Dr Livingstone, I Presume?

Andrew Ross reconsiders the reputation – both contemporary and historical – of the Scottish missionary and explorer.

When in 1851 he arrived in Cape Town from what is now Botswana, David Livingstone (1813–73) was at first distressed and then increasingly angry at the political situation he found there. After ten years in the north he had come to the Cape to see his wife, Mary, and their four children off to Britain. He found the colony engaged in a bitter war with the Xhosa people on the eastern frontier. The amaXhosa were being aided in their struggle by a minority of the Cape Coloured soldiers who had deserted from the colonial forces, disillusioned by the lack of concern for their people shown by the British authorities. These same authorities had charged with treason the most senior ‘coloured’ officer in the Cape, Andries Botha, who had served the colony with great gallantry in two previous frontier wars. Livingstone felt the British Government was pursuing a policy comparable to that of the reactionary tyrants of Europe when they crushed the liberal rebellions of 1848. What made matters worse in his eyes was that a Scottish clergyman, an ex-missionary named Henry Calderwood, was playing a major role in this policy of repression. 

Livingstone’s response to the situation was to despatch a remarkable series of letters to friends in the United Kingdom and the United States. He also sought to have his views published in the British Quarterly, which had eagerly sought articles by him in the past, as well as in the Morning Herald. Livingstone took considerable care over the essay he wrote for publication in Britain. It was by no means an ill-considered article dashed off in a moment of anger. He wrote:  

The mass of English people sympathize with the triumphs of liberty throughout the world. In no other country was there such a general wish for the success of Kossuth and the Hungarians. Our Queen, as in everything else of the good and generous, partook of the feelings of her people. But while England had been sympathising with the struggles for freedom which she herself knows so well how to enjoy, she had been struggling to crush a nation fighting as bravely for nationality as ever Magyar did. ... We are no advocates for war but we would prefer perpetual war to perpetual slavery. No nation ever secured its freedom without fighting for it. And every nation on earth worthy of freedom is ready to shed blood in its defence.

Livingstone had been deeply impressed by the speech Sandile, the principal chief of the amaXhosa, had made in 1851 to Henry Renton of the United Presbyterian Church who was visiting the stations of the Glasgow Missionary Society. Livingstone had it translated and sent to the United States to alert evangelical and abolitionist opinion there. He was particularly touched by one passage, which he copied into his notebook and repeated in several of the letters he sent abroad at that time. The words of Sandile that so fascinated him were:

No white man is without a book [the Bible]. Is it God who gave this book bids them think of blood? Some white men come and say the Caffres steal. God made a boundary by the sea and you white men cross it and rob us of our country. When the Son of God came into the world, you white men killed him. It was not black men who did that, and you white men are now killing me. Send this over the sea that they might know my mind. I was not made a chief by Englishmen, your Queen makes men chiefs. She made Smith a chief, God made me a chief. How is it that you are breaking the law of God? I do not know who will make peace in this country. I have given up my life and God may preserve it. I will never give up fighting. If you are able you may take me. If you drive me over the Bashee I will fight there also. If you kill me my bones will fight and my bones’ bones will fight … I am angry with the English. I am tired of the English because of their bad conduct.

The Reverend Henry Calderwood, a sometime missionary of the London Missionary Society, had become a Government Commissioner with the amaXhosa. Calderwood’s part in the public condemnation of the amaXhosa and of Andries Botha provoked Livingstone deeply because he saw it as a betrayal, not simply of the missionary cause but of Christianity itself. His bitter anger exploded in a letter to a friend where he wrote of Calderwood ‘From Commissioners who can play the fool for £600 per annum, with the Bible in one hand and the sjambok in the other, Good Lord deliver us.’

The man who wrote the considered and fundamental condemnation of British policy in southern Africa, and who saw Africans as having the same rights as Europeans, is not to be found in the books that poured forth after his death. Nor can one find in these books the Livingstone of the fierce and, as he admitted to friends, unChristian, anger who was so proud of his great-grandfather who died in the ranks of rebels at Culloden, and who admired the work of the pre-suppression Jesuit missionaries in Africa, when at home the Jesuits represented all that was bad in Romanism.

Livingstone’s body was returned to Britain in 1874, to be given a virtual state funeral in Westminster Abbey. Thousands lined the streets as the cortège travelled to the Abbey and an issue of the London Illustrated News was devoted to the event. Yet this was the man who, while visiting Britain in 1866, had been treated as an untrustworthy romantic dreamer. Livingstone had not changed by 1874 but Britain had and seemed both to need and to want him. W.G. Blaikie immediately began preparing a biography and Horace Waller began work on his two-volume edition of Livingstone’s last journals. These two works were the foundations of the minor literary industry that then developed in response to the astonishing public appetite for books on Livingstone.

What the British people were given in this literature was a heavily edited, sanitised, version of Livingstone. This was partly because of what Blaikie and Waller edited out of the record but also because the authors of this flood of books saw in their subject what they wanted to see and provided their audience with the hero they too required – a conventionally evangelical and pious Livingstone. It was H.M. Stanley, in his How I Found Livingstone, who first projected the hagiographical image of the almost too-good-to-be-true old man to the British public and his book became a bestseller. Even in Stanley’s work, however, there were elements of a more complex Livingstone, including hints of the anger that lay so near the surface in the character of this working-class Scot.

In the decades after his death Livingstone became a thoroughly conventional British hero. In reality, however, he never shook off the chip-on-the-shoulder touchiness and readiness to take offence that lay just a breath away from good humour and bonhomie, so characteristic of the culture from which he sprang. This enduring culture is one which has to be considered if Livingstone is to be understood. Yet it is a culture to which few if any of his biographers have paid attention. This criticism includes his late-twentieth-century biographers who would have done well to listen to some of Billy Connelly’s Glasgow monologues as part of their preparation for the task. Till his dying day Livingstone never ceased to be shaped by his experience as a member of the huge, newly-created industrial working class of the West of Scotland which was fed continuously by immigration from the Irish and Highland gaeltacht, of which his family was a part.

Some of the writers, who cashed in on Livingstone’s popularity at the turn of the nineteenth century, also presented him as the patron saint of liberal imperialism. The two images of saint and imperialist soon ran together as more and more supporters of Christian missions came to accept the British Empire as a ‘good thing’. Thus, in 1910, Edward Hume wrote in his study of Livingstone for the National Sunday School Union:

It is not too much to say that the work of exploration and development carried on by his successors has been made easier by the perfect frankness with which he dealt with the coloured races of Africa. In such a sense, therefore, Livingstone still lives. And as confidence in the honesty of purpose of the governing race will need to be the foundation of British rule in South and Central Africa, as it has been in India, so the man whose labours resulted in strengthening this reputation for fairness has a claim on Anglo-Saxon gratitude which each year should see deepened and extended.

This is a classic piece of what historian of slavery Philip Curtin called ‘trusteeism’, with its belief in the calling of the superior race to care for the inferior races, resisting those who would physically ill-treat them, as in King Leopold’s Congo, or exterminate them, as the British settlers did in Tasmania. This was the vision that informed Kipling’s call to the people of the United States to ‘Take up the White Man’s burden’ and aid their fellow Anglo-Saxons of Britain with their Herculean task. He urged them to:

Send forth the best ye breed – 
Go, bind your sons to exile 
To serve your captives’ need; 
To wait in heavy harness        
On fluttered folk and wild –
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,     
Half – devil and half – child.

But this attitude, which presumed the truth of that mixture of scientific racism, Social Darwinism and Anglo-Saxonism that had gained intellectual hegemony in the English-speaking world, was one that Livingstone did not share at all. Yet as late as the centenary of his death in 1973, the author of a commemorative volume insisted that Livingstone was a paternalist from the Kipling mould.

Though Livingstone was never again as explicit, in a published work, about the right of Africans to take up arms to defend themselves from conquest, his belief in human equality was there throughout his publications. In his letters and notebooks he was less guarded expressing his belief in the equality of human beings clearly and unambiguously including, in a letter to his sisters, a vehement insistence that Africans needed firearms to have any hope of freedom. At various points in his correspondence he took up the challenge of the new science that would relegate Africans to some lowly level in an unchangeable hierarchy of human sub-divisions. During his last expedition to seek the headwaters of the Zambesi, Congo and Nile, while discussing in a letter the possibility that the Manyema, who were his hosts, might be cannibals, he wrote:

And yet they are a fine looking race; I would back a company of Manyema men to be far superior in shape of head and generally in physical form too against the whole Anthropological Society.

He was deriding the Anthropological Society’s attempts to categorise humanity into inferior and superior races based on physical appearance. In those last years of his life Livingstone was still preaching human equality in his letters to his children, Tom and Agnes, and warning them how many of their fellow Britons did not share his beliefs. As he wrote to Tom:

… though the majority perhaps are on the side of freedom, large numbers of Englishmen are not slaveholders only because the law forbids the practice. In this proclivity we see a great part of the reason for the frantic sympathy of thousands with the rebels in the great Black war in America. It is true that we do sympathize with brave men, though we may not approve of the objects for which they fight. We admired Stonewall Jackson as a modern type of Cromwell’s Ironsides; and we praised Lee for his generalship, which, after all, was chiefly conspicuous by the absence of commanding abilities in his opponents, but, unquestionably, there existed besides an eager desire that slaveocracy might prosper and the Negro go to the wall. The would-be slaveholders showed their leaning unmistakably in reference to the Jamaica outbreak.

The ‘Jamaica outbreak’ of 1865 was the rebellion by some freed slaves in Morant Bay, Jamaica, put down with extraordinary ferocity by Governor Eyre. Eyre was subsequently put on trial but he was acquitted of wrongdoing and retired on a full pension. Eyre was supported, unsurprisingly, by the Anthropological Society, but also by a host of Victorian luminaries, including Matthew Arnold, Dickens, Carlyle, Tennyson and Ruskin. This is a measure of how much Livingstone’s outlook was at odds with the general direction of contemporary British society.

Waller, who edited out from the Last Journals Livingstone’s admiration for the old Jesuit missionaries, and the important role in his life played by Halima and Ntaoeka, the two women members of the small ever-loyal retinue of his last journeys, did not remove the racially egalitarian content of those letters to Agnes and Tom. Yet the passionate commitment of Livingstone to human equality was not reflected in the subsequent flood of books. Instead Livingstone was understood as Hume portrayed him in his Life for the Sunday School Union. 

The shift in the intellectual climate with regard to race, between the first decades of the nineteenth century and the last two decades of the century and the early decades of the twentieth, has been well documented. This change helps to explain how Livingstone could be so misunderstood and misrepresented; it is not, however, a complete explanation. This inability of people to accept what Livingstone was saying is seen clearly as early as the publication of his successful Missionary Travels and Researches in Southern Africa. In this book Livingstone described his famous walk across Africa, a journey from Linyanti, the Makololo capital in what is now western Zambia, to Loanda on the Atlantic coast and then back to Linyanti and on to Mozambique on the East Coast of Africa. This was hailed in Britain as one of the great feats of European exploration and was seen later as a precursor of that great burst of European exploration of Africa which featured Baker, Burton, Speke, Stanley et al., which so caught the imagination of the British public. But this was not how Livingstone viewed it. In his Travels he was at pains to point out that the journey was an expedition of the Makololo, financed and equipped by chief Sekeletu, with Livingstone as its leader, a nduna of Sekeletu, his authority deputed to him by the chief. Livingstone described how the Portuguese governor-general in Loanda rightly treated him and his companions as an embassy from Sekeletu. Yet this fact goes unnoticed even in the late twentieth-century biographies.

On the Zambesi Expedition and on his last journey, Livingstone showed that he did not have the qualities necessary to lead an expedition of paid employees. Once he  had established personal relations, he was an effective leader of men, (and, on the last journey, of women too) in extremely arduous situations, but he made demands of comrades which were unacceptable to those who were simply doing a job. Thus on the Zambesi expedition he could not handle several logistical and other problems associated with large expeditions, but there were major treks when, with a group of volunteers, he was a highly effective leader, achieving outstanding feats of travel and mapping. In the last seven years of trekking that ended with his death in 1873, Livingstone had no problems with those he called his ‘faithfuls’, once he had sent home the paid porters from Mikandani and Johanna, and the unwilling Bombay sepoys whom Bartle Frere had ordered to serve him. 

It has often been suggested that Livingstone was only successful when he was leading Africans who saw him as their bwana. This assertion ignores the fact that his authority in the astonishing walk across Africa of 1853-56 was not that of a European bwana but of an African nduna and that Livingstone was regularly a failure at organising treks with hired African porters. It also ignores Livingstone’s ability to maintain the loyalty of Dr (later Sir) John Kirk throughout the Zambesi Expedition and that of the many naval petty officers and ratings who worked with him there. It also fails to acknowledge the loyalty shown to him by many European travellers in Africa such as William Oswell and General Sir Thomas Steele, as well as that of a number of Portuguese officers. The loyalty to Livingstone of the latter persisted even when he was attacking Portuguese policy in Mozambique.

Livingstone could be extremely ruthless, discounting anything or anybody who got in the way of what he saw as the task in hand. These tasks, which always focused around bringing Christianity and what we would now call ‘development’ to Africa and freeing the people from the ever increasing Portuguese and Zanzibari slave trade, were more important than anything or anyone. Mary and the children suffered from this, even though his deep and indeed passionate love for Mary cannot be gainsaid. This characteristic ruthlessness combined with his readiness to take offence and feel slighted, could lead to his making bitter, unpleasant and sometimes, though not always, unfair comments about others. His observations on Sir Richard Burton may have been bitter but many would judge them fair.

Livingstone’s temperament also helps to explain his deplorable relations with several colleagues while he served the London Missionary Society (LMS) from 1841 to 1851 in what is now the northern Cape and Botswana. More importantly they explain but do not excuse his lack of sympathy for the survivors of the failed mission of the LMS to the Kololo. Despite angry accusations at the time blaming Livingstone, the disaster was due to errors of judgement by the directors of the LMS and by the leaders of the mission. However, the survivors’ bitter description of the Makololo as irredeemable savages infuriated Livingstone who saw these accusations as undermining the cause of mission and development in Africa.

Livingstone has also been accused of deliberate lying, most notably in his second book, An Expedition to the Zambesi, where the naval officer Norman Bedingfeld and artist and storekeeper Thomas Baines, both of whom fell foul of their leader, are excised from the story in an apparent Stalinist approach to history. The book has often been criticised for being dull except for certain passages, such as those describing the march with his beloved Makololo companions back to Linyanti. The book is flat because, unlike Livingstone’s Travels, it was edited and re-edited by a virtual committee of others. Sir John Kirk was consulted throughout and both Sir Michael Owen and William Cotton Oswell read and commented on every page in draft. It is fair to assume that they edited out Bedingfeld and Baines because of what Livingstone wanted to say about them. What he might have written can be gauged from his devastating comments about them in his letters from the Zambesi. Here again Livingstone was being shaped and refined by others to make him acceptable to his British audience.

Livingstone served only ten years on a conventional mission station, and even then he spent much time itinerating through villages that had never before heard the Christian gospel. On the first African trek he ever made, from Port Elizabeth to Kuruman, he was already writing to friends insisting that he had found his métier, which was to be a pioneer, opening up the way and preparing the ground for others to follow. Livingstone was never going to settle into the mission station way of life. Indeed, before he died he articulated a theory of mission, dramatically different from that then current in Protestant and Catholic missionary thinking. He suggested that trying to achieve individual conversions on first contact with a new population was not the way forward, indeed it limited the possibilities of expansion. There had to be a general exposure of the community to Christianity by widespread itineration – only then should missionaries initiate more intense teaching and preaching directed at individuals. Livingstone believed that he was beginning the necessary task of the diffusion of knowledge of the gospel, by his preaching, his magic lantern shows and his own conduct, even as he pursued geographic and scientific research and sought to initiate economic development.

Many who know little about Livingstone have in their mind an image of his meeting with Stanley at Ujiji in 1871, immortalised by Stanley’s words ‘Dr Livingstone, I presume.’ What Livingstone could not know was that this moving moment represented the meeting of two radically different approaches to Africa and Africans and that his approach was doomed to give way to the new. In all his thousands of miles of travel, Livingstone, though always showing willingness to fight if he had to, negotiated his way among the many chieftaincies he encountered, studying traditional custom and honouring it. Stanley, though briefly emotionally affected by Livingstone, represented the new European approach to Africa, which would, in the decade of the ‘Scramble’, conquer the continent with the Martini-Henry and the Gatling gun. By 1895 Africa had been ‘brought into the family of nations’ but not as Livingstone had envisaged when he coined the phrase, holding up Xhosa and Magyar as comrades in the struggle for freedom.

For Further Reading:

Andrew C. Ross,David Livingstone: Mission and Empire (Hambledon, 2002); J.W. Parsons, The Livingstones at Kolobeng (Pula Press, 1997); T. Holmes, Journey to Livingstone (Canongate 1993); B.Pachai (ed)Livingstone: Man of Africa (Longman 1973); T. Jeal, Livingstone (Heinemann, 1973).

  • Andrew Ross is Honorary Fellow, University of Edinburgh. His book David Livingstone: Mission and Empire has just been published by Hambledon at £19.95.