THEY are words that have been hidden for 140 years – and may just be about to change the way we think of one of Scotland’s most famous historical figures.
Scots explorer David Livingstone had run out of ink and paper after famously witnessing the massacre of hundreds of slaves in Africa.
He was forced to quickly improvise and created ink made from berry seeds, penning the words of his private diary on the pages of an old newspaper.
The result was that the writing did not survive and faded away to nothing, with history instead relying on a rewritten official account – until now.
An international team of experts has used modern technology to recover the text, revealing more than just Dr Livingstone’s shock at the massacre.
Research assistant Kate Simpson, from Edinburgh’s Napier University, was the first person to read the words recovered from the “lost” diary.
It records Dr Livingstone gazing with “wonder” as three Arab slavers with guns entered the market in Nyangwe, a Congolese village, where 1500 people were gathered, mostly women.
“Fifty yards off, two guns were fired and a general flight took place – shot after shot followed on the terrified fugitives. Great numbers died. It is awful – terrible, a dreadful world this,” he wrote.
However, Dr Adrian Wisnicki, who led the project, said there was evidence in the diary that suggested members of Dr Livingstone’s party might have been involved in the massacre.
And Dr Wisnicki, assistant professor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and honorary research fellow at Birkbeck College, London, said: “Livingstone seems to have considered this possibility and this, together with his failure to intervene, appears to have left him with a profound sense of remorse.
“In copying over the 1871 diary into his journal, Livingstone decided to rewrite or remove a series of problematic passages. It’s taken 140 years to discover Livingstone’s original words.”
Dr Livingstone recounted the story to the journalist HM Stanley – famous for reportedly muttering the greeting “Dr Livingstone, I presume?” – whose report of the massacre forced the British government to close the East Africa slave trade.
Details of the 18-month project to uncover the lost writing were being revealed today at the National Library of Scotland, home to many of Dr Livingstone’s papers including parts of his African diaries.
The diary pages about the massacre came from the David Livingstone Centre in Blantyre, run by the National Trust for Scotland.
A team of scholars and scientists from America and the UK used spectral imaging to recover the original text.
“Livingstone would never have published this private diary in his own lifetime,” said Dr Wisnicki.
“In particular, his attitude to the liberated slaves in his entourage is one of disgust – an attitude greatly at odds with his public persona as a dedicated abolitionist.”
Dr Wisnicki anticipates that the publication of the 1871 diary will change the way we look at Dr Livingstone.
“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.”