David Livingstone in Africa

“I am prepared to go anywhere, provided it be forward.”

That stern looking chap with the hipster moustache is David Livingstone, and he was majestic. I’ve thrown a bit of an account together honouring his life and adventures, however the internet isn’t particularly forthcoming with the exact dates things happened, so chronological order is lacking. Don’t base an essay off this. You will fail.

Livingstone was a scientist, medical missionary, explorer, anti-slavery rebel and adventurer. Born in Scotland in 1813, he had originally planned to travel to China as a missionary, but was foiled by the First Opium War breaking out, and was later convinced by his eventual father-in-law Robert Moffat to bring the Faith to Africa. This is Moffat.


Livingstone first came to Africa in 1841, landing in Cape Town, South Africa, making his way north over the next few years, practising medicine, helping people, exploring, discovering new bodies of water, and just generally being magnificent. Oh, and he fought a lion and won. Yeah.

In Mabotsa, Livingstone had witnessed multiple lion attacks, even witnessing locals killed in their own gardens. The villagers were terrified (understandably), and on the 16th of February 1844, Livingstone was busy digging irrigation systems when screams rang out that a lion had dragged off some livestock, in the middle of the day. Rather than assemble a small army, as might seem sensible, Livingstone grabbed a shotgun and marched out with a couple of colleagues armed with spears to scare the lions off once and for all.

They spotted a huge lion crouched in the bush, and Livingstone fired both barrels. And the beast didn’t die. While he was frantically cramming two more rounds into the gun, the lion leapt at him, understandably pissed off. It crushed Livingstone’s shoulder in its jaws, about which he later commented:

“The lion caught me by the shoulder and we both came to the ground together. Growling horribly, he shook me as a terrier dog does a rat.”

His life was only saved when a native grabbed the gun, reloaded and attempted to shoot again, but the gun misfired. The noise distracted the lion though, which took a couple of hearty bites out of the other locals present before finally succumbing to Livingstone’s original shots and keeling over.

And I collapse in a whimpering heap when I stub my toe.

Statue of the event in Lanarkshire, wherever that is.

In his decades of exploring, David Livingstone inspired millions, fought hard against slavery, and discovered a whole map’s worth of rivers, lakes and geological features. He was the first Westerner to discover the gargantuan waterfall Mosi-oa-Tunya (The Smoke That Thunders), which he later renamed Victoria Falls, after his Queen, and between 1854 and 1856 he was the first person to make the transcontinental journey across Africa, from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean.

He arrived back in England a national hero the following year and published books on his travels and took up public speaking against the slave trade. He returned to Africa in 1858 to explore the Zambezi River in Mozambique, and tragically lost his wife to a fever in 1862 during a disastrous expedition. Livingstone was not an easy man to get along with. Colleagues pinned him as moody, self righteous, and bad at handling criticism. He failed to get along with most Westerners, frustrated at the colonialising missionaries and the racial prejudices of his peers. When he tried to speak out against racial intolerance in South Africa, white Afrikaners attempted to drive him from the country, setting fire to his camp and stealing his livestock. Frustrated with his lack of progress as a religious missionary, the crown ordered his return to England in 1864.


By this time, hopefully you can see why I was excited to write about this man. Here is someone who has lost his family, friends, fortune and health, all in the name of his beliefs and dedication to fighting slavery. Other explorers at the time took team of 150  or more heavily armed guards, and saw Africa as a land to be conquered. Livingstone travelled with a modest team of around 30, and approached the local chieftains with respect and curiosity, learning their customs. Sadly, his trials weren’t nearly over.

His last great expedition was to find the source of the Nile. Setting off in 1866, Livingstone was determined to explore the great river and preach and aid the people of Africa’s most impoverished regions along the way. The journey was disastrous. His equipment arrived in Africa in poor condition, and clashes with his hard-worked expedition team led to multiple instances of his porters leaving in the night, taking medicinal supplies with them.

Suddenly, Livingstone’s letters stopped arriving in London. The expedition had dissolved, and the explorer’s whereabouts where unknown. The mystery of the legendary explorer lost in the depths of Africa gripped the nation. Several of his assistants came forward to the authorities with the news that he had died. The reality was far worse.

(Okay, interlude. It gets quite depressing for a bit now. And then it gets worse. But stick around, I bring it home.)

Abandoned by his team, Livingstone had struggled on regardless. He was forced to accept carriage from the very slave traders he hated due to his failing health. Wracked with cholera, pneumonia, tropical ulcers, and who knows how many other tropical diseases, he again found his supplies stolen, and was now caught in the wet season. In 1871, Livingstone witnessed a massacre of 400 Africans by Arab slavers in Nyangwe, in the Congo. The massacre horrified Livingstone, who, violently ill, abandoned the Nile quest. At one point, Livingstone was so completely penniless that he was forced to eat his meals in a roped off area as a local attraction, in return for food.

Years after his disappearance, Welsh journalist and adventurer Henry Morton Stanley was dispatched to find him by the New York Herald. After a 2 year quest, Stanley found Livingstone in Ujiji, Tanzania, with Stanley uttering the famous words,

“Dr Livingstone, I presume?”

Cool line, sure. But Stanley also had a reputation as a racist, murderous thug who would shoot an African as soon as look at them, so let’s not give him too much credit.


Livingstone refused to leave his beloved Africa, and after a 5 month stay, Stanley left to return to England and publish a best selling book about his journey to find Livingstone and make lots of money and just leave out the bits about how many Africans died during his expedition.

Sadly, there is no happy ending for David Livingstone. After years of ill health, he died in 1873 at the age of 60 in Chief Chitambo’s village in modern day Zambia, finally succumbing to malaria and dysentery while praying at his bedside. His heart was buried in the village by his friend the chief, and his body returned to the UK. He is buried in Westminster Abbey.

Pretty horrific, right? Yeah.

Before Livingstone, huge portions of Africa were a blank space on the map. His exploration allowed for new trade routes to open, connecting isolated townships to the world. His advocating for the abolition of slavery made the West aware of the evils of the trade in Africa, and led to its being outlawed. Livingstone explored a country that was as alien to the West as the surface of Mars, and despite the unstoppable torrent of both human and natural adversity he was met with, he never backed down; never abandoned his intensely held values of African dignity and mutual racial respect; and he never, ever lost the spirit of adventure and the fascination with life that was integral to his character.

“If you have men who will only come if they know there is a good road, I don’t want them. I want men who will come if there is no road at all.”

The Smoke That Thunders

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