S2A3 Biographical Database of Southern African Science




Livingstone, Dr David (geographical exploration)

Born: 19 March 1813, Blantyre, Lanarkshire, United Kingdom.
Died: 30 April 1873, Chitambo, near Lake Bangweulu, Zambia.
Dr David Livingstone

David Livingstone, explorer and missionary, began working in a Blantyre cotton-mill at the age of ten. He was a voracious reader, particularly of travel and adventure stories, and a determined student who taught himself Latin. His religious convictions developed at the age of twenty, by which time he was a cotton spinner and had attended some evening classes to improve his education. In 1836 he entered Anderson's College, University of Glasgow, to study medicine and theology. His strongly independent nature and dislike of rigid doctrine led him to approach the undenominational London Missionary Society, which accepted him as a missionary in September 1838. For the next two years he continued his training in the scriptures, and during 1840 also in anatomy and medicine. After meeting the southern African missionary Robert Moffat he was persuaded to go to Africa as the latter's assistant. In November 1840 he was admitted as a licentiate of the Faculty of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow and ordained in London. He left for South Africa the next month and after spending a few weeks in Cape Town proceeded to Algoa Bay and from there by ox-waggon to Moffat's missionary at Kuruman, arriving in July 1841.

Livingstone was more a pioneer explorer than a patient missionary. Before the end of the year he and missionary Roger Edwards travelled some 400 km north-east to Molepolole (now in Botswana), which Livingstone regarded as a good site for a mission station. In February the next year he went to live among the Bakwena for four months to learn their language and customs. In June 1843 he received permission to establish his own station and, with Edwards, settled among the Bakatla some 40 km north-west of present Zeerust in August. A few months later he was mauled by a lion, which resulted in permanent damage to his left arm. He married Mary, eldest daughter of Robert Moffat, in January 1845. The next year, failing to get on with Edwards, he moved some 80 km further north to Chonuane, where he established a new mission among the Bakwena. However, in August 1847 severe drought forced the tribe, and the Livingstones, to move to Kolobeng, just south-west of present Gabarone, where they lived for five years. Mutual distrust and antipathy between him and the Voortrekker farmers prevented him from expanding his missionary activities eastwards.

In June 1849 he set off with two travellers, William C. Oswell and Mungo Murray, on a journey through the Kalahari. On 1 August they reached Lake Ngami, being the first Europeans to do so. The discovery was his first significant contribution to geographical knowledge and was described in "Discovery of the Great Lake Ngami of South Africa" in The New Edinburgh Philosophical Journal (1850), and in the Journal of the Royal Geographical Society (1851).

Livingstone set out on a second attempt to reach the territory of the Makololo in April 1850, this time taking his wife and three children with him. After nearly perishing of thirst and malaria they returned to Kolobeng. He reported on his "Second visit to the South African Lake Ngami" in the Journal of the Royal Geographical Society in 1851. In April 1851 he tried a third time, again taking his family with him, against the objections of the Moffats. On this journey he discovered the Chobe River, a southern tributary of the Zambezi, and in June 1851 eventually reached Linyanti on the Zambesi River, and Chief Sebituane of the Makololo. As the region was unsuitable for a mission station because of the prevalence of malaria he planned to search for a healtier area, and to find easier routes into the interior from either the west or east coast. However, he first withdrew to Cape Town (March 1852), from where he sent his family to Britain for the children's education. On April 7 an article describing his travels north of Lake Ngami appeared in the South African Commercial Advertiser.

While he was convalescing from a minor operation in Cape Town, Thomas Maclear*, astronomer at the Royal Observatory, Cape of Good Hope, instructed him in the astronomical observations required to determine geographical positions, a skill that greatly enhanced the scientific value of his subsequent travels. His observations included lunar occultations and the phenomena of Jupiter's satelites. The field notes and other papers containing observations made between 1858 and 1872, with calculations of geographical positions by Thomas Maclear, are housed in the National Archives at Harare, Zimbabwe.

Upon his return to Kolobeng in September 1852 Livingstone found that the settlement had been raided and burnt by a Boer commando. In December he again left for the north and in May 1853 reached Linyanti, the principal village of the Makololo. In November that year he set out on a 2500 km journey to Luanda, on the Angolan coast, where he arrived in May 1854. His description of his "Explorations into the interior of Africa", dealing among others with the geology of Angola, was published in the Journal of the Royal Geographical Society (1855-1856) in three parts. Returning to Linyanti in September 1855 he next set out for the east coast of the continent. Soon after his departure, in November 1855, he became the first European to reach the Victoria Falls, which he named. On 20 May 1856 he reached Quelimane, on the coast of Mozambique. During his travels he kept a journal and wrote reports that were dispatched to the London Missionary Society and the Royal Geographical Society whenever an opportunity arose. On the east coast he encountered Portuguese slave-raiders and for the rest of his life led a campaign against slavery.

Livingstone returned to England in December 1856, where his work was widely acclaimed. He received the gold medal of the Royal Geographical Society, the freedom of the City of London, and honorary doctorates from the Universities of Glasgow and Oxford; was elected a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and a year later also of the Royal Society of London. His Missionary travels and researches in South Africa was published in 1857, with many subsequent editions. The book contains, among much other interesting information, some account of the natural history of the regions visited and of several stock diseases. In the region between Lake Ngami and the Zambezi he recorded the presence of tsetse flies, of which he drew excellent sketches and wrote an accurate account of its characteristics and the disease it caused among lifestock. A further paper on "Explorations into the interior of Africa" in the Journal of the Royal Geographical Society in 1857 contained a route map and remarks on the gradual desication of the western half of the subcontinent.

Livingstone then severed his connection with the London Missionary Society and returned to Africa as British consul at Quelimane in March 1858. As commander of an expedition into the interior, in which his brother Charles and Dr John Kirk* also took part, he travelled up the Zambesi River by boat from May 1858. After discovering the impassable barrier of the Kebrabasa Rapids in November he explored up the Shire River and found healthy country on the nearby highlands. Lake Malawi was reached in September 1859. With his brother and Dr Kirk he travelled up the Zambezi and visited the Victoria Falls for the second time in August 1860. A party of missionaries arrived in January 1861 and settled in southern Malawi. Additional missionaries and Livingstone's wife arrived in January 1862, but several of them, including Mrs Livingstone, died of malaria. The expedition was not the success that Livingstone had hoped for and was recalled to England in 1864 amid public criticism. In addition to three papers in the Journal of the Royal Geographical Society an account of the explorations, Narrative of an expedition to the Zambezi and its tributaries, by David Livingstone and his brother Charles, was published in London in 1865. An important result of his travels, published in medical journals, was his finding that with the proper use of quinine Europeans could survive repeated attacks of malaria.

He was keen to return to Africa to continue his explorations and the fight against slavery, and the Royal Geographical Society asked him to explore the watershed of the three great river systems of Africa, the Nile, Congo and Zambezi. He left England in August 1865, travelled up the Ruvuma River and on to Lakes Malawi, Tanganyika, Mweru and Bangweulu. Suffering severe hardships, he lost contact with Europe. The Royal Geographical Society sent two expeditions in search of him, the second including his son Oswell, but without success. The only expedition to reach him was that led by H.M. Stanley*, who found him at Ujiji, on the eastern shore of Lake Tanganyika, in November 1871. Obsessed with finding the source of the Nile Livingstone refused to accompany Stanley to England. During 1873 he reached Lake Bangweulu in a state of collapse and died there. Some of his faithful followers carried his body and posessions on a nine month journey to the coast. He was buried in Westminster Abbey in April 1874. The last journals of David Livingstone in Central Africa... (2 vols) was published in London that same year.

Livingstone was the first explorer to provide Europe with reliable information about central Africa and its people. His observations provided an outline of the geography and hydrology of a broad belt spanning the continent from east to west and put more information on the map of Africa than any other explorer. A bird, the Livingstone flycatcher (Erythrocercus livingstonei) was named after him, as was the land shell Achatina livingstonei.


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Livingstone, D. A popular account of Dr Livingstone's expedition to the Zambesi and its tributaries, and of the discoveries of Lakes Shirwa and Nyassa, 1858-1864. London: J. Murray, 1875.

Lloyd, B.W. (ed.) Livingstone, 1873-1973. Cape Town: Struik, 1973.

National Automated Archival Information Retrieval System (NAAIRS). http://www.national.archives.gov.za/naairs.htm Documents relating to David Livingstone / D. Livingstone / Dr Livingstone.

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Compiled by: C. Plug


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