One of the most important European explorers of Africa, missionary and also a pioneer of the abolition of the slave trade, David Livingstone was born in Blantyre, Lanarkshire, Scotland, on 19 March 1813 as one of seven children of a very poor family. He was already working in a cotton mill by the time that he was 10. What little education he had, came basically through his own efforts, and from the determination of his strict Calvinists parents. During 1834 he became aware of a request by British and American churches for medical missionaries to work in China, and he decided that it should be his future career. For two years he studied theology and medicine while continuing to work part-time.
Although the London Missionary Society accepted Livingstone in 1838, he was prohibited from going to China due to the Opium War. An ensuing discussion with the noted missionary to Southern Africa, Robert Moffat, convinced him that he should pursue his career in Africa, and he left for the Cape on 8 December 1840. He sailed for Africa, going out by way of Brazil and the Cape of Good Hope where he stepped ashore on 14 March 1841. From the outset he decided to become an explorer to assist in opening up the continent for Christianity and Western civilization.
He travelled north via the Transvaal, and by the middle of 1842 he went into the Kalahari territory, which was farther than any European had ventured before. From Kuruman he made several trips deeper into the country. Here he established a mission at Mabotsa in 1844. Livingstone married Moffat’s daughter, Mary, who then accompanied him on his travels until 1852. During the period mentioned, he achieved his first step on the way to fame when he assisted in the discovery of Lake Ngami on 1 August 1849. The British Royal Geographical Society, for this achievement, awarded him a gold medal and a monetary prize. By 1852 his wife and their four children returned to Scotland due to her health as well as the need for the children’s security and education.
Without his family he could start his second major journey in November 1853. His main aim was to reach the Atlantic coast to open up an avenue of commerce. He reached Luanda on the Atlantic coast on 31 May 1854, and four months later started the return trip, exploring the Zambezi River region along the way. On 20 May 1856 he arrived at Quelimane, on the African east coast in Mozambique. The trip’s spectacular highlight was the discovery and naming of the Victoria Falls in the Zambezi River on 17 November 1855. For this accomplishment he was received as a national hero on his return to England in December 1856. The men of science, the Queen as well as the royal family, received him.
Back in England he published his book, Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa in 1857 and also spent six months on a speaking tour in the British Isles. In 1858 his lectures at Cambridge were published as Dr. Livingstone’s Cambridge Lectures. He returned to Africa early in 1858.
Livingstone’s wife died in April 1862 during his wide-ranging explorations of the Zambezi area. He named the Zambezi God’s Highway to the Indian Ocean and went down the river where he discovered the great cataract, which the local people called Mosi-o-Tunya, (the smoke that thunders). Livingstone christened the great waterfall Victoria Falls after his queen. This time the explorations were, from a commercial point of view, not successful, and the British government recalled the expedition.
His fourth and last great venture took place when he was 52. It was an unsuccessful attempt to discover the source of the Nile River, and to fight the slave trade. This mission was troubled with hardships and dissension among his staff, which left him in poor health. At one stage in 1866 he was given up for dead according to a report that reached Zanzibar. On 23 October 1871 Henry Morton Stanley, a correspondent for the New York Herald, found him in Ujiji, on the eastern side of Lake Tanganyika, and provided him with food and medicine. When the rescue party of Stanley met Livingstone, the former is said to have greeted the explorer with the famous remark, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” They joined up and explored the area northeast of Lake Tanganyika. Stanley returned to England in March 1872, but Livingstone declined the offer to accompany him.
On 1 May 1873 his two African assistants found him dead, still kneeling at his bedside, apparently praying when he died. It happened in Chitambo’s village in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), and his body was taken to England to be buried in Westminster Abbey on 18 April 1874. Later in 1874 The Last Journals of David Livingstone was published.
For more than 30 years Livingstone worked in Africa as a medical missionary and he traversed the continent from the equator to the Cape and from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean. His explorations resulted in a revision of all contemporary maps. He won international acclaim as an explorer and strongly influenced the way successive generations have thought about Africa. It was he that helped pave the way for Africa’s European colonization later in the 19th century.