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Mary Livingstone

by John Telford

Mary LivingstoneIn December, 1818, when Mary Smith had at last gained her parents' permission to go out to South Africa to join her future husband, Robert Moffat, she wrote from Manchester, where she was staying, to cheer them in view of the coming separation. "Oh, mother, will it not gladden your heart if the Lord permit me to enter into His work? I say, will it not gladden your heart that the Lord made you the mother of at least one child who was so highly honoured as to be an instrument in His hands, however humble, of doing something towards the conversion of the heathen? Oh, mother, were I a mother, I should esteem it the greatest honour which could be conferred on me or my child." More than two years later, on April 12, 1821, her first daughter was born. Little did the mother think that her "lovely, healthy" child was to be known and honoured throughout Christendom as the heroic wife of the great missionary explorer, David Livingstone.

Little Mary Moffat was consecrated to Africa from her cradle. Her mother devoted all her children to the Dark Continent, and was bitterly grieved if any of them turned aside to other work, however noble or worthy. When she accompanied her husband Robert on his  journeys, her infant daughter went with her under the care of a native nurse whom Robert Moffat had rescued from a cruel death...

In 1830 Mary Moffat and her younger sister, Ann, were taken by their mother to the Wesleyan school at Salem, near Grahamstown. Mrs. Moffat says she left them there "with considerable satisfaction; the strict attention paid to the religious instruction of the children compensates for the want of some advantages; the cheapness of the school and its comparative contiguity to our own part of the country are also inducements to have them there, as keeping them at home is beyond all doubt highly improper." Mr. Moffat was at this time in Cape Town looking after the printing of his Bechwana New Testament, so that they proposed to call and see the girls on their way back to Kuruman. After that it was probable that the father would not meet his daughters for many years. Mrs. Moffat adds, "It is likely, however, that I may come in the course of two or three years, as we have not friends to fulfil the duties of a mother to them." The children remained at Salem till the beginning of [1836], when Mrs. Moffat took them to the Cape. Mary had a severe illness, but happily recovered in time to go on with the vessel to Grahamstown.

At the end of 1838 Mr. Moffat and his family returned to England. During this visit Livingstone, who had been longing to undertake medical missionary work in China, was enlisted in the service of the Dark Continent. The opium war made it necessary for him to abandon his own plans. He asked the returned missionary whether he thought that he would do for Africa. Moffat says he replied, "I believed he would, if he would not go to an old station, but would advance to unoccupied ground, specifying the vast plain to the north, where I had sometimes seen in the morning sun the smoke of a thousand villages, where no missionary had ever been." At last Livingstone made his decision. "What is the use of my waiting for the end of this abominable opium war? I will go at once to Africa. Mrs. Moffat, who had a lively recollection of all that her own husband had suffered during his bachelor days in Namaqualand, used all her powers to urge Livingstone to marry. She quite agreed with her husband's verdict: "A missionary without a wife in South Africa was like a boat with only one oar. A good missionary's wife can be as useful as her husband in the Lords vineyard." But Livingstone was not to be persuaded. Mrs. Moffat wrote to their old colleague, Robert Hamilton, "I have done what I could to persuade Livingstone to marry, but he seems to decline it." She did not dream that he was soon to become her own son-in-law.

Livingstone sailed for the Cape on December 8, 1840. He stayed for three months at Kuruman studying the language; then he began to visit the adjacent stations. In December, 1843, when the Moffats returned from England, Livingstone rode out a hundred and fifty miles from Kuruman to welcome them. Mary Moffat now took charge of the infant school. Livingstone had written to a friend at home, "There's no outlet for me when I begin to think of getting married but that of sending home an advertisement to the Evangelical Magazine, and if I get very old, it must be for some decent sort of widow. In the meantime I am too busy to think of anything of the kind." Miss Moffat's return soon brightened his outlook. He came to Kuruman to rest after his terrible adventure with the lion, and fell in love with her. It was not long before they were happily engaged. When he went to his station at Mabotsa, two hundred miles to the north-east, he wrote about their future home and the marriage license they had to procure from Colesberg. If Mr. Moffat did not get it, he said, they would license themselves. There is a fine ring about the letter. "And now, my dearest, farewell. May God bless you! Let your affection be towards Him much more than towards me; and, kept by His mighty power and grace, I hope I shall never give you cause to regret that you have given me a part. Whatever friendship we feel towards each other, let us always look to Jesus as our common Friend and Guide, and may He shield you with His everlasting arms from every evil!" They walked by that rule as long as they lived.

A month later, September 12, 1844, Livingstone reports that the walls of their new home at Mabotsa are nearly finished. It was fifty-two feet by twenty, and would be almost roofed in before Miss Moffat received his letter. "It is pretty hard work," he says, "and almost enough to drive love out of my head; but it is not situated there; it is in my heart, and won't come out unless you behave so as to quench it!" He playfully refers to a lecture which he expected from Mrs. Moffat as to the largeness of the house. "If there are too many windows she can just let me know. I could build them all up in two days, and let the light come down the chimney, if that would please. I'll do anything for peace, except fighting for it."

They were married in 1845. "No family on the face of the globe," as Dr. Blaikie says, "could have been so helpful to Livingstone in the great work to which he gave himself. If the old Roman fashion of surnames still prevailed, there is no household of which all the members would have been better entitled to put Africanus after their name. The interests of the great continent were dear to them all." At Mabotsa Mrs. Livingstone found congenial work in her infant school whilst her husband was busy with all manner of agencies——educational, pastoral, and medical—for the good of the Bechuanas. The people were a prey to gross superstition, so that he planned a course of popular science lectures which might teach them something about nature and deliver them from the influence of the medicine makers. A training school for native teachers was also occupying much of his thought, but that scheme fell through for the present. How much he appreciated the comforts of his home is shown in a letter to his mother on May 14, 1845: "I often think of you, and perhaps more frequently since I got married than before. Only yesterday I said to my wife, when I thought of the clean bed I enjoy now, 'You put me in mind of my mother; she was always particular about our beds and linen.' I had had rough times of it before."

The work was discouraging. The people had not the smallest love to the gospel. "It appears to them as that which if not carefully guarded against, will seduce and destroy their much-loved institutions." But the Livingstones knew how the Kuruman Mission, which so sorely tried the faith of Mr. and Mrs. Moffat for years, had afterwards borne a glorious harvest. They toiled patiently on in faith. Some unpleasantness now arose with their colleague, which made Livingstone resolve to push on to a new station. He had only £100 salary, so that it was a great trial and strain on his scanty means to leave Mabotsa and build a new home.

Livingstone sorely regretted his garden. "I like a garden, but Paradise will make amends for all our privations and sorrows here." His new station was at Chonuane, forty miles distant, where the Bakwains were settled under their chief Sechéle. Miss Moffat went to stay with her sister at Mabotsa while Livingstone was preparing the new home. When the time for parting came the people were most unwilling to let the Livingstones go. They offered to build a new house for them in some other place if only they would stay. It was hard indeed to tear themselves away. A time of considerable privation followed. They bore up bravely, using a wretched infusion of native corn as a substitute for coffee, but when that failed they were driven to Kuruman. Livingstone wrote: "I can bear what other Europeans would consider hunger and thirst without any inconvenience, but when we arrived, to hear the old women who had seen my wife depart about two years before, exclaiming before the door, 'Bless me! how lean she is! Has he starved her? Is there no food in the country to which she has been? was more than I could well bear."

The want of water was fatal to the mission station, and in 1847 Livingstone had to move forty miles further to Kolobeng. Sechéle and his tribe moved with him. The missionary had now to content himself with a hut on a little rocky eminence overhanging the river. It was twelve months before he could provide a permanent home. The natives were busy building huts, preparing gardens, and making a dam and watercourse to irrigate them. Sechéle himself undertook to erect the school. "I desire to build a house for God, the defender of my town, and that you be at no expense for it whatever." The meetings were much more encouraging than at Mabotsa, but it was a heavy strain to carry them on amid all the manual work required at the new station. The Livingstones rose with the sun in summer, had family prayer, breakfast, and school. Then he began his sowing, ploughing, or smith's work. "My better-half is employed all the morning in culinary or other work, and feeling pretty well tired by dinner-time, we take about two hours' rest then; but more frequently, without the respite I try to secure for myself, she goes off to hold infant-school, and this, I am happy to say, is very popular with the youngsters." She sometimes had eighty or a hundred present. Her husband says: "It was a fine sight to see her day by day walking a quarter of a mile to the town, no matter how broiling hot the sun, to impart instruction to the heathen Bakwains." Her name was known all through that country and 1,800 miles beyond. Livingstone continued his manual labours till five. Then he went into the town to give lessons and talk to any who wished to speak to him. After the cows were milked they had a meeting, followed by a prayer-meeting in Sechéle's house. The missionary got home utterly worn out about half past eight. As things became more settled the school took a more prominent place. It lasted till eleven o'clock in the morning, men, women, and children being invited. Public service was held on three evenings of the week; another night was set apart for secular instruction, aided by pictures and specimens.

On July 3, 1848, the Livingstones got into their new home. "What a mercy," the missionary writes, "to be in a house again! A year in a little hut, through which the wind blew our candles into glorious icicles (as the poet would say) by night, and in which crowds of flies continually settled on the eyes of our poor little brats by day, makes us value our present castle." The little boy and girl were growing fast, so that he soon expected that he would have to give them "a jog along the way to learning.'' Mrs. Livingstone's hands were full. There were no shops, so that everything had to be prepared from the raw material. Bread was baked in an oven made by scooping a large hole in an ant-hill, and using a slab of stone for the door. They made their own butter, candles, and soap. "There was not much hardship," is Livingstone's characteristic comment, "being dependent on our own ingenuity, and married life is all the sweeter when so many comforts emanate directly from the thrifty housewife's hands." Looking back on these days in 1870, he said he did not feel a pang of regret, save that he spent all his energy in teaching the heathen, and did not feel it his duty to devote a special portion of his time to play with his children. "But generally I was so much exhausted with the mental and manual labour of the day that in the evening there was no fun left in me. I did not play with my little ones while I had them, and they soon sprang up in my absences, and left me conscious that I had none to play with."

On June 1, 1849, Livingstone made his first journey into the interior with two English travellers, Mr. Murray and Mr. Oswell. Two months later they discovered Lake 'Ngami. The Royal Geographical Society voted him twenty-five guineas for this discovery. The following April he again turned northwards with Mrs. Livingstone and their three children. Years afterwards he told his daughter that her mother "was famous for roughing it in the bush, and was never a trouble." A high tribute, indeed, from such an explorer! When they reached the lake, the little ones, who had come from a dry land, "took to playing in it as ducklings. Paddling in it was great fun." The natives soon learned to trust the man who was not afraid to venture among them with his wife and children. On their return to Kolobeng a fourth child was born, but it only lived a few weeks. Mrs. Livingstone had a serious illness, accompanied with paralysis of the right side of the face, so that it was necessary to send her to Kuruman for rest, Her husband stayed awhile to nurse her. In April, 1851, the family once more turned towards the interior. There was great scarcity of water. After one bitterly anxious night, morning came. "The less there was of water, the more thirsty the little rogues became. The idea of their perishing before our eyes was terrible; it would almost have been a relief to me to be reproached with being the entire cause of the catastrophe, but not one syllable of upbraiding was uttered by their mother, though the tearful eye told the agony within." To their inexpressible relief the men came in with supplies on the afternoon of the fifth day. Such experiences, and the torture caused by mosquitoes—which did not leave an inch of whole skin on the bodies of his children—made Livingstone resolve to send his family back to England. To orphanise them thus he felt to be like tearing out his own bowels. Mrs. Moffat had protested against her daughter going north, but he felt that he ought to seek a new station in Sebituane's country, and he went on his way. Now, however, he saw that he would do better alone. The wife and children sailed from Cape Town on April 23, 1852. Soon afterwards Livingstone's house at Kolobeng was wrecked by the Boers. Had he been there they would have murdered him without compunction, because of his friendship to the natives. They gutted the house, brought four waggons down and took away sofa, bed, and crockery, smashed the wooden chairs, tore out the leaves of all the books and scattered them in front of the house, smashed bottles and windows, carrying off everything worth taking. They burned the corn of the tribes and killed many of the natives.

Mrs. Livingstone had brought many things to the home, on her marriage, which were of considerable value, but all were carried off. She rejoiced that a greater sorrow had not befallen her. Only a kind Providence saved her husband from falling into the very arms of his ruthless enemies. The letter he wrote a fortnight after she sailed for England says, "My heart yearns incessantly over you. How many thoughts of the past crowd into my mind! I feel as if I would treat you all much more tenderly and lovingly than ever. You have been a great blessing to me. You attended to my comfort in many, many ways. May God bless you for all your kindnesses! I see no face now to be compared with that sunburnt one which has so often greeted me with its kind looks."

Livingstone did not reach England till December, 1856 after a wonderful journey across Africa from sea to sea, which established his fame as the first of living explorers. The years had been full of terrible anxiety for his wife, but she was well repaid when, at last, he was safe at home, crowned with honours. In the touching poetic welcome she wrote for him, we seem to see how the sword had pierced her heart—

"O, long as we were parted, ever since you went away,
I never passed a dreamless night, or knew an easy day."

She knew that her husband was thinking about a mission in the region that he had just traversed, and was quite of his mind when he wrote to the directors of the London Missionary Society, "I can speak for my wife and myself only. We will go, whoever remains behind." Lord Shaftesbury paid merited tribute to the noble wife. "That lady was born with one distinguished name, which she had changed for another. She was born a Moffat, and she became a Livingstone. She cheered the early part of our friend's career by her spirit, her counsel, and her society. Afterwards, when she reached this country, she passed many years with her children in solitude and anxiety, suffering the greatest fears for the welfare of her husband, and yet enduring all with patience and resignation, and even joy, because she had surrendered her best feelings, and sacrificed her own private interests, to the advancement of civilisation and the great interests of Christianity." It would be hard to put Mary Livingstone's claims to enduring honour more gracefully and truthfully.

Husband and wife were deeply attached, and thoroughly understood each other. Both were reserved and quiet in society, and did not care for grandeur. Livingstone dearly loved a joke, and his wife entered heartily into his humour. They sailed together for Africa on March 10, 1858, taking with them their youngest son, Oswell [William]. Mrs. Livingstone stayed at Kuruman, whilst he was busy with explorations of the Shire and the country round the Zambesi. Then she returned to Scotland to be near her children. It was a time of sore trial. Her desire to be with Livingstone was intense. "Her letters to her husband tell of much spiritual darkness; his replies were the very soul of tenderness and Christian earnestness."

On February 1, 1862, she reached the Zambesi. The long detention on the coast in the fever season proved fatal. On April 21 she became ill; six days later she was gone. It was a dreadful blow to her husband. He wrote in his Journal: "I loved her when I married her, and the longer I lived with her I loved her the more. A good wife, and a good, brave, kind-hearted mother was she. God pity the poor children, who were all tenderly attached to her; and I am left alone in the world by one whom I felt to be a part of myself." A little prayer was found among her papers: "Accept me, Lord, as I am, and make me such as Thou wouldst have me to be."

They laid Mary Livingstone to rest near the great baobab tree at Shupanga. Professor Drummond says that he found the place where she lies buried an utter wilderness, matted with jungle grass, and trodden by the beasts of the forest, but, as he looked at the forsaken mound and contrasted it with her husband's tomb in Westminster Abbey, he thought that perhaps the woman's love, which had brought her to a spot like this, might be not less worthy of immortality.

"A right straightforward woman, no crooked way was ever hers; and she could act with decision and energy when required." Such was her husband's testimony. Livingstone was spared to labour for eleven years longer as the apostle of Christianity and civilisation in the Dark Continent. The end came at midnight, in a rude hut at Ilala, whence he passed to join his much-loved wife, who had sung seventeen years before—

"You'll never part me, darling, there's a promise in your eye;
I may tend you while I'm living, you will watch me when I die;
And if death but kindly lead me to the blessed home on high
What a hundred thousand welcomes will await you in the sky!"

From Women in the Mission Field... by John Telford. London: Charles H. Kelly, 1895.

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