Dr. Livingstone’s Presumptions

This image is perhaps most iconic of the age of European exploration in Africa, Henry Morton Stanley greeting Dr. David Livingstone in Ujiji, Tanzania.


I suppose the scene is so famous because it epitomizes a certain idea of “civilization”: the use of formal polite speech, as one would expect to encounter at a formal occasion in London, set amid a seemingly “improbable” context. Improbable because we aren’t supposed to associate Africa with civilization. In addition, there is the humor at the use of such stiff formality during a moment in which two outsiders (clearly marked as such by the color of their skin) meet in an alien environment, a moment of recognition which would assume to be a cause for great excitement. Even more so since one of them had been presumed dead for some time. Finally, there is the irony of a famous explorer himself being the object of exploration and discovery.

But all most of us know about this encounter is that it took place. Although wether it took place in the way we imagine it is unclear. A new biography of Livingstone, David Livingstone: Mission and Empire, offers some important background into the life of the famous man found by Morgan in Ujiji.

While Livingstone was a famous explorer and missionary, it seems, according to David Gilmour’s review of the book, that Livingston wasn’t particularly good at either task. (And he wasn’t much of a husband either.) As a missionary, he was the subject of ridicule:

A trader who visited a tribe the missionary had been trying to convert reported that one of its “favourite pastimes was imitating Livingstone reading and singing psalms. This would always be accompanied by howls of derisive laughter.”

Livingstone had scoffed at his father-in-law’s record, but his own was much feebler, consisting of the solitary, temporary conversion of a tribal chief called Sechele. The affair made everybody unhappy: the chief, who became unpopular when he was forced to discard his junior wives; the wives themselves, who had previously been receptive to the ideas of Christianity; and ultimately also Livingstone, who was appalled when he learned that Sechele had resumed conjugal relations with one of the abandoned consorts.

His failure made Livingstone all the more ambitious, persuading him to abandon local missionary activity in favor of grandiose schemes and lengthy expeditions.

But, despite some initial success, he became famous for the disastrous expedition up the Zambesi river:

he dismissed all warnings that the rapids at Cabora Bassa were insurmountable and insisted that steamers could get through them during the rainy season. The fact that the Portuguese had failed to make anything of the river over the previous three centuries suggested to him not navigational difficulties but Portuguese incompetence. Livingstone’s absurd optimism not only led to the failure of his own expedition but also to a tragic missionary endeavor that ended in a large number of deaths.

Another victim of the scheme was the luckless Mary, whose years of misery had already resulted in alcoholism and a loss of religious faith. Determined not to be left behind in Britain, she had insisted on accompanying her husband on the expedition. On becoming pregnant, however, she had been forced to remain in Cape Town and, on rejoining Livingstone, she succumbed to malaria and died.

Gilmour is critical of the biographer, Andrew Ross, who tries to paint Livingstone as the “patron saint of African nationalism,” a title which seems to conflict with Livingstone’s advocacy of various colonial schemes, such as the resettlement of millions of English to Africa. Nonetheless, it sounds like a useful book for anyone teaching about the age of exploration and colonial Africa.

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