Celebrating David Livingstone, ‘Africa’s first freedom fighter’. An extract from ‘Livingstone’ by Tim Jeal

David Livingstone (1813-1873) is revered as one of history’s greatest explorers and missionaries, the first European to cross Africa, and the first to find Victoria Falls and the source of the Congo River. In the exciting new edition of Livingstone, published by Yale University Press, biographer Tim Jeal draws on fresh sources and archival discoveries to provide the most fully rounded portrait of this complicated man – dogged by failure throughout his life despite his full share of success.

19 March 2013 marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of David Livingstone. This explorer, writer, missionary, medic and anti-slavery campaigner rose from humble beginnings in a Lanarkshire tenement to become celebrated as ‘Africa’s first freedom fighter’. To commemorate the occasion the Yale Books blog has published an extract from the introduction to Livingstone by Tim Jeal.

On 18 April 1874 Dr Livingstone’s body was buried in Westminster Abbey. The Prime Minister and the Prince of Wales attended, thick crowds lined Pall Mall and Whitehall, and many people wept, inside and outside the Abbey. The press agreed that there had been nothing like it since Lord Palmerston’s funeral.

During his last wanderings in Africa no fewer than four search parties had been sent out in as many years, and the most expensive journalistic venture of all time had been instigated by the New York Herald when the proprietor sent Stanley to find him. Three years after their much publicized meeting  Livingstone’s body, disguised as a bale of cloth, had been carried by his native followers from the heart of Africa to the coast: a journey of fifteen hundred miles which took over five months. This feat of devotion seemed the poignant but fitting finale to a saintly life. When Florence Nightingale called him ‘the greatest man of his generation’, there would have been few discordant voices; to have questioned his greatness in 1874 would have seemed sheer perversity.

Yet today such excessive adulation and reverence are hard to understand, for Livingstone appears to have failed in all he most wished to achieve. He failed as a conventional missionary  making but one convert, who subsequently lapsed. He failed as the promoter of other men’s missionary efforts (the two missions that went to Africa at his behest ended in fiasco and heavy loss of life). His first great journey across Africa was partially marred by his discovery that Portuguese and Arab traders had already reached the centre of the continent. His subsequent return to the Zambesi, as the leader of a government-sponsored expedition, was dipterous. The abrupt ending of his optimistic dream that the Zambesi would prove a navigable river was not offset by the discovery of Lake Nyassa – a lake which, in all probability, had been reached by the Portuguese some years before. Other explorers, such as Burton, Speke and Baker, had travelled fewer miles but had made discoveries of equal importance. None of them enjoyed such fame or received such praise. Livingstone was considered by many to be the greatest geographer of his age, yet a series of miscalculations deceived him into believing that he had found the source of the Nile when he was in face on the upper Congo. There were other failures too: failure as a husband and a father, failure to persuade the British government to advance into Africa – yet, almost unbelievably, failures that did nothing to impair his influence, for Livingstone’s ideas, both original and inherited, were to change the way Europeans viewed Africans and Africa itself.

His thinking would lead to a reassessment of the role of missions; his elevation of trade to the position of an equal and indispensable partner of the Gospel would prove the pattern for future advances. And within thirty years of his death these theories, coupled with his desire to undermine tribal institutions by introducing Western economics, and his ardent propagation of a new form of colonization, would have played a crucial part in precipitating the British Government in to annexing vast areas of a previously ignored continent. By then the thoughts and actions of those who had gone to Africa, in direct response to his lead, would have altered the whole basis of Empire.

He was a failure in the aims he set himself, yet famous; successful only after his death through those who came after; a man remembered primarily as a missionary but completely neglected for his greater significance as a colonial theoretician and prophet. These are not the only contradictions that surround Livingstone. His thinking sprang from a bewildering range of paradoxical views: many of them contradictory, some naive, often prescient beyond his times.

Livingstone believed that the rising industrial society (which he knew at first hand through a childhood spent in the cotton mills) was pernicious and cruel, but he also maintained that it would bring great benefits to the African. He recognized that Scotland’s cities were overcrowded and ‘starved their inhabitants’, so he begged his parents to emigrate; yet he thought this same industrialism would bring a golden age to the African. He considered that the inhabitants of workhouses enjoyed more numerous material benefits than did poor African chiefs. His glorification of trade, and his insistence that without commerce Christianity could make no headway, was in direct opposition to his feeling that individual traders were exploiting Africans scandalously  He felt that Africans were usually made worse by contact with Europeans, yet he wished to increase that contact. Unlike most of his contemporaries, he made considerable efforts to understand tribal customs and was annoyed by those who condemned polygamy as adultery and thought initiation rites a barbarous form of black magic;, yet, while seeing many benefits in tribal life, he was also aware that no missionaries could make any progress till that life style had been disorganized and destroyed. Failing to convert even a few people, he advocated new methods to bring Christianity to whole tribes. His actions were often at variance with cherished personal beliefs.

Yet Livingstone’s fame was due not so much to what he had done, or even to what he had been; the crucial factor was what he had come to represent. More than any of his contemporaries, he had become a myth in his own lifetime. It was not simply that he could be admired as exemplifying bravery, endurance, modesty and self-sacrifice – all the virtues Victorians wished to possess – or even that he had been a humanitarian and a Christian. It was more subtle. By praising him, the British public could feel pride without guilt, reconciling seemingly contradictory elements in a soothingly self-righteous combination of patriotism and Christianity, recalling for many the sense of moral superiority and national virtue experienced when Britain led the fight against slavery. The parallel was certainly there, since Livingstone had devoted the latter part of his life to the extermination of th East African slave trade. But, more than that, he had told his countrymen that they were the most philanthropic and freedom-loving in the world, and had emphasized this by saying that on them, above all others, was laid the sacred trust of bringing progress and liberty to the benighted.

– Extracted from the Introduction to Livingstone by Tim Jeal

Buy Livingstone | Read more about Dr Livingstone | More history on the Yale Books blog

Livingstone by Tim Jeal

Livingstone by Tim Jeal

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  • March 21, 2013


    And he’s dead with no living (pardon the pun) relatives (?) to defend or concur withJeal’s account, what’s there to say. This is true of other celebrities…once dead, all negative info is aired in the media..especially social media.

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