Most of us are familiar with the quote: “Dr. Livingstone, I presume.” Many of us can even name the person, Henry M. Stanley, who said it. Some can even state he was hired by The New York Herald (even though he was not really a journalist) to attempt to locate the “lost” Dr. Livingstone. (He wasn’t lost. He knew exactly where he was. It was the rest of the world that didn’t know.) A few of us can even name the circumstances in which it occurred or that H M Stanley’s name really was John Rowlands. But precious few can tell you anything about Dr. Livingstone himself.
So here in a nutshell is Dr. David Livingstone: He was born in Blantyre, Lanarkshire, he had very inspirational rags to riches story, he was a protestant missionary, an explorer, scientific investigator, anti-slavery crusader, an advocate of commercial and colonial expansion, a linguist, an author, and a medical doctor.
The two men could not have been more different. In his search for Dr. Livingstone, Sir Stanley travelled with an entourage of 153 porters, 23 soldiers and six tons of equipment. Whenever Dr. Livingstone travelled, he had very few attendants, no arms except for a gun or two for hunting, and very few supplies. He relied on his manners, his ability to learn and speak most of the common languages and the goodwill of those he encountered.
Sir Stanly found Dr. Livingstone in what today is Tanzania. Contrary to popular myth, the world Dr. Livingstone travelled in was not a wilderness of “Darkest Africa” but a well populated country with a myriad of small villages, petty chiefs, different cultures, dominant overlords and ethnic groups who were often in conflict with each other.
However, as he travelled his reputation preceded him and he was perceived as a healer who worked with the local medicine men. Since he neither believed nor treated the local inhabitants as inferiors he was a welcomed and considered an interesting guest.
He preached the gospel but didn’t force his teachings on anyone. As a point of fact, he said he only converted one person during his time in Africa.
As an explorer he tried to find waterways that would allow for easier access to the interior regions of Africa rather than the foot paths that connected all of the villages. He mapped his way across central Africa, taking copious notes concerning the local flora and fauna especially the inhabitants and their unique customs. He relished the idea that he was the first “to boldly go where no European had gone before.” (with apologies to Captain Kirk) He was the first European to see the waterfalls he named after his queen, Victoria. He even wrote a book about his adventures in Africa.
Even though he took great delight in his adventures he frequently suffered from a variety of tropical ailments including malaria, tick fever, dysentery, various
infections, bites, stings, thorns, attacks by angry lions and crocodiles and even the stray tribe of cannibals. He wrote that the best method of escaping an attack by a hippopotamus was to immediately dive to the bottom of the stream. He claimed that a hippo will only attack anything on the surface and then move away.
As a man of the cloth, and a righteous man, the custom he most abhorred was slavery. When different tribes fought battles, the captives inevitably became slaves of the victors. This custom was exploited by the Arab slavers of Zanzibar. They sought ivory and slaves. He found that the Arab slavers from Zanzibar would create chaos and foment wars between tribes specifically to get slaves. The victorious chiefs would then sell their captive slaves to the Arab slavers for small supplies of food. Sometimes a boy or girl slave could be bought for a handful of maize. The Arab slavers would use their newly purchased subjects to carry the ivory back to the coast. It was an arduous journey and many would perish along the way. He estimated that about 80,000 Africans would die annually on the march to the slave markets in Zanzibar.
His writings alerted the rest of the world to the horrors of African slavery. The British navy responded. They had already stopped the slave trade in West Africa and now they turned their sights on East Africa.
It was during his search for the source of the Nile river that Sir Stanley “discovered” him. In November 1871, Dr Livingstone was staying at a remote village near Lake Bangeulu when Sir Stanly finally met him after travelling for eight months and 500 miles. When Dr. Livingstone replied in the affirmative to Sir Stanley’s greeting, Sir Stanley responded with “I thank God, doctor, I have been permitted to see you.” They stayed together until March 1822. Sir Stanley made his way back to New York and Dr. Livingstone continued his search for the source of the Nile. The hardship of his adventures finally caught up with him and he passed away from the effects of malaria and dysentery on March 1st 1874.
Dr. David Livingstone accomplished much in his time in Africa. He cured countless numbers of ill African tribesmen and women. He opened Central Africa to the outside world and mapped much of it for future exploration. He found the Victoria Falls. But most importantly he revealed to the world the horrors of the slave traders of Zanzibar.
Except for maybe, Robert Burns, no other Scot is esteemed more around the world than Dr. Livingstone. He is depicted in statues and monuments world-wide and many towns, streets and colleges have been named in his honor.
Thank goodness he escaped from that hippo.