1813 – 1873
Scottish Missionary and Explorer
Exploration Ranking 15th of 26
Livingstone with continent of Africa in background. Great Britain, 1973
In his thirty years (1842-1872) of travel and Christian missionary work in southern, central and eastern Africa, David Livingstone may have influenced Western attitudes toward Africa more than any other individual before or since.(1) All the exploration that Livingstone did in the mid-1850s had one goal: to find a navigable river that would open the center of Africa to legitimate European commerce and to Christianity. In so doing, Livingstone hoped to drive out the slave trade, an evil that he called “this open sore of the world.”
In 1841, Africa was a mystery to many Europeans. They thought of it as dry and infertile with little commercial value. However, Livingstone amazed them by sending back reports of a continent filled with lush forests, huge waterfalls, and vast grasslands. Livingstone was the first European to walk across Africa from east to west (1852-56) and the first European to see Victoria Falls on the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe. His discoveries--geographic, technical, medical, and social--provided a complex body of knowledge that is still being explored. Livingstone’s Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa, published in 1857, quickly sold more than 70,000 copies, and the work took its place in publishing history, as well as in that of exploration and missionary endeavor.
His fame as an explorer helped drive forward the obsession with discovering the sources of the Nile River that formed the culmination of the classic period of European geographical discovery and colonial penetration of the African continent. At the same time, his missionary travels, “disappearance” and death in Africa, and subsequent glorification as posthumous national hero in 1874 led to the founding of several major central African Christian missionary initiatives carried forward in the era of the European “Scramble for Africa” i.e. the invasion, occupation, division and colonization of African territory by European powers during a short period between 1881-1914.
Born in Blantyre, Scotland, Livingstone began working in the local cotton mill at age ten. A fourteen-hour day in the mill was followed by school in the evenings, where he was a diligent student. After reading a pamphlet by Karl Gutzlaff of the Netherlands Missionary Society, Livingstone decided he wanted to become a medical missionary and began studying medicine in Glasgow. He needed a missionary society to accept him into its ranks and so he applied to the ecumenical London Missionary Society (LMS).
The LMS assigned Livingstone to southern Africa, and he set sail in December 1840. Three months later he arrived in Cape Town, South Africa. From there he traveled to Robert Moffat’s mission station 600 miles north at Kuruman. Ironically, given his future poor record as an evangelist, Livingstone found the number of converts at Kuruman (about forty) too low, so he joined a lay missionary, Roger Edwards, in a journey north to scout out a location for a new mission. The two men founded a new mission at Mabotse, 250 miles northeast of Kuruman. It was here that a lion attacked Livingstone. He managed to walk away from this frightening encounter with just a broken arm, but was obliged to return to Kuruman to recuperate.
It was during his recovery that Livingstone married Mary Moffat, daughter of Robert Moffat. Born in Africa Mary spoke fluent Setswana, the language of the people in whose territory Livingstone operated. Livingstone took Mary back to Mabotse, but relations between Livingstone and Edwards broke down, and the Livingstones left for Kolobeng in 1847 to found their own mission. They stayed for four years, during which time he made his one and only conversion when Sechele, the tribal leader, embraced Christianity.
Becomes an Explorer
At Kolobeng, Livingstone became reacquainted with three big game hunters/traders he first met in Mabotse in 1845. Livingstone began his career as an explorer with these three. His first taste of adventure came in 1849 when the four men crossed the Kalahari Desert to reach Lake Ngami. Livingstone informed the LMS, who passed his account to the Royal Geographical Society (RGS), which awarded him its Founder’s medal. Pleased with the status his first journey had afforded him, Livingstone was eager to head north to the Zambezi River. He was by now developing an idea for a radical new form of missionary work: to win the African people to Christianity through a demonstration of the worth of European commerce: “[I am] extremely desirous to promote the preparation of the raw materials of European manufactures in Africa.”(2)
Livingstone headed north again, this time taking his wife and their three young children in tow. They reached Lake Ngami, where tsetse flies killed their oxen. Mary was pregnant again so they returned to Kolobeng, where she gave birth to a daughter who died some weeks later. Determined to reach the Zambezi and find out whether it was navigable for the steamers that he hoped would bring British trade, Livingstone set off north yet again. If a healthy site in the interior could be found to build a mission station, Livingstone’s vision of Christianity and commerce could be achieved.
Livingstone, Oswell (a big game hunter/trader), Mary and the children set off in April 1851, crossing the Botletle River to the Linyanti swamps. Mary was pregnant again and stayed at Linyanti with the children while Livingstone and Oswell paddled up the Chobe River. They charted the Chobe to the point where it joins the Zambezi before turning back. Mary gave birth to a boy, and after stopping for a month in Linyanti to allow Mary to rest, the family returned to Kolobeng.
Livingstone next determined to return to an area west of the Zambezi, now called Barotseland, where he suffered several attacks of malarial fever and found no healthy site for a mission. He pressed on regardless and reached Loanda on the west coast in August 1855. Livingstone’s health broke down by this point and it took two months’ convalescence to regain his strength.
Discovers Victoria Falls
On his return to Linyanti, Sekeletu, the ruler of the Makololo, gave him further provisions and men. He now determined to follow the Zambezi to the east coast of Africa, referring to the river as “God’s highway.” He left Linyanti in early November 1855, and by the middle of the month reached the greatest impediment to travel on the Zambezi—Victoria Falls. The falls, called Mosi-oa-tunya (“smoke that thunders”) by the Kololo, are 1 mile (1.6 km) wide and 300 feet (100 m) deep. The drop and the confinement within a gorge causes the water to bounce up in spray so high that it can be seen for miles around. Livingstone was the first European to witness this spectacular sight.
Explores the Zambesi River
When Livingstone returned to Britain, it was clear that exploring had overtaken missionary work as his driving passion. He resigned from the LMS when they demanded that he do more evangelizing and less exploring, and returned to Africa in 1858 at the head of an expedition to open up the Zambezi River to navigation. The expedition proved a disaster. Used to solitary exploration, he lost patience with his fellow Europeans, who were unable to match his disregard for bodily discomfort. He fell out with the expedition’s artist Thomas Baines, who was expelled from the party. Then, in 1863, Mary died of malaria and Livingstone was grief-stricken. To add further to his woes, their steam-launch, the Ma Roberts, kept breaking down. It turned out that the Zambezi could not be navigated for much of its length. Livingstone had shown himself to be a poor leader and his reputation as an explorer was severely tarnished.
Searching for the Source of the Nile
Finding the source of the White Nile was one of the great quests of the Victorian period. In 1866, the RGS sent Livingstone to make his way along the Rovuma River to Lake Nyasa and then north to Lake Tanganyika. He wrongly believed that the Nile’s source, if not Lake Tanganyika, was west of the lake. He spent six years searching around Lake Tanganyika without any success. During this time, he lost contact with Europe for so long that Henry Morton Stanley was sent from Britain to find him. It was in the company of Stanley, in 1871, that he reached the Ruzizi River, finding that it flowed south and therefore was not the Nile. Livingstone then became convinced that the Lualaba River, which flowed to the west of Lake Tanganyika was the Nile but again he was wrong. Lake Tanganyika is, in fact, one of the sources of the Congo River.
When Stanley found Livingstone in 1871, he had already been seriously ill for two years and Stanley tried to persuade him to return to Britain. Livingstone insisted that he had a mission to complete and returned to the swamps of Lake Bangweulu. He died there in 1873 from malaria and internal bleeding. His trusted attendants, Chuma and Susi, carried his body on a remarkable 1,000 mile (1,600 km) journey on foot to the coast to be returned to Britain for burial. Attached to his body was a note from the people of Ilala, the area where he died, saying, “You can have his body, but his heart belongs to Africa.” His heart had been cut from his body and buried where he had died.
(1) Encyclopaedia Britannica, Micropaedia, Volume 7, 1993, 15th Edition p. 417.
(2) Explorers: Great Tales of Adventure and Endurance, (New York, 2010), p. 222.
1. Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa, 1857.
2. Dr. Livingstone's Cambridge Lectures, edited by W. Monk, 1858.
3. Narrative of an Expedition to the Zambesi and Its Tributaries and of the Discovery of Lakes Shirwa and Nyassa, 1858-1864 (1865).
4. The Last Journals of David Livingstone In Central Africa, from 1865 to His Death, 2 volumes, edited by H. Waller, 1874.
5. Into Africa: The Epic Adventures of Stanley and Livingstone by Martin Dugard, 2004.
6. Livingstone by Tim Jeal, revised edition 2013.
7. David Livingstone and the Victorian Encounter with Africa (published for an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London and includes a sixty-eight page biographical sketch by Tim Jeal), Advisory Editor - John M. Mackenzie, 1996.