought his wife and children on this extreme adventure, and they watched as the African tribal guides dug grave-sized mud wells in the traditional damp spots of the Kalahari Desert. Their pack animals often ran amok and went into convulsions due to the biting tsetse fly. Livingstone’s willingness to force his wife Mary Moffat Livingstone to endure this (and even childbirth under similar circumstances) is one enduring and memorable criticism of the explorer. After Ngami he dispatched his family back to Britain and emotionally abandoned them, in terms of immediacy, participation and “quality time.”

Revisionists of the Livingstone Story

Livingstone’s suicidal mania in the 1870s and his spousal and child abuse are favorite themes of the revisionists, and understandably so. The charge of his taking unfair credit for others’ explorations, a thesis put forth by Judith Listowel, is unfounded, though. Livingstone was scrupulously fair in the record regarding Mungo Murray and William Oswell’s rights to co-discovery of Lake Ngami. They were the first Europeans (or historically documented Africans) to find and announce to the world the exact location of the rumored lake north of the Kalahari Desert. Oswell and Murray made it possible for Livingstone to find the lake, they were with him when it was found and Livingstone gives proper credit to them. Judith Listowel, who claims that Livingstone suppressed Oswell and Murray’s contribution to the discovery of Lake Ngami, is refuted in this effort to revise.

Similarly, Listowel tries to make the case that Livingstone belittled and suppressed the achievements of Lazlo Magyar. Livingstone was certainly unconcerned with the Hungarian explorer and he didn’t help Magyar in his efforts to explore Africa. Lazlo Magyar did not get much credit for his extensive African explorations, but the Hungarian government and scientific community are to blame for this, not Livingstone. Once again Listowel, the over-reaching revisionist, has no real case against Livingstone.

David Livingstone’s notes also dispense with another explorer as a simple slave trader, while Listowel shows that explorer to be a Portuguese explorer of good reputation. Livingstone probably made a mistake in underestimating these contemporaries, even slurred them, in passing, in his journals. No, Livingstone did not cooperate with or encourage the Hungarian or the Portuguese explorers in their African adventures, and these two were much less well known than David Livingstone, but Judith Listowel’s indictment of Livingstone appears to be petty and overblown.

Cecil Northcutt, another biographer of Livingstone writing in the same period (the early 1970s) also attempted a revision of the Livingstone story, centering on his family problems, his self-destructive mania and his geographical miscalculations. Northcott’s attempt to reduce the stature of the “great man” is as unsuccessful, if somewhat less forced, than Listowel’s attempt at historical revision.

These ad hominem arguments, whether valid or not, are not really necessary to ‘de-bunk’ the myth of Livingstone, as Listowell and Northcott attempted to do in the 1970s. The entire fabric of British Victorian discourse is the content of the meta-narrative known as “Livingstone in Africa.” We need not dig so deeply into his personal foibles and faults. Although we may well find evidence of “spousal abuse” or “hostility to other explorers” this is a narrow, petty and ultimately unsatisfying critique.

Recent biographical authors fall flat in their attempts at revision by overstating minor quibbles and misjudging Livingstone’s obvious intent. Narrative lines linking him to events after his death are flawed by teleology. He is casually linked with Cecil Rhodes and the Rhodesia Corridor, and he is indicted in the carving up of Africa, neither of which he foresaw or participated in. True, Livingstone felt that the British had a responsibility to drive a wedge between Angola and the Mozambique slave ports, and he was a harsh critic of the Boer depredations, and both are political positions that can be called pro-British Empire. But more fundamentally these geopolitical extrapolations into later colonial events do not adhere to Livingstone. His great cruciform (X-shaped) expeditions into Africa were undertaken in solemn peace with just a thin lifeline back to an interior mission. Signaling ahead and sending gifts before coming into contact with African tribes, he enjoyed the love and support of many African chiefs and guides.

Certainly Livingstone had some prejudices inhering in his identity, but his ability and desire to embrace the Africans one to one in Christian charity softened his biases. In his descriptive prose he celebrates the Caffres (Zulu) and berates the timid Bakwains, but his overall view of the African is that of a fully human and historically potent people. He often saw “the true Egyptian” in the African visage and therefore credited them with a racial heritage equal to the Greeks, Jews and Gentiles.

Despite his humanitarian and inter-dependent relationship with Africans, Livingstone occasionally slips into a racist discourse typical of his time and background. If his categorizing of African tribes is often observant, subtle and harmless, when he describes less developed tribes he sometimes slides into descriptions like this, (one of the more blatant examples of Livingstone’s racism):

"The Basinje…seem to possess more of the low Negro character than either the Balonda or Basongo; their color is generally dirty black, foreheads low and compressed, noses flat and expanded laterally, though this is partly owing to the alae spreading the cheeks, by the custom of inserting…reeds in their septum; their teeth are deformed by being filed to points; their lips are large. They make a nearer approach to a general Negro appearance than any tribes I met . . ."

Livingstone should be viewed in his time and place contexts, a middle-class hero, exhibiting and exemplifying the values of his day; he was uniquely posited in time to benefit from large social, intellectual, political and technological currents. All this led, of course, to his virtual sanctification, with a corpus verging on hagiography, as David Livingstone lived out many of the dreams and fantasies of the middle and upper class mid-Victorian English speaking world. This adulation of Livingstone’s achievements and progressive attitudes stimulated this attempts at revision, many of which were unsuccessful. In this paper we will look at Livingstone from a new critical and culturally determined point of view. We will show that Livingstone’s immense popularity and continuing historical importance comes from his harmonizing with the major trends of Victorian thought, primarily Enlightenment scientific values, but also abolitionism, evangelism and commercial colonization.

David Livingstone’s Identity as an Enlightenment Scientist

As stated above, Livingstone’s status as combined physician, geographer, linguist and natural historian propelled his fame and celebrity, and these attributes still help define his larger meaning relative to the Empire of mid-Victorian Britain. Livingstone was an accredited medical doctor, trained in his native Scotland. This is important for two reasons. First, the medical degree gave him legitimacy and access to elites in Britain and helped propel his acceptance as a great man, (the historically ‘great man’ as defined by Carlyle). Physicians carry the highest status in the west and Livingstone’s professional credentials helped elevate him in the public mind above other explorers, naturalists, missionaries and authors of the period. Secondly, Livingstone’s actual life-saving skills built priceless good will with the native Africans that he encountered and these skills even saved his own life repeatedly, allowing him to thrive and surpass the life expectancy of other explorers in Africa. His famously hardy constitution was complemented by his self-treatments in the field. The combined self-medication and his medical treatment of others gave his career a durability and respect well above his contemporaries, both within his African milieu and his European clientele and audience.

Livingstone had other scientific competencies, and these also enhanced his reputation while sustaining his life. His greatest achievements were in the field of geography. He carefully recorded temperatures and was devoted to his locational devices, the sextant and chronometer. The primary documentary record that Livingstone amassed is full of latitude and longitude measurements--although his ability to accurately compute longitude was chronically limited by the inaccuracy of his oft-damaged chronometers. He also carefully documented temperatures, such as this entry: “(14 February, 1853) At Lotlakane. Thermometer in shade, 96 degrees, In sun on leather cushion 122 degrees, on green painted box in sun 126 degrees, Two inches below soil 128 degrees.” He could calculate longitude from lunar sightings, which only highly trained geographers dared to attempt.

Known primarily in his day as a geographer, was the first known European to traverse (traversa) the continent of Africa near the equator. Livingstone was not only familiar with the frontier west of the farthest outposts of Portuguese Mozambique; he was equally knowledgeable about the frontiers east of the farthest outposts of Portuguese Angola. His penetration of this interior region laid the basis for British claims on present-day Malawi, Botswana, Tanzania, etc. He kept careful logs of geographic locations and he was the first individual (known African or known European) to understand the inter-relationship of the Limpopo, Congo and Zambezi Rivers’ watersheds. With William Cotton Oswell and Mungo Murray he discovered Lake Ngami in 1849, and this was his first great geographic achievement. His understanding of the Congo/Zambezi relationship was equally important to science, as no western scientist had understood where the Congo drainage area ended and the Zambezi drainage area began. Livingstone’s reputation as a geographer suffered later in his career, however, when he misread the ancient question of the farthest source of the Nile. His conclusions in the 1870’s about the relationship of Lake Edward, Lake Tanganyika and the White Nile were in error, but overall he was the greatest South African geographer of his age and easily the equal of his contemporaries in African exploration, Richard Burton and John Speke.

Livingstone’s geographic career had geo-political and cultural consequences that must be considered. As Nancy Leys Stepan states, “If there is a lesson to be drawn from (the) history of science, race and liberalism, it is that science is always a social product and tends to reflect in general terms the political and social values of its times.” This is especially true in this case. Livingstone’s geographical efforts cannot be separated from their ultimate political results. Be exploring and, by extension, by claiming south central Africa for his native Britain, Livingstone’s legacy becomes entwined with that of Cecil Rhodes. Present day Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Botswana (formerly Rhodesia) owe their current post-colonial British Commonwealth status largely to Livingstone’s mapping. This strip of former British colonies stood between the Portuguese coastal realms of Mozambique and Angola. Rhodes’s subsequent scheme of a British security corridor to include these countries plus Kenya, Uganda, Sudan and Egypt was premised on the ‘Britishness’ of the central frontier--as first described in detail by David Livingstone. It was only after 1919 that “the high expansionist imperialism of the late 19th century, when…Rhodes dreamed of a white central and south Africa, faded.” Rhodes’s aggressive, exploitive plans for central Africa should be kept separate from the activities of Livingstone one generation earlier. Livingstone’s friends Sechele and Sekelutu ruled over most of his immediate political contacts, the Bechuana Bakwains and the Makololo tribes were the primary political entities of that period. They, the Africans, were relatively benign agents who welcomed him, and later political developments cannot be used to criticize Livingstone’s peaceful educational activities in central Africa.

As an ethnographer and linguist (sociology had not been coined yet, but this discipline is what Livingstone practiced in documenting African societies), Livingstone appreciated the human qualities of the Africans he studied and worked with. Arriving in Africa on 15 March 1841 at Simons Bay “Livingstone took up the cause of the African and remained his friend to the end of his life…He got on appreciably better with Africans than with white men, who never took to his leadership.” While his relationship with missionary, geographic and governmental institutions remained strained; his survival from 1841-1873 shows us that his way with African Tribal leadership was relatively affable and winning. He was, essentially, an exile in Africa, with mixed feelings for both Britain and his Scottish labor class identity. He preferred the company of native Africans to elite Europeans.

Upon his first inland mission in Africa, Livingstone recognized the basic African social dynamic that would carry him through until the final tragic period. As he ranged north of Karuman into the land of the Bechuana (who were terrified of the Mzilikazi) he noticed that the Bechuana (Bakwains) were “glad to have a white man live amidst them, hoping he would give them security….Livingstone showed his talent for languages by learning Sechuana in three months …. (and he preached to) the Bakaa, a tribe that had recently murdered four white men.” So Livingstone was involved in the daily lives of the Africans and he engaged in transcultural exchanges, documenting and giving voices to the remote Africans, in contrast to other westerners in Africa who saw only primitive savages and potential slaves.

Livingstone’s major conflicts within Africa stemmed from his constantly crossing linguistic, tribal and quasi-political frontiers. His alliance with one tribal chief could be a serious handicap on a contested frontier. His abolitionism and eagerness to please the black African tribal leadership would often play against the Portuguese, Arab and Dutch Boer interests he encountered, while theft and petty mutiny were everyday irritants. These socio-political problems were added onto the chronic thirst, hunger and tsetse fly pestilences he would typically encounter in Africa. Livingstone was an ethnographer with sensitivity toward those whom he studied. He engaged in transactions with Africans and these were not one-sided. The openness of spirit with which he engaged to Africans in learning their languages is notable. Biographer Judith Listowel’s analysis of Livingstone’s relationship with Africans gets right to the heart of his success in the African continent:

From the time he first arrived in Africa Livingstone studied tribal customs and treated Africans with patience and tact; though tactless, even overbearing with Europeans, he seemed to have an instinctive understanding for the Africans. To this approach, coupled as it was with his calm courage practically all Africans responded (italics mine).

Countless examples exist of these trancultural exchanges as Livingstone learned and communicated in the native languages. His long sessions of question and answer with native speakers carry with it an implicit respect absent from much Euro-African contact. One amusing example he cites is the royal herald who accompanied him in the name of the Makololo chief Sekeletu “whose writ ran thin on the Barotse frontier.” As the Scottish missionary explorer would enter a village in train, the herald would shout, “Here comes the lord, the great lion!” This is interesting in itself, but Livingstone eventually asked the herald to stop, because they had crossed into another dialect group whose word for “sow” was the Makalolo word “lion.”

Early in his main narrative, the Missionary Travels, he tells the story of Oswell and Murray confusing the perfect form of “Kia Timela” with the phrase “Kia Itumela,” one of which means “thank you” and the other “I have wandered.” Livingstone takes a page or two to transcribe a dialogue between the British explorers and the lost African Guide, which is punctuated by Oswell hearing ‘Thank you very much’ in place of ‘I am lost.’ The humor and the linguistic mastery combine with a healthy awareness of the Britishers’ own dependence on the Africans and their language. Livingstone tells a funny story, based on African language subtleties and he makes it a warm and transcultural exchange, sensitively told. The story finishes with another translated punch line:

"We enjoyed a hearty laugh on the explanation of their midnight soliloquys. Frequent mistakes of this kind occur. A man may tell his interpreter to say he is a member of the family of the chief of the white men; “Yes, you speak like a chief,” is the reply, meaning, as they explain it, that a chief may talk nonsense without any one daring to contradict him. "

David Livingstone was a participant in and beneficiary of the popularity of natural history, which was a standard element in Victorian exploration literature. He was not a great participant in the debate over Darwin, but his journals, reports and summary narratives are filled with detailed descriptions of flora and fauna. The Travels, his best-known work, is actually structurally weakened by the constant digression into the animal life and unusual plants he describes, as this breaks up the narrative considerably. Obviously he values the genre and puts special emphasis on the habits of the lion, the elephant and the giraffe. His disparaging of the mythic qualities of the lion is amusing, considering the mauling he endured in 1841 (when he lost much of the mobility in his right arm). His characterization of the lion as a relatively harmless animal is ironic. Livingstone’s description of snakes, rhinos and other African wildlife sometime carry a simplistic tone, as if the lectures on lions, giraffes and other animals had been delivered to many youngsters. Often the natural history paragraphs, close to half of his total output, have a lighter and breezy tone compared to his descriptions of natural geography and human ethnography. His popularity among less educated and middle-class readers can be seen in these passages, and they are often illustrated by the inexpensive lithography of the period.

Livingstone’s writings on natural history and medicine are often related and fail to fall into either medical or natural history categories. He became quite adept at identifying animal diseases, and of course his arch-nemesis was the tsetse fly. Much of this medical, veterinary and biological material reflects a transcultural exchange of native and western information (italics mine):

“Inquiries among the Bushmen and Bakalahari, who are intimately acquainted with the habits of the game, lead to the belief that many diseases prevail among wild animals. I have seen the Kokong or gnu, the Kama or hartebeest, the tsessebe, kukama, and the giraffe, so mangy as to be uneatable even by the natives. Reference has already been made to the peripneumonia which cuts off horses, tolos or koodoos. Great number of zebras are found dead with masses of foam at the nostrils…I once found a buffalo blind from opthalmia standing by the fountain Otse … the rhinoceros often has worms in conjunction with his eyes . . . all the wild animals are subject to intestinal worms…the zebra, giraffe, eland, and kukama have been seen mere skeletons from decay of their teeth as well as from disease.”

Livingstone as a Commercial Colonist, Missionary and Abolitionist

Livingstone was deeply in harmony with the evangelical Christianity, which Antoinette Burton and others point to as a central motif of Victorian cultural tradition.

He had originally planned to enter China as a missionary but was forestalled by the 1838 Opium War. After over ten years of relatively stationary outpost mission work teaching hygiene, English and moral development in remote Africa, Livingstone decided that Christianity, (synonymous with civilization and progress, to him) must follow exploration.

His own preference of science and exploration over Christian ministry is indicated by the fact that Livingstone chose to dedicate his first major book, Missionary Travels, to the Royal Geographic Society rather than the London Missionary Society. After 1852 he can be more accurately described as an exploring geographer than an evangelical missionary. Nevertheless his approach to the natives he encountered remained evangelical and charitable, and he never lost the aura of the church. His restlessness and outright boredom within established mission camps drove him to go farther afield, and his pride and personal goals complicated his relationship with the Mission Society from the first. After this, much of his evangelism was addressed not to Africans but to his popular audience within the English-speaking world. He encouraged bright young Britons to follow him and take up his work in Africa. His writings are full of homilies and moral reinforcement. Ultimately his missionary identity became more of a state of mind than a true vocation, and by the time he was made Consul to Africa, he had become more of a public scientist than a gospel evangelist.

Livingstone was perpetually at odds with the African slave trade. He castigated the Portuguese and Arab slave traders and sought for British military support to put down the slave trade. The sight of young women chained together haunted him after the traversa, and his need to occasionally link up with the slave “oligarchy” to survive caused him anger.

Livingstone saw a need to bring additional commodities and mediums of exchange to Africa, to augment the existing currency in ivory, gold and captive humans. Anti-slavery efforts, missionary work, and commercial trade were linked together in all of Livingstone’s major announcements.

"Sending the Gospel to the heathen must…include much more than is implied in the usual picture of a missionary, namely a man going about with a bible under his arm. The promotion of commerce ought to be especially attended to, as this, more speedily than any thing else, demolishes that sense of isolation which heathenism engenders…. my observations on this subject make me extremely desirous to promote the preparation of the raw materials of European manufactures in Africa, for by that means we may not only put a stop to the slave-trade, but introduce the Negro family into the corporate body of nations. "

Livingstone saw himself as a geographer with missionary goals. “The end of the geographical feat is the beginning of the missionary enterprise,” was one of his mottoes.

In a similar fashion, Livingstone’s evangelistic and colonializing strands cannot be disentwined, as he believed “(as) missionaries…we can influence the commerce of the world in this great city (London) of merchant princes, in such a way to have Christianizing results.” Trade, emancipation and mission work were inextricable for Livingstone. His stated goal in 1855 shows this, “My object in returning to Africa is to try to get a permanent path to that central region from which most of the slaves have always been drawn…to propitiate the different chiefs along (the Zambesi)…endeavoring to induce them to cultivate cotton and to abolish the slave trade.”


David Livingstone was a model type among Victorian historical figures. He combined in his persona many of the characteristics most highly valued by his British and American nineteenth-century readers. Livingstone was foremost a scientist in the Scottish Enlightenment tradition. He was an accredited physician, an acclaimed geographer, a talented transcultural linguist, a careful naturalist and an early ethnological sociologist of African culture. Other aspects added to his celebrity because of their conformity to Victorian values. These aspects were his evangelical mission, his hatred of the slave trade and his support of mercantile colonization of Africa (in support of Christianity and Abolition). Illustrated magazines and illustrated books were emerging into a modern mass market during Livingstone’s career, and all this together brought David Livingstone unprecedented upper and middle class fame throughout the English-speaking world.

When we look into the assumptions of British mercantile colonialism, the biases inherent in Encyclopedic natural history, and the limits of even well-intentioned Euro-African transactions, then a critique emerges that doesn’t hinge on the personal, but in understanding the biases common to the language and cultural assumptions of the mid-Victorian period. Colonization via evangelical missions and an African Empire built upon abolitionist moral superiority were manifested by the direct sponsorship of Livingstone by the British government, and these had results which must be critiqued, but the political results of later times need to be carefully differentiated from the actions of the individual. Celebrated for his scientific achievements and opposition to slavery, David Livingstone remains a formidable historical figure, and his legacy as scientist and human philanthropist continues to resist hostile revisionism.


Remaining Questions For Further Study

Was the popular dramatic saga of David Livingstone part of a deeper tradition of representing legitimacy? Were the Sextant, Chronometer and Bible important to Livingstone’s role, since he was always pictured holding them? Are kingly, priestly and sacrificial strands of narrative found in the Livingstone saga? Is the rapid innovation of mass illustrated magazines circa 1860 important to the Livingstone drama? Do dramaturgical approaches illuminate the Livingstone saga? Do transcultural and transactional analyses shed light on the explorer’s narratives? Are the complicated values, courtesies and mores of British Victorians important to understanding the unprecedented popularity of the Livingstone saga? Do traditions of the ‘law-giver’ relate to Livingstone’s totemic Bible? Are the chronometer and sextant symbolic of a royal orb and scepter? Does the compound status of physician, priest and surveyor inform the received image of Livingstone by his Victorian audiences? What assumptions underlay his relationship with Africans? With Europeans? Do Livingstone’s travels, suspenseful absences and re-appearances have overtones of earlier royal and priestly drama? How did Henry Stanley go about appropriating the Dr. Livingston mystique?

A cultural, dramaturgical and deep iconic analysis of the Victorian period is overdue. David Livingstone, a geographer, missionary and physician often cast himself as a law-giver and a kingly force, carrying a book of law, the Bible--and an orb and scepter of scientific legitimacy, his sextant and chronometer. His suspenseful “offstage” disappearances and death rumors go to a deeply archetypal trope of sacrifice and resurrection. Livingstone’s character, physical sturdiness and writing style need to be reviewed in analyzing the causes of his unprecedented popularity and status. The gap between Livingstone’s intentions and his perceived qualities should be aired. There are important issues concerning Livingstone’s popular representation and signification, including the courtly, kingly and iconic elements of the Livingstone saga. His disappearances and re-appearances, rumored murder, totemic icons and rarefied stature need investigation. The dramaturgical approaches of Geertz, Goffman and Stahlins can be applied to the drama of Livingstone. Bernard Cohn’s research into the language and the preferred deference policies used in British India also bring up angles of inquiry for the Livingstone corpus.

In the period from 1858-1873 innovative mass media techniques of low cost illustrated printing brought the Livingstone story to a broad audience. Women, youth and marginalized observers became part of the hagiographic and dramaturgical representation of Livingstone. Unprecedented mass publics saw staged elements reminiscent of royal grand tours, “law-giving,’ and a Phoenix-like re-emergence, all within the surface story of Dr. Livingstone’s African explorations and Christian missionary efforts. The political aspirations of colonizing Britons was given legitimacy by the exploits of Livingstone, but many of these themes lie below the surface. A cultural, iconic and dramaturgical look at the writings and images of David Livingstone could yield illuminating insights into the Afro-British colonial experience, and the broader Anglo-American Victorian experience.

Shanet Clark

Woodruff History Fellow

GSU Atlanta

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