David Livingstone: Africa's Pioneer Missionary


Livingstone was a Scottish missionary and one of the greatest European explorers of Africa, who opened up the interior of the continent and contributed to the 'Scramble for Africa'. 


David Livingstone was born at Blantyre, south of Glasgow on 19 March 1813 to the family of Neil Livingstone. At 10 he began working in the local cotton mill, with school lessons in the evenings. In 1836, he began studying medicine and theology in Glasgow and decided to become a missionary doctor. In 1841, he was posted to the edge of the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa. 
His mettle was dramatically tested in 1844 when, during a journey to Mabotsa to establish a mission station, he was mauled by a lion. The resulting injury to his left arm was complicated by another accident, and he could never again support the barrel of a gun steadily with his left hand and thus was obliged to fire from his left shoulder and to take aim with his left eye.

In 1845, he married Mary Moffat, daughter of a fellow missionary.

Photo credit: Getty Images

Livingstone became convinced of his mission to reach new peoples in the interior of Africa and introduce them to Christianity, as well as freeing them from slavery. This inspired his explorations. Between 1849 and 1851, he travelled across the Kalahari, on the second trip sighting the upper Zambezi River. In 1852, he began a four year expedition to find a route from the upper Zambezi to the coast. This filled huge gaps in western knowledge of central and southern Africa. In 1855, Livingstone discovered a spectacular waterfall which he named 'Victoria Falls'. He reached the mouth of the Zambezi on the Indian Ocean in May 1856, becoming the first European to cross the width of southern Africa.

Returning to Britain, where he was now a national hero, Livingstone did many speaking tours and published his best-selling 'Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa' (1857). He left for Africa again in 1858, and for the next five years carried out official explorations of eastern and central Africa for the British government. His wife died of malaria in 1862, a bitter blow and in 1864 he was ordered home by a government unimpressed with the results of his travels.

At home, Livingstone publicized the horrors of the slave trade, securing private support for another expedition to central Africa, searching for the Nile's source and reporting further on slavery. For 30 years his life was spent in an unwearied effort to evangelize the native races, to explore the undiscovered secrets, and to abolish the slave trade."

This expedition lasted from 1866 until Livingstone's death in 1873. After nothing was heard from him for many months, Henry Stanley, an explorer and journalist, set out to find Livingstone. This resulted in their meeting near Lake Tanganyika in October 1871 during which Stanley uttered the famous phrase: 'Dr Livingstone I presume?' Stanley stayed with Livingstone for five months and then went off to England to write his bestseller, How I Found Livingstone. Livingstone, in the meantime, got lost again—in a swamp literally up to his neck. On May 1, 1873.

Livingstone died from dysentery and malaria, at the age of 60, in Chief Chitambo's Village, near Lake Bangweulu, North Rhodesia (now Zambia) in a mud hut, kneeling beside his cot in prayer. His body was taken back to England, but the missionary’s many friends buried his heart in Africa. The whole civilized world wept, they gave him a 21-gun salute and a hero's funeral among the saints in Westminster Abbey.

Livingstone is widely regarded as "Africa's greatest missionary," though he is recorded to have converted only one African named Sechele, who was the kgosi or chief of the Bakwena tribe, part of the Tswana people, in what is now Botswana. Sechele became a preacher, a leader and a pioneer of adapting Christianity to African life.

Livingstone "disappearance", and eventual death in Africa‍—‌and subsequent glorification as a posthumous national hero in 1874‍—‌led to the founding of several major central African Christian missionary initiatives carried forward in the era of the European "Scramble for Africa."





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