Dr Joanna Lewis, Lecturer in Imperial and African history at LSE, is currently researching a book on the death and memorialisation of the explorer and missionary David Livingstone in central Africa up to the present day. Here, she recounts his passion for central Africa. This blog originally appeared in Row Zambezi, a website dedicated to a Zambezi Rowing Expedition For Village Water.
‘We were told about him by my granduncle who met him in person twice near Mazabuka. He had a British wife called Mary, and we were told by my grandfather that she was the daughter of another British man in Africa, who was less popular than Dr Livingstone.
“The villagers would congregate to receive the white man. He would arrive with his African companions and would at times partake of their food and drink. Dr Livingstone would use sign language to communicate with the people. He would point to heaven to indicate ‘God’. He would encourage people to love each other by shaking their hands with a smile.
“One of his most difficult tasks was to teach the villages about the hydro or rain cycle. He would point at a body of water; make gestures of steam rising, then point to the clouds, then gesture rain. Villages would await his arrival with eagerness. He twice promised to return after he had witnessed the Falls, and twice he fulfilled. The third time he didn’t. The great man had died of malaria’.
(Extract from an interview conducted in 2005)
The Zambezi river is forever entwined with the life and achievements of Dr David Livingstone, the most famous explorer of Africa during the nineteenth century, in the period before European nation states began the ‘scramble’ for the continent’s vast resources.
It was a river that killed Livingstone in the end. In 1873, his obsessive search for the origins of the Nile, fuelled by bitter rivalry, when he was sixty years old, ill, and lost in marshland, resulted in a slow and painful demise, as he slowly bled to death, carried by his faithful African servants to the end. He died near a village that is in today’s Zambia and fittingly his heart was buried under a tree (the local Chief of Chitambo, would later ask to be buried next to him).
Amazingly his body was bound up and secretly transported back to the coast by his followers, determined to return him to his people. So, in April 1874, Victorian Britain had the chance to say an emotional farewell and in Westminster Abbey today, if you walk down the main aisle you will come to a place where the stone floor bears the following inscription: “Brought by faithful hands over land and sea, here rests David Livingstone, missionary, traveller, philanthropist. Born March 13, 1813. Died May 1, 1873, at Chitambo’s Village, Ulala.”.
There had never been a plaque like it nor person from such a humble background buried there. A nation mourned and a generation resolved to carry out his vision.
Truth be told, the arrival of Livingstone in that part of Africa, like that of his like elsewhere in Africa, was more of a curse than a blessing.