Hidden histories behind the David Livingstone white hero legacy unravelled

The forgotten stories of those who aided explorer David Livingstone in Africa but who became obscured by his powerful ‘white hero’ legacy are now being uncovered at the museum that marks his birthplace in Scotland.

Selim Hishmeh, from Jerusalem, who helped find Livingstone in 1871 and who moved to Lanark following the death of the explorer. PIC: David Livingstone Trust.
Selim Hishmeh, from Jerusalem, who helped find Livingstone in 1871 and who moved to Lanark following the death of the explorer. PIC: David Livingstone Trust.

David Livingstone Birthplace in Blantyre, South Lanarkshire re-opens today after a four-year, £9.1m regeneration with the museum now reflecting a ‘decolonised’ history of the Scot which recognises the large entourage which assisted him on his travels.

From the guides who shared local knowledge to the porters and the interpreters who helped him connect with locals and spread the Christian word, the stories of the men and women in Livingstone’s crew will be featured for the first time as part of the museum’s new exhibition.

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Among them are Selim Hishmeh, from Jerusalmen, who was reportedly the first member of Harry Stanley’s rescue party to spot Livingstone in Ujiji, near Lake Tanganyika in 1871. Then, the Scot was woefully ill and considered dead by many given he had been out of contact for almost a year.

Jacob Wainwright, a young member of Livingstone's crew, who accompanied the explorer's coffin back to Britain. PIC: David Livingstone Trust.

After Livingstone’s body was returned home, Hishmeh came to live in Lanark and is buried in the town.

Also recognised is Abdullah Susi, from present-day Mozambique, and James Chuma from today's Malawi, loyal employees who helped carry Livingstone's body for 1,000 miles to Bagamoyo on the East African coast for transportation home.

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Natalie Milor, curator of the David Livingstone Trust said: “Livingstone was very dependent on the men and women in his crew to keep him alive.

Explorer and missionary David Livingstone, who was born in Blantyre, South Lanarkshire.

“Susi and Chuma are known for standing by Livingstone, even though the circumstances were extremely dangerous and they ran out of food. The level of bravery they showed was incredible. Of the 65 people who helped to transport his body, 10 of them died.

“These stories haven’t been told and they haven't been given the attention they deserve."

Jacob Wainwright, of Lake Nyasa in East Africa is also acknowledged. The youthful and highly literate crew member helped transport Livingstone’s body and possessions back to the UK. A photograph of him on board the Malwa with Livingstone's coffin is now on show at the museum, along with his diaries.

Dr Neil Wilson, the great great grandson of David Livingstone, will be among guests at the official opening of the museum today (Wednesday).

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Dr Wilson, a retired orthopaedic paediatric surgeon of Glasgow, said: “If visitors come with an understanding that Livingstone was a Victorian hero, they might come away with a fresher understanding of who he was.”

Dr Wilson said the achievements of his ancestor had been “daunting” to live up to but that, at root, Livingstone, was a humble man.

He said: “The family originally lived on a croft on Ulva, on Mull. I think he was always interested in folk and all through his travels, he deals with people as folk.”

Another highlight will be the restored Pilkington Jackson Tableaux, which depicts eight scenes and themes from Livingstone’s life. A new animation now accompanies the 1920s sculpture, which now looks at topics including how the Christian message conflicted with traditions such as polygamy and how Livingstone’s long absences from home impacted his wife Mary and the couple’s children.

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