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Significant Scots
David Livingston


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 district abounded.

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 brilliance.

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 future.

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 great rejoicings.

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 Livingstonia.

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).]

Read about his travels in this EText

The Personal Life of David Livingstone
By William Garden Blaikie D.D. LL.D.

I am tempted to introduce here part of a letter from H. M. Stanley to myself which I referred to at Los Angeles in my lecture on Livingstone, all the more effectively that Stanley is the connecting-link between America and Livingstone. When Stanley was in Edinburgh, after being at Berlin at the concocting of the Congo treaty, he told Dr. Livingstone’s daughter (Mrs. A. L. Bruce) that he had read the “Personal Life” at Berlin, and that it had brought Livingstone so clearly before him that he felt new vigour in pleading for his plans. I had occasion to write to Mr. Stanley soon afterwards, and I asked him if he would be good enough to tell me whether he thought I had done justice to Livingstone. The following is from his reply: — “I read the ‘Personal Life of Livingstone’ on the Congo with very great pleasure, and as I closed the book I was convinced that it would be almost impossible to produce a more vivid or truthful picture of the good man than can be gathered by reading your book from beginning to end. There is no straining of the effect in it, but the Life reads smoothly as though writ by a master’s hand. We see the poor factory boy at his ill-paid work grow into manly fulness; then we follow him through a strange life's probation in wild lands and the troubled period of it, and the long, patient struggles of the heroic spirit to do its part well and bravely until it is finally worn out, and the silver cord of life has snapped, and the well cited eternal rest has been won. It is a poem, sir, of which you, the narrator of it, may well be proud of the privilege of having told it. Good-bye, and many thanks for your kind words to me.—Yours faithfully,

“Henry M. Stanley.”


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