David Livingstone, Failed Explorer, Champion of Far More

How many are familiar with the famous inquiry “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” but know little about the man who it was presumably made to?

Perhaps you’re familiar with the story of David Livingstone care of Hollywood: Stanley and Livingstone (1939), staring Spencer Tracy and Sir Cedric Hardwicke.  Or maybe you’ve seen the more recent documentary styled production by National Geographic called Forbidden Territory: Stanley’s Search for Livingstone (1997).  Both accounts center their plots on Livingstone’s tramping about in the African wilderness.  Neither give what I think is proper attention to the man’s devotion to spreading the Gospel to the natives, and one other huge contribution he made to them.  Even most history books and encyclopedias overlook his missionary calling and only recite that he was famous for discovering the Zambezi River, Victoria Falls, or his attempts to find the source of the Nile River.  But Livingstone’s greatest contribution to the people of Africa was not his sense of adventure, which had its successes and failures.  Rather, he opened up of the African nations for future missionaries, and foremost, he uncovered and turned a Christian disgust and commitment to do what he could to end the East African slave trade.

Dr. David Livingstone was born into a Scottish working class family in 1813.  He was a Christian and studied medicine, theology and science at Anderson College in Glascow.  After achieving his formal education he acted on Christ’s Great Commission and journeyed to South Africa in 1840.  He planned to devote his life to witnessing to and medically treating the spiritually lost indigenous peoples surrounding a remote British colony 600 hundred miles north of present day Cape Town.  But after all that time the results of his evangelism (less than 100 converts) so disappointed him.  He also acquired a hunger for adventure and set out on an expedition to spread the Gospel further into the dark and wild African interior.  He wanted to go places where no white men had ever been before.  He sought to open up what he called a “Missionary Road” deep into the continent.

His Unfortunate Discovery, the Persistence of Slavery

Livingstone envisioned the establishment of British outposts (though the British government repeatedly expressed no desire to set up such African colonies) along the 1,700 mile Zambezi River then north overland eventually leading to Egypt where the empire did have holdings.  He wanted these outposts for the spreading of the Gospel.  But his spiritual concerns for the indigenous peoples soon turned to their physical well being when he discovered the east African slave trade.

The Outlawing of Slavery on the High Seas

Since 1808, the British and American governments outlawed all slave smuggling on the high seas.  Their navies were authorized to detain and search any ship suspected of slavery.  The detestable practice was made an offense punishable by death.  British representatives to the Congress of Vienna even signed on for the abolition of all slavery in an international treaty.  So, by 1833 Great Britain had freed every slave in England, and its colonies, and outlawed all slave trade wherever found.  But despite the best of intentions of the white European powers the practice still persisted.   The American contingent of the anti-slavery effort was severely reduced when the American civil war broke out.

Those that were left patrolled the vast oceans as best they could.  Many “slavers” used this to their advantage.  Some just shifted their activities from the western to the eastern coast of Africa.  The bad actors that Livingstone would discover were principally Arab/Muslims, and Portuguese.  They shipped their human cargos from south central Africa by going overland directly north and across the Red Sea, or by ship from Bagamoyo, Zanzibar, Kilwa (coastal towns situated in modern day Tanzania) and Sofala (in modern day Mozambique).

Livingstone frequently witnessed or received reports of slave caravans with bound and chained captives.  They were many times transported to the east, sometimes via the Zambezi River, for eventual shipment to India, French held island plantations in the Indian ocean, Arab controlled Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Portuguese colonies in South America and the West Indies.

What typically happened was if a tribe was unable to fend off a hostile neighbor’s attacks its inhabitants were sold to slave traders.  These more militarily powerful African tribes sold not only their prisoners of war but even those they considered undesirable to the slavers.  Sometimes the slavers themselves would attack a tribe they considered defenseless or would individually kidnap its members when the opportunity presented itself.

It is a fact of history that almost every tribe in Africa practiced slavery, as part of their criminal justice system, and enslaved neighboring tribes. The Yao people of Malawi carried out slave raids on the Bemba and Chichewa of Zambia. The Madagascans enslaved Mozambicans. The Ovambo enslaved the Bushmen. The Matebele enslaved Shona people. Congolese tribes enslaved the Pygmies.  So, the slavers, particularly the Arabs, who had been trading in Africans for over a thousand years, took full advantage of this warfare.

When they captured men, destined for service in Arab armies or as household servants, they were castrated on the spot.  Unknown numbers very likely bled to death on the death march to ports.  Many men, women and children were starved or worked to death on the trek.  The wounded, sick, old and very young were killed if they slowed the caravan.  If the slavers acquired African females they considered attractive, they would send them to ports in the Middle East to be sold as concubines, or to serve in harems, or households of wealthy Arabs.

It is estimated that between 12 million African slaves were transported to South and North America destinations.  This estimate doesn’t include the east Africa slave trade, but it is a historical fact that Arab slavers had been operating in Africa for over a thousand years, so could easily have been millions of more victims then 12.  What’s interesting is only about 5% of African slaves (about 300,000) actually ended up on the American continent.  See slavevoyages.org

Livingstone saw this persistent evil.  He wanted to end it and his way to do it was bring the sub-Saharan tribes who were involved in it to the Christian faith then teach them free-market economics via the trade of ivory, spices, cotton, coffee, sugar and beeswax.  But he wanted to explore this huge geographic area to first: find where the slave trade was originating.  Then, he wanted the British government to someday establish outposts and missions in these same areas to bring civilization to those suffering there and to drive the slavers permanently out.  So, he set out to do just that.

Livingstone’s Three Great but Somewhat Failed Expeditions

In his first of his three great expeditions, which lasted from 1848 to 1856, Livingstone, among other accomplishments, became the first recorded European to cross the Kalahari Desert from Kuruman, in what is now far north South Africa, to reach Lake Ngami in modern day Botswana.

His second major expedition began in 1858.  He set out with a team of botanists, doctors, sailors and engineers, by steamboat on the Zambezi River from near Quilimane, on the East African coast.  Their destination was to go inland 1,000 miles to Victoria Falls.  The British government authorized the endeavor to establish a mission station at the falls but alas, the journey was plagued by disaster.

This was a major undertaking, understood to take perhaps 6 years, and fraught with dangers from possible hostile locals, malaria, and other diseases, and “the unknown.” As there were no reliable maps obstacles such as sandbars and waterfalls obstructed their way.  Worse yet there were numerous deaths, one of which was Livingstone’s wife.  Mary Livingstone frequently accompanied him on his trips, but this time, sometime in 1862, and traveling with her man along the strange but beautiful Zambezi she died.

The expedition pushed on but by 1864, frustrated by lack of progress and devastated over his loss of Mary, he established the mission station where the Zambezi and the Shire Rivers intersect, only a third of the way to Victoria Falls.

On his third and final journey he set out from Zanzibar, on the coast of modern day Tanzania, in 1866, with only 30 native porters intending to solve the great geographical question of his day, where was the source of the Nile River?  For unknown reasons all but a few faithful servants deserted him and two years into the journey all news of him and his whereabouts to the outside world was silent.  Like we wonder what became of D.B. Cooper, or Amelia Earhart, the talk of what became of Dr. David Livingstone was a great unsolved mystery.

Henry Morton Stanley’s Call

On the other side of the planet, New York Herald reporter Henry Stanley was offered and accepted his employer’s challenge to satisfy the public’s interest about what became of Livingstone.   Setting out in March of 1871 from Zanzibar, he set out to follow the most likely route to a small village somewhere near Lake Tangayika, about 800 miles inland where reports claimed Livingstone might be found.  He crossed raging rivers, and rough, dense, tropical terrain.  He came down with dysentery, and endured the desertions of some of his porters, and the loss of others by disease.  Several times he almost turned back.

Stanley’s frustration and desperation can be found in his occasional dispatches back to civilization: “Is this Dr. David Livingstone a myth?”  “Is there such a person living?  If so, where is he?”  Yet he pressed on and after eight months finally reached the outskirts of a village known as Ujiji, situated on the eastern shore of the northern end of Lake Tangayika.

They blew horns to announce their approach to the village which instead of giving the villagers the assurance of friendly visitors frightened them.  Over the load bizarre cries of alarm Stanley heard a sole English speaking male voice crying out from the village.  “How do you do, sir!”  It was the long lost Dr. Livingstone.

Livingstone later wrote: “When my spirits were at their lowest ebb, the good Samaritan [Stanley] was close at hand, for one morning [my servant] Susi came running at the top of his speed and gasped out, ‘An Englishman! I see him!’ and off he darted to meet him. The American flag at the head of the caravan told of the nationality of the stranger. Bales of goods, baths of tin, huge kettles, cooking pots, tents, etc., made me think, ‘This must be a luxurious traveler, and not one at his wits’ end like me.”  The Last Journals of David Livingstone, R. W. Bliss & Company, Hartford CT, 1875. p. 317.

At their first meeting the famous question: “Dr. Livingstone I presume?” was answered with “Yes”  “You have brought me new life.”

The two men eventually explored together all around the lake looking for where it might feed into the Nile.  Though they never found any such thing, Stanley did make another discovery.  He found Livingstone to truly be the devoted evangelist he was reputed to be.  His faith and concern to somehow, someway affect the end of the enslavement of his beloved African brothers and sisters made such an impression on Stanley that he eventually accepted Jesus Christ as his personal savior.

In August of 1872, they shook hands for the last time.  Livingstone was going inland on another attempt to find the Nile’s source, a trip he would never return from since he would die the following May, near Lake Bangweulu in modern day Zambia.

David Livingstone’s Lasting Legacy

Dr. David Livingstone’s time on this earth was filled with all of the daring and adventure of perhaps a dozen men.  His missionary work wasn’t that spectacular, perhaps converting maybe dozens of Africans to the Christian faith.  But they in turn would bring others to Christ.

He had his personal objectives of adventure but they dovetailed with the persistent questions so many had about the African continent, its geography, peoples and culture. He cut trails for thousands of miles, enduring it all in rough overnight camps.  He had to be physically tough and determined to deal with the heat, the harshness of the trail, disease, the threat of death by hostile tribes, and the heartache and loss of his wife, colleagues and personal friends.  Some claim he had little patience with his white contemporaries but his antisocial persona was but a characteristic of the mental toughness a man living in the wild needed to endure his trials.  Though not always successful he was after all just one man, but he lifted the curtain of mystery that had for so long turned away the explorers and missionaries who would eventually follow him.

Even today, over 130 years later, Livingstone’s most important accomplishment isn’t the discovery of Victoria Falls as some would claim.  It was his Christian concern for his fellow man, and the lesson that ending the enslavement of human beings would call for vigilance and wide open eyes in all corners of the globe.  Unfortunately, in his time, his nation’s leaders had no particular interest in settling sub-Saharan Africa but that would eventually change.

As more and more White Europeans came there were opportunities, set-backs and challenges for the indigenous sub-Saharan African peoples.  But no one can deny that wherever Livingstone went the seeds of the Christian faith were introduced, and the path for others to follow was cracked open just a bit.  They would build on Livingstone’s introduction of the faith and it in turn, as always, would bring liberty to its recipients.  It would introduce them to modern, civilized government, and beat back the conscienceless slave merchants.  That kind of progress is still visible in today.  Many but not all of the countries of Africa can claim a Christian heritage that Livingstone had a hand in introducing.

Meanwhile, Henry Stanley returned to the civilized world to share his personal accounts of the daring explorer, and advocate with the newspapers and readers of a world that relished every bit of his revelations.  But his African adventures, inspired by the dedicated Christian explorer he found deep in the middle of no-where, were just beginning.

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