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Dr. Livingstone I Presume?

by Niamh Wood


David Livingstone

David Livingstone was a Scottish missionary, physician, abolitionist, and explorer. He is famously known as the first European explorer to have crossed Africa. He undertook extensive expeditions throughout a lot of the continent. Livingstone's studies have had a significant influence on Western attitudes towards Africa.


David Livingstone was born on March 19th, 1813, in Blantyre, Glasgow, Scotland. He was one of seven children and grew up in a single tenement room. He was brought up in the Calvinist faith of the Scottish church but later joined an independent Christian congregation. At the age of 10, he began working in a local cotton mill company and would receive schooling in the evenings and on the weekends. In 1836 he began studying medicine and theology in Glasgow

before going on to train with the London Missionary Society for a year. He completed his studies at various institutions in 1840 in London and eventually became a missionary doctor.




In 1841, with the official role of a 'medical missionary,' he moved to Africa. A few years later, in 1845, he married Mary Moffat, a daughter of a fellow missionary and the couple went on to have several children. While over in Africa, he witnessed the horrors of the African slave trade and soon became convinced of his mission to reach the people of Africa, free them from slavery, and introduce them to the Christian faith. This inspired his next exploration. In 1849, Livingstone made his way north and embarked across the Kalahari Desert. Here he came across Lake Ngami and sighted the Zambezi River in 1851. In 1852, Livingstone began a 4-year trip to find a route from the upper Zambezi to the coast and reached the western coastal region of Luanda in 1853. In 1855 he discovered a spectacular waterfall at the border of modern Zambia and Zimbabwe. The natives originally named it ‘smoke that thunders however Livingstone named it ‘Victoria Falls’ after Queen Victoria. In 1856 Livingstone reached the mouth of the Zambezi on the Indian ocean and became the first European to cross the width of Southern Africa.


Upon his return to Britain, Livingstone was granted a national hero. He did many speaking tours and in 1857 published his bestselling book, ‘Missionary Travels and Research in South Africa’. The next year in 1858, the British authorities appointed Livingstone to lead an expedition that would navigate the Zambezi. He discovered other bodies of water but unfortunately, the expedition ended up failing when his wife sadly passed away after contracting malaria. In 1864 Livingstone decided to return home. On his return, he again spoke out about his findings but also spoke out against the slavery he witnessed. Livingstone publicized the horrors he saw the following year in a book called ‘Narrative of an Expedition to the Zambezi and Its Tributaries.’ In the book, he wrote about the slave trade and theorized the connection between malaria and mosquitoes.



In 1866, Livingstone undertook another expedition to Africa. He went with the hope of locating the source of the Nile River. He was not heard from him for months and was presumed to be lost. Henry Stanley, an explorer, and journalist was sent to Africa to find him. Stanley located him in Ujiji in 1871 and upon seeing him uttered the now-famous phrase, ‘Dr. Livingstone, I presume?’. Livingstone chose to stay on and parted ways with Stanley.


David Livingstone died on 1st May 1873, at the age of 60 from malaria. He passed away in now modern Zambia and his body was eventually transported and buried at Westminster Abbey. Livingstone will forever be celebrated and remembered as a cherished abolitionist who sought to bring the Christian faith and introduce ‘civilization’ to Africa. The website of the David Livingstone Spectral Imaging Project shows his diary entries he made while on his expeditions. They shed light on his experience in Africa in more detail and analyze his place as a complex historical figure.

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