David Livingstone Traverses the African Continent

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David Livingstone Traverses the African Continent


David Livingstone (1813-1873) began exploring Africa in 1841 and spent most of the next 32 years there, until his death in 1873. In his travels he discovered or traced some of Africa's major rivers and lakes, elucidating much of the drainage system of the central and southern continent. As a missionary, he fought against the African slave trade and the exploitation of African natives, especially by the Portuguese and the Boers (Dutch settlers in South Africa). He also wrote extensively of his travels and discoveries, winning much acclaim and helping to influence Western attitudes toward Africa and its inhabitants.


Africa had been known to Europeans since the time of the Greeks, who had built cities along the African coast. However, with the exception of a small distance along the Nile River, Europeans had little conception of the size of the continent until Bartholemeu Dias's voyage in 1487 and 1488 in which Africa's southern-most point was rounded for the first time. Over the next three centuries, although the coastline and some of the major African rivers were mapped, virtually nothing of the African interior was known.

Crucial to understanding the central and southern African interior was the pattern of lakes and rivers. These were the key to travel and trade as well as providing food, water, and transportation for the native populations. The Greeks knew of the existence of major rivers, but never learned their locations or even in which direction they flowed. The source of the Nile was unknown, and the presence of the Great Lakes of the African Rift Valley was just a topic of speculation.

The African slave trade was in full swing in the early part of the nineteenth century. The chance to combat the slave trade, as well as the opportunities to do missionary work and to explore Africa for potential commercial activity led governments and private organizations to sponsor trips of exploration into the African interior. David Livingstone made several such journeys during the three decades he spent exploring Africa. During these journeys, Livingstone explored, mapped, conducted some scientific investigations, preached, and more. And, during his infrequent returns to Britain, he wrote and spoke of his work in Africa, helping to spark public interest and appreciation of the continent and its inhabitants.


Livingstone's work in Africa can be roughly broken into three major areas: 1. Scientific and geographic studies of the African interior, including teasing out the details of its waterways. 2. Work with the African people, including fighting the slave trade, his missionary work, and his studies of the Africans. 3. Teaching the public about Africa and Africans through books, lectures, newspaper accounts, and commercial possibilities.

These will each be discussed in further detail in the rest of this essay.

During most of his travels, Livingstone spent a great deal of time exploring the great rivers and lakes of Africa. In addition to his attempts to find the source of the Nile River, Livingstone discovered or explored the Zambezi, Congo, Shire, Lualaba, Rovuma, and Zouga rivers as well as Lakes Tanganyika, Nyasa, Ngami, Mweru, Bangweulu, and others. In fact, he spent most of his time traveling these waterways as he pursued his other aims, including those of trying to drive out the slave trade with a combination of religion and commerce.

One of Livingstone's most spectacular discoveries was Victoria Falls, one of the world's greatest waterfalls. Ignoring the native name, which translated as "smoke does sound," Livingstone renamed the waterfall after his queen, the name it retains to this day. Livingstone took a small steamship to Africa on one of his journeys, although it turned out to be as much a hindrance as an asset. However, as one of the first steamships on the great African lakes, it did help him to accurately map the shores, visit natives, and travel some of the rivers. It is possible that the understanding of African hydrology fostered by these travels is the greatest geographic legacy Livingstone left because of the complexity and importance of these waterways and lakes.

An unintended consequence of his understanding of the hydrology of central and eastern Africa turned out to be the pattern made by the great African rivers and lakes, a pattern that eventually turned out to owe much to plate tectonics. It turns out that the African Rift Valley is where the continent of Africa began to rip apart from tectonic stress, creating great faults along which lakes and rivers formed; the great rivers and lakes Livingstone spent three decades exploring.

In addition to his journeys, Livingstone spent several years living in Africa, during which he studied local geology, botany, and zoology. Although his scientific discoveries pale in comparison with his other accomplishments, Livingstone did send back information that was assessed to help determine the economic potential of those parts of Africa.

In spite of Livingstone's explorations, his primary reason for traveling to Africa in the first place was to help fight the slave trade, to help convert the natives to Christianity, and to better understand the African natives. He did all of these in abundance.

Livingstone's primary aim was to introduce and push Christianity, commerce, and civilization into the heart of Africa. As a missionary, he tried to find the most populous parts of the interior, the better to convert natives who could then help him to convert others. In addition, through his explorations of Africa's rivers, he was helping to open a path for others to follow him, spreading religion, commerce, and civilization behind them. He also hoped that he could encourage the economic development of central and southern Africa, creating sufficient economic incentive to end slave trade. While the slave trade did eventually slow down greatly, this may have owed as much to changing laws in the Americas and elsewhere as it did to Livingstone's efforts.

Livingstone did make great progress in learning the African languages, many of which are related to one another. This helped greatly because several of his expeditions were solitary and required the help of Africans to be successfully completed. In fact, Livingstone traveled a great deal with Africans, many of whom became close friends. Establishing this level of rapport and understanding not helped Livingstone survive some of the travails of his journeys (including having his left arm and shoulder mauled by a lion), but gave many of the native inhabitants an initially favorable impression of Europeans in general and the English in specific. And, by transmitting information about the natives to England, Livingstone helped future travelers to better understand the land and the people they were about to encounter.

This, of course, leads to what may be Livingstone's longest-lasting legacy; his journals, books, and lectures and the impression they left on the public. Livingstone wrote and lectured extensively about his experiences in Africa. These books sold well and were widely read and quoted. Newspaper accounts of his travels were frequent and popular, including those by Henry Stanley (famous for his line "Dr. Livingstone, I presume?") who helped save Livingstone's life after a series of mishaps left him ill and without medicine or supplies. Livingstone was primarily a kind man with a deep compassion for those about whom he wrote. His books and lectures inspired others to try to understand, to help, and to follow in his footsteps. As public interest in Africa grew, so did public involvement. Livingstone himself made enough money through his books and lectures that he was able to conduct many of his expeditions without external funding. In addition, several private and public organizations were established with the goal of improving knowledge and understanding of both Africa and its inhabitants.

At this time, too, the British Empire was still in its ascendancy. One of Livingstone's stated goals was to introduce commerce to the African interior so that the slave trade would wither and die. To do this, he felt it important to arouse public and governmental interest in Africa's commercial possibilities and, to do that, he explored and wrote. Although no British colony was established in areas he explored and the few missions he founded either failed or were destroyed, the British did turn parts of central and southern Africa into colonies, although without the same success they enjoyed in other colonial ventures.

Unlike many explorer-authors, Livingstone's accounts were neither self-aggrandizing nor needlessly sensationalistic. They nonetheless sold well, leading readers to a better understanding of the continent, its geography, its natives, and the evils of the slave trade. By showing in his writing that the African interior was accessible, fertile, and populated, readers could see the potential for development and the possible rewards. And, by writing of the excitement of discovery, the wonders to be seen, and the plight of some of the natives, Livingstone's books helped convince many to try to help. All in all, his writings may have had a greater influence on European understanding of and sentiments towards Africa than those of any other man. From that standpoint, it was through Livingstone's eyes that the world saw Africa and, to some extent, we still do.

David Livingstone died in Africa at the age of 60. He was found dead, kneeling as though in prayer at the side of his bed. Following local custom, his heart was removed and buried beneath a tree and his body was packed with salt and carried to the coast to be returned to England for burial. His legacy includes not only his maps and books, but also his belief that Africa could advance into the modern world. While his explorations may have helped to advance European colonialism in Africa, his belief in Africans helped to advance feelings that later grew into African nationalism and led to the independence of many African republics in the second half of the twentieth century.


Further Reading

Martelli, George. Livingstone's River: A History of the Zambezi Expedition, 1858-1864. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1969.

Seaver, George. David Livingstone: His Life and Letters. New York: Harper, 1957.

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