Wholesome Words Home
Worldwide Missions
missionary biographies

David Livingstone, Missionary Explorer

by J. H. Morrison

David LivingstoneDavid Livingstone, the most famous of the missionary heroes of Africa and the prince of African explorers, was born at Blantyre on the Clyde on the tenth of March, 1813. He came of highland ancestry, his great grandfather having fallen at the Battle of Culloden, but it would be a mistake to seek here, as some have done, the master key to Livingstone's character. His Highland pride is but another name for Scottish independence, while his strong common sense and pawky humour, his resoluteness, his sturdy democratic principles, are characteristic of the Saxon more than of the Gael.

I. Blantyre Mill

His father was an itinerant tea dealer who, being a man of ardent religious zeal, acted the part of an unpaid colporteur. His mother is described as "a delicate little woman with a wonderful flow of good spirits, and remarkable for the beauty of her eyes, to which those of her son David bore a strong resemblance." The two-roomed house in Blantyre must have been sadly overcrowded as five children grew up in it, but it was a home where the sterling Christian character of the parents, the mother's gentleness blending with the father's strictness, impressed upon their children's minds the fear of God. The boys had to begin work early in order to contribute to the support of the family. Accordingly at the age of ten David was sent to the cotton mill which stands on the bank of the Clyde, a stone's throw from his home.

His hours of work were from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m., and after that he would rush off to an evening school from 8 to 10. Returning home he often pursued his studies till midnight, when his mother would snatch away his book and pack him off to bed. From an early age his ambition was to become a medical missionary in China. With this end in view he attended classes in Glasgow during the winter season and returned to his loom in Blantyre mill for the summer. "I never received a farthing of aid from anyone," he wrote afterwards, "and should have accomplished my project of going to China as a medical missionary in the course of time by my own efforts, had not some friends advised my joining the London Missionary Society on account of its perfectly unsectarian character."

His application to the Society being favourably entertained, he was summoned to London for examination. While there he went with a fellow-student to visit Westminster Abbey. How little could he have dreamed as he gazed around him at the monuments of the mighty dead that he was standing upon his own grave! Meantime war with China had closed that door and Livingstone's thoughts now began to turn towards Africa. This was due mainly to the influence of Dr. Moffat who had come home on furlough and was powerfully stirring the churches by his addresses and writings. After several talks with him Livingstone said, "What is the use of my waiting for the end of this abominable opium war? I will go at once to Africa!" He sailed for the Cape on the 8th of December, 1840. It was very characteristic of him that the three months' voyage was mainly spent in learning from the captain of the ship as much as possible of the art of navigation. "He was very obliging to me," writes Livingstone, "and gave me all the information in his power respecting the use of the quadrant, frequently sitting up till twelve o'clock at night for the purpose of taking lunar observations with me."

II. The Valley of Mabotsa

Livingstone's instructions from the London Missionary Society were to proceed to Kuruman and from there to prospect for the opening of a new mission station among the tribes to the north. After various journeys he selected "the beautiful valley of Mabotsa," and thither he removed in 1843. It was while at Mabotsa that he was attacked by a wounded lion and only rescued by the courage of his native teacher, Mebalwé, and another man whose life he had previously saved. His left arm, however, was shattered above the elbow, producing a false joint. It is one of the most amazing facts in the story of Livingstone that through all his subsequent labours and mighty wanderings he was a crippled man, with one arm so maimed that it was painful to lift a gun or raise his left hand to his head.

He soon found a comforter, for on going to Kuruman to recruit his health he became engaged to Dr. Moffat's eldest daughter, Mary. They were married shortly afterwards and spent at Mabotsa the first happy year of their married life. In 1846 the Livingstones moved to Chonuane, where was the kraal of Sechele, the chief of the Bakwains. Drought, however, soon compelled the removal of the tribe to Kolobeng, which was Livingstone's home till he set out on his great journey across Africa in 1852. It was the only home he ever had, and when, twenty years after, in his lonely wanderings, he looked back to it with fond longing, he felt but one pang of regret, that he had not played with his children more when he had them, now he had none to play with. He had usually been so tired at night, he says pathetically, that there was no fun left in him.

The chief, Sechele, on first hearing the Gospel, was much affected and asked Livingstone, "How is it that your forefathers did not send to my forefathers news of these things sooner?" Surely a pertinent question, and one not easily answered. He became an eager learner, and in 1848 made open profession of his Christian faith. His subsequent career, however, rendered that profession of doubtful value, for, though he became extraordinarily well versed in Scripture and preached with earnestness, he still persisted in some heathen practices. The spirit of Livingstone's ministry may be gathered from a sentence in a letter to his father, written in July, 1848. "For a long time I felt much depressed after preaching the unsearchable riches of Christ to apparently insensible hearts, but now I like to dwell on the love of the great Mediator, for it always warms my own heart, and I know that the Gospel is the power of God, the great means that He employs for the regeneration of our ruined world." It may be said, once for all, that he held this conviction to the last, and never ceased to be a missionary-preacher of this evangel.

During this period Livingstone's eyes were continually directed towards the north. The country around Kolobeng was barren and thinly populated, while the security of the inhabitants was threatened from the east and northeast by the Boers and the Matabele. There were reports of more fertile and populous regions beyond the Kalahari Desert to the north, where a powerful chief, Sebituane, had established himself. Sechele was willing to remove his tribe thither if it were found feasible. No doubt also Livingstone had a laudable ambition to be the first white man to reach the rumoured lake in the interior, which up till then had baffled repeated and determined attempts of explorers from the Cape.

Accordingly he set out from Kolobeng with two English hunters, Mr. Oswell and Mr. Murray, and after an arduous journey across the desert reached Lake Ngami on August 1, 1849. The discovery of this lake, though eclipsed by Livingstone's subsequent achievements, was a remarkable feat, and gained for him a grant from the Royal Geographical Society. A vague impression prevailed that the centre of Africa was one vast desert. The Kalahari was spoken of as the Southern Sahara. Yet here, in the heart of it, was an extensive fresh water lake, with a fine river watering a fertile plain. Sebituane's country, however, was still farther to the north. Next year Livingstone again set out from Kuruman, with his wife and children and Mr. Oswell, but owing to fever they were not able to penetrate beyond Lake Ngami.

A third attempt, in 1851, was successful, and resulted in the discovery of a glorious river, known to the natives as the Sesheke or Liambai, which proved to be the upper Zambesi. Here Sebituane had established himself and ruled over a wide domain. His career had been a romantic one. Born in Basutoland, he was one of the leaders of the wild horde of Mantiti who were routed at Kuruman by the Griquas in 1821. Pursuing his way north with a shattered remnant of his people, the Makololo as they came to be called, he conquered the Barotsi who inhabited the wide valley of the Zambesi, and imposed on them the language of the Basutos. This afterwards had a remarkable influence in leading to the evangelisation of the country by M. Coillard.

Sebituane gave Livingstone a hearty welcome, but very shortly afterwards he took ill and died. Livingstone was deeply moved by his death, both on personal grounds and because it seemed to imperil the vast enterprise which had now taken definite shape in his mind and became, henceforth, the master passion of his life.

III. The Road to the North

This enterprise was the opening up of Central Africa to civilisation and the Gospel. Various influences, acting on his mind since he landed in Africa, had combined to turn his thoughts in this direction, till at last it grew to an invincible conviction that here was the divinely appointed path for him. For one thing, he early took the view that the number of missionaries in the Colony was excessive in proportion to the population and in view of the vast needs of Africa. In 1843 we find him making strong representations to the London Missionary Society on the subject. He held that the European missionary should continually advance to the occupation of new fields, leaving his work to be followed up by native teachers. This policy was opposed by many missionaries of experience, and it must be admitted that time has not altogether confirmed Livingstone's high estimate of the efficiency of the native teacher, and especially of his power to work alone.

Another influence was the difficulty of transport. Pondering the problem of a farther advance into the interior, Livingstone could not but see, as Moffat had seen before him, that the limit of expansion northward from the Cape had been reached. No Cape to Cairo railway was then so much as dreamed of, and the tedious ox wagon, consuming months in the journey from Cape Town, and now faced with the terrible Kalahari Desert, obviously could do no more. Accordingly we find Livingstone writing in 1850, "When we burst through the barrier on the north, it appeared very plain that no mission could be successful there, unless we could get a well watered country having a passage to the sea on either the east or west coast. This project I am almost afraid to meet, but nothing else will do."

Another determining influence was the attitude of the Boers of the Transvaal. It may appear incredible that men calling themselves Protestant Christians, descendants also of the persecuted Church of the Netherlands, should have acted as these Boers did. But they were, in the main, composed of the most ignorant and brutal elements of the Dutch colonists, who had trekked into the wilds to escape from contact with civilisation. They believed themselves to be God's chosen people, and the natives they regarded as the Canaanites, to be dispossessed, slaughtered and enslaved. There was a vague impression among them that the Promised Land was somewhere to the north and might one day be reached by their wagons. With such views they became the determined opponents of missions to the natives, and were resolved to close the road to the north both to the missionary and to the trader. Accordingly they ordered the Bechuanas to stop all white travellers going through their country and threatened to attack any tribe that would receive a native teacher. "The Boers," writes Livingstone, "resolved to shut up the interior, and I determined to open the country, and we shall see who have been most successful in resolution—they or I" Truly we shall see.

Being thus resolved, Livingstone returned to Kolobeng to make preparations for his great adventure. First he travelled to Cape Town with his family to send them home to Scotland, and to procure necessary supplies for himself. When Mrs. Livingstone and the four children sailed from Cape Town on April 23, 1852, Livingstone saw the final breaking up of his home. Malicious tongues whispered in after years that his home life had never been happy, a slander which caused both him and his wife the keenest pain. The following letter, written shortly after their separation, may be quoted for its exquisite beauty and to show the tenderness of their love."

"My dearest Mary, How I miss you now, and the dear children! My heart yearns incessantly over you. You have been a great blessing to me. May God bless you for all your kindnesses! I see no face now to be compared to that sunburnt one which has so often greeted me with its kind looks. Let us do our duty to our Saviour, and we shall meet again. I wish that time were now. You may read the letters over again which I wrote at Mabotsa, the sweet time you know. As I told you before, I tell you again, they are true, true. There is not a bit of hypocrisy in them. I never show all my feelings, but I can say truly, my dearest, that I loved you when I married you, and the longer I lived with you, I loved you the better... Take the children round you and kiss them for me. Tell them I have left them for the love of Jesus, and they must love him too."

Not every husband would bid his wife read over again his old love letters, and stand to every word of them, nor are there many wives, perhaps, who would break into a rapturous poetic welcome on their husband's return, as did Mary Moffat when Livingstone came home in 1856.

On the 8th of June Livingstone left the Cape in his wagon and reached Kuruman at the end of August. Here he was detained by the breaking of a wagon wheel—fortunately, as it proved. For news arrived that the Boers, under Pretorius, had attacked Kolobeng, burned the town and killed or captured the people. Had Livingstone been at home at the time of the attack he would probably have been killed, for Pretorius had threatened to take his life. He would certainly have lost all his stores. The Boers left his home a wreck. "My house," he writes, "which had stood perfectly secure for years under the protection of the natives, was plundered... The books of a good library—my solace in our solitude,—were not taken away, but handfuls of the leaves were torn out and scattered over the place. My stock of medicines was smashed, and all our furniture and clothing carried off and sold at public auction to pay the expenses of the foray."

After this outrage Livingstone was more determined than ever "to open a path through the country or perish!" Leaving Kuruman and making a wide detour to the west to avoid the Boers, he once more crossed the Kalahari Desert and in June, 1853, reached Linyanti, the capital of the Makololo country. It is situated on the Chobe, a tributary of the Zambesi, about a hundred miles south of that river. Here Livingstone was welcomed by Sekeletu, the son of his old friend Sebituane, and he speedily acquired great influence over the young chief and his people. After a month spent at Linyanti he persuaded Sekeletu to accompany him on a tour through the Barotsi country. Having crossed the intervening flat, they struck the Zambesi at Sesheke, some miles west of where the town of Livingstone now stands, and embarking in canoes they sailed a considerable distance up the river. No healthy site for a mission station, however, could be found. The whole country was a vast plain, inundated annually by the river, and choked with rank vegetation which made it unhealthy at all seasons. After nine weeks a return was made to Linyanti. Of his experiences at this time Livingstone wrote, "I have been, during a nine weeks' tour, in closer contact with heathenism than I had ever been before, and though all, including the chief, were as kind and attentive to me as possible, yet to endure the dancing, roaring, and singing, the jesting, anecdotes, grumbling, quarrelling, and murdering of these children of nature, seemed more like a severe penance than anything I had before met with in the course of my missionary duties. I took thence a more intense disgust at heathenism than before, and formed a greatly elevated opinion of the latent effects of missions in the south, among tribes which are reported to have been as savage as the Makololo."

IV. Crossing the Continent

The more daring scheme of opening a way to the west coast caught the imagination of Sekeletu and his people, and it should never be forgotten that only by their help was Livingstone enabled to cross the continent. After discussion in the tribal assembly twenty-seven men were appointed to accompany him. They became famous as his Makololo, but he more correctly calls them Zambesians, for only two of the number were genuine Makololo, the rest were Barotsi and other natives of the valley. The plan proposed by Livingstone was to ascend the Zambesi as far as possible, and from its head waters to strike northwest to Loanda on the coast. A nearer point on the coast was Benguela, but in that direction Portuguese slave traders had been active, and Livingstone knew it to be dangerous to follow in their track.

The journey from Linyanti to Loanda occupied six and a half months, from November 11, 1853, to May 31, I854. It was the greatest feat of African travel yet accomplished, and displayed to the full Livingstone's extraordinary qualities as an explorer. His journal records an interminable succession of tribes and villages, never before visited by a white man. After ascending the Zambesi and the Leeba by canoe the carriers advanced on foot, while Livingstone rode as much as possible on oxback. The rainy season had now set in and they found immense flats where the water stood knee deep in the grass. Some of these were as much as twenty miles in width. Across these flats they had perforce to wade, sometimes for days on end, under pitiless rain and with an occasional flooded river to swim. Throughout the whole journey Livingstone suffered from recurrent attacks of fever, and sometimes lay in his hut unconscious. He has been blamed for gross disregard of his health, in travelling without proper camp equipment, subsisting on native food, and often sleeping on the ground in wet clothes. It may be replied that he had to do his work with the resources at his disposal, and no other traveller, even with the best of equipment, has equalled his record. Careless he was not, nor slow to learn by experience. Having felt the chilling, depressing influence of heavy rain, especially upon the naked bodies of the men, he taught them to take shelter or to make a rude thatch of grass for their backs when the rain came on, and had fewer cases of fever in consequence. "A missionary," he wrote, "must never forget that, in the tropics, he is an exotic plant. In a hot climate efficiency mainly depends on husbanding the resources."

The tribes through whose country he passed were in general disposed to be friendly when treated with courtesy and enlightened as to the object of the journey. Some, however, were tyrannous and threatening. It has been claimed for Livingstone, as the brightest star in his crown, that he crossed Africa without firing an angry shot. There were moments on this journey when that record came perilously near being broken. Sometimes a demand was made for "a gun, an ox, or a man." Occasionally an ox had to be surrendered, but Livingstone declared that before he would sell one of his men they would all die together. He was no pacifist. "We would do almost anything," he says, "to avoid a collision with degraded natives, but in the case of an invasion—our blood boils at the very thought of our wives, daughters, or sisters being touched—we, as men with human feelings, would unhesitatingly fight to the death, with all the fury in our power."

Throughout these trials and perils the Makololo behaved admirably on the whole. Only once, when Livingstone was down with fever, did some of them show a spirit of mutiny, but his sudden appearance from the hut, haggard and angry, with his pistols in his hands, quelled the malcontents in a moment. In the Chiboque country a hostile chief tried to pick a quarrel by alleging that one of the carriers, in spitting, had touched one of his people. Extravagant demands were made for compensation, and savage warriors danced round threateningly. Livingstone sat with his double-barrelled gun across his knees, ready to fire at the first attack. At length, by patience and tact and the peaceoffering of an ox, the danger was surmounted. As they neared Portuguese territory the local chiefs became more troublesome in their demands. They had been accustomed to exact tribute from the slave traders who, being encumbered with gangs of unwilling captives, were glad to pay a heavy price for permission to proceed coastwise with their booty. These traders, though called Portuguese, were half-castes with woolly hair. Livingstone's men were careful to point out to the natives that he alone was a genuine specimen of "the white men who come out of the sea." "Look at his hair," they said, "washed straight by the water!"

A steep descent from the plateau of the interior, through narrow glens, brought the travellers to the fine valley of the Quango. With some difficulty they crossed the river and set foot on Portuguese territory. Here they received a most kindly welcome from Cypriano, a young half-caste Portuguese sergeant of militia. This was the first instance of that warm hearted hospitality which Livingstone received from the Portuguese as he travelled down to the coast, a hospitality which did much to restore his shattered health, and which moved him to expressions of the deepest gratitude. At last the ocean came in sight. Unlike Xenophon's men, who hailed the familiar sight with joy, Livingstone's followers were struck dumb with awe. Describing their feelings afterwards they said, "We marched along with our father, believing that what the ancients had always told us was true, that the world has no end. But all at once the world said to us, I am finished, there is no more of me.'"

Livingstone entered Loanda little better than a walking skeleton, but he found a home in the house of Mr. Gabriel, the British consul, and in a few minutes was enjoying delicious sleep in an English bed. He afterwards had a severe and prolonged relapse, but on recovering he was thankful to find that he was free from lassitude and like his old self again. He was now offered a passage home in a British warship but he declined the tempting offer. He knew that the Makalolo would be quite unable to make their way back alone through the hostile tribes on the way, and he felt himself in honour bound to take them home to their chief. His journey also had proved that there was no practicable route for wagons to the west coast. He therefore resolved to return to the interior with the view of trying to find a path to the east coast by following the course of the Zambesi. As we shall see, this scrupulous honour in restoring his men to their homes had its exact counterpart and recompense when those who followed him in his last journey, led by two Zambesians, Susi and Chuma, carried his body for nine months to the coast, in order to deliver it to his people.

The return journey from Loanda to the interior occupied a year, from September, 1854, to September, 1855. A considerable part of that time, however, was spent in the hinterland of the Portuguese colony, where Livingstone, on hearing of the wreck of the mailboat in which he had sent home his letters, maps and journals, sat down and patiently reproduced the whole of them before he buried himself once more in the wilds. Then he led his men homewards. On reaching their own people in Zambesi valley they had a great ovation, and little wonder. For had they not gone to the ends of the earth and returned safe, with not a man missing? In the neighbourhood of Sesheke Livingstone had the pleasure of finding some packages of goods which Dr. Moffat had succeeded in sending north a year before by Matabele carriers and which had been safely stored on an island in the river. Sekeletu was delighted with the results of the expedition, opening, as it did, the prospect of peaceful commerce with the white man. He therefore readily entered into Livingstone's plan of finding a path to the east coast by following the Zambesi to the sea.

After six weeks spent in preparation, the new expedition started from Linyanti on November 3, 1855, and the east coast was reached at Quilimane on May 21, 1856. This second and more numerous caravan, like the first, was equipped at the expense of the chief. Livingstone cordially acknowledges this. "The Makololo again fitted me out. I was thus dependent on their bounty, and that of other Africans, for the means of going from Linyanti to Loanda, and again from Linyanti to the east coast, and I feel deeply grateful to them." No stronger proof could be given of Livingstone's extraordinary influence over the minds of the Africans, and it must ever redound to their honour that the greatest and most successful of all his journeys was accomplished by their help alone.

Sekeletu convoyed Livingstone for the first part of the way, and together they visited the Falls of the Zambesi, a greater and in every respect more wonderful Niagara, as every traveller who has seen both will at once admit. Livingstone had heard from the natives the fame of the place "where smoke sounds," a place which they shunned with superstitious awe. Now he saw it for the first time and bestowed the name of the Victoria Falls. Here the mighty river, more than a mile wide, flowing through an open plain, is suddenly precipitated headlong into a narrow ravine, four hundred feet deep, where its waters are tortured and pulverised till clouds of steam rush up from the abyss, and tower in lofty pillars to the sky. How little could Livingstone have imagined that in less than fifty years the gorge would be bridged and the thunder of express trains would mingle with the solemn sound of the falling water! So swiftly fruitful has been his work of opening Central Africa.

The route chosen was along the north bank of the Zambesi, because on the map Tette, the farthest upriver settlement of the Portuguese, was erroneously marked as on that side of the river. Livingstone had therefore to cross the Kafue and the Loangwa, two considerable tributaries which flow from the north, and then he had to cross the Zambesi itself in order to reach Tette. As on the journey to Loanda, so here he found the tribes more hostile in the vicinity of Portuguese territory. At the crossing of the Loangwa the whole expedition seemed in imminent danger of annihilation. Livingstone passed a troubled night, as the following entry in his journal shows. "Felt much turmoil of spirit in view of having all my plans for the welfare of this great region and teeming population knocked on the head by savages to-morrow. But I read that Jesus came and said, 'All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore and teach all nations—and lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world.' It is the word of a gentleman of the most sacred and strictest honour, and there's an end on't. I will not cross furtively by night as I intended. It would appear as flight, and should such a man as I flee? Nay, verily, I shall take observations for latitude and longitude to-night, though they may be the last. I feel quite calm now, thank God."

Once again faith was justified, tact and patience prevailed, and the crossing was made in safety. On reaching Tette Livingstone was received with the same kindness as he had experienced on the west coast at the hands of the Portuguese. Here he left his Makololo carriers, promising that only death would hinder his return from England to take them home again. Travelling down the river he reached the coast at Quilimane, and thus completed his great, transcontinental journey. It was an achievement such as could not have been considered possible till it was actually done, and when the whole circumstances are taken account of, it must be reckoned the greatest feat of exploration ever accomplished. One does not know which to admire most, the iron constitution and resolute will of the man, or his patient courtesy and good sense, or his sanity and humour, or his dauntless faith. All combined in a wonderful degree to make Livingstone the man he was and to enable him to do the work he did. It was said of him, even in his student days, "Fire, water, and a stone wall would not stop Livingstone in the fulfilment of any recognised duty." Yet with all his natural strength he could be infinitely patient and tactful, even when half delirious with fever; and at every step of the road he sought the guidance and grace of God. No text seems to have been more frequently in his mind than the words of the Psalm, "Commit thy way unto the LORD, trust also in Him, and He shall bring it to pass."

V. Discouraged and Lionised

At Quilimane Livingstone received a letter from the directors of the London Missionary Society informing him that they were restricted in aiding "plans only remotely connected with the spread of the Gospel," and that finances would not permit of the opening of a new field in the interior. It is easy to understand the scruples of the Directors. The Society's rules were not made to fit a Livingstone, any more than a hen run is built to fit an eagle, and it could not yet be foreseen how powerful an influence on missionary work Livingstone's travels were to exert. But naturally he felt deeply grieved and wrote to the secretary, "I had imagined in my simplicity that both my preaching, conversation, and travel were as nearly connected with the spread of the Gospel as the Boers would allow them to be. A plan of opening up a path from either the east or west coast for the teeming population of the interior was submitted to the judgment of the Directors, and received their formal approval. I have been seven times in peril of my life from savage men while laboriously and without swerving pursuing that plan, and never doubting that I was in the path of duty." He now felt that he must be free to do his work in his own way, under the strong conviction that he was so led of God. His relation with the Society, however, continued cordial, and when the mission to the Matabele was organised, Livingstone, now a British consul, made himself responsible for the salary of John Moffat, his brother-in-law, for five years, besides paying his outfit. This fact is witness, if witness be needed, that in Livingstone's life, from first to last, the missionary interest was supreme.

Livingstone reached London in December, 1856, and was at home till March, 1858. As was to be expected he was lionised in all circles, religious and political, scientific and commercial. Honours were showered upon him and he was hailed everywhere as the national hero. His book, Travels and Researches in South Africa, was a great success, and brought him in several thousands of pounds, most of which he devoted to the furtherance of his work. An appeal which he made at Cambridge led to the founding of the Universities' Mission. In February, 1858, he was appointed British consul for the east coast of Africa, and commander of an expedition for exploring Central Africa. This glittering hour of fame left him quite unspoiled, the same rugged, simple-hearted missionary he had been at Kolobeng. At a banquet given in his honour before he left England some reference was made to his wife, when Livingstone, addressing a most illustrious audience, said with great plainness, "My wife will accompany me in this expedition and will be most useful to me. She is able to work. She is willing to endure, and she well knows that in that country one must put one's hand to everything. She knows that at the missionary's station the wife must be the maid of all work within, while the husband must be the jack of all trades without, and glad am I indeed that I am to be accompanied by my guardian angel."

VI. Five Years on the Zambesi

The expedition left England in March, 1858, and reached the mouth of the Zambesi on the 14th of May. Here they put together the little steamer, the Ma-Robbert, with which they were to navigate the river. Livingstone was now to encounter difficulties and troubles to which he had previously been a stranger, and in addition there fell upon him and the cause he had at heart a succession of disasters. His position, as British consul did not smooth his way with the Portuguese authorities who began to suspect political aims, and, under secret orders from Portugal, did their utmost to obstruct his work. Some friction arose among the members of the expedition, not all of whom shared his ideals. The naval officer in charge of the steamer resigned, and Livingstone himself was compelled to undertake the duties of navigation. The steamer proved to be of wretched construction, and so utterly useless that Livingstone sent home an order for another boat to be built at his own expense. His two most loyal helpers were Dr. Kirk (afterwards Sir John Kirk) and Mr. E. D. Young of the Royal Navy. With their aid he explored the course of the Shire, a tributary of the Zambesi which flows down from the south end of Lake Nyasa. This led to the discovery of the Shire Highlands, the healthiest and most promising region yet found in Central Africa. Passing through these hills Livingstone, in successive journeys, discovered Lake Shirwa and Lake Nyasa, and was confirmed in his view that here was the finest field for missionary enterprise and commercial development. That this view was sound has been fully demonstrated since then, by the success of the Livingstonia Mission and the prosperity of Nyasaland.

Returning to the Zambesi, Livingstone took the Makololo, or as many of them as wished to return, back to their home at Linyanti. Here, to his great grief, he learned that the mission party sent north from Kuruman to establish themselves among the Makololo, had been almost wiped out by fever. The story of this catastrophe is fully told by John Mackenzie, who rescued the survivors. Livingstone could not but feel that some responsibility rested on him, for the expedition had gone on his assurance of a friendly welcome from Sekeletu, and Sekeletu had shamefully robbed them and was even suspected of having poisoned them.

In the beginning of 1861 Livingstone was back at the coast to welcome Bishop Mackenzie and the pioneers of the Universities' Mission whom he helped to settle at Magomero in the Shire Highlands. But disaster was again in store. The Bishop, who seems to have been somewhat forceful in his methods, went to war with some slave-raiding tribes and blood was shed. Livingstone, with grave fears as to the future of the mission, went down to the mouth of the Zambesi to meet his wife who had come out to join him. With her came Bishop Mackenzie's sister and Mrs. Burrup, the wife of one of his colleagues. A young Scotsman, afterwards well known as Dr. Stewart of Lovedale, was also of the party, having been sent out to prospect for a suitable sphere for a Scottish mission. It was a happy and hopeful meeting, but the sky was speedily overcast. They had not gone far up the river when news came that Bishop Mackenzie and Mr. Burrup were both dead, and, soon after, the whole mission was withdrawn to Zanzibar. It was a deathblow to one of Livingstone's fondest hopes.

There followed a sorrow that touched him more deeply. He had found a temporary home for his wife in a Portuguese house at Shupanga, a pleasant spot on the summit of a rising ground that slopes up gently from the river on its southern bank. Here the long separated husband and wife spent a few happy weeks together. Livingstone wrote afterwards, "In our intercourse in private there was more than what would be thought by some a decorous amount of merriment and play. I said to her a few days before her fatal illness, 'We old bodies ought now to be more sober, and not play so much.' 'Oh, no,' she said, 'you must always be as playful as you have always been, I would not like you to be as grave as some folks I have seen.'" On the 21st of April, Mrs. Livingstone became ill and she died on the 27th, "at the close of a long, clear, hot day, the last Sabbath of April, 1862." She was buried a little to the east of the house where she died and a simple headstone, with an inscription on the one side in English, on the other side in Portuguese, marks the spot. The grave has become the centre of a small burying ground which is surrounded by a cactus hedge and contains some half dozen graves, mostly Portuguese.

Livingstone was heartbroken, and for the first time in his life he felt himself willing to die. In his book, The Zambesi and its Tributaries, he refers to his bereavement with great restraint, and closes with a simple, "Fiat, Domine, voluntas tua!" In his private journal and in his letters to his friends he pours out his heart. "I wept over her who well deserved many tears. I loved her when I married her, and the longer I lived with her I loved her the more. Oh, my Mary, my Mary! how often have we longed for a quiet home, since you and I were cast adrift at Kolobeng. Surely the removal by a kind Father who knoweth our frame means that He rewarded you by taking you to the best home, the eternal one in the heavens." In spite of these crushing sorrows Livingstone heroically continued his work. Sailing up the Shire he proceeded to take his new boat, the Lady Nyasa, to pieces, in order to carry it past the Murchison cataracts so that he might launch it on the upper river and steam into the Lake. While thus engaged he received a government despatch from Earl Russell, intimating the recall of the expedition. Even in this moment of disappointment he was keen to do the utmost possible, and before retiring he made a hurried journey westward to the Loangwa valley. Then, rejoining the boat, he led the expedition back to the coast.

VII. The Slave Trade

The five years' work on the Zambesi, from 1858 to 1863, had yielded important results in the discovery and opening up of hitherto unknown regions. But the hideous shadow of the slave trade increasingly threw a gloom over all. Livingstone found that the slavers turned his discoveries to their own account. They followed in his track and even represented themselves as "Livingstone's children." The infamous traffic grew to vast dimensions, and populous districts in the interior were being swept bare. Tens of thousands of slaves were annually marched in fetters to the coast, many of whom were murdered in cold blood or left to perish by the way. The soul of Livingstone was moved to its very depths, and he resolved to return to England to fight this fearful traffic to the death and expose the heartless policy of the Portuguese who, while claiming as their own vast countries over which they never had control, were really keeping the ring for the slave raider.

But first he had the Lady Nyasa to dispose of. Finding no other plan feasible he boldly sailed her across the Indian Ocean to Bombay, with only fourteen tons of coal in her bunker, and himself acting in the double capacity of captain and engineer. It was perhaps the most foolhardy thing that Livingstone ever did.

From July, 1864, to August, 1865, Livingstone was at home striving to rouse England to an interest in the woes of Africa. The Government maintained a diplomatic reserve in view of the hostility of Portugal, but the nation gained a new knowledge of the nefarious traffic which was bleeding Central Africa to death. Livingstone's eyes were continually turned towards that unhappy region. His own idea of his future work was to return and endeavour to open up the country around the Lakes, from some point on the coast, north of Portuguese territory. The Geographical Society proposed that he should try to determine the position of the watershed of Central Africa. While greatly attracted by this problem, Livingstone replied that he could only feel in the way of duty by working as a missionary. In the end he went out, aided by grants of £500 each from the Government and the Royal Geographical Society, supplemented by £1000 from a private friend. He held the rank of honorary consul without salary, and with a warning to expect no pension! For the rest he must trust to his own resources and his own great heart.

VIII. Seven Years of Wandering

He left England, in August, 1865, never to return. At Bombay he sold the Lady Nyasa, which had cost him £6000, for £2300, but this sum was soon after entirely lost through the failure of an Indian bank. His friend, Sir Bartle Frere, Governor of Bombay, gave assistance in fitting out the expedition, and commissioned Livingstone to present a steamer to the Sultan of Zanzibar. The Sultan, having received the gift, granted a letter of recommendation to his subjects in the interior. The expedition, when at length it was put ashore in Africa, consisted of a motley assemblage of beasts and men. Six camels, four buffaloes, two mules and four donkeys were brought from India, in the hope that some, if not all of them, would prove immune from the bite of the tsetse fly. From India also came thirteen sepoys and nine Nassick boys, who proved to be worthless. Ten Johanna men were little better. The bright stars of the expedition were two Zambesians, Susi and Chuma, whose devotion has made their names immortal.

It would be impossible to follow Livingstone through the bewildering maze of his seven last years of wandering. The interest of his geographical achievements, great as it is, is eclipsed by the tale of his unparalleled sufferings and deathless heroism. From the first, misfortune seemed to dog his steps. The sepoys and Nassick boys had to be dismissed after they had, by their carelessness and cruelty, killed the beasts of burden. At Lake Nyasa no means of crossing was to be found, and this necessitated a long detour round its southern end. At this point the Johanna men lost heart and deserted. On reaching the coast they related a most circumstantial story that Livingstone had been murdered by the natives and that they had buried him. This story was widely accepted, but Mr. E. D. Young, who knew by experience what liars they were, expressed his disbelief and proved it by a rapid journey up the Shire, where he gathered sufficient information to show that Livingstone was alive and had passed away to the west.

From this point Livingstone's trail on the map bends and doubles and twists about in a seemingly aimless fashion, and raises the question of what was his objective. The answer is supplied by the configuration of the country he was exploring. West of Lake Nyasa, beyond the Loangwa valley, the watershed of Central Africa, now known as the great plateau of Northeastern Rhodesia, runs almost due north and south. On its western side the Congo takes its rise, and begins to crawl like a gigantic snake across the continent. First, under the name of the Chambesi, it flows southward to Lake Bangweolo, creating the impression that it will turn out to be a tributary of the Zambesi. Issuing out of the other end of Lake Bangweolo as the Luapula, it flows directly north to Lake Mweru, passing through which, it continues its northerly course as the Lualaba, and raises a strong presumption that it will prove to be the Nile. Gradually, however, it bends round to the northwest, then to the west, then to the southwest, and finally declares itself at the Atlantic as the Congo. All beautifully plain now upon the map, but in Livingstone's day the undiscovered secret of African waterways, to be painfully searched for through a maze of tropical forests and malarial swamps. Livingstone, with infinite toil and travail, was groping about for the solution of this problem, hoping in his heart of hearts that he might be laying bare the historic fountains of the Nile.

Early in the journey his health broke down and he suffered untold agonies from constantly recurring fever, dysentery and bleeding of the bowels. His feet, too, gave way and became ulcerated. In fact, he had now but the shattered ruins of a once magnificent constitution. Worst of all, one of the carriers bolted with his medicine chest. "I felt," he writes, "as if I had now received the sentence of death." Yet he doggedly plodded on. On the last day of 1866 he writes in his diary, "Will try to do better in 1867, and be better—more gentle and loving, and may the Almighty, to whom I commit my way, bring my desires to pass and prosper me. Let all the sins of '66 be blotted out for Jesus' sake." In 1867 he reached Lake Tanganyika and, striking westward, discovered Lake Mweru. Everywhere he found the ravages of the slave trade, yet he seems to have got on fairly well with some of the traders, and one of them in particular showed him no small kindness.

On New Year's Day, 1868, he writes, "If I am to die this year, prepare me for it." He had now determined to turn back to Ujiji, on the east side of Lake Tanganyika, where he hoped to get letters from home and stores which he had ordered to be sent up from the coast. But first he went south and discovered Lake Bangweolo, then back towards Tanganyika, prostrate with fever and almost at death's door. It is certain he would never have reached Ujiji but for the help of an Arab trader, Mohamad Bogharib, who had him borne along in a litter. Crossing the Lake he reached Ujiji only to find that the stores sent from the coast had almost all disappeared, while of all his letters only one was left. Having written to the coast for fresh supplies, and appealed to the Sultan of Zanzibar for protection against the systematic robbery of his goods, Livingstone resolved, with such resources as he had, to cross Lake Tanganyika and strike northwest to the Manyuema country, in order to determine the course of the Lualaba.

For two years he was lost in the wilds and the world came to believe that he was dead. His letters never reached the coast. On one occasion forty were dispatched but all were lost. Part of this time was consumed by a long illness, when he was unable to leave his hut for months. There were incessant delays owing to the disturbed state of the country, due to slave raiding. At one time all his men deserted except the faithful Susi and Chuma and another. In his loneliness he found constant solace in his Bible which he read through four times.

It wore on to 1871. "O Father," he writes, "help me to finish this work to Thy glory." In July of this year he was witness of a fearful massacre. The slavers suddenly attacked a native town on market day, shot down hundreds of defenceless people, and drove many more into the river. The story of this dreadful day, when at last it reached England, did more than anything else to rouse the conscience of the nation to a stern resolve that these atrocities must cease.

IX. Stanley

Livingstone returned to Ujiji on October 23, 1871, "a mere ruckle of bones," as he says. Again he met with bitter disappointment. The stores he had ordered from the coast and which he so urgently needed, had all been made away with in the belief that he was dead. He found himself destitute and at his wits' end. Five days later help reached him, as suddenly and as providentially as if it had dropped from the sky. On the morning of the 28th Susi rushed in gasping out that he had seen an Englishman. It was H. M. Stanley, a name second only to Livingstone's in the history of African exploration. He had been sent out by the New York Herald to find Livingstone dead or alive and bring him home. His appearance was as an angel of mercy, for he came abundantly supplied with stores and medicines. Livingstone revived marvellously in health and spirits. "You have brought me new life," he kept saying. The two men were together for about six months, and explored the north end of Lake Tanganyika. In after years Stanley warmly acknowledged that his life had been profoundly influenced by the Christian nobility of Livingstone's character. He writes enthusiastically, "You may take any point in Dr. Livingstone's character, and I would challenge any man to find a fault in it... His gentleness never forsakes him, his hopefulness never deserts him. No harassing anxieties, distraction of mind, long separation from home and kindred, can make him complain. He thinks 'all will come out right at last,' he has such faith in the goodness of Providence... His is the Spartan heroism, the inflexibility of the Roman, the enduring resolution of the Anglo-Saxon—never to relinquish his work, though his heart yearns for home, never to surrender his obligations until he can write FINIS to his work."

Stanley had found Livingstone, but to bring him home was another matter. He was immovably fixed in his resolve. Accordingly it was agreed that Stanley, on returning to the coast, should send up dependable carriers with whose help Livingstone hoped to finish his task. Till then he refused to go home. Sir Harry Johnston in his biography of Livingstone, after a sustained attempt to represent him as a kind of smoking room hero who had unfortunately stumbled into a missionary career, makes at this point the fatuous suggestion that "posterity can only heave a sigh of vain regret over Livingstone's obstinacy in rejecting Stanley's advice." Among other possible advantages, had Livingstone returned to Europe with Stanley, "he might have lived many years longer, and died a baronet!" Posterity may be trusted to think far other thoughts. Had Livingstone returned, one of the most inspiring chapters of human history would never have been written, and a life of Christlike devotion to downtrodden Africa would not have been crowned by a perfect sacrifice.

Livingstone had five months to wait for the arrival of Stanley's carriers. It was during this time that he wrote a letter to the New York Herald, in which occur the famous words, now carved on his tomb in Westminster, "All I can add in my loneliness is, may Heaven's rich blessing come down on every one—American, English or Turk—who will help to heal the open sore of the world." On the 14th of August, 1872, the carriers arrived and proved thoroughly satisfactory. "I have a party of good men, selected by H. M. Stanley. A dutiful son could not have done more than he generously did. I bless him. The men, fifty-six in number, have behaved as well as the Makololo. I cannot award them higher praise." Among them was Jacob Wainwright, an educated Nassick boy, whose services at Livingstone's death and afterwards rank his name with those of Susi and Chuma.

X. The Long Last Mile

On the 25th of August Livingstone set out on his last journey. His plan was to circle round the south end of Lake Bangweolo, in order to make sure of taking in all the sources of the river, and then to follow its course northwards. Having settled the question of whether it was the Nile or the Congo, he would then come home. Not to rest, however, but to expose the enormities of the slave trade, for this, more than the geographical problem, was his supreme interest. "If the good Lord permits me to put a stop to the enormous evils of the inland slave-trade, I shall not grudge my hunger and toils. The Nile sources are valuable to me only as a means of enabling me to open my mouth with power among men." It was not given him to carry out his plan. The main end he had in view was indeed attained, not by discovery as he had hoped, but far more effectually by the sacrifice of his life. He was one of those chosen ones to whom it is given, like God's own Son, to help the world most of all by their dying.

Livingstone's strength was no longer equal to the task he had set himself. First baked by the intense heat, and then, after the rainy season came, drenched day after day, his health broke down completely. By the end of the year he had reached the neighbourhood of Lake Bangweolo. All the grassy flats for miles around the Lake were waterlogged, and among these interminable sponges Livingstone's party floundered for weeks. At last, too weak to walk, he was carried on the men's shoulders, and then in a rudely constructed machila. He notes, "this trip has made my hair all grey." It was the desperate struggle of a dying man, gifted with the most indomitable spirit that ever housed in mortal clay. On the 19th of March, his last birthday, he writes, "Thanks to the Almighty Preserver of men for sparing me thus far on the journey of life. Can I hope for ultimate success? So many obstacles have arisen. Let not Satan prevail over me, O my good Lord Jesus." A few days later he was crouching for shelter under an upturned canoe, miserably cold and wet, his tent torn with the wind and soaked. Then it was that he wrote the words, "Nothing earthly will make me give up my work in despair. I encourage myself in the Lord my God and go forward."

Gradually he became too weak even to be carried. The last entry in his journal stands under the date, April 27, "Knocked up quite and remain—recover—sent to buy milch goats. We are on the banks of R. Molilamo." Two days later he was moved a short distance to Chitambo's village where a hut was hastily built for him. Towards evening his mind wandered, but about midnight Susi brought him some hot water and he was able with great difficulty to mix some medicine for himself. Then he said faintly, "All right, you can go now." When the boy who slept in the hut with him awoke about four o'clock in the morning he found his master dead on his knees at the bedside. It was the 1st (or perhaps more probably the 4th) of May, I873.

XI. Home

His faithful men resolved that his body, at whatever cost, must be carried home to his own people, and they prepared for this extraordinary task with the greatest care and thoroughness. An exact inventory was made by Jacob Wainwright of all his possessions. The body was dried and rudely embalmed. The heart was buried under a tree upon which his name was carved. This sacred spot is now marked by an obelisk in the middle of a square clearing in the forest, and is held in trust by the United Free Church of Scotland, which has a mission station at Chitambo, as near to the grave as conditions of health will permit.

Having prepared the body for the journey the men set out for the coast, which they reached after nine months of toilsome and perilous marching. When well on the way they met an expedition coming up country to the relief of Livingstone. These Englishmen advised them to go no farther, but to bury the body where they were. They also rummaged through Livingstone's boxes and appropriated some things to their own use. So gross were their perceptions, so blind were they to the moral sublimity of what these sons of Africa were doing!

Livingstone's men held on their way and on February 15, 1874, reached the coast opposite Zanzibar, where they delivered his body to the British consul. It was brought home to England, and after being identified by the old fracture in the arm it was finally laid to rest in the nave of Westminster Abbey, on Saturday, April 18, 1874.

The impression made by the death of Livingstone upon the mind of the civilised world was profound, and it would be impossible to overestimate his influence on the development of Africa. He had travelled thirty thousand miles through the heart of the Dark Continent, and wherever he passed he left a trail of light. He sounded the death knell of the slave trade and opened the country for legitimate commerce. His death marked a new era in Christian missions. But his greatest gift to the world was just to have been himself. Born in a commercial age he brought back to earth the spirit of old romance, and his name will shine for ever with the radiance of saint, of knight-errant, and of martyr.


Copied for WholesomeWords.org from The Missionary Heroes of Africa by J. H. Morrison. New York: George H. Doran Co., ©1922.

More Information on David Livingstone


Missionary Biographies Index

 Copyright ©2017 Wholesome Words. All Rights Reserved.