The dark side of Dr Livingstone

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Blantyre, Lanarkshire, Scotland

Blantyre Folk

David Livingstone

The dark side of Dr Livingstone:
A fascinating new letter casts the great
explorer in a very different light

Sitting in his hut in the town of Bambarre, in the eastern Congo, Dr David Livingstone – explorer, visionary and colonial hero, famed for his selflessness and Christian virtue – was in torment.

The man who had, 15 years earlier, traversed Africa, marching hundreds of miles in a month, was now unable to shuffle more than a few painful steps.

Walking through thick mud had given him horrific ulcers on his feet, which ate through muscle, tendon and bone. At night they throbbed painfully, denying him sleep.

Dr David Livingstone trained as a doctor
and headed to South Africa in 1841 as a missionary

A recent bout of pneumonia had left him with weakened lungs and susceptible to fever.A recent bout of pneumonia had left him with weakened lungs and susceptible to fever. The hardy explorer who had set out from England six years before, in 1865 – boasting that his muscles were ‘hard as a board’ – was now portly and sported a bushy white beard. He looked a decade older than his 57 years.

At the start of his quest to find the source of the River Nile, Livingstone had exulted in his ability to overcome fatigue and deprivation.

But even he could not have anticipated the rigours and set­backs he would face on his journey, and the toll they would take on his body and mind. As well as the ulcers, he was also suffering from severe bleeding caused by hemorrhoids and dysentery.

He had no medicine or supplies. All but three of his traveling companions had deserted him, exasperated by his poor leadership.

It was five years since he had seen a fellow European and many months since he had received any news from the world beyond this remote corner of Africa. Livingstone feared he had been forgotten.

Locals gave him food, but were so fascinated by his use of a knife and fork that they insisted he eat his meals publicly, in a roped enclosure. The famous explorer was reduced to little more than a zoo animal.

In such circumstances, even the bravest of men might have been permitted some moments of doubt. Yet, for years, his admirers conspired to convince the public that Livingstone, sustained by his faith, never succumbed to self pity.

His friend Horace Waller, who edited Livingstone’s journals, carefully removed from the text expressions of doubt or despair, anything that might diminish his status as a national hero.

But now a letter, written by Livingstone 140 years ago from Bambarre, and previously illegible (it was written in ink made from berries, which subsequently faded), has been deciphered to reveal that its author was more flawed human than faultless saint.

Livingstone's Lost LetterThe letter to Waller was never intended for a wider audience. But a transatlantic academic team led by Dr Adrian Wisnicki of Birkbeck University, London, has used a process known as multi-spectral imaging to enhance Livingstone’s faded script, the first time the technique has been applied to on a 19th century British document.

The two-page letter is one of the few written by Livingstone during this period that made it out of Africa.

It reveals, for the first time, the great explorer’s true thoughts. As well as a concern with slavery, he displays a competitive streak, lambasting fellow explorers and belittling their achievements.

He despairs at his failing health: ‘I am terribly knocked up, but this is for your own eye only – in my second childhood [a reference to his missing teeth], a dreadful old fogie – doubtful if I live to see you again.’

He also rages at friends who had removed his three sons from their school in England to an ‘abominable’ establishment in Scotland ‘at my expense and against my wish’.

As Dr Wisnicki notes: ‘The letter lets us see Livingstone in two very different guises. On one page, he is obsessed with ending the slave trade, but on the next page he gives vent to past grudges, because he’s feeling lonely and isolated.’

There were, in other words, two Livingstones: the high minded  crusader, and the vindictive, lonely man, frustrated in his personal ambition.

A working class boy from Blantyre in Scotland, Livingstone had clawed his way out of poverty through sheer determination, studying at night after working in the mills, training as a doctor and heading to South Africa in 1841 as a missionary.

He then determined to distinguish himself by taking God’s word deeper into Africa than any white man had ever done before.

He married Mary, daughter of a fellow missionary, who bore him six children. Livingstone dragged his family further and further into the remote interior, where they were forced to eat locusts to survive.

Only after one child had died and Mary became seriously ill did Livingstone dispatch them back to Britain, where – with no money or home – they endured a precarious existence.

For Livingstone, though, adventure beckoned, and his missionary work now took a back seat to exploration. For four years, he plunged through fetid swamps, marched across barren deserts, nearly dying from disease, exhaustion and hunger.

He was the first European to encounter Victoria Falls (naming them after the Queen). Even more impressively, he crossed the continent from the Angolan coast in the west to the shores of Mozambique in the east – a journey of 4,300 miles – by cart, on horseback and on foot.

No other white man had succeeded in completing the journey. On his return to Britain in 1856, Livingstone wrote an account of his travels that became a bestseller.

People were thrilled by the British explorer’s glorious achievements and astounded to learn that Africa was not an arid desert, but filled with forests, rivers and fertile plains.

It was, claimed Livingstone, the ideal place for white men to settle – bringing Christianity, commerce and civilisation to Africa.

His message was music to the ears of the expansionist Victorians. ‘He came not for conquest or for gold, but for the love of his fellow men,’ gushed one newspaper.

The government enthusiastically agreed to sponsor his next foray into Africa in 1858.
But the expedition, to open up the Zambezi River as a commercial highway and establish trading and missionary posts, was an abject failure.

Rapids made the river impassable. The expedition quickly fell into disarray. Having previously travelled only with Africans, Livingstone found it hard to get along with his fellow white men.

Dour and uncommunicative, often petty and vindictive, he expected his men to share his own superhuman powers of endurance, and displayed an un Christian lack of sympathy whenever they fell ill.

Conversely, he was obsessed with his bowel movements, which dictated his moods. He could not bear anyone to question his authority, yet could also be dangerously indecisive.

‘I can come to no other conclusion than that Dr Livingstone is out of his mind,’ wrote the expedition’s physician, John Kirk, in despair.

Mary Livingstone joined the expedition in 1862, leaving her five remaining children in Britain. Already ill from alcoholism, to which she had been driven by her husband’s frequent absences, she contracted malaria and died in April 1862. Livingstone was devastated.

When news of the debacle on the Zambezi reached Britain, the expedition was recalled. Livingstone the national hero was now excoriated for his inept leadership.

Gnawed by disappointment, and nearly destitute, it is no surprise that, after coming home, Livingstone leapt at the next chance to return to Africa in 1866, when he was asked by The Royal Geographical Society to lead an expedition to find the source of the Nile.

Livingstone left the island of Zanzibar with a party of 35 soldiers, porters and freed slaves: no white men. Striking southwards, they hacked through thick bamboo forests and mangrove swamps, averaging three miles per day.

But Livingstone seemed unable to exert his authority over his men. Soon they began deserting him, taking with them vital supplies. Several returned to Zanzibar where they informed the authorities that Livingstone had been killed by hostile tribes.

As a horrified British public mourned his passing, Livingstone and his remaining men were wading through chin deep swamps that left them festooned with blood sucking leeches. They were forced to eat rats to survive.

Near starvation, they encountered an Arab slave trader who took pity and fed them. To be saved by the very people whose cruel trade he so hated, and against which he had campaigned so vociferously, grated badly.

Consumed by his obsession with finding the Nile’s source, Livingstone spent the next four years exploring the lakes and rivers around Lake Tanganyika, before heading south. By the time he arrived in Bambarre in July 1870, Livingstone’s health was broken. Five months later, he wrote that despairing, bitter letter to Horace Waller.

Convinced that he was nearing his goal, Livingstone recovered sufficiently to travel as far as the town of Nyangwe, on the shores of the River Lualaba which, he was convinced (wrongly), joined the Nile.

Swahili womenA photo of Swahili women taken by Sir John Kirk, who accompanied Dr Livingstone in Africa.

Awaiting permission from local chiefs to cross the river, Livingstone observed daily life, especially the beautiful local women. His Christian morals did not prevent him from sleeping with African women on a regular and prolific basis.

One morning, to his horror, he witnessed a massacre when some Arab slavers turned their guns on the locals, shooting hundreds of men, women and children. At that point, he knew he had to flee.

Sickened and depressed at his failure ‘when almost in sight of the end towards which I had strained’, he traveled wearily back to Ujiji, nearly blind from dust, crippled by dysentery, with flesh eating bugs burrowing beneath his skin.

Henry Morton Stanley, whose proprietor had sent him to secure the scoop of the century: finding the missing Livingstone.He was reduced, he wrote despondently, ‘to beggary’. Little did he know that salvation was at hand, in the shape of a journalist from the New York Herald, Henry Morton Stanley, whose proprietor had sent him to secure the scoop of the century: finding the missing Livingstone.

It had already been established that the reports of Livingstone’s murder in 1867 were false, and Stanley had spent the past two years tracking Livingstone down. At last, at Ujiji, he found his man and uttered the apocryphal greeting: ‘Doctor Livingstone, I presume?’

The two men were equally delighted to see each other. For Stanley, Livingstone represented success. For Livingstone, the younger man represented new life: supplies of food, medicine and news of the outside world.

For several months they traveled together. Stanley tried to persuade Livingstone to return with him to Britain for medical treatment, but Livingstone refused.

Stanley finally left, carrying, it is thought, Livingstone’s letter to Waller with him.
Livingstone now knew he had to succeed in his quest to secure his fame, financial security and place in history. For him the choice was stark: success or death. It was to be the latter.

In May 1873, in a village near Lake Bangwelu, in modern Zambia, an exhausted Livingstone died from dysentery.

His two faithful African servants preserved his body, removing his vital organs and carrying it more than a thousand miles to the coast, from where it was taken back to Britain by sea. In April 1874, he was interred in Westminster Abbey.

Florence Nightingale declared him ‘the greatest man of his generation’. The Prime Minister and the Prince of Wales attended the funeral. Crowds lined the streets to mourn the explorer, missionary and abolitionist.

He was undoubtedly an awesome figure but by his own light he had failed to find the Nile’s source. And despite his anti-slavery stance he had accepted the help of slavers. In pursuing ambition, he had treated his family callously.

As his biographer Tim Jeal points out: ‘Livingstone appears to have failed in all he most wished to achieve.’

By Annabel Venning, Daily Mail 2010

Livingstone’s Letter is available here

Blantyre, Lanarkshire, Scotland

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