Classic DACB Collection

All articles created or submitted in the first twenty years of the project, from 1995 to 2015.

Livingstone, David (C)

South Africa , Zambia , Tanzania

David LivingstoneDavid Livingstone Awakening the Western World to Africa

If any “man in the street”–at least, in any British street–were asked at any time in the last century to name a Christian missionary, it is likely that he would name David Livingstone. This might indeed be the only missionary name he could think of. Somehow Livingstone has come to stand as the representative missionary, the missionary par excellence. Yet he was hardly a typical missionary. Of his thirty years in Africa not much over a third was spent in the service of a missionary society, and even then his independence of action was untypical, his relations with missionary colleagues and directors often brittle. His fame as an explorer, his zeal in scientific investigation, his widely canvassed views on European commerce and settlement in Africa, his service in government appointments, his activity against the Arab slave trade–all have raised in many minds the doubt whether or not missionary vocation was the primary factor in his career.

There is no doubt, however, of Livingstone’s own views on this subject. He always thought of himself as a missionary, always believed that his exploratory and scientific work had missionary relevance, always thought of the social and political implications of his work as missionary too. We must therefore consider Livingstone in relation to the whole development of the modern missionary movement and its perceptions of the missionary task.

Evangelical Milieu of the Mid-Nineteenth Century

Livingstone’s African career covers the middle years of the nineteenth century, from 1841 to 1873. It is not insignificant that this period is almost co-extensive with the secretariat of Henry Venn at the Church Missionary Society. Despite the obvious differences of upbringing and churchmanship, and their different spheres of operation, there is a remarkable similarity between the two men in their view of the missionary task and their understanding of its relation to human society. The period of their activity began as missions had become accepted in the public mind as a beneficent operation, and established in all church thinking as a necessary one. No longer, as in earlier days, were missionaries assumed to be fanatics, sectarians, or subversives, nor were missions as uncertain of any solid, practical results. When Livingstone and Venn died, a new missionary period was dawning in which a tidal wave of eager young people and a host of new agencies would seek the evangelization of the world. When Livingstone and Venn began their work, a new consciousness of Africa was dawning in Britain, the first industrial nation, conscious as it was of a need for new raw materials and markets, and of a surplus population; but official policy recoiled from expensive commitments and acquisitions of territory overseas. When their work was ended, the high imperial period was already at hand, when the Western powers would divide Africa among them and establish their hegemony over the rest of the world. They began their mission in a society where energetic Christian commitment was associated with strong sentiment against slavery and in favor of humanitarian causes, and where evangelical values counted in the nation as never before or since. At their end, the whole intellectual foundation of Christianity was being doubted where once it had been taken for granted, and a chorus of diverse voices would shortly call in question the whole validity of missions even as they reached their peak of activity. Livingstone, like Venn, represents a sturdy, confident evangelicalism, secure in its place in national life, sure of its right and duty to influence public and government opinion, and, for all its emphasis on personal regeneration and personal religion, looking to the transformation of society as a normal fruit of Christian activity.

David Livingston (the”e” was added later) was born in 1813 in Blantyre, Lanarkshire, Scotland. The family was of Highland origin, and an incidental remark by Livingstone that at times within his family tradition “the Highlanders… were much like the Cape Caffres”[1] reflects a consciousness seen in other nineteenth-century Scots missionaries that the African present had much in common with the recent past of Scotland. The family was poor, but valued learning. David worked in a cotton-spinning factory from the age of ten, and at the factory school laid the foundation of a sound, though never a learned, education. His home was devout after the best model of traditional Scottish Calvinism, but he had no inclination for scholastic theology, and his intellectual curiosity and interest in science raised fears of his departing from the faith. Many major figures of the period were convened through reading Wilberforce’s Practical View; Livingstone was punished for refusing to read it. He did, however, read the works of Thomas Dick (1774-1847), which proclaimed the harmony of science and faith, and the evangelical experience of conversion followed. His interest in China was kindled through the writing of Karl Gutzlaff, and he determined to serve in China as a medical missionary, a designation then newly developed with China specifically in mind. Factory work paid well enough to enable him to devote part of the year to the study of medicine, Greek and divinity in Glasgow, and to qualify in 1840 as a medical practitioner. In the meantime he had been accepted by the London Missionary Society, to which he was attracted by its nondenominational character. He was, however, quite prepared to dispense with any missionary society: “It was not quite agreeable to one accustomed to work his own way to become in a measure dependent on others. And I would not have been much put about though my offer had been rejected.”[2]

When he became available for service, China was closed by the Opium War, and Livingstone found himself en route for South Africa. He arrived in 1841, the year that the British government sought to implement the ideas of Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton for extinguishing the slave trade by the dispatch of an expedition to the Niger.

African missions at this time were confined to a series of points along the west coast and a line of “stations” stretching inland from the Cape of Good Hope. European knowledge of the rest of the continent was very limited. The Portuguese, it is true, claimed enormous tracts of the southeast, but there was considerable doubt how far they could control them; and the same applied to the East African empire of the Sultans of Zanzibar, who exported slaves and ivory in quantity and imported goods from India. The mouths of the Niger, Congo, and Zambesi were all charted, but their upper reaches were unknown. The Niger Expedition of 1841 was the most ambitious expression of a favorite idea of the time that the rivers of Africa were highways to its interior.

Increasing knowledge about Africa was linked in some minds with the war against the slave trade. Militant opposition to the slave trade had been mobilized by the “Clapham” group of evangelicals of whom William Wilberforce was the best known. Buxton, Wilberforce’s parliamentary heir, and like him an earnest evangelical, worked for the emancipation of the slaves in the British dominions in 1834; but he became aware that the abolition of the slave trade, Wilberforce’s greatest parliamentary achievement, had not had its intended effect. There were actually more slaves being transported across the Atlantic in 1839 than were in 1807 when the Abolition Act was passed. The slave trade and the wars it engendered were depopulating Africa. Buxton returned to an old Clapham theme, the relevance of economic arguments to moral issues; and the outcome was his “New Africa Policy.” According to this, “the real remedy, the true ransom for Africa, will be found in her fertile soil.” African agricultural development would undercut the slave trade at its source, by providing much more profitable access to the Western manufactured goods that Africans clearly wanted. The slave trade, demonstrably the enemy of a Christian enterprise in Africa, could be extinguished by calling forth Africa’s own resources; and by this means agricultural development and enhanced trade would help to produce conditions in which Christianity would spread. Such developments would in turn lead to literacy and thus to printing, to new technologies in Africa, to roads and transport, to new forms of civil organization - in fact, to “civilization.” Christianity, commerce, and civilization had interests in common and could unashamedly support one another. Their united effect would be to improve the life and prosperity of Africans, stem the loss of population, and shrivel up the more violent institutions of African society.

The Niger Expedition was a failure on a scale to preclude any future attempts by government to implement the New Africa Policy. But in missionary circles the underlying ideas remained potent, coupled with the belief that the eventual evangelization of inland Africa would be effected by Africans. Livingstone broadly shared these views. He detested slavery, which he met at firsthand in South Africa and later in its Arab form in East Africa. He was anxious that Christianity should break out of its narrow geographical confines and penetrate the interior. But such penetration required safe lines of communication, incompatible with the conditions of the slave trade and with endemic war. This could be secured only by regular trade of a kind welcome to interior peoples. If this could be accompanied by the spread of Christian influences, a new moral climate would exclude slavery and soften other features of African life. There was a further need for exploration: healthy locations for mission stations were necessary to avoid the devastations of missionary life that had marked West Africa. From these locations, with good communications, an African agency would bring the Gospel to all areas. To “open up” Africa was thus a prerequisite for its evangelization, and it is in this context that we must see Livingstone’s famous words to the universities of Oxford and Cambridge: “I go back to Africa to make an open path for commerce and Christianity; do you carry out the work which I have begun.”[3] And in line with the ideas of the time much of his effort was directed to the quest of riverine “highways to the interior”–investigations, often frustrating, of the Zambesi, the Rovuma, and the Shiré.

Opening Up Inland Africa

Livingstone began his work at Kuruman, the showpiece station of the London Missionary Society (LMS), already famous through the work and writings of Robert Moffat. He was anxious to realize in practice what most missionaries recognized as a principle, but one of future application: rapid expansion into new territory and the delivery of the responsibility for evangelization to “native agents,” that is, African Christians. The population around Kuruman was too sparse for these aims, and Livingstone believed that in any case the neighboring people had been conditioned against the Gospel by evil-living or oppressive whites, and that missionary work was always open to impediments from Boers who had moved out of Cape Colony following the abolition of slavery there. In these circumstances Christianity could be seen only in terms of a series of restrictions on liberty, especially in the matter of polygamy. Accordingly, we find Livingstone making a 350-mile journey within his first year at Kuruman. During it he made contact with Sgkoma, head of the ruling house of Khama of the Ngwato people, a family whose support was later to be vital to Christian progress in the whole of the Tswana-speaking area of southern Africa.

By 1843, Livingstone had formed a station of his own, with the Kgotla people, by 1845 he had moved to the Kwena people. By now he was married to Moffat’s daughter Mary, but neither marriage nor the birth of their children made him sedentary. Indeed, Mary and the children often accompanied him on increasingly long journeys across the Kalahari desert. In the course of one of these in 1849 he made his first major contribution to geographical knowledge, the identification of Lake Ngami.

The year 1852 marks a watershed. As if to prove his point about the fragility of mission work in the area, his Kwena station, Kolobeng, was destroyed by the Boers. It also became desirable for his family to return to Britain. Livingstone accompanied them to Cape Town and then began the greatest of all his journeys. Its object was to find centers from which to reach substantial African populations, centers with healthy situations, good communications, and out of reach of the Boers. Livingstone had no illusions that the people of such areas were already “hungry for the gospel” -he reacted sharply against such language as pious fiction. But he expected them to be free from white contamination and thus without the disabilities to conversion of those further south. They would, moreover, immediately recognize the value of missionaries, attracting trade contacts and discouraging aggressors. Any understanding of deeper matters must spring out of that basis of human acceptance. Such realism is characteristic of missions in the pre-imperial period when missionaries had right of access only on terms set by African peoples.

From Cape Town, Livingstone moved up across what is now Botswana and renewed contact, made on a former journey, with the Kololo people. Some of these came with him along the Upper Zambesi and then right across Angola to the coast. Here he could have had a passage home to his family, but he had promised that his Kololo companions would return. He therefore went back with them, and then moved east, across modern Zambia (locating Victoria Falls in the process) and then through Mozambique until in May 1856, having walked across Africa, he arrived near the mouth of the Zambesi.

His journey had taken four years. He had found locations that met his criteria for mission centers, one, especially promising, with the Kololo and one with the Ndebele. He still believed in the community of interest of Christianity, commerce, and civilization, and his journey seemed to open new possibilities for the progress of all three. The Zambesi basin, in particular, had immense potential for agricultural development. It was now a principal source of slaves, a traffic that the introduction of plantation co-ops could undermine. The key to this was the riverine highway of the Zambesi.

The journey made him a celebrity. He had kept in touch with the scientific world, and his contributions to knowledge were applauded. He produced an excellent book, Missionary Travels and Researches, which made his activities known to a wider audience. He convinced his own society, the LMS, to open Kololo and Ndebele missions, and to appoint him to the leadership of the former. Established churchmen in the ancient English universities responded enthusiastically and formed the Universities’ Mission to Central Africa (UMCA) to follow up some of the openings he had made. Merchants in Manchester caught at the idea of African cotton to replace American (a blow, Livingstone judged, at American slavery). Even the British government was convinced, at least to the extent of commissioning an investigation of the Lower Zambesi to survey sites for possible settlement and agricultural development along with the necessary communications. Livingstone’s acceptance of the leadership of this expedition (and his consequent resignation from the missionary society, foregoing the opportunity to commence the Kololo mission) has to be seen in the light of his conviction that the Christian future of inland Africa was tied in with the whole complex of issues that his first great journey had revealed.

If the great walk across Africa from 1852 to 1856 represents the high point of Livingstone’s career, the Zambesi Expedition, from 1858 to 1863, is probably its lowest. He was in charge of European colleagues, to whom he denied the trust and openness he commonly displayed to Africans. Personal relations went sour. Mary Livingstone came out to join him, and died soon afterward.

The first mission party of the new UMCA, under its bishop, C. F. Mackenzie (the event had been the occasion for zealous High Churchmen to assert the theory of the necessity of the bishop to the church), accepted Livingstone’s guidance and assistance. But soon Mackenzie and others were dead, and the mission abandoned its situation in the Shiré highlands (and with it, for the moment, the Livingstone principle of missions) for the coast. The Portuguese, alerted by the publicity surrounding Livingstone’s earlier journeys, refused free trade on the Zambesi. All attempts to find an alternative river route failed, which reduced the value of the most solid geographical achievement of the expedition. This was the identification of an area that would support agricultural development; it was the future Malawi.

The government recalled the expedition. Livingstone’s next journey, though little noticed, was perhaps as extraordinary as any; he sailed his little Zambesi River boat himself, all the way from Mozambique to Bombay, to clear up the expedition’s affairs. His views as to the future of Christianity and commerce in Africa were unchanged; but neither missions nor government would lend such a ready ear as before. His renown as a geographer was undiminished and the Royal Geographical Society invited him to investigate the interrelations of the upper reaches of the Nile, the Zambesi, and the Congo rivers. But he did not want to be a mere geographer; he wanted geographical knowledge to issue in Christian action. His sense of the horror of the slave trade –“that open sore of Africa” as he called it–was heightened. It seemed that the governments of Christian nations were determined to preserve the traffic; Portugal protected it, Britain did nothing to stop it but talk. Bitterest of all was the knowledge that in the circumstances his own explorations had simply opened new routes for slave traders.

In due course, the remit given by the Royal Geographical Society was widened to allow other sponsors (including the British government, which gave him an unpaid status as consul) and additional objects. He was not only to investigate river systems but to “open Africa to civilizing influences,” especially missions and healthy commerce. He followed this remit from January 1866 to his death at Chitambo’s village (now Ilala, Zambia) on May 1, 1873. In the meantime he covered immense tracts of what are now the republics of Mozambique, Malawi, Zambia, Tanzania, and Zaire. For the last four years of the journey he was very ill, desperately short of supplies, often in deep depression, sure that he was forgotten, but still convinced of his duty to persevere, refusing opportunities to return. He was often humiliatingly dependent on the Arab traders, a principal part of whose trade he wished to destroy. Of Europeans, only one, H. M. Stanley, saw him alive. The last journey of all was symbolic; his body was carried by his African companions through eight months of danger and toil to the coast. His heart was buried in Africa; his corpse in Westminster Abbey.

Judged by his own objectives, Livingstone had little to show at the time of his death. Those inland mission centers staffed by African evangelists, which he had dreamed of in the 1850s, were long in coming. The missions had not taken up his challenge in his terms with regard to Central Africa; or, as it seemed to him, they had given up. His assurances of the prospects of commerce and “civilization” in Africa met only occasional or tepid response. The British government, which alone could exercise power in the area for moral and beneficent ends, was leaving the field to the baleful influence of Portuguese and Arabs, perpetuating the curse of slavery, inhibiting the only forces that could undermine it.

True, within two decades the situation looked very different. The Central African mission of his own LMS recovered from its discouraging start (though by this time the Kololo, of whom he had hoped so much, hardly counted for anything). The Church of Scotland and the Free Church of Scotland began missions in Malawi, explicitly linked with his name, and, in his spirit, combining with Christian preaching and teaching agriculture and industrial technology as well as academic education. The UMCA, the High Anglican mission, which owed its inspiration to the very nonsectarian Scots Independent, renewed and developed its inland work. Livingstone’s name inspired others in the new age of missions. The British presence was extended across East and Central Africa in a way of which Livingstone never dreamed. The lands that he traversed now all have large Christian communities, and Livingstone is in a real sense the pioneer of Central African Christianity. There were trading companies in regions of the lakes; European settlement (which at one time he thought might be the seedcorn of Christian presence and acceptable orderly technological and commercial change) came to some parts of the region. But the world had changed, and the effects were far from his dream of Christian civilization and shared prosperity.

Evaluating Livingstone’s Legacy

But this is too narrow a frame on which to consider the legacy of Livingstone. Not for nothing is he remembered as the representative missionary of his time. His stature (not greatly damaged by modern biographers who have brought out the faults and limitations unmarked in earlier hero worship) was that of the missionary of his period writ large. His ideas and ideals were fully compatible with the central missionary thought of that period; once more the comparison with Venn comes to mind. But we must remember what that period was. It was one in which a missionary could become a national figure. In the British public mind, missions could embody national ideals, high endeavor, justice, generosity, self-sacrifice; they did not typify the zeal of a minority, as in earlier times, or the religious and educational aspect of the imperial presence, as in a later period. By the same token, the missionary movement, still holding firmly to evangelical doctrine and experience, felt an obligation to transform society abroad, and to influence government at home. Abroad, the missionary presence was small, and looking to the future; and in Africa, before the massive acquisitions of territory by the Western powers from the 1880s onward, this could only be seen in terms of persuading African peoples. At home, the missionary movement sought to lead, rather than to follow, national policy. The idea of mission based on personal conversion and personal piety alone belongs most characteristically to the imperial period.

The Western world awoke to Africa, and to much of the world, through the voices and writings of missionaries. Livingstone, like his father-in-law, Robert Moffat, and several other noted contemporary missionaries, wrote well and spoke powerfully. The missionary societies of the day created an informed readership and audience that could influence and at times change public opinion. By any reckoning, Livingstone is one of the outstanding explorers of the nineteenth century, and as a scientific observer hard to equal. (His commentaries on African life and belief are strangely sparse, though often revealing when they come, as in the famous abstract of dialogues with the rainmaker.)[4] In this he is representative of others of his generation of missionaries who opened new frontiers of knowledge for the West, pioneered new disciplines in linguistics, comparative literature, Oriental-history studies, ethnography, the history of religions. Yet–and this is also characteristic of the period–Livingstone’s contributions to knowledge were all made in the context of a missionary purpose. As he put it, “The end of the geographical feat is but the beginning of the Missionary enterprise.” He added,

I take the latter term in its most extended signification, and include every effort made for the amelioration of our race, the promotion of all those means by which God in His providence is working, and bringing all his dealing with man to a glorious consummation.

The missionary task as seen by Livingstone and Venn and their fellows is marked, not by an attempt at balance between a message of personal salvation and one of social renewal (a division they would have found hard to understand), but by the acknowledgment that the very presence of missions in a society had social implications. It is therefore fair to inquire what was the eventual social legacy to Africa of Livingstone and the missions of his day; and immediately one is conscious of some ambiguity. Undoubtedly he is, on one side, the herald of the coming imperial order. He took British power for granted; he desired that it should be used for moral ends. The presence of other incomers to Africa–Boers, Portuguese, Arabs–he saw as largely malevolent. He thought of white settlement–always, he insisted, with the right type of settler–as able to bring about beneficial economic transformation. He died before the annexations of the Western powers, or the realities of the white settlement that came about, brought a wholly new situation.

Yet equally Livingstone is a pioneer of modern independent Africa. His life and writings show a respect for Africans and African personality unusual at the time, and his confidence never wavered in African capacities and in the common humanity of African and European. His missionary principles gave the primacy to Africans in the work of evangelizing Africa. His later career was dominated by the desire to root alien oppression out of Africa. There is a real truth behind the title of one of the popular biographies– Livingstone the Liberator–by J. I. Macnair, published in 1940. If Livingstone is a herald of imperialism, he is also more importantly and permanently a herald of African independence. In this, too, he is typical of the missionary movement of his day. In some respects it led the way to the empires. But, more than any other force of Western origin, it pointed beyond them.

Andrew F. Walls


l. Livingstone, Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa (New York: Harper and Bros., 1858), p. 2.

  1. Ibid., p. 6.

  2. William Monk, ed., Dr. Livingstone’s Cambridge Lectures (Cambridge: Deighton, Bell and Co., 1860), p. 168.

  3. Livingstone, Missionary Travels, pp. 25ff.

Selected Bibliography:

Bibliography of David Livingstone

Clendennan, G. W., and I. C. Cunningham. David Livingstone: A Catalogue of Documents. Edinburgh: National Library of Scotland for David Livingstone Documentation Project, 1979; Supplement, 1986.

Lloyd, B. W., J. Lashbrook, and T. A. Simons. A Bibliography of Published Works by and about David Livingstone, 1843-1975. Cape Town: Univ. of Cape Town Libraries, 1978.

Works by David Livingstone

1858 Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa; including a Sketch of Sixteen Years Residence in the Interior of Africa… New York: Harper and Bros.

1860 Dr. Livingstone’s Cambridge Lectures. Ed. William Monk. Cambridge: Deighton, Bell and Co. 2nd ed., 1960.

1866 (with Charles Livingstone) Narrative of an Expedition to the Zambesi and Its Tributaries. New York: Harper and Bros.

Journals and Correspondence of David Livingstone

David Livingstone: Family Letters, 1841-1856. 2 vols. Ed. I. Schapera. London: Chatto andWindus, 1959.

Livingstone’s Missionary Correspondence, 1841-1856. Ed. I. Schapera. London: Chatto and Windus, 1961.

David Livingstone: South African Papers, 1849-1853. Ed. I. Schapera. Cape Town: Van Riebeek Society, 1974.

Livingstone’s Private Journals, 1851-1853. Ed. I. Schapera. London: Chatto and Windus, 1960.

Livingstone’s African Journal, 1853-1856. 2 vols. Ed. I. Schapera. London: Chatto and Windus, 1963.

The Zambesi Expedition of David Livingstone [1858-1863]. 2 vols. Ed. J. P. R. Wallis, in Oppenheimer Series. London: Chatto and Windus, 1956.

The Zambesi Doctors: David Livingstone’s Letters to John Kirk, 1858-1872. Ed. R. Foskett. Edinburgh: Edinburgh Univ. Press, 1964.

Works about David Livingstone

Blaikie, W. G. Present Life of David Livingstone. New York: Revell, 1880. Verbose and hagiographical, but still valuable.

Chadwick, O. Mackenzie’s Grave. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1959. On the first UMCA party and its relations with Livingstone.

David Livingstone and the Rovuma: A Notebook [1862-1863]. Ed. G. Shepperson. Edinburgh: Edinburgh Univ. Press, 1965.

Debenham, F. The Road to Ilala: David Livingstone’s Pilgrimage. London: Longman, 1955. By a geographer.

Gelfand, M. Livingstone the Doctor, His Life and Travels: A Study in Medical History. Oxford: Blackwells, 1957.

Jeal, Tim. Livingstone. London: Heinemann, 1973.

The Last Journals of David Livingstone, in Central Africa, from 1865 to his Death… Continued by a Narrative Obtained by His Faithful Servants Chumah and Susi. 2 vols. Ed. H. Waller. Hartford, Conn.: R. W. Bliss and Co., 1875.

The Matabele Mission: A Selection from the Correspondence of John and Emily Moffat, Livingstone and Others, 1858-1878. Ed. J. P. R. Wallis, in Oppenheimer Series. London: Chatto and Windus, 1945.

Pachai, B., ed. Livingstone: Man of Africa: Memorial Essays, 1873-1973. London: Longman, 1973.

Seaver, George. David Livingstone: His Life and Letters. London: Lutterworth; and New York: Harper and Row, 1959.

Stanley, H. M. How I Found Livingstone. New York: Scribner, 1874.

This article, from the International Bulletin of Missionary Research, July 87, Vol. 11, Issue 3, p. 125-129 is reproduced, with permission, from Mission Legacies : Biographical Studies of Leaders of the Modern Missionary Movement, copyright© 1994, edited by G. H. Anderson, R. T. Coote, N. A. Horner, J. M. Phillips. All rights reserved.