Livingstone’s lost diary text, I presume

Adrian Wisnicki, director of the project to recover Dr Livingstone's lost writing. Picture: Julie Bull
Adrian Wisnicki, director of the project to recover Dr Livingstone's lost writing. Picture: Julie Bull
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IT LAY forgotten and collecting dust for decades, but now a diary written by Scots explorer David Livingstone is being published for the first time after new technology helped uncover its long-faded text.

Written on an old newspaper in an ink made largely from berry seeds, the diary recounts Dr Livingstone’s experiences of 1870s Africa.

Described as “completely illegible”, the diary had been largely forgotten about until technological advances made in the past decade allowed researchers to make out the missionary’s faded scrawl.

Set down over the pages of a single copy of the London Standard in what researchers described as “classic doctor’s handwriting”, the diary tells the story of a massacre of 400 slaves in the Congo in 1871.

Using a technique known as spectral imaging, a team of international experts was able to recover Dr Livingstone’s original text, which had grown faded and was largely invisible to the human eye.

The explorer later made revisions to the account, which was published in The Last Journals of David Livingstone, brought out in 1874.

However, Dr Adrian Wisnicki, of Birkbeck University of London, said the discovery of the original diary and the differences from the later published account shed new light on Dr Livingstone.

He said: “In copying over the 1871 diary into his journal, Livingstone decided to re-write or remove a series of problematic passages.

“It’s taken 140 years to discover Livingstone’s original words and reveal the many secrets of the original diary.”

He added: “Instead of the saintly hero of Victorian mythology, the man who speaks directly to us from the pages of his private diary is passionate, vulnerable and deeply conflicted about the violent events he witnesses, his culpability, and the best way to intervene – if at all.”

Dr Livingstone had been in the Congo in 1871 in a misguided attempt to discover the source of the Nile.

His account of the massacre was later published by the journalist HM Stanley and was credited with helping to end Britain’s involvement in the East Africa slave trade.

The explorer had been stranded without supplies in central Africa and used ink made from berry seeds to record details of the massacre in his field diary.

The text, which had been stored in the David Livingstone Centre in Blantyre, differs from later versions, suggesting the explorer altered his original account.

Researchers said evidence that members of Dr Livingstone’s own party may have been involved in the massacre, along with his failure to intervene, had left the Scot with a “profound sense of remorse”.

Kate Simpson, a postgraduate researcher at Edinburgh Napier University, was the first of the team to read Dr Livingstone’s words following the project to illuminate the original text with wavelengths of light.

She said: “His words almost glowed out of the page. We really were the first people to read them in the 140 years since Livingstone wrote them.

“It was like a window through time.

“What we’re saying is that he was a wee, slight Scottish man doing the best he could to survive, not someone on a white horse striding through Africa – I think that’s been lost over the years.”