In the days when British schools taught their pupils about kings and queens and Great Men, every child knew who David Livingstone was. His status may have been a little nebulous—and his achievements even cloudier—but we were taught to acknowledge that he had been a great hero, a missionary and explorer, a man so loved by Africans that his faithful black servants had carried his corpse hundreds of miles from the heart of the Dark Continent to the Indian Ocean near Zanzibar.
We were also told that the Great Man had once been lost, presumed dead, in the wilds of the interior, and that he had been discovered by a young journalist called Stanley, a Welshman who had emigrated to the United States and fought in the Civil War. Commissioned to “find Livingstone” by the New York Herald, Stanley had duly tracked down the sick and emaciated hero at Ujiji on Lake Tanganyika. At this famous encounter, which has many times been described, depicted, and mocked, the journalist doffed his hat and said, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”
As historical sayings go, this seemed pretty uninteresting to us schoolboys. It certainly lacked the pith and bite of some of Wellington’s remarks: the exhortation at Waterloo—“Up Guards and at ‘em”—the assessment of the British army as “the scum of the earth,” the dismissal of a blackmailer with “Publish and be damned.” Yet it has become the most enduring greeting in the English language. Arranged encounters between strangers, recognition assisted by the color of a briefcase or handkerchief in a breast pocket, can still culminate in a “Mr. Gilmour, I presume?” It’s a dispiriting overture to acquaintanceship.
At primary school I do not remember being taught any “facts” about Livingstone beyond the encounter with Stanley and the pilgrimage of the African porters. Perhaps this was not surprising. You can hardly teach children that someone was a great missionary if he made only one Christian convert—especially if the proselyte later changed his mind. Nor can you convince them that a man was a great explorer when his most ambitious claim—that he had discovered the source of the Nile—turned out to be wrong. The “discovery” was in fact a part of the Upper Congo. The Nile’s source had already been located by someone else, John Hanning Speke, several years earlier. But the discovery was as yet unverified.
Livingstone was thus a rather hazy figure, the epitome of the Great Victorian Abroad rather than a man of solid achievement like Darwin or Brunel. Florence Nightingale and others might consider him “the greatest man of his generation,” but disagreement continues about the content of that greatness. Being a moral titan makes you a more protean figure than the man who lands on the moon or reaches the South Pole. Your admirers can dispute not only the nuances but also the essence of your moral supremacy.
Few people can have elicited so many and such diverse interpretations as …
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