Dr Livingstone

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Blantyre, Lanarkshire, Scotland

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David Livingstone

Dr Livingstone had an all-but state funeral, yet now he makes us uneasy.

The Guardian

The Victorian explorer and missionary’s send-off was a large, ceremonial affair, as Thatcher’s will be. But how we say farewell does not predict how we will be remembered.

Dr Livingstone had an all-but state funeral, yet now he makes us uneasy.

Dr Livingstone had an all-but state funeral, yet now he makes us uneasy.

David Livingstone entranced the Victorians, but he wasn’t quite the hero and saint they thought him to be, writes Ian Jack. Hulton Archive/Hulton Archive

Last modified on Wednesday 18 February 2015.05.58 EST

The Treasury reluctantly stumped up £500 for David Livingstone’s funeral – about £38,000 today – though his biographers neglect to tell us what this sum covered. It didn’t pay, presumably, for the artillery salute in Southampton that greeted the steamer carrying his corpse from Zanzibar – the gunfire was the initiative of local volunteers – or the special train that conveyed it onwards to London; but perhaps it bought a drink for the police who marshalled the queues outside the Royal Geographical Society’s offices in Savile Row, where Livingstone lay in state for two days, as well as restraining the mourners who lined the cortege’s route to Westminster Abbey. Perhaps it also paid the organist and the choir; perhaps for the coffin.

To read about these events of April 1874 is to understand that the difference between “state” and other large, ceremonial funerals such as Margaret Thatcher’s is too fine to bother about. According to historians, Livingstone had a “virtual” or “all-but” state funeral. Sanction by parliamentary vote would have made it the real deal, though what that would have changed is difficult to know. The lying-in-state could have moved from Savile Row to Westminster Hall and the military and the monarchy might have played a greater part, but we know these things can also be achieved without parliament’s assent (for the Queen Mother in the first case and Thatcher in the second). As it was, Queen Victoria’s empty carriage followed Livingstone’s hearse down Pall Mall and Whitehall, while the Prince of Wales and Disraeli, newly returned as prime minister, attended the rituals in person.

Interestingly – though it was not something the mourners chose to dwell on – Livingstone’s remains were by now a year old. After several wretched months of fever, dysentery and bleeding haemorrhoids, stoically endured in his misplaced search for the Nile’s source, the missionary-explorer had died on the night of 30 April 1873, in a village located in present-day Zambia. There his African attendants acted with a calm decisiveness by eviscerating the body, burying the guts and heart, and allowing the rest to dry for 14 days in the sun before wrapping it in layers of calico, bark and sailcloth, sealed with a coating of tar to keep the flesh from putrefying on its 1,000-mile journey to the coast. The trip took nine months in tropical heat through difficult terrain. Ten men died. The 50 who survived seem to have persevered out of a combination of respect for the dead man and a belief that he was important to his country, which might reward them for the risks they’d taken. But after his body had been placed safely aboard a British warship, they got no more than the wages Livingstone owed them.

His body’s final journey completed a life’s worth of inspiring stories that entranced Victorian Britain: his labour as a 10-year-old in a Lanarkshire cotton mill, his enormous capacity for study and self-improvement, his kindness to Africans, his east-west traverse of Africa, his naming of the Victoria Falls, his campaign against Arab slavers, his disappearance, his rediscovery by the hand-shaking HM Stanley. New methods of communication and entertainment established him as a celebrity. He went on speaking tours and wrote a bestseller, and it was a newspaper needing a scoop that financed Stanley’s expedition to find him. Of course, the Victorian view was hagiographical and drastically revised by Tim Jeal’s 1973 biography, which showed Livingstone as far from the half-saint that Christians believed him to be. He was enormously stubborn, selfish and vain. As a son, husband and father, he behaved meanly and priggishly. As a missionary, he was almost a complete failure, with only one conversion to his name. As an explorer, he was wrong about the course of the Nile’s headwaters and the Zambezi’s navigability, and his unassailable convictions to the contrary cost money and lives, including his own. He hated slavery on the one hand, and on the other, believed that the kind of industrial society that had sent him into a mill as a child was the best means of Christianising Africa.

In other words, Livingstone is an ideal candidate for modern remembrance: an extraordinary pioneer who was indubitably brave and globally important, with enough question marks over his private life and public achievements to sustain TV documentaries on several channels and a radio session with Melvyn Bragg. This should be his peak season. His birth bicentenary came and went a few weeks ago on 13 March, and the 140th anniversary of his death is at the end of April. But the media in England has paid little notice, and in Scotland not vast amounts either. The reason, I think, is an uncertainty about how ex-colonisers in a post-colonial age are meant to feel about him. African Christians, particularly Protestants in Malawi and Zambia, honour him. The late Chinua Achebe contrasted him favourably to Conrad as someone who saw Africans as individuals, good, bad and indifferent, rather than as a pitiable or a frightening mass. In that sense, he’s been given a clean bill of health – the guilty post-colonials among us can go on admiring him. And yet it’s hard to look around his birthplace museum at Blantyre in Lanarkshire without a few twinges of moral discomfort.

They begin on Blantyre’s station platform, where a metal sculpture (a recent one by the look of it) shows two masked Africans tramping through the weeds with a pole between them – the kind of arrangement that would have carried Livingstone through the jungle, at rest on his suspended platform or palanquin. The explorer is absent here, but very much present in a commanding statue in the museum’s grounds, which has him being savaged by a lion – a real incident – while two Africans cower on the ground and look on helplessly. The museum itself, now owned by the National Trust for Scotland, is a tenement built for cotton mill workers and contains the crammed room that the young Livingstone shared with his parents and four siblings. Our guide, a genuine Livingstone enthusiast, welcomes us with a speech that mentions “the dark continent” several times. A long corridor contains serene tableaux that show Livingstone at work among Africans. The one-word captions below say “Truth”, “Courage”, “Mercy” and “Sacrifice”.

The children in Sunday schools all across Scotland gave their pennies to buy and preserve this building for posterity in the 1920s; the Duchess of York opened it in 1929 and many quaint touches survive from that age. Its glass cases display artefacts as different as models of the cotton factory, now long gone, and the cast of Livingstone’s arm bone that was fractured when the lion attacked him. A slot in the wall to take coins is labelled “For the African Missions”. As well as telling Livingstone’s story, the museum unintentionally shows us what that story once meant.

“Do you think this kind of place could exist in England?” asked my companion, meaning in the big multiracial cities such as London, Birmingham and Leeds. I don’t know – perhaps it could. But it survives more easily here in less race-aware Scotland, where Livingstone can be presented as a working-class hero and Christian martyr; and the British colonisation of Africa imagined as the greedy work of others, not from these parts.

Blantyre, Lanarkshire, Scotland

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