Michael Fry: The real Dr Livingstone

Scots can be rightly proud of the missionary’s legacy, stripped of the mawkish imperial paraphernalia that the Victorians imposed on his memory, writes Michael Fry

Dead white males who were also pioneers of the empire are not the most popular figures nowadays, neither among the nations in distant continents on which they imposed a century and more of European rule nor among us descendants of the imperialists.

So, it was perhaps a pleasant surprise that the president of Malawi, Joyce Banda, should have come all the way to Scotland to mark the 200th anniversary of the birth of David Livingstone, which fell yesterday.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Livingstone was born in the humblest circumstances in the industrial village of Blantyre in Lanarkshire, where his family made its precarious living from the vanished craft of handloom weaving. Yet, he was buried in 1873 with the full honours of a national hero of the British state in Westminster Abbey. In Victorian times, it was an even more extraordinary journey from cradle to grave than it would be now.

All the same, it was nowhere near as extraordinary as the successive journeys Livingstone undertook across Africa, usually on foot. He was the first white man to see the Victoria Falls. He trod the shores of the great lakes in the centre of the continent, and wondered at the divine abundance of the wildlife (this despite surviving an attack by a lion). He died searching for the source of the River Nile.

Writing about Livingstone today, I need to remind readers of his achievements. That would scarcely have been required at any time up to about the middle of the 20th century. When the Queen Mother, then the Duchess of York, opened the David Livingstone Centre at Blantyre in 1929, housed in the row of weavers’ cottages and tenements where he grew up, he stood at the height of his fame. In Scotland, still a highly Presbyterian country, he was revered for his heroism in several noble causes: in Christian evangelisation, in ending the slave trade in central Africa and, of course, in widening the bounds of the British Empire.

With his gruff but dogged Scottish virtues, he was the essence of what, in the Scots’ own estimation, had made Scotland a great wee nation.

Yet, none of those virtues would count for much nowadays. Scottish Christianity of all shades is in steep decline. The controversies over the slave trade are a distant memory. The British Empire is gone and is unregretted, despite having enriched – materially, intellectually and spiritually – so many generations of Scots. So, why should we bother about Livingstone in the Scotland of 2013?

One answer lies in the very fact of Mrs Banda’s pilgrimage here. Apart from Livingstone, no other agent of imperialism retains any respect in the Africa of today – not Cecil Rhodes, not Lord Lugard, nor any of many more who marked up enormous achievements of their own in consolidating what we used to regard as our beneficent colonial rule. Yet, from Cape Town to Nairobi, that rule at length issued in oppression and often ended in blood. No wonder modern Africans want to efface the memory.

Despite this drawing of a veil over a whole era of history, the fond recollection of Livingstone survives.

There was a phase during which the old imperial statues were toppled – all those governors with their plumed hats and gold epaulettes. But Livingstone’s statue still stands beside the Victoria Falls in his consular cap, his workaday jersey and tweed trousers, his famously ill-fitting shoes.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

And in today’s Malawi itself, missionaries are still active in the traditional spheres of education and medicine, as well as helping in the more modern tasks of development.

So, what we can now discern, if we care to look, is a Livingstone stripped of the imperial paraphernalia. It seems to me that this the right way to see Livingstone, because Victorians clothed the mummified cadaver that was borne back out of the jungle in a lot of adornments that never really fitted. They turned the corpse into an imperialist industry. It was not by then in a position to refuse.

But if we look back to what Livingstone actually said in his own life, there is no glorification of imperialism, no demand that white men should rule black men. After he left for Africa in 1842, he returned only for a couple of furloughs. He then went on lecture tours round Britain, which drew huge audiences to hear about the need for support of missions and of exploration in an Africa still largely unknown.

He came across as genuine but awkward, with his deep tan (not a fashion in those days) and the ungainliness of a proletarian Scot squeezed into formal attire. Everywhere he was idolised all the same, but he gave the impression that he would as soon be off to the bush again at the earliest opportunity. In fact, he did leave as quickly as possible and, after 1864, never returned.

This ordinary Scotsman felt much more at home with simple Africans than with the great and good of his own country. He pitied the tribesmen in their primitive ways, in their ignorance and insecurity, yet that did not make him feel superior and lead him to conclude that the only way forward for them was to be ruled by an imperial power.

On the contrary, in the most famous speech he gave during his British tours, at the Senate House in Cambridge in 1857, he did not call on the government of the day to send its troops to conquer and occupy territory in the middle of Africa. Rather, he said the way forward for this region of the world was “Christianity, commerce and civilisation”: all peaceful activities.

He knew well enough from his own experience that religious conversion was problematic, however. Religion does not exist in isolation from its social context, and the historic African social context had produced merely the worship of spirits. In fact, Livingstone himself only ever made one convert, of a chieftain who reverted to paganism – he was missing his wives – as soon as the explorer set off on another trek.

Christianity needed, rather, to go hand in hand with economic development that would bring Africa into contact with the more advanced continents, so that a common commercial civilisation embracing the whole globe could in time arise.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

With hindsight, we can say the imperialism that made of Livingstone a sort of Protestant saint in fact debauched his ideals. He never would have wanted colonial rule at all, let alone a colonial rule that sought to keep Africans safely confined in their tribalism (as Lugard did in Nigeria) or else reduced them to serfdom in a system of economic exploitation (as Rhodes did in South Africa).

What Livingstone would have wanted instead was for Africans to take part on equal terms in the opportunities of the global economy, and a capitalist economy at that: he knew no other.

To our shame, in the European Union especially, we still keep our markets closed and deprive dirt-poor Africans of the opportunities these markets would give them.