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David Livingston: The First European to Set Foot in Central Africa

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Deepa is a freelance researcher and journalist. She writes and makes documentaries and videos.

David Livingston

David Livingston

David Livingston: A Brief Biography

David Livingston was born in Scotland in 1813 and he died in 1873 in Chitambo, Zambia in his incomplete journey to find the origin of the Nile. He played a substantive role in shaping the beliefs and attitudes of the West towards Africa and its people. He became a missionary at a young age and after studying medicine, was chosen to do missionary work in Africa. While in Africa for the next 15 years, he explored the geography, fought with the Portuguese and the Boers for their slave trade and cruelty towards African slaves, and preached to the ‘heathens’, the African tribal people, some of whom hadn’t ever heard of God. He was a mix of progressive thought and Christian faith and was attracted to all the god’s creations, the diverse plants, animals, terrains, and cultures. Livingston went to remote places in Africa such as the Kalahari desert, learnt African languages, had his adventures of a lifetime such as getting mauled by a lion and escaping, and along all these, married a missionary’s daughter and had 4 kids. Although he was compelled to send his wife and children to Britain, he continued his journeys into the inner recesses of Africa beginning from East to West across the continent. Lake Ngami, and Victoria Falls on the Zambezi river, were his discoveries. He believed that the Christian faith and British commerce would put an end to slavery someday.

Livingston's Sketch From His Journey

Origin of the River Nile

The Nile River, meandering 6853 kilometres across Africa and competing for the longest river title with the Amazon River, originates in Lake Victoria. Although this is not exactly true. The origin of the Nile is still difficult to determine as many feeder rivers join Lake Victoria and the Nile could be any one of them. The longest river that reaches Lake Victoria is the Kagera river but tracing its origin is again an ambiguous task. This is because this river has many tributaries and now scientists agree that the longest tributary could be the one that begins flowing from Ruvyironza in Burundi or the Nyabarongo of the Nyungwe Forest in Rwanda. During one of his African journeys, the idea of finding the origin of the Nile might have struck Livingston as the ultimate dream of an explorer.

River Nile


The Nile Expeditions Before Livingston

The source of the Nile was a mystery even to the Romans who had a proverb that metaphorically describes an impossible attempt as finding the source of the Nile. In the 3rd century BCE, Pharaoh Ptolemy II Philadelphus sent an expedition to the mountains of Ethiopia from where the Blue Nile, one of the two major streams of the Nile, originated. The Blue Nile and the White Nile, the two main streams of the Nile meet in Khartoum and then flow as one mighty river that we know as the Nile. The Spanish Jesuit Pedro Paez is supposed to be the first one to reach Lake Thana, the origin of the Blue Nile, in 1618. Finding the origin of the White Nile has been more difficult as the feeder rivers of Lake Victoria originate deep inside the virgin forests of the African heartland.

Richard Francis Burton, and Hanning Speke, in their journey to find the origin of the Nile in 1856, discovered the Lake Tanganyika and Speke could also reach Lake Victoria. In 1860, Speke and James Grant reached Lake Victoria but could not map the region around the lake to prove the lake had no feeder rivers, as claimed by Speke. It was after these explorations that David Livingston went up to Lake Victoria and tried to find the origin of the longest feeder river.

An African Still Life From When Livingston Visited

Livingston's Voyage

In his African voyage, he took 6 camels, 3 buffaloes, a calf, two mules, and four donkeys with him and was also accompanied by 13 sepoys. He also had a dog named Jack and a poodle named Chitane in his entourage. Many of the men in the team had gone with him on his previous African voyages. Livingston kept metallic notebooks in which he religiously jotted down his daily thoughts and observations. He had a keen eye for everything that he saw in Africa, the birds, animals, plants, mountains, rocks, and everything that was there to see and take note of.

The expedition was slow-moving as it covered 4-5 miles a day. They employed woodcutters who would clear a path through the thick forest for the travellers. Livingston discovered that the Makonde people, one tribe of Africa, had no idea of what a god was. They were presented as Muslims by the slave traders when they were taken as slaves to Europe. Livingston observes in his notes that Arab slave traders did not make an effort to convert the African tribal slaves into Islam. Instead, they just focused on making money by capturing and selling them as slaves.

Slave Trade: Sketch by Livingston

Cloth: The Explorers’ Currency

In return for food items, Livingston’s team traded calico, a kind of white, unbleached cotton cloth, with the African people. These clothes were manufactured in British colonial India- in Gujarat and Kutch. Two-meter-long rectangular calicos were worn by both African men and women in a way that covers the shoulder and waist. Indigo-dyed Indian cotton clothes were the favourite attire of African people. The more durable American-made cotton, Merikani, was also popular. In many places in Africa, coins as a mode of payment had not yet gained popularity. Instead, the merchants and the Europeans who visited traded in cotton clothes, beads or brass wire. The explorers had to take with them hundreds of yarns of cotton clothes so that they could trade them and buy food for the entire cavalcade throughout the long journey - for explorers, guides, porters, woodcutters, and so on. Also, the porters and guides often wanted to get paid in cloth. The explorers also had to trade in cloth to get information and hire canoes. The price as noted by Livingston of 4 fouls is two yarns of calico.

The Mundane Life in Africa as Documented by Livingston

His notebooks provide insights into the value of the dollar in his time in Africa. For example, he notes down that he rented a house in Mikindany, near Rovuma River for four dollars a month when he had to briefly stay there. He describes the village houses as fenced with wattled mud and occasional Boabab trees in their vicinity. The people cultivated Sorghum, Maize, rice, and Cassava. Livingston noted that oysters were abundantly available in the Rovuma River through which he travelled. The products that were sold at the river ports were Sorghum, gum-copal (a resin used as incense, medicine, and glue), and orchilla weed, a plant from which cloth dyes are extracted. Throughout the journey, the entourage was bitten by tsetse flies, a kind of biting flies endemic to tropical Africa that did more harm to the cattle than humans.

As he travelled up river, he found tribes the members of which had tattooed bodies, sharpened teeth, and women wearing large lip rings. He found out that the Makonde people would not eat the flesh of a leopard they had killed because they thought it wrong to eat the flesh of an animal that eats humans. They just took the skin and burnt the animal. When Livingston sees a vegetable that looked like a “waxy potato”, he wonders whether this could be mass-cultivated in Bombay, India. Many tribesmen told him that God was not good because he killed many people. This was their view of God. Some tribespeople asked Livingston about Bible, the book they heard was used to consult God. By the time Livingston travelled, every remote village in Africa had Arab settlers and slave traders who exploited the tribal people. He saw that in Africa, people still made fire by drilling dry sticks with their palms into a stone surface. Before drilling the stick on a stone surface, the tribal people would wet one end with their saliva, gather some silica particles on that tip by dipping it in the sand, and then drill. Certain types of fig tree sticks were good material for this way of fire-making. He also reports how people dug up holes in anthills to create ovens. During the rainy season, African people also carried fire inside dried balls of elephant dung. The use of salt for preserving food was unknown to the African tribes Livingston saw. The people used to build raised platforms on which they would slow-burn fish, meat and fruits. These platforms were also used to sleep on as the slow fire still burnt beneath it. This helped to keep off mosquitoes.

Engraving of Starved and Abandoned Slaves: Drawing Based on Livingston's Sketch

The End of Livingston’s Journey

The hardships of such a difficult journey through unbelievably wild terrains gradually failed Livingston’s health. His note after seeing a grave inside the forest reflects how his thoughts also were drifting towards an inevitable death in a distant land. The grave he found was a little rounded mound. There were large blue beads spread on it and flour was strewn over it. A narrow path led to the grave. Livingston reminisces that he would have loved to have a grave like this, inside a silent forest, with no one to disturb his bones. His wife had died by then. He was a lonely sick man still driven only by his passion to explore the mysteries of the African wilderness.

By 1871, many of his team members had run away or died. He had run out of ink and paper and wrote his journals on newspaper sheets with the juice of some berry plant. These notes when they were received by his friends after his death, had faded and become illegible. They were stored away in boxes in the David Livingston Centre in Glasgow and forgotten. Adrian Wisnicki, an English professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln recovered these writings much later with the help of the imaging scientists who had recovered the famous Archimedes Palimpsest. The recovered diary reveals that Livingston’s porters and sepoys had ditched him and stolen food and provisions from him. He was left to the mercy of the Arabs, the very slave traders he detested. The Arabs showed him kindness and took care of him during his illness and he also became friends with them. He was weak in health and mind and even began to think of the native people as evil and sided with the Arabs in his notes of those days.

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However, in July 1871, the Arabs with whom he stayed, massacred 300 native people including women and children by firing randomly at them and burning their houses. That was the last shock for Livingston to realise that the slave traders’ cruelty knew no end and he wrote, “I was so ashamed of the bloody Moslem company in which I found myself that I was unable to look at the Manyema. . . This massacre was the most terrible scene I ever saw.” He left the company of Arabs and went to Ujiji village where he met the Welsh journalist Stanley, assigned by New York Herald to find Livingston, whom Europe and America had thought missing. Livingston refused to go back to England though Stanley asked him to and lived 2 more years in Africa before he died. Stanley had replenished his notebook supplies and he continued writing down his observations till his death. The last entry in his diary is, "Knocked up quite, and remain--recover--sent to buy milch-goats. We are on the banks of the Molilamo." In 1873, Livingston died of Malaria and Dysentry. After his death, his remaining journals were saved and handed over by his African servants Susi and Chuma. He used to send his journals to his friend, Horace Waller and he was the one who edited and published them.

Livingstone's Journal Written With Berry Juice on Newspaper When He Ran Out Of Paper

Susi and Chuma, The African Servants Who Kept Livingston's Diaries Safe And Horace Waller Who Published Them

Livingston’s Accounts of Slavery and Slave Trade

Livingston remained an ardent opponent of slavery his entire life and he described it as “the great open sore of the world”. In 1866, on the first lap of his journey, Livingston was welcomed by the Sultan of Zanzibar as he carried a letter to him written by the Governor of the Bombay government under British rule. During his stay in Zanzibar, he describes his visit to the slave market. Only through Livingston’s nuanced descriptions of how the price of a slave is determined, do we understand how inhumane and shameful the institution of slavery was. He chronicles the condition in which the slaves are treated and their state of mind-

“All who have grown up seem ashamed at being hawked about for sale. The teeth are examined, the cloth lifted up to examine the lower limbs, and a stick is thrown for the slave to bring, and thus exhibit his paces. Some are dragged through the crowd by the hand, and the price called out incessantly: most of the purchasers were Northern Arabs and Persians.”

Livingston wanted to establish through his journeys into the heartland of Africa that the African people deserved dignity and decent life, that they could be taught the message of Christianity, and by showing this to the world, he wanted to put an end to the slave system. He writes,

“Whether exchanging the customary civilities, or arriving at a village, accepting a night’s lodging, purchasing food for the party, accepting information, or answering polite African enquiries as to our objects in travelling, we begin to spread a knowledge of that people by whose agency their land will yet become enlightened and freed from the slave-trade.”

Livingston saw many farmlands deep inside the African wilderness owned by tribes such as Makonde, abandoned because most of the people had been captured and sent away by slave traders. He detested the European hand in the system of slavery. The institution of the slave trade was not as straightforward as one might think. Most of the slave traders were Arabs but one African tribe would sometimes capture the women of another tribe and sell them as slaves. Selling people off as slaves by their own community was also sometimes a way to punish them for their crimes.

Livingston recollects seeing a dead slave woman tied to a tree as the owner did not want someone else to take ownership of her in case she recovered from her illness. He saw some other women similarly tied up and stabbed to death by their owners.

The former Zambian President, Kenneth Kaunda described Livingston as the first freedom fighter of Africa. It is discernible to any reader of history that Livingston far surpassed the role of the colonial missionary and stepped into the troublesome zone of fighting social evils disguised as normalcy and custom. The moral and humanitarian stance that Livingston took during a confusing era of colonial expansion is his legacy that lives on.


The Nile: Longest river in the world, Traci Pedersen,

David Livingston, Scottish explorer and a missionary,

Celebrating the life and legacy of David Livingston, University of Glasgow, Youtube.

The source of the Nile River: A mystery that spanned three millennia, Joshua Rapp Learn,

Hostage to Cloth: European explorers in East Africa, 1850-1890, Textile Society of America Symposium Proceedings,

The last journals of David Livingstone in central Africa,

The last journals of David Livingstone, in Central Africa. From eighteen hundred and sixty-five to his death,

Decoding the lost diary of David Livingston, Rachel Newer,

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Deepa

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