Exploring Livingstone: an insight into the life of the great Victorian explorer

The meeting at Ujiji between Henry Morton Stanley and  Dr David Livingstone. Picture: Getty
The meeting at Ujiji between Henry Morton Stanley and Dr David Livingstone. Picture: Getty
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HE WAS one of the great explorers of the Victorian era and a Scottish hero. Now a new exhibition, which opens in Edinburgh tomorrow, offers a fascinating insight into the life and times of David Livingstone.

‘Doctor Livingstone, I presume?” Perhaps the most famous words in the history of exploration, spoken by journalist Henry Morton Stanley after months of searching for the elusive explorer in the dark heart of Africa. Perhaps a little absurd, too, they being the only two white men for hundreds of miles.

Picture by JANE BARLOW. 7th November 2012. 'Dr Livingstone, I Presume?' is a new exhibition that opens later this month at the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh, which tells the story of Scottish missionary and explorer David Livingstone. Pictured is Sarah Worden, Curator of African Collections, alongside an African horizontal loom which Livingstone sent to the museum in 1850 which will feature in the exhibition.

Picture by JANE BARLOW. 7th November 2012. 'Dr Livingstone, I Presume?' is a new exhibition that opens later this month at the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh, which tells the story of Scottish missionary and explorer David Livingstone. Pictured is Sarah Worden, Curator of African Collections, alongside an African horizontal loom which Livingstone sent to the museum in 1850 which will feature in the exhibition.

It’s a historic moment, frozen in time in November 1871 in Ujiji on the banks of Lake Tanganyika. Yet a very special exhibit that will be unveiled this week at the National Museums of Scotland (NMS) brings that moment to life. The hats worn by Livingstone and Stanley at their historic meeting look set to be the highlight of a major exhibition at NMS, ushering in a year of celebrations for Livingstone’s bicentenary. Even laid on a pristine white table in a conservation room, they seem to conjure the presence of both men. “As you look at the objects you start to get a sense of the man, and none more so than when you look at these hats,” says curator Sarah Worden, from NMS African Collections. “In some ways, Livingstone’s life is a series of iconic moments, and this is one of them. If you think about clothing, and how it transmits the essence of a person, they stand for so much: this is Livingstone; this is Stanley.”

The hats, which are on loan from the Royal Geographical Society, are part of an exhibition that will bring together for the first time objects, documents and artworks from a variety of sources, including the David Livingstone Centre in Blantyre, the NMS’s own collections, and contemporary documentation collected in Malawi. “The exhibition is an opportunity to look at a 21st-century perspective on Livingstone,” says Worden. “Yes, he’s a historical figure, he’s Scottish, he did a lot of things and a lot of people have got a view on him, but who is this guy?”

So let’s start with his hat. Livingstone’s is a simple Navy-style peaked cap, very unfussy, very British. He seems always to have worn one, and was usually photographed with one in his hand. It is somewhat battered, its fabric darkened with age, as might befit a man in his late fifties who had been searching for the source of the Nile for six years before the meeting with Stanley. Stanley’s hat, by contrast, is the hard, pith-helmet style favoured by Victorian gentlemen explorers. According to his journal, he dressed carefully in preparation for his long-awaited meeting with Livingstone, so perhaps some thought went into choosing it.

He was, after all, meeting a celebrity. Livingstone reached the heights of fame in Victorian Britain when he made the first documented crossing (by a European) of Africa from West to East. His first book, Missionary Travels, became an instant bestseller. But his Zambezi expedition had turned into an expensive and humiliating failure. In the six years since he had left to search for the source of the Nile, his fame had been rekindled for one simple reason: he was missing. Newspapers speculated on his whereabouts and Stanley was dispatched by the New York Herald to find him, whatever it cost.

“There is an element of this story which is very much about the media,” says Worden. “Information could cross the Atlantic much more quickly than it used to. People were reading in their papers, ‘Where’s Livingstone?’ ‘He’s been sighted.’ Stanley gets the scoop.”

From the start, Livingstone’s story was myth-making material. He was born in the Lanarkshire village of Blantyre in 1813, and started work in a cotton mill at the age of ten. But hard work and perseverance got him a university education in medicine and divinity, and a passage to Africa as a missionary.

His ideals seem always to have been about more than making converts. With a motto of “Christianity, commerce, civilisation” he aimed to open up the continent to the “civilising” influence of the West, and create “legitimate trade” which would negate the need for the slave trade, still rife on Africa’s East Coast.

“He really did believe that through what he called legitimate commerce we would be able to eradicate the slave trade,” says Worden. “He was very interested in how this might be done. He sent back boxes of geological specimens, gold nuggets, even pieces of coal, he was looking for ways of opening up trade.”

He also sent back to the National Museum of Scotland (then called the Industrial Museum) a hand loom for weaving cotton, which he acquired near the border of Mozambique and Malawi in 1861. On a visit to Malawi earlier this year, Worden watched local people using similar looms. “On the face of it, it’s a bundle of sticks and some cotton threads, but in the right hands it’s a form of income, and of creativity. It’s an important piece of technology. These 21st-century links with Malawi have given us a new sense of what this object is and what it means to our collections.”

By the time he collected the loom, Livingstone had resigned his post as a missionary, and was leading an expedition as an explorer funded by the British Government, with the aim of navigating the Zambezi and opening up south­-eastern Africa. Though he discovered Lake Malawi, and Victoria Falls – which he named in honour of the monarch – the Zambezi expedition was a costly failure, and was ultimately recalled by Goverment. Livingstone was criticised by members of his expedition, and struggled to find backers for future trips.

That might explain his determination to find the source of the Nile. “It was what everybody was doing then,” says Worden. “He wanted to be in on this, to redeem himself really, because he came back from the Zambezi a bit of a broken man.” With the media of the day following him, his reputation was well on the way to being rebuilt, when he did the one thing that would ensure him a kind of Victorian sainthood: he died. His loyal African assistants buried his heart under a tree in Chief Chitambo’s village in present-day Zambia. Then they carried his body nearly 1,000 miles to the coast to be shipped to Britain where he was buried will full honours in Westminster Abbey.

When, in 1899, the tree in Chief Chitambo’s village was taken down, the extent of Livingstone’s fame again became clear. “A whole industry sprang up of mementos and relics of this tree,” says Worden, showing me a small leather presentation box containing a wooden cross and inscribed: “Made from the wood of the tree under which Dr Livingstone’s heart was buried in central Africa.” She says: “It’s very much in keeping with the Victorian idea of relics and mementos, but there’s also this sense of the sacred, he had a kind of sainthood about him.”

His legacy was also celebrated in less solemn ways. In the 1920s, toymakers Chad Valley made a boardgame, Livingstone Across Africa, in which children plotted his heroic journey in brightly coloured counters. His story was frequently retold by Hollywood, and for the stage. More seriously, he is still the subject for scholarly research today across a range of disciplines, some of which will be brought together in a publication accompanying the exhibition.

In Africa, too, the legacy lives on. While many towns and cities reverted to their indigenous names at the end of the colonial era, no such thing has happened in Blantyre or Livingstonia (both in Malawi) and Livingstone (Zambia). Those people Sarah Warden met and interviewed on her trip to Malawi paid fond tribute to the man they regard as the one who helped to open up their country, after whom came a wave of missionaries who built hospitals and schools and a long-awaited end to the slave trade. In this country, we may be more ambivalent today about this Victorian missionary adventurer, but in Africa, he is still a hero.

The forgotten wife

DAVID Livingstone was inspired to become a missionary in Africa after hearing the preaching of Robert Moffat, another Scots missionary. He was sent to start work with the Moffats on their mission station at Kuruman, and it was there, while he was recuperating after being attacked by a lion, that he got to know Mary, the eldest of the Moffat daughters, whom he later married.

“Mary is a very shadowy figure in biographies of Livingstone,” says Scottish writer and journalist Julie Davidson, author of Looking for Mrs Livingstone. “Male biographers write rather dismissively about this dull, stolid missionary wife who did what her husband told her. Her importance in his early travels has long been ignored and undervalued.”

Davidson believes that Mary’s story offers a fresh perspective on the great explorer. On two of Livingstone’s early journeys across the Kalahari he took Mary and their three young children with him, travelling by ox wagon through the punishing heat. Because of the respect in which the local chiefs held her father, Robert Moffat, she was invaluable as Livingstone’s diplomatic passport. On both journeys, she was pregnant. She lost a child after returning from one trip, and the older children suffered from malaria.

When Livingstone set off to follow his ambitions and attempt a coast-to-coast crossing of Africa, he dispatched Mary and the children to Scotland. Feeling abandoned by her husband, Mary seems to have battled depression and struggled to live on the meagre allowance provided by the missionary society.

“Quite frankly, Livingstone may have been a great man in all sorts of ways, but it’s absolutely shocking the way he risked the lives and compromised the health of his wife and family,” Davidson says. “I think he was an appalling family man. He affected to be devoted to his wife and children, and he was a good father and a good husband when he was with them, but he seemed to be capable of completely forgetting about them.”

Davidson wrote Mary’s story by travelling to the places where the Livingstones lived and died (Mary died of malaria in present-day Mozambique at the age of 41, having been briefly reunited with her husband part-way through his Zambezi expedition). Unlike her husband, Mary left no journals and few letters. There is so little trace of her that Davidson is suspicious. “It is known that she did begin to complain about her lot when Livingstone left her alone in the UK, that she questioned her faith and became critical of the sacrifices that missionary families had to make. I have a very strong suspicion that some of these letters were burned to protect Livingstone’s reputation.

• Looking for Mrs Livingstone, by Julie Davidson, is published by St Andrew Press, £24.99