Despite his faults, the Scottish doctor, missionary and explorer David Livingstone remains a giant of his era, argues Yvonne Kabombwe of the University of Zambia.
David Livingstone stands tall among European explorers of central Africa with the impact his explorations, discoveries and sacrifices had on the people he encountered and the generations that followed. There is no doubt that Livingstone’s life remains an inspiration to many people even today. Despite his faults, many lessons can be taken from the life of Livingstone. However, we need to be cautious when looking at the Scottish missionary’s life. We must understand his character and his mission before dismissing him as the failure he has been portrayed as by many scholars and writers.
David Livingstone arrived in Kuruman in 1841 and from 1849 to 1856, he made several journeys northwards and visited Lake Ngami. After many expeditions and illnesses, during which he was accompanied by a number of local people with supplies from Chief Sekeletu, he returned to England. In 1856 he was awarded a medal by the Royal Geographical Society for his dispatches to the Society. He wrote Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa which became a best seller. The publication of this book was followed by a speech at Cambridge University where he called for “opening Africa for Commerce and the Gospel”. That proved to be the catalyst for the formation of the Universities Mission for Christian Work in Africa. The aim of Livingstone’s first journey to the continent was to spread Christianity with the view of transforming the lives of Africans. He, therefore, worked tirelessly to show the world that change is possible and the difficult circumstances he encountered neither discouraged nor deterred him.
From 1858 to 1863 Livingstone returned to Africa as Her Majesty’s Consul for the East Coast of Africa. He explored Lake Nyasa and the Zambezi, Shire and Ruvuma Rivers. Sponsored by the British Government, this trip was to investigate agriculture and the mineral resources of the area. He was accompanied by his photographer brother Charles as part of a team that included a botanist, geologist and an artist. They managed to set up a mission in Chilwa. However, the expedition was called off after the death of Livingstone’s wife Mary and disputes arose among them. In 1866 Livingstone was back in Africa on another expedition; this time he sought to discover the source of the Nile. Despite searching for seven years, he failed in this quest. In 1873, he died in Chitambo village in present-day Zambia.
Livingstone’s true character and shortcomings were revealed during his second and third journeys. Research shows that Livingstone was a bad leader, husband and father. During these expeditions we learn that he struggled to settle disputes amicably. As a husband he made Mary and his children travel long and dangerous distances at great risk to their health and wellbeing. He also stayed away from his family for extended periods of time. In spite of these weaknesses, Livingstone still worked for the common good of the people. His determination was clear: “I shall open up a path into the interior or perish”. At times, he risked his life and those of his companions because of his indecision and poor judgment. He rejected Sir Roderick Murchison’s advice which could have helped narrow down his search for the Nile.
Chinaiwa (1978:176) observes that Imperialist historians have idealised the civilising missions of the British race and trusteeship. Jeal (1973) has also shown us that many of the Livingstone biographies dealt with the concerns of the Empire. Jeal(1973) further argues that it is unsurprising that Livingstone made a significant impact on Britain’s Imperial future in Africa. Livingstone was a patriot and an Imperial pioneer. Afrocentric scholars, on the other hand, bring into perspective the role of the Africans and their contribution to Livingstone’s expeditions, which have long been overlooked. The challenge is that most scholars find themselves in rigid historiographical traditions and fail to see other points of view. Thus it is important that historians have a balanced outlook as they review the life and legacy of Livingstone. History should not be written to settle scores as Ki-Zerbo (1990) puts it, rather it should bring about reconciliation. Historians should avoid extremes as it distorts the meaning and value of history.
The truth is that, whether we like it or not, Livingstone’s three journeys within Africa altered people’s ideas and contributed much to the world of medicine, geography and human interaction. His journey influenced many missionaries and researchers to set up mission centres, schools and hospitals in Africa which helped in the colonisation and decolonisation of Africa. To me, Dr Livingstone will always remain a hero.
Yvonne Kabombwe is a masters student and a participant in the recent Imperial Obsessions International Conference in Zambia.