Wednesday 28 April 2010

Random statue 6: David Livingstone, I presume

He's the subject of an extremely famous quotation, 'Dr Livingstone, I presume.' However, most of us probably don't know a great deal more about this celebrated Victorian, now to be seen looking over Kensington Gore from his vantage point on the Royal Geographical Society walls.

David Livingstone, missionary and explorer, spent his childhood working in a Scottish cotton mill but on his death, was buried in Westminster Abbey. This extraordinary progression began with his attendance at the company school each evening - after a twelve-hour day spent crawling among cotton spinning machines, joining broken threads. He learned enough to enter university in Glasgow, where he studied medicine while also attending theology lectures.

His aim had always been to become a medical missionary, and Livingstone moved to London where he began training as a missionary alongside his medical studies. He moved to southern Africa in 1841. There, he began his exploring activities too and in the 1850s became one of the first Europeans to cross the continent from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean coast. Famously, he was the first European to see the Victoria Falls, as he named them (they were already well known to local people as Mosioatunya).

In 1856, Livingstone returned to London to receive a gold medal from the Royal Geographical Society to whom he had sent despatches recording his explorations. However, the London Missionary Society was concerned that his exploring had overtaken his missionary activity, and he resigned from the organisation. His return to Africa the following year would be as Her Majesty's Consul. They would sponsor an expedition to the River Zambezi, whose aim was to discover the resources of the area. However, Livingstone's leadership was heavily criticised by fellow expedition members: the physician John Kirk described him as 'out of his mind and a most unsafe leader'.

Livingstone's final expedition was sponsored by the Royal Geographical Society: he spent seven years searching for the source of the Nile. Although he didn't manage that, he did enter areas previously unknown to Europeans; witnessed a massacre of 400 people by Arab slave traders; and of course had that famous meeting with the journalist Henry Morton Stanley, who had set out to find him six years into the expedition. (There is some suspicion that Stanley invented the words spoken at that meeting, so the quotation may be apocryphal after all.)

Livingstone died in May 1873, in present-day Zambia. His heart was buried underneath a tree there, but his body was returned to Britain for the funeral in Westminster Abbey. It was marked by a day of national mourning for this very Victorian hero.

From our perspective, it's easy to mock Livingstone: he apparently only converted one African to Christianity; he thought he'd identified the source of the Nile when it was actually the upper Congo; his 'discoveries' were of course already well-known to plenty of Africans; and his activities for the government took place in the context of the imperialist 'scramble for Africa'. However, there are features of his story which we can still admire: his incredible rise from humble beginnings; his anti-slavery activism; his emphasis upon learning local languages and cultures; and his devising of an effective remedy for malaria, manufactured until the 1920s.

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