Travel | 26 Oct 2014

15 Things You Didn’t Know about Dr. Livingstone

Sketch featuring David Livingstone | Photo by Sun International

"Dr. Livingstone, I presume?"

On 16 November 1855, David Livingstone first laid eyes on the waterfall that would define his life story, which he named the Victoria Falls to honour his queen.

On the Zambian side of the falls, the Royal Livingstone Hotel named after the famous Scottish explorer, contains a vast collection of portraits, drawings, and maps detailing his explorations. As you relax amid the hotel’s elegant surroundings, you’ll be forgiven for feeling as though you’ve travelled back in time: David Livingstone’s story is inextricably linked with the soul of the hotel.

If you think you know everything there is to know about David Livingstone, some of these facts may surprise you:

1. Africa was Plan B

David Livingstone, the Scottish explorer, abolitionist and physician who is famous for being the first European to discover Victoria Falls, initially hoped to go to China as a missionary. When the first Opium War broke out in September 1839, his plans changed, and Livingstone focused his ambitions on Africa instead.

2. Livingstone was a terrible missionary

David Livingstone moved to Africa in 1841 as a “medical missionary”. However, he believed his spiritual calling lay in exploration (with the aim of finding commercial trade routes to displace those of the slave trade), rather than preaching. Also, with only one convert – a tribal chief named Sechele – Livingstone was a pretty terrible missionary, and he eventually resigned from the London Missionary Society.

3. Livingstone found the cure for malaria

During his explorations, David Livingstone survived malaria, dysentery, sleeping sickness and several other diseases, even concocting a malaria cure along the way. Livingstone actually suggested the association between mosquitoes and malaria some 30 years before Ronald Ross established the link. He also observed the connection between relapsing fever and tick bites, as well as the link between environment and diseases such as pneumonia, typhoid and dysentery.

4. He travelled lightly

Livingstone became great friends with local tribal chiefs, and spoke several African languages. His advantage over other explorers; he travelled lightly. While other expeditions included dozens of armed soldiers and scores of hired porters carrying supplies – and were subsequently seen as military threats or mistaken for slave-raiding parties – Livingstone travelled with only a few servants and porters, bartering for supplies along the way.

5. Livingstone was a disorganised expedition leader

During his Zambezi Expedition, which lasted from 1858 until 1864 (in which time Lake Malawi was discovered), Livingstone was criticised by his expedition members for being secretive, self-righteous and moody. His physician, John Kirk, wrote in 1862: “I can come to no other conclusion than that Dr Livingstone is out of his mind and a most unsafe leader.” Following the death of his wife and the loss of his assistants – who either deserted him or perished – Livingstone uttered his most famous quote: “I am prepared to go anywhere, provided it be forward.”

6. He was outspoken against slavery

The only way to fight the slave trade in Africa, Livingstone said, was through “Christianity, commerce, and civilization”. Livingstone’s letters, books, and journals stirred up public support for the abolition of slavery, but because he was a poor leader of his peers (see point 5), he ended up on his final expedition as an individualist explorer humiliatingly dependent for assistance on the very slave-traders whom he wished to put out of business.

7. Livingstone was famous in his own time

During his first visit back to the British Isles, Livingstone became a national hero. He was awarded a gold medal from the Royal Geographical Society, an honorary doctorate from Oxford University, and a private audience with Queen Victoria. Those eager to shake his hand also mobbed him in the streets as he became somewhat of a celebrity.

8. He had one regret

His penchant for exploring could not help but affect his family life. David Livingstone married Mary Moffat, and despite living in the same house for only four of the 17 years of their marriage, the couple had several children. When Livingstone’s mother-in-law heard that he had taken her daughter and grandchildren on another dangerous expedition, she wrote him a stinging letter, signed: “I remain yours in great perturbation.” Livingstone’s one regret, however, in later life was that he didn't spend enough time with his children.

9. Livingstone suffered failures

Livingstone is considered one of history’s greatest explorers, but his last two expeditions were considered failures in their chief aims: the Zambezi expedition sought to discover a navigable river that cut across southern Africa, and in his final adventure, Livingstone was looking for the source of the Nile. On finding the Lualaba River, Livingstone mistakenly concluded it was the high part of the Nile River.

10. He was haunted by what he witnessed

While searching for the source of the Nile, Livingstone witnessed a slave massacre at Nyangwe, where some 400 people were killed. Livingstone was so shattered by the experience he abandoned his mission.

11. Livingstone disappeared for 6 years

Livingstone completely lost contact with the outside world for six years. With the explorer missing, the London Daily Telegraph and New York Herald developed a transatlantic venture, and journalist Henry Stanley was sent to Africa to find Livingstone. Stanley located the physician in Ujiji in late 1871, and upon seeing him, uttered the famous words: “Dr Livingstone, I presume?”

12. “Dr Livingstone, I presume?” was a clever headline, but may have been fabricated

While the phrase appears in a New York Herald editorial dated 10 August 1872, and both the Encyclopedia Britannica and the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography quote it without questioning its veracity, these famous words may have been a fabrication. Stanley tore out the pages of this encounter in his diary, and even Livingstone’s account of their meeting does not mention the phrase. The words are famous because of their tongue-in-cheek humour: Dr Livingstone was the only white person for hundreds of miles.

13. His heart is literally in Africa

David Livingstone died from dysentery and malaria on 1 May 1873, at the age of 60, in Chief Chitambo’s Village in North Rhodesia (now Zambia). His heart is buried in Africa, under a Mvula tree (now the site of the Livingstone Memorial), but his remains are buried at Westminster Abbey.

14. His legacy is prolific

Although Livingstone was wrong about the Nile, he discovered numerous geographical features for Western science, and his observations enabled large regions to be mapped which previously had been blank.

15. Livingstone inspired other explorers

Though he did little traditional missionary work while he was alive, Livingstone inspired hundreds of men and women to give their lives for African missions. Mary Slessor, for example, decided to follow in the footsteps of her hero and, in 1875, arrived in Calabar (present-day Nigeria). Peter Cameron Scott, founder of the Africa Inland Mission, was inspired to return to Africa after his first mission failed when he read the inscription on Livingstone’s tomb in Westminster Abbey: “Other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring.”