Richard Thornton, geologist and explorer, was the geologist during the early stages of Dr David Livingstone's* Zambezi expedition (1858-1864). Before setting out he received instructions about his duties from the British geologist Sir R.I. Murchison (Geological Survey), botanist J.D. Hooker* (Kew Gardens), and palaeontologist Richard Owen* (British Museum, Natural History). In September 1858 he reported to Livingstone on the coal found at Tete, on the Zambezi River in western Mozambique. His report was later published in the Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London (1859). However, in June 1859 Livingstone dismissed him for lazinass.
Two years later Thornton joined Baron Klaus von der Decken on an expedition to Kilimanjaro (1861-1862). He described this journey in "Expedition to Kilimanjaro in company with the Baron von der Decken" (Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society, 1862) and in "Notes on a journey to Kilimanjaro in 1861" ( Journal of the Royal Geographical Society, 1865). He also visited Zanzibar at this time and wrote "On the geology of Zanzibar" for the Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London (1862). Documents relating to his travels, including several maps and sketches, are housed in Brenthurst Library, Johannesburg.
During a visit to Natal, presumably shortly after his expedition to Kilimanjaro, he found some stone artefacts on raised beaches at Inanda (just north of Durban) and in Mozambique at the mouth of the Zambezi River. These were mentioned by C.L. Griesbach* in 1871, in a paper on the geology of Natal that contained the first account of prehistoric implements from that territory. Meanwhile Thornton decided to ascend the Zambezi River and explore Lake Nyassa (now Lake Malawi). He wrote to Sir R.I. Murchison about his plans, but became ill and died before he could set out. His "Notes on the Zambezi and the Shir?" were published in the Journal of the Royal Geographical Society in 1864. The paper included an account of the severe drought and famine of 1862-1863, and of the great hurricane which struck Tete on 16 November 1862.