David Livingstone

September 19, 2019

I wasn’t going to write this piece. I was going to leave to lie something I’d watched on TV last night, and which was about David Livingston, the Scottish missionary and explorer of Victorian times.

The programme I saw took a critical view of his life and work. I mean by critical that the programme was at best doubtful about him and his aims in life.

I don’t want to go pulling things to bits, for the sake of what might seem partisan interests in my motives. I’m a Christian. I have sympathies with people who drew the short straw in life. I don’t like commercialism. I believe in and want for Christ to be The Alternative to, the abolition of all the terrible things people do to one another – often for the sake of money or for dislike or sadly just out of plain insensitivity.

David Livingstone was married, he had six or seven children, he took some of them along to Africa onhis explorations, at a time when Africa was pretty difficult to live in. There was going on slave trading, malaria, tribal warfare, large animal predators, powerful heat, and no amenities of the kind, even those to be had at the time in London and Paris; all of which made living in Africa tough to the point of brutality.

Livingston it appears had determination. The programme leant towards naming it an obsession. He had the idea that what he called his Three Cs – Christ, Commerce and Civilization - could alleviate the severe contemporary lot of the African peoples.

This aim was made practical in his first vist to Africa, in search for a navigable route up the Zambezi river; thus to open up the interior to trade and to beneficial European influences. He saw the falls on that river and named them Victoria Falls after his Queen. At that time, the egocentric Europeans, considered him to have discovered the falls, which of course perhaps millions of Africans had already seen. But this was par for the times, the heyday of Empire, British French German Dutch Portuguese – all of Europe had a finger in the pie of exotic foreign subjuagtions.

Livingstone was on this first trip, the first European (probably) to traverse from the west coast of Africa to the east coast. Probably no African had done so before either? He mapped everywhere he went – even though he was not a cartographer, and had had only a few sketchy lessons on the subject before he got there. But he was a doctor – I guess a medical man? - so he was I assume able intellectually. His maping apparently was pretty good. In theprogramme on TV it was debited to his account that he had mapped much of the continent so accurately (for the first time?), and these maps of his were after his death used,it was said, by colonialists and adventurer opportunists to exploit and mistreat the African peoples. Livingstone spent much of his life with the avowed aim of liberating them from fear, fighting, scarcity and very poor living conditions.

I did feel this inference was not admisible comment about him. Perhaps every invention, innovation, dicovery, new thing of use, and old, is able to be used by bad persons as well as by good ones. The same discovery of Rutherford splitting the atom is used to wage war and to provide power to our homes.

Livingston was dead when Africa began to be carved up proper by European powers into their own discrete spheres of influence. He could not have know it, he did not see it happen. His maps gave many access to Africa for good and for ill I’m sure.

I must say here that I know little about Livingstone other than the popular story of my childhood.

So most of what I’m going to write here is not factualy based on his history. It will be considerations on what seems fair comment and what seems otherwise, and based on having thought through some of the data presented to me and to other viewers last night onTV.

Colonialists were after cheap labour and commercial resources, after extending power and influence and getting rich and all those things of Mammon and Beelzebub. We British however in our own present day, in order for us to validate Livingstone’s idea of commerce bringing boons and benefits to to the Africans, might sympathise in the abstract with him by us taking into account how commerce has been in our generation a great peacemaker and alleviator of social ills in Northern Ireland.

Truly very few people in Northern Ireland want to go back to the years of ‘The Troubles’, the 1960s 70s and 80s, and in large part this is because so much economic activity since The Good Friday Agreement has given the people there something valuable to lose by any regressions back to murder and bombings.

When one’s food is on the table daily and more impoortantly when one knows one’s food will be on the table daily; and life is pleasant and not toilsome; then a person has little to kick against without seeming ungrateful.

So Livingstone’s vision for commercialising Africa had legs in my opinion, so as to make people’s lives there generally much more palatable to them.

The difference between Livingstone and the slavers and colonialists was that Livingstone saw the Africans as people; and as people like himself; not as economnic cyphers, or as hands to do work, or as inferior humans; but he at least voiced convincingly the idea that all humans are of equal value and own the same basic rights.

Now of course there are lots of us who say we care much more than we really do; we’ve all been guilty of this now and then I’m sure. But I do believe you can judge a person by what he does and by what others who know him well think and say and demonstrate about him (or her).

Livingston’s body, (on his third and final expedition to Africa he had died of multiple illnesses including fever, internal bleeding, sores) had the heart removed by his mourners and buiried beneath his dwelling in the African town he dwelt in. His body itself they embalmed and shipped to Britian where it was buried. This care was taken upon his death by the people around him, many of whom were Africans, as well as Europeans, who had been his asociates many years. The journalist Stanley, who had come from the USA and associated with Livingstone in Africa for many of his latter years, was said to have idolised Livingstone, and had said that he had been ‘as near a saint as I ever knew a person to be”. No small statement.

The Africans today who live in that same area remember Livingston with great reverence and affection. They impute to him the emancipation of their ancestors and their own lives from tribal warfare, from slavery, from disease, and from being considered commodities by outsiders coming in. For them his memory is saintly also.

This is part of the plus side to Livingstone; in my opinion a pretty big plus. These behaviours towards him speak to me of a man behind them who was deserving of them; and they are not the sort of things done or said about people voluntarily, other for than special and specially charitable people and their lives.

The programme did stack up a few negatives. Livingstone was said to have severely beaten a colleague who was in charge of the vessel going up the Zambesi, allegedly for him having been felt by Livingstone responsible for the vessel breaking – in the engines I think? The crime, if there was indeed one committed, seems to have been a negligence of the engines’ proper care. Livingstone’s beating of the ‘culprit’ seems to have been his response to the negligence?

Now if this were the case, that there was indeed negligence, then is a severe beating wholly out of order? There’s no courts of law; the expedition is in jeopardy; no spare parts or even raw materials like metal; in a hostile unknown and dangerous country – if it was meted out as a punshiment this beating, is it so very appalling?

Worse perhaps is Livingstone’s reported behaviour on his second journey up a second river; the Zambesi had been a failure due to ferocious rapids of white water found inland and making it unnavigable.

This second river he hoped would prove the great navigable conduit he wanted in order to bring trade and prosperity to the peoples inland in Africa On this second expedition he had with him a Bishop and the Bishop’s helper, a young man, both of whom had come out from Britain to establish a mission there to civilise and Christianise the African peoples.

The Bishop and his man were left separated from Livingston, by him going on exploring, on a highland area where the climate was cooler and malaria not a problem. In this area Portuguese slavers roamed rounding up Africans. The Arab nations also abbeted in this – and both groups were well established on the Eastern coasts of Africa, having there cities and vessels and ports busy coming and going with trade and slaves.

The same highlands of temperate climate were also a war zone. Tribes of Africans fought and dominated one another there, bought and sold other tribesmen. Life was very hard and precarious. Livingstone’s reputation must have gone before him in these highlands because one group of slavers driving 80 or so men to market, and coming upon him and his mission, chose to flee, leaving their human cargoes freed and in his hands. Without force being offered by him or the mission against the slaver group too.

But the Bishop and his man found they could hardly establish a mission so much trouble was going on in the highlands area. They agreed to meet Livingstone on the river; he had gone elsewhere to further his plans. Livingstone was, so it was said, a month late in reaching the point of rendesvous on the river. I guess delays like that happen in such situations?

The Bishop and his man also were late for the appointment. They had lost their boat which had overturned losing also all their provisions and equipment. They had just a few helpers with them. What was also lost was their supply of quinnine, which they were using to ward of malarial fever; and they became stranded on the river in the terrible heat and conditions. They themselves got to the rendesvous three days after Livingstone had been past there.

The two parties had missed one another by days. The Bishop and his man became feverish and the Bishop died there. The man was brought to a refuge eventually but he also died. Livingstone when he heard news of this was said to have said merely “This will look bad for us”. He was considering by these words the outlook of the broad public back home; and of the government there who had backed and sponsored his second journey, and the mission.

The programme tended to place these two deaths at the feet of Livingstone – his burden of guilt.

I think it may have been the missing one another by three days that was the main fulcrum on which swung this weight of remiss? Again consider – I don’t want to whitewash though – Livingstone was a month late. He came and I asume saw no-one and moved on? The Bishop and man were there three days after him. Consider the situation. Was it callous and unreasonable for Livingston to have moved on? I don’t know the protocols for such meetings and latenesses, the rules of expected behaviour, but a month late - I guess he felt he’d missed them altogether?

He could not have know at all about them having lost their boat and all supplies and gear; he certainly could not have known about the loss of the quinnine. I leave this item here.

The words he uttered about the attitudes back home to these deaths; these count somewhat more I think.

Livingstone flew to high fame after his first journey having ‘discovered’ Victoria Falls, and crossed the continent. As it were, in the eyes of those back home, he’d done these feats ‘for England’; he used this fame of his as leverage to procure agreement and resources for a second bid to find a commercial route to the interior. He was ‘mercenary’ in this sense - to further his three Cs mission.

He was extremely tenacious and I tend to think he grew to love Africa, warts and all; maybe for its adventure and challenge also?

So this ‘this will look bad for us’ was indeed part of his tenacity and leverage of his fame. If he did say it he was insensitive in this instance.

The programme also stated Livingston was a liar. Again the reason for him lying was his tenacity and drive to succeed in his missionary venture. He told the authorities backhome that the Zambesi was navigable. It was not. Besides the rapids in parts it was just two feet deep for long tracts and long periods. Maybe he told himself the rapids were navigable and the shallows no problem; maybe he just wanted to belive that?

But he lied also about the highlands where the Bishop and his man fled from the fighting and slavers. He said the highlands were suited to commercial development. He was said to be a remorseless optimist; nothing could deflect him or dampen his vision for better things.

However the very worst and saddest thing in the programme was the death of his wife; of whom he had said; “I loved her when we were wed and I have loved her more and more ever since’. Upon her death he did lose some optimism. He said: “For the first time I feel I would be happy to die”.

She had accompanied him on the third journey, but they had got held up – again engine trouble – in the lowland rainforest and she caught a fever. She and their children had hardly seen him for many years on end – the question does arise whether a man should have a family who intends a life such as he intended and lived out?

That said, when back in London beteween ventures he wrote a second book, the first of his books had helped fund the second mission, and this second book sold sufficiently for him to place in trust a sum of money to asure his children’s future.

But he was an absentee father.

He was found dead, after years of physical decline, and some mental deterioration, one morning in a praying atttitude by his bed. His face had fallen into his hands.

That’s about it. No-one’s life is a fairytale. Everyone has to make choices which impinge on other legitimate duties and choices. No-one pleases everyone, not even saints.

A mix of good and bad is the best we can hope to achieve; more good than bad is a signal acheivement. David Livingstone according to his lights and the lights of the times which bounded his consciousness, maybe just tried to do…?

“that which was right in the sight of the LORD, and walked in all the way of David his father, and turned not aside to the right hand or to the left.”