Great British Explorers David Livingstone

Great British Explorers: David Livingstone

Great British Explorers: David Livingstone

11 September 2023

In a 2002 BBC television series, David Livingstone was ranked as one of the 100 Greatest Britons. That’s quite an accolade! While David Livingstone became famous for being an explorer, and despite his pioneering and courageous work, exploration was never his real goal.

David Livingstone was born in Blantyre, Scotland, the second of seven children, on 13th March 1813 to Neil and Agnes Livingstone. His father worked as a tea salesman and also a Sunday School teacher. He read widely on theology and missionary work, interests which were to inspire David as he grew up.

At 21, he entered Anderson’s University, Glasgow with the desire to study medicine to aid his work as a missionary in China. By the time his medical and missionary training was complete, the London Missionary Society was reluctant to send more workers to China because of rising tensions which would escalate into the First Opium War.

Instead, David Livingstone was sent to Africa.

David Livingstone in Africa (1841)

Between 1840 and 1849, Livingstone worked and travelled as a missionary. In 1841, he travelled over 1,200 kilometres to search for a new location for a missionary base. He chose Mabotsa in Botswana as the ideal place and relocated there.

Mabotsa became the home of his first challenge. While Livingstone was defending sheep, a lion crushed his left arm. His arm healed, but he never regained full movement in his shoulder, despite this the injury did not stop his work. Here, he married Mary Moffat, who had tended to him while he recovered.

Together, they explored more of Africa over the following years, still with the goal of finding new missionary stations. He crossed the Kalahari Desert in 1849, and for his efforts, Livingstone was rewarded in 1850 with a chronometer watch by the Royal Geographical Society (RGS) for his journey to Lake Ngami.

First Zambezi Expedition (1851-1855)

During 1851, Livingstone followed rumours of a river which he hoped could unlock the interior of the continent for both Christianity and commerce; that year he discovered the Zambezi River. Following its course, a year later, Livingstone found himself halfway across Africa, at the village of Linyanti, Botswana. Here, he received help from Sekeletu, chief of the Kololo. Sekeletu furnished Livingstone with warriors to act as guides and interpreters, and in 1852, Livingstone pressed on.

In 1854, Livingstone reached the city of Luanda, a Portuguese colony on the west coast of Angola. Today this journey could be driven in 30 hours, but the 2,000 km route Livingstone followed took him two years.

Unfortunately, upon reaching the city, Livingstone judged the route too difficult for trade. Despite nearly dying from fever on his journey, he retraced his steps to Linyanti and struck out along the Zambezi river again, this time to the east.

It was during this leg of the expedition, in 1855, that Livingstone made one of his most famous discoveries: a waterfall that would be the largest in the world by area. Locals already knew the place as Thundering Smoke. Livingstone named it Victoria Falls.

Pushing on, the expedition followed the river, eventually reaching the Indian Ocean.

Trade routes already existed across Africa, but this momentous trek made Livingstone the first European to cross the entire continent. It resulted in new maps, contacts, and scientific data which were considered by the RGS to have ‘opened up’ the continent for the first time. For this, they awarded him the Patron’s Medal.

Victoria Falls

Second Zambezi Expedition (1857-1864)

Following the publication of his journal, Livingstone returned to Africa in 1858 to lead a second expedition on behalf of the Foreign Office. Now equipped and funded by the UK government, Livingstone attempted to sail up the Zambezi River but found the route impassable for the Steamer with which he had been supplied.

Progress was also hampered by disagreements within the expedition (Livingstone was called an ‘unsafe leader’ by one of his party) and a war zone. During this expedition, In 1862, his wife Mary, died from Malaria.

The expedition was called off in 1864 and considered a failure, but it was not without some value. English scientific organisations benefited from a wide range of observations and discoveries recorded by the expedition.

Source of the Nile (1866)

Livingstone returned to Africa in 1866 to settle the debate over the source of the Nile. Here, he faced new challenges. He was deserted by his assistants, some of whom falsely reported that he had died. He also had supplies and medicines stolen. He pressed on through swampland, and the following year became the first European to see Lake Bangweulu.

Two years later, in 1869, illness struck him again, and he suffered from cholera, pneumonia and tropical ulcers on his feet. Ultimately, this expedition failed. Beset by illness, and having witnessed massacres by slave traders, Livingstone returned to Lake Tanganyika.

Despite failing to achieve his ultimate goal, the expedition still provided considerable scientific value. Livingstone supplied the RGS with new observations and filled in details and discoveries to enable new and better maps.

For this work, the RGS appointed Livingstone a Fellow of the Society.

“And if my disclosures…should lead to the suppression of the East Coast slave trade, I shall regard that as a greater matter by far than the discovery of all the Nile sources together.”

Livingstone’s Legacy

Despite his fame, Livingstone was not quite as successful as may be imagined. While he has been credited with many discoveries and journeys as the first European, he was not necessarily the first person to find them. His expedition to find the source of the Nile failed, and he was thought lost for many years.

But if success is measured by how one achieves their personal goals, history shows a different picture. Livingstone’s original journey to Africa was driven by missionary work, not exploration, and his endeavours to find new trade routes across the continent were spurred by the belief that legitimate commerce could end the slave trade.

In 1855, his journal accounts provided a perspective on African culture and people which were notably different from his contemporaries. He recorded a respect for the people he encountered, and his missionary work was driven, in part, by the belief that economic cooperation, not subjugation, was the best way forward. His journal also exposed the brutality of the slave trade to the British public. Finally, his exploration and expeditions could not have been undertaken without relying on local expertise. His writings recognised and acknowledged the essential contributions of the people he met.

Despite criticism for some of his accolades, Livingstone’s passion, integrity and respect seem to have endeared him to the history of Africa in a way few of his contemporaries can match.

List of Expeditions and Achievements by David Livingstone

1849 – Crossed Kalahari Desert to reach Lake Ngami.

1851 – Reached Zambezi.

1852 – Reached Linyanti on the Zambezi River.

1854 – Reached the Portuguese city of Luanda after nearly dying of fever.

1855 – First European to discover the Thundering Smoke Falls, and named them Victoria Falls. Crossed the continent, and mapped most of the Zambezi river, 4th longest in Africa.

1856 – Awarded the gold medal of the Royal Geographical Society.

1858 – Second Zambezi Expedition. Made a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.

1866 – Expedition to find the source of the Nile.

The Army Cadets teaches Expeditionary skills and field craft as part of our cadet training courses. Find out more about our full Army Cadet syllabus here, and find your next challenge.

Image credits

David Livingstone: Copyright Wellcome Trust, licenced under Creative Commons 4.0.

Map of Africa: Public domain.

Victoria Falls: Copyright Albrecht Fietz, used with permission