Mission Impossible


by Tim Jeal
Putnam, 427 pp., $10.00

David Livingstone
David Livingstone; drawing by David Levine

The upper Clyde has two gorges. In one of them, profit-sharing industrialism was born, at the mills which Robert Owen built at New Lanark. In the other, or rather in a stone house on its lip, missionary exploration found its father. David Livingstone, dead 101 years ago on his knees in Chitambo’s village somewhere to the south-southeast of Lake Bangweolo, was born here.

The house, a gray vernacular hulk of a place with outside stair turrets, is at Blantyre, close to Glasgow. It has become the Livingstone Museum; around it, Presbyterians have laid out lawns. A café sells nonalcoholic drinks and memorial teaspoons. Inside, there is a dark gallery where you pull down levers to illuminate diorama scenes of Livingstone’s life. The lion mauls his arm; he outstares the wild men; he accepts the challenge of Stanley; he dies, with faithful Susi and Chuma. After a few seconds, the light turns a nostalgic yellow and fades down: the lever returns to its position and you are returned to darkness, denied any permanent revelation.

Some of the dwelling-rooms have been restored to their appearance of 1813, the year of David Livingstone’s birth. Here is the box-bed, the kitchen range, the clock, and the neat dresser. The suggestion is of spare, hard living much turned toward cleanliness and a few improving books, a Scottish “Selbstbildnis.” But Mr. Jeal, the author of this biography, points out that matters for the Livingstone family were not so neat or improving. Nine people—the parents and seven children—inhabited this “single kitchen apartment house,” or one-room slum. David lived here fourteen years, working in the cotton mill from the age of ten as a “piecer” for over twelve hours a day. After the work, though his fellow children mocked him, he studied in that room for a further two hours. And from that mill and room, he got himself to Anderson’s College, Glasgow, and into the vocation of medical missionary. As Jeal says, this was

…something that statistics alone made grotesquely improbable. Of all the children put to work in mills during the first three decades of the nineteenth century, less than ten per cent learnt to read or write with any proficiency. Those who managed to do this and devote time to Latin, botany, theology, and simple mathematics were virtually unheard of.

Jeal calls Livingstone’s reputation that of a “Victorian astronaut.” But he was twice a voyager: Was the distance from Loanda to Quilimane less than the distance from “Shuttle Row” at High Blantyre to mission college in the south of England, or the journey any less lonely? Livingstone left for southern Africa a gaunt, apparently slow-witted and emotionless young man with a Scots accent and a giant uvula which eventually had to be cut out so that people could understand his sermons. He went to the London Missionary Society’s settlement at Kuruman, in what is…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.