Thursday, February 21, 2013

“Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” Stanley asked. Or maybe not.

Posthumous portrait of David Livingstone

David Livingstone was one of the most well-known explorers of his time, and even today many people at least have heard of the legendary exchange when Sir Henry Morton Stanley  supposedly met him at the Victoria Falls.  Here is the report at the time from The Herald:

Preserving a calmness of exterior before the Arabs which was hard to simulate as he reached the group, Mr. Stanley said: – "Doctor Livingstone, I presume?" A smile lit up the features of the hale white man as he answered: "Yes, and I feel thankful that I am here to welcome you."

The meeting at Ujiji
Well, yes.  Except that it wasn’t anywhere near the Victoria Falls but at Ujiji near Lake Tanganyika.  Certainly the meeting took place, but Stanley tore the pages containing those famous words out of his notebook afterwards.  But they made good copy, and, after all, Stanley was a journalist as well as an explorer.

The two men went on to explore the region together, and established that there was no connection between the huge lake and the Nile River.  It was the source of the Nile that Livingstone sought at the time.  But more on that next week.

So what brought Stanley and Livingstone to this spot in the middle of Africa, and why was there enough public interest to justify two US newspapers financing Stanley’s trip to find Livingstone after he'd disappeared and been reported dead?  It is hard for us to visualize today what excitement the “opening up” of the unknown world generated.  It was also the dawn of the scramble for Africa by the European powers, so national pride was at stake.  Today, if we want to explore somewhere in Africa (or anywhere else for that matter) a couple of hours with GoogleEarth is probably all it takes.  Then, the explorers faced gruelling trips through uncharted terrain with hostile local people.  (They had every right to be hostile; it was, after all, their land, the area was crawling with slave traders, and one of Stanley’s contemporaries commented that he “shoots negroes as if they were monkeys.”)  

Livingstone was one of the most popular national heroes of Victorian Britain.  He had all the right credentials – a Protestant missionary from a working-class background with an inspirational story, an intrepid explorer, anti-slavery crusader, and supporter of the British Empire.  And he died in Africa.  Posthumous heroes are always the best; their feet –  whatever they’re made of - are safely buried with the rest of them.  Although it didn’t work out quite that way for Livingstone.

Statue of Livingstone in Zimbabwe at the Victoria Falls
David Livingstone was born in 1813 in Scotland to devout parents and decided on a calling as a medical missionary.  He hoped to go to China, but politics intervened and he landed up in the northern Cape in South Africa.  Once he’d had a taste of Africa, he was addicted.  (Stanley and I warn all our visitors of this problem, but I suppose no one warned Livingstone.)

In 1854 he crossed Africa from West to East ending at the mouth of the Zambezi River.  This was a mammoth undertaking given the terrain, tropical diseases and unfriendly inhabitants.  But Livingstone had the ability to travel with just a few companions and light supplies, and he approached the local chiefs with respect, asking for their permission, which was usually granted.

Yet things didn’t continue well for him.  He sold the British government on opening up Africa by navigating the Zambezi from the mouth into the interior.  A huge expedition set out under his leadership.  Even before he reached the impassable rapids (that he'd missed on his previous trip), the expedition fell apart.  The opposite of his previous small exploration parties, it soon became clear that the management of a large one was way beyond him. It was summed up by his physician, John Kirk, writing in 1862, "I can come to no other conclusion than that Dr. Livingstone is out of his mind and a most unsafe leader."  Given the British penchant for understatement, this was hardly a rave review!

In 1866 he returned to Africa in search of the source of the Nile.  This expedition was also a disaster as his porters deserted him and his health deteriorated.  After many adventures, he was forced to accept the help of the hated slave traders to get him to Ujiji.

Henry Morton Stanley
Livingstone had no contact with the outside world for six years.  It was falsely reported that he had died.  But his reputation was now so wide, that two US newspapers were willing to fund explorer and journalist Stanley to search for him.  Stanley reported that they told him: "Draw £1,000 now, and when you have gone through that, draw another £1,000, and when that is spent, draw another £1,000, and when you have finished that, draw another £1,000, and so on— BUT FIND LIVINGSTONE!"  In fact he had been touting the trip for two years and finally got agreement.  But his version makes better press, right?  All the same he did find Livingstone, although the explorer was probably not all that ‘hale’.

Memorial near the Mvula tree
David Livingstone died of malaria and dysentery  in the area of present day Zambia on 1 May 1873. Britain wanted the body to give it a proper ceremony, but the tribe there would not give it to them, claiming that he was an African hero and deserved to remain in Africa.  Finally they relented, but cut the heart out and put a note on the body that said, "You can have his body, but his heart belongs in Africa!"  His porters then carried the body “home” on a horrendous journey of over a thousand miles.   But his heart was buried under a Mvula tree near the spot where he died.

Livingstone faced awful ordeals alone and never lost faith, passion, or the need to go further.  Certainly, he had serious flaws and the outcomes of his expeditions had mixed results both for him and his family, and for the local peoples he met and who befriended him.  But, by any standards, he was a truly extraordinary man.

Michael – Thursday.


  1. And a truly extraordinary story that very few of us have heard beyond the glorified version. Thanks, Michael.

  2. Michael, one historian that I read said that the search for the source of the Nile was one in a series of pragmatic dominoes. That once they dug the Suez Canal, to maintain control of it, the Brits needed to take hegemony over Egypt, and then that maintaining power over Egypt meant controlling the Nile. Thus they wanted also to control its source. Supported by the righteous campaign against slavery and the desire to bring religion and "civilization" to the "savages," the British exploration of Africa took root in the popular consciousness. Competition with other European countries, as you state here, also spurred the effort. It amazes me that the tiny island nation of relative comfort and ease produced men like Livingston and Stanley, so willingly courageous and adventurous to take up the exploration. Extraordinary indeed!

  3. Thanks, Jeff and Annamaria. Yes, your comments add to the motivation and the reason why Livingstone was such a popular figure. Regrettable that the execution is not always quite aligned with the lofty principles!

    Stanley is an ambivalent character and very interesting in his own right. Born in Wales as John Rowlands, he grew up in a work house for the poor. He became a seaman and jumped ship in the US, changing everything about himself including his name and family. He helped Leopold of Belgium annex the Congo. Yet he ended up being knighted by the Queen, mainly from the luster of the Livingstone episode. Truly rags to riches.

  4. The power of journalism in America then was at its pick, even Stanley used simple description "Dr. Livingstone I presume" added wait to story. Journalists even today use their own words which might not have been used but for better touching stories they offer better ones for their audience. Jeff your analysis is very good.