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.