David Livingstone

2013 is the 200th anniversary of the birth of David Livingstone and the 140th anniversary of his death.

What was crammed into those sixty years of his life is astounding!

Livingstone was a man who received the Gold Medal of the Royal Geographical Society, was a Fellow of the Society, met members of, and led an expedition on behalf of, the British Government. He was lauded by ambassadors, governors, politicians, and academics. After his death, his remains were carried by native bearers over a thousand miles during a period of eight months before being shipped to London and buried in Westminster Abbey. It would be an understatement to say that his contribution to the development of Africa was massive.

David Livingstone was born in Blantyre, Scotland, the second eldest of seven children. His father, Neil Livingstone and his mother, Agnes Hunter, were committed Christians, his father being a Sunday School teacher who handed out Christian tracts while travelling as a door to door tea salesman. He was also an avid reader of books on theology and missionary work, a habit that was influential in his son David’s early life.

Along with many of the Livingstones, at the age of ten David started work at the cotton mill, working twelve-hour days as a ‘piecer’, tying broken cotton threads on the spinning machines. Following gruelling days in the factory, he spent two hours at school, followed by his own private study. He taught himself Latin and developed a love of natural history. Although his father had a fear of science books, feeling that they undermined Christianity, David’s interest in nature and science persisted. One of the earliest influences upon him was the book Philosophy of a Future State by the science teacher, and church minister Thomas Dick. It was this book that helped him to reconcile faith and science.

At the age of nineteen Livingstone was promoted from a ‘piecer’ to become a spinner and it was around this time that David became exercised in relation to his service for the Lord. David, and his father, had left the Church of Scotland on doctrinal grounds and gathered instead with a local Congregational Church. His subsequent reading of the missionary Karl Gützlaff’s Appeal to the Churches of Britain and America on behalf of China led him to consider medical study as a means of advancing the spread of the gospel. With his increased wages he began to save and by 1836 he had enough money to enter Anderson’s University, Glasgow to study medicine. In 1840 he moved to London to complete his medical studies and, at the end of the year, he qualified as a Licentiate of the Faculty of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow.

With Gützlaff’s appeal still in his mind, Livingstone hoped to go to China as a missionary. However, in 1839 the First Opium War made this impossible. Then, while in London, Livingstone met Robert Moffat, who was on leave from Kuruman, a missionary outpost in South Africa. Moffat’s vision of expanding missionary work northwards, and T. F. Buxton’s views that the African slave trade might be destroyed by ‘legitimate trade’ and the spread of Christianity, influenced Livingstone to focus on Southern Africa.

Livingstone spent his early years in Africa with the Bakwain (now in Botswana). From there he undertook a number of short expeditions which enabled him to see at first-hand the damage caused by the slave trade. This confirmed his belief that Christianity and legitimate trade should be brought to these areas. But these expeditions also developed Livingstone as a skilled navigator, linguist, and natural historian.

One point that distinguished Livingstone, apart from his fascination for Africa, was his respect for the peoples he met there. Livingstone was one of the first medical missionaries in central Africa; he was often the first European to meet local tribes. As such he won their trust as a healer and medicine man. The local villagers sought his skills in obstetrics, for the surgical removal of tumours, and ophthalmology. His accurate observations and extensive writings also provided invaluable information on African diseases. He was one of the first to administer quinine and, unlike previous expeditions in Africa, his parties of explorers suffered a comparatively low death rate.

However, Livingstone will always be remembered for his exploration of Africa. He spent thirty years there and, by the time of his death in 1873, it is estimated he had travelled over 46,000 kilometres, mostly on foot. In 1842, he began a four year expedition to find a route from the upper Zambezi to the coast, filling huge gaps in our knowledge of central and southern Africa. In 1849 and 1851, he travelled across the Kalahari, on the second trip sighting the upper Zambezi River. In 1855, Livingstone discovered a waterfall which he named ‘Victoria Falls’. He reached the mouth of the Zambezi on the Indian Ocean in May 1856, becoming the first European to cross the width of southern Africa.

But what of Livingstone’s legacy? Was he merely the man who enabled British colonial rule to be established in Africa? Rather, he will be remembered as the man who:

  • made significant geographical discoveries and opened up Central Africa to missionaries.
  • inspired abolitionists of the slave trade, and initiated education and health care for Africans.
  • was held in esteem by many African chiefs and local people that enabled the later spread of the gospel to these people.
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