ONE of Africa’s staunchest sons lay at
the door of a hut in the heart of the great continent that had given him
birth. Scarcely more than a boy, he had kept a ceaseless vigil throughout
the long night, never wearying, never faltering. Then a sudden fear assailed
him, and his shrill voice rang out through the still air.
Attracted by his cries, another
native, great alike in stature and heart, rushed to the scene. Very gently
the door of the hut was pushed open, until the flickering light of a candle
revealed the figure of a man kneeling as if in prayer by the rough bed; They
stood reverently aloof, not daring to voice their fears. David Livingstone,
their master and friend, was dead. He had entered on the greatest and most
mysterious of all his wonderful journeys.
For him there was not the glory of
death on the battle-field or on the mighty seas. Stricken with disease, he
died as he would have wished, in his beloved Africa, a land consecrated by
his own heroism.
Undeterred by a serious attack of
pneumonia which, four years previously, had undermined his strength and left
him in failing health, Livingstone had battled on under incredible
difficulties until, at length, the limit of human endurance was reached. The
story of his last long struggle against the deadly perils of the untrodden
forests, the malaria infested swamps, and the tortures of starvation, will
be told as long as the world loves a hero.
Livingstone often had cause to lament
the unfaithfulness of some of his native party, ready as he always was to
offer excuses for them. Of the fifty-seven men and boys who accompanied him
on his last expedition, only the faithful Susi, who had been his constant
companion for thirty years, and a mere handful of followers were present at
the time of his death.
These men, however, were loyal to the
last. When their great chief, whom they knew as "the white man who did not
make slaves," was taken from them, they resolved to pay homage to his memory
by one last act of devotion. They knew that their love for him was shared by
the great white people of his own beloved country, and they therefore
determined to embalm his body and carry it to Zanzibar, whence it could be
transported to England.
The difficulties were almost
insuperable. Over 700 miles of land, inhabited by suspicious and, in many
cases, hostile tribes, had to be covered. Added to this was the
superstitious horror with which dead bodies were regarded. Yet these men had
learned one great lesson from their chief. He had shown them what could be
accomplished by perseverance and an implicit trust in Providence. So, after
removing the heart, they embalmed the body and placed it between several
large strips of bark, obtained from one of the huge trees with which the
Interment of Livingstone’s Heart
The burial-ground of Livingstone’s
heart remains preserved and sacred to this day. The ceremony, a quaint
mixture of native and European custom, was performed with characteristic
zeal. There were two special mourners who wailed incessantly, a native who
danced as he chanted, a volley of firearms, and a complete reading of the
burial-service from the Prayer-book by one of Livingstone’s servants.
With their precious burden, the party
set off on their nine months’ trek to the coast. That their mission was
finally accomplished was due in no small measure to the inflexible
determination of Susi, who was accepted by the others as leader and guide.
This devoted servant, in spite of Government indifference, was subsequently
brought over to England at the instigation of James Young, one of
Livingstone’s dearest friends, and publicly honoured.
At one place on their journey they had
a skirmish with a hostile tribe; at another they had to make a pretence of
burying the body in order to escape disaster. Indeed, so appalling were
their difficulties that when they encountered a British relief expedition,
the latter resolved to lay Livingstone to rest there and then. Susi,
however, was obdurate to the point of obstinacy, and he won the day. Having
succeeded so far, he was not going to give up. Finally, the brave party
reached the coast opposite the Wand of Zanzibar, and a naval contingent came
over to receive the remains.
Saxon in name, but of Highland stock,
David Livingstone first saw the light of day at Blantyre, on the banks of
the Clyde, a few miles from Glasgow. This was on the 19th March, 1813, a
time when the power of Napoleon was waning and the great nations of Europe
were preparing to overthrow him. As a boy, he displayed no outstanding
genius. His early days were not marked by any special qualities that placed
him on a higher plane than his fellows. All through his life, in fact, he
was renowned more for solidity and integrity of character than for
Livingstone started life with a
handicap. In the first place he had beautiful eyes—inherited from his
mother—and he probably hated being "pretty" as much as do others of his age
who are imbued with a sense of adventure, and who want to be regarded as men
before they are out of knickerbockers.
Then again, his parents, with whom he
was always on the most affectionate terms, were poor, and few families in
those days could afford to have an able-bodied young man of ten years of age
at home earning nothing. So, before he had reached his eleventh birthday, he
had started work as a piecer in a local factory. His first pocket-money was
spent in the purchase of a Latin primer, and he set out to give himself the
education that his father’s slender purse was compelled to deny him.
Although he started work at six in the
morning and did not finish until eight in the evening, he attended night
classes and contrived to smuggle into the factory a copy of Virgil, which he
read as he worked at the spinning-jenny.
If one thing more than another
distinguished Livingstone’s youthful days, it was his passionate love of
nature. Every note of a bird was music to him; wild flowers were poetry.
Afterwards, when he was plodding through unknown territory in Africa, this
trait in his character revealed itself in marked fashion, and some of the
pages of his Journal are marvellous pen-pictures of nature.
Livingstone was a great reader, and it
is significant that books of travel attracted him most. He had a longing to
go abroad as an explorer. Before he reached the age of twenty, however, he
found his path of destiny pointing in a new direction. The call of
Christianity proved irresistible, and he was attracted by an appeal for
missionaries in China. With this idea in view, he determined to become a
qualified medical man, and although circumstances arose which made him
abandon his plans, he found his knowledge of medicine of incalculable
benefit afterwards in Africa.
Livingstone offered his services to
the London Missionary Society. Poor preaching proved an early
stumbling-block, and it was this failing of his that nearly put an end to
his ambitions for all time. It says much for his tenacity of purpose that he
finally passed the test, and the danger was averted.
The Society first thought of sending
him to the West Indies, but Livingstone protested on the grounds that his
medical experience would be of more use in a part of the world where there
were no resident doctors. At this stage, he happened to be brought into
touch with Dr. Robert Moffat, an African missionary who inspired him with
wonderful tales of the Dark Continent. If Africa owes a great deal to David
Livingstone, it owes something also to Dr. Moffat, for it was he who first
turned Livingstone’s eyes to Africa, and roused within him the desire to
explore its vast possibilities.
The die was now cast, and he waited
only long enough to take his medical degree in 1840 before sailing. This was
in his twenty-eighth year. Once he had set foot in Africa, Livingstone began
to appreciate the colossal nature of the task he had undertaken. The plight
of the natives—especially those who lived outside the big towns—moved him to
profound pity, and his heart ached to be of service to them and to bring to
them knowledge of the great Christian truths. Refusing a post that had been
offered him in town, he set out directly for Kuruman, in the Bechuana
territory, where Dr. Moffat’s headquarters were situated.
The doctor was still in England, and
Livingstone had instructions to await his return. Inaction, however, did not
suit the young missionary. There was work to be done, and he was eager to
start. The days of waiting dragged into months, and still the date of Dr.
Moffat’s arrival was indefinite. He therefore took matters into his own
hands, and began a tour of investigation northwards, accompanied by one
other white man and a party of natives.
Independence of Spirit
Thus early did Livingstone show his
independence of spirit and initiative, qualities that were to serve him in
good stead in future years. Active to the point of restlessness, he did not
call on anyone to perform a task he was not willing to share with them.
This, perhaps more than anything, was the secret of the wonderful confidence
the natives felt in him.
He had mastered their native tongue,
and one day he heard several of them discussing his personal appearance.
Their remarks were not complimentary; in a nutshell, they were to the effect
that he was so thin and weak that he found it necessary to wear clothes in
order to hide his frail body from their view. With characteristic
thoroughness Livingstone soon removed this impression. Several native tribes
were at that time, and at his suggestion, digging a canal. Believing in the
force of example, the doctor slaved like a nigger for the next few days. The
words of slander turned to words of the highest praise.
Beginning of His Trials
He had been in Africa two years before
there came the news for which, with no little impatience, he had been
waiting. He was authorized to push on to the north and form a settlement.
With the experience gained on his previous tours, he made rapid progress and
formed a station at a place called Mabotsa. But now his trials commenced in
earnest. The climate was extremely treacherous, fever abounded, some of the
tribal chiefs were hostile and suspicious, and all sorts of superstition had
to be overcome. On one occasion he was accused of poisoning a native because
he was seen to give the poor fellow some medicine! Actually, the patient was
stricken with fever.
Added to these difficulties was the
constant risk he and his party ran from attack by wild animals. Livingstone
himself had many hairbreadth escapes, and could claim literally to have been
rescued from the very "jaws of death."
A lion had been wounded by native
weapons, and, quite unexpectedly, jumped out of the bushes and seized
Livingstone by the left shoulder and arm, bearing him to the ground. His
life was hanging by a thread for some seconds, but, curiously enough, he was
not conscious of any pain or fear at the time. "I was thinking what part of
me he would eat first," he humorously remarked afterwards. Luckily, if the
great beast had any thoughts of making a meal of the explorer, he was
frustrated, for, after leaving Livingstone and attacking one of the natives,
he was killed. Livingstone never regained full use of his arm, and years
afterwards, when he died, it was by this maimed limb that his body was
recognized on its arrival in England.
Life Owed to Native Agent
So much prominence has been given to
the incident that it is worth while recalling that the doctor himself made
little of it, except as propaganda for his pet theme—the employment of
natives as missionary agents. It was one of these assistants who diverted
the lion’s attention at the critical moment and so saved his life. At
various times Livingstone had encounters with hippopotami, crocodiles, and
alligators, but met with no serious injury.
Livingstone often felt homesick. In
spite of the delight he obtained from his work, he frequently yearned to be
home again, and one of his first acts on forming the Mabotsa settlement was
to write to his family, suggesting that they should emigrate to Africa and
join him. So keen was he on the idea that he sent home some money to assist
with the heavy fares—a great act of self-denial, for his earnings were poor.
To his intense disappointment they were unable to agree to his proposal.
Marriage that Caused Surprise
Some time before he started on his
first great expedition into the interior of the continent he had met and
married Dr. Moffat’s eldest daughter, Mary. This was a step he never
regretted, although at the time it caused his friends considerable surprise,
as He had always been looked upon as a confirmed bachelor. His wife proved
of great help to him in his work, and was with him constantly for nearly ten
years. At his suggestion she finally set sail for England with their four
children. Much as their parting grieved him, he was convinced that it was
the right course, and the events of the next four years showed that there
was wisdom in his decision.
The main object of Livingstone’s first
journey to the north was to place native missionaries at selected spots. A
succession of misfortunes befell him; he suffered the most terrible
privations. His worst enemy was the deadly marsh fever, which struck him
down again and again. One attack, with rheumatic complications, left him
temporarily deaf, and to crown everything, his medicine chest was stolen,
and he was left without means of fighting the disease and sickness, of which
his party was never entirely free. Travelling in the difficult country was
possible only on the back of an ox, and on one occasion he was thrown
heavily to the ground on his head. Later he was almost blinded by a blow in
the eye from a tree-branch while riding in the forest.
No words can do justice to the
extraordinary fortitude Livingstone displayed. How he managed to fulfil his
mission under such incredible difficulties remains a mystery to this day.
But succeed he did, for if his efforts to make the natives accept the
Christian faith met with only moderate success, his tour was a geographical
triumph of the first magnitude, and on his return to England at the end of
1856 he was hailed as one of the greatest explorers of the age.
Unlike Bruce of Abyssinia, who never
lived to see his work appreciated, Livingstone was greatly feted. The
freedom of London and of other cities was conferred on him, and he became a
popular hero. His discovery of Lake Ngami, of the "glorious river" Zouga,
and of the famous Victoria Falls aroused the enthusiasm of the Royal
Geographical Society, before whom he lectured frequently. He was honoured
wherever he went, his name was on everyone’s lips, and when he penned his
experiences under the title of "Missionary Travels," it was the greatest
literary and financial success of the moment.
It says a tremendous lot for
Livingstone the man that, at the height of his triumph, he never forgot the
people with whom he had struggled in his early days, the "honest poor" of
Blantyre. Throughout his life Livingstone kept in touch with them and
visited them whenever he had an opportunity of doing so.
One would have imagined that he had
seen quite enough of Africa for a while. He had earned a long rest, and
there is no doubt that lucrative posts awaited him if he had cared to remain
in England. It should be remembered, too, that he was intensely devoted to
his wife and family, to his mother, his brothers and sisters, and to his
many friends; his father had died shortly before his return. Yet it was the
same with Livingstone as with other explorers. He was restless in England,
and as the months crept by he yearned to return to Africa, where so much
remained to be done. Often, as he sat by the hearth with his wife and
children, he must have contrasted the comfort and happiness of his home life
with the wretched desolation of the African forest and swamp. Still he pined
to go back. The perils of the past were forgotten in the hopes of the
Thus it was that, after fifteen months
in England, Livingstone returned to Africa in 1858. He had a host of plans,
chief among which was the exploration of the river Zambezi and its
tributaries. He was also determined to stamp out the slave traffic, so far
as this was humanly possible. The memory of this terrible trade remained the
most vivid of all the impressions he had retained of his previous journey.
Children Exchanged for Goods
The Boers and Portuguese he considered
the worst offenders, but even among the native tribes dealing in slaves was
rampant. So great was their lust for goods of European manufacture that the
chiefs were always willing to offer captured native children in exchange for
articles of this nature. Chiefly owing to diplomatic difficulties, his
campaign met with little support at home, but there is no doubt that he
accomplished a great deal, and it was mainly through his disclosures that
Britain began to take active steps to suppress the evil.
An incident that occurred on this
expedition illustrates Livingstone’s supreme self-confidence. At the mouth
of the Zambezi he had an unfortunate difference with the naval officer in
command. The officer resigned—a serious blow— but nothing daunted, the
doctor took charge of the ship and navigated it successfully throughout a
voyage of 1,600 miles. It was that spirit of making the best of things which
enabled Livingstone to overcome most of his obstacles.
During this journey he received the
distressing news of his wife’s death, which occurred in April, 1862. This
sad event did not deter him, and in spite of tremendous hardships he
persevered. He had previously discovered the great Lake Nyasa, and was bent
on exploring the whole of that region before returning home. In this he was
partly successful, although he was hindered by the lack of supplies, and was
constantly fighting disease. When at last he went home again in 1864 he took
with him an immense amount of useful geological and geographical data.
Livingstone was fifty-two years of age
when he left the shores of England on his third and last visit to Africa.
The others had ended in triumph; this was to end in tragedy.
No European accompanied him on what
was to prove his final expedition. With a party of thirty-six black men,
including some Sepoys, he started off from Zanzibar with the intention of
pushing much farther inland than he had gone before. His trials began almost
at once. Much of the country was uninhabitable, and his men rebelled and
deserted him from time to time, leaving him without food or supplies. His
medicine-chest was stolen, and he lost a number of his animals. Half-starved
and cut off from all possible help, he struggled on with the remnant of his
party, hoping against hope that conditions would improve with progress.
To hide their treachery, some of the
men who had deserted him spread the rumour that he had been murdered. Fears
for his safety were felt in England, and a search expedition was organized.
Finally, as no news came through, he was given up as lost, and the
newspapers were full of obituary notices.
Meanwhile, Livingstone, despondent and
sick at heart, pressed onwards, and made fresh discoveries, including that
of Lake Mweru. He also sighted Lake Tanganyika. Without means of
communicating with the outer world, without hope of ever reaching
civilization again, almost without life itself, he went on and ever on,
faithfully recording all his discoveries in his Journal.
"I cannot perform impossibilities,"
Livingstone once said; but certain it is that no man ever tried harder or
came nearer to doing so.
To add to his desperate plight, his
health now began to fail and he had a presentiment of approaching death.
Then, at a critical time, a miracle occurred. He heard an English voice!.
Hardly able to believe his ears, he dashed forward, and found himself face
to face with a man of his own colour. He was Stanley, who had been sent out
by the New York Herald to solve the mystery of Livingstone’s
disappearance and to confirm or deny the report of his death.
The meeting between these two is now
historic. It remains one of the most marvellous and dramatic incidents in
history. Britain— and not Britain alone, but the whole world— was thrilled
by the news which Stanley flashed far and wide at the first opportunity. The
Press, however, was sceptical; it was inclined to regard the whole story as
a piece of journalistic "enterprise." With the greatest difficulty Stanley
convinced the journalists that he was speaking the truth—and then there were
These, nevertheless, were short-lived.
Everyone knows the tragic sequel—how Livingstone was given fresh stores and
supplies, how, greatly heartened, he continued on his last expedition, only
to endure more hardships.
After taking leave of Stanley, who
returned to the coast carrying with him Livingstone’s records of his
expedition, the gallant but worn-out explorer pushed on southward. Slowly
sinking to death, he skirted the southeast end of Lake Tanganyika, and at
length reached Chitambo’s village, where he made the final entry in his
Journal. The next day, the 1st May, 1873, he died. His unswerving trust in
Providence, his fine sense of duty, his magnificent pluck and determination
remained with him to the last.
At the suggestion of Stanley, it was
decided to give the name Livingstone to the main stream of the River Congo
in honour of the famous explorer, and as a further mark of the high esteem
in which his life’s work was held the mission station at the southern end of
Lake Nyasa, since transferred to Bandawé on the western shore, was named
The highest possible honours were paid
to his memory, and the remains of the great missionary and explorer, other
than the heart, were laid to rest in the nave of Westminster Abbey.
[See "Livingstone’s Last Journals in Central
Africa," 2 vols (1874), and "Missionary Travels" (1857), "Livingstone and
the Explorers of Central Africa," by Sir H. H. Johnston (1891), and "How I
Found Livingstone," by Sir H. M. Stanley (1872).]