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David Livingstone was born in Blantyre, Scotland, on March 19, 1813, one of several children born to a Protestant Sunday School teacher. Growing up in a single-room tenement, he began working in the local cotton mill at age 10, and took his school lessons in the evenings. He began studying medicine and theology at Anderson's College in Glasgow in 1836, and soon after decided to become a missionary doctor. After spending a year at the London Missionary Society (1838-1839), he completed his medical studies at various institutions in London. In November of 1840, he passed the exams to become a Licentiate of the Faculty of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow. He was subsequently ordained a missionary in London, and sailed for South Africa for his first posting in December of 1840.
Livingstone arrived at Cape Town, South Africa, in March 1841, and at the mission center at Kuruman, South Africa (on the edge of the Kalahari Desert), in July of that same year. In 1842, he undertook two long missionary journeys north from Kuruman. In 1843, he founded a mission at Mabotsa.
In 1845, Livingstone married Mary Moffat, the daughter of a fellow missionary. 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 honor 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.
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 Islands 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.
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.
This page was last updated on February 16, 2017.