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 David Livingstone. By some he has been regarded as a Protestant saint, by others as an imperialist prophet, and by the former President Kaunda of Zambia as black Africa’s “first freedom fighter.” The only thing on which people can broadly agree is that he was the archetypal post-Reformation Scot: poor, pious, driven, righteous, stubborn, self-taught, and determined to let nothing—certainly not his health or his family—deflect him from his chosen purpose.

Two of Livingstone’s most recent biographers illustrate the breadth of contrast. To Tim Jeal, whose fine revisionist life was published in 1973, the man’s chief significance was as “a colonial theoretician and prophet,” a figure whose “missionary aims” and “almost messianic passion for exporting British values and culture” had given the generation after his death a “moral basis for [the] massive imperial expansion” subsequently known as the Scramble for Africa. When Joseph Chamberlain, the last colonial secretary of the nineteenth century, spoke of the annexation of Uganda as part of Britain’s “manifest destiny,” he was echoing Livingstone’s instructions to his men in the Zambesi expedition:

We come across them [Africans] as members of a superior race and servants of a Government that desires to elevate the more degraded portions of the human family…to become harbingers of peace to a hitherto distracted and trodden down race.1

The latest biographer, Andrew Ross, disagrees entirely. A historian of Scottish missions and missionaries, Ross dismisses the view of Livingstone as “an icon of liberal imperialism” as well as the image of the “saintly hero of Protestantism.” At the end of his effort “to help the reader see the real Livingstone,” he agrees with Kaunda and concludes that the man as “patron saint of African nationalism” is a more valid description than any of the others.

Livingstone was born in 1813 near Glasgow and brought up in a single-room tenement which he shared with his parents and his four siblings. At the age of ten he started at the local cotton mill, working every day except Sunday from six in the morning to eight in the evening. After work he went for two hours to the company school; from the age of thirteen he attended an extra Latin class; and on returning home he continued to study until his mother got up and snatched the books from his hands. Mental stamina and physical endurance were two of his strongest traits.


In his early twenties Livingstone decided to become a medical missionary and was accepted for training at Anderson’s College in Glasgow. Two years later, in 1838, he joined the London Missionary Society with the intention of going out to China after his ordination. The Opium War scuppered this plan, however, and in 1841 he embarked on a career in South Africa.

The rather gruff and awkward young man started work under Robert Moffat, a Scottish missionary stationed at Kuruman in Bechuanaland. Livingstone was deeply unimpressed by the statistics of Moffat’s achievement—forty converts in twenty years—and was convinced that he could do much better. After marrying Moffat’s daughter, Mary, he took her to regions further north in search of suitable places for missionary activity. Mary had five babies in six years and spent her time traveling in an uncomfortable wagon and struggling to keep her children alive: the family diet often consisted of frogs, caterpillars, and even locusts, which Livingstone thought delicious if eaten with wild honey.

The missionary may have loved his wife, as Ross claims, but he consistently neglected her welfare. In 1850 he insisted on crossing the Kalahari Desert when she was five months pregnant and had three small children to care for. There was not enough water, Mary became very ill, the children also sickened, and the new baby quickly died. Mrs. Moffat wrote a furious letter to her son-in-law, but his conscience remained untroubled by the affair. The death, he argued, was “just as likely to have happened if we had remained at home, and now we have one of our number in heaven.” The first part of this bizarre justification is endorsed by his most recent biographer, who informs us that “many Victorian parents in comfortable surroundings lost more than one child to disease.”

During his wanderings Livingstone began to realize that making converts was not as easy as he had once thought. Perhaps he was rather inept at his job. A trader who visited a tribe the missionary had been trying to convert reported that one of its “favourite pastimes was imitating Livingstone reading and singing psalms. This would always be accompanied by howls of derisive laughter.”

Livingstone had scoffed at his father-in-law’s record, but his own was much feebler, consisting of the solitary, temporary conversion of a tribal chief called Sechele. The affair made everybody unhappy: the chief, who became unpopular when he was forced to discard his junior wives; the wives themselves, who had previously been receptive to the ideas of Christianity; and ultimately also Livingstone, who was appalled when he learned that Sechele had resumed conjugal relations with one of the abandoned consorts.

His failure made Livingstone all the more ambitious, persuading him to abandon local missionary activity in favor of grandiose schemes and lengthy expeditions. What did it matter if a small tribe remained unconverted when he had convinced himself that God wanted him to open up central Africa to the civilizing influences of trade and Christianity? The losers in this vision were not the tribal chiefs, who would be left in peace with their wives, but his own family, who were now in the way and had to be sent to Britain, where they languished in poverty and misery for four and a half years. Livingstone consoled his children with the remark that he had given them back to Jesus, whom they should henceforth regard as their father. When Mary, who was not only poor and unhappy but very ill as well, begged him to come home, he wrote to tell her that patience was a virtue.

Unencumbered by his family, Livingstone carried out his most remarkable journey between 1853 and 1856, reaching the Atlantic coast in Angola and then crossing the entire continent before arriving at Quilimane in Mozambique. On his travels he was an impressive figure, determined, courageous, and kinder to his African porters than he ever was to Europeans. He was fearless in even the most dangerous situations although on one occasion he was mildly alarmed by a man howling and waving an axe because “it seemed a sorry way to leave the world to get one’s head chopped off by a mad savage.” Whatever the dangers and whatever the state of his health, Livingstone wrote remarkable descriptions of the geography, vegetation, and wildlife of the regions he traversed.


After fifteen years in Africa, he returned to Britain to a welcome of unrestrained adulation. He received an honorary doctorate from Oxford University and the gold medal of the Royal Geographical Society. He also wrote a book, Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa, which sold 70,000 copies and thereby removed penury from the list of Mary’s grievances. Although his heroic status might have been slightly diminished had the public known that some of his “discoveries” had already been visited by Portuguese travelers, he had proved himself to be an intrepid explorer.

Livingstone used his fame to press his vision of an African future. The continent could be transformed, he proclaimed, by the introduction of commerce and Christianity and through contact with a higher civilization. Tribal society would be subverted, the slave trade would wither, and British settlement would benefit the people of the region. Naturally the introduction of such blessings required access to the interior, but Livingstone was convinced that he had found it. The Zambesi River, he believed, would become the Mississippi of central Africa.

Apart from access, such a vision was obviously dependent on trade and colonists. In retrospect it is evident that the visionary miscalculated on all three fronts. The only existing trade of any value was in slaughtered elephants, whose tusks were transported by recently captured slaves to the coast. Livingstone believed growing cotton could one day be a substitute for the ivory trade. But even if he was right about the prospects for the crop—even if he could find a suitable place to grow it—it is difficult to see how produce from the middle of Africa transported down the Zambesi to the Indian Ocean could compete with cotton grown in the United States and Egypt.

Livingstone argued that central Africa should be colonized by the British, a process that would be beneficial to everyone and everything, especially the British conscience, which would be grateful it no longer had to import cotton from the slave plantations of the United States. The poor in Britain would also be beneficiaries: they could escape the “close, ill-ventilated narrow lanes” of their towns and emigrate in their millions to Africa.

As so often, Livingstone needed a reality check. Who was going to persuade these millions to go up the Zambesi? In the second half of the nineteenth century the British had greater scope for emigration than any people in the history of mankind. Millions of them went to the United States; millions more settled in the Dominions, in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Others sought their fortunes in India and the Cape or, outside the empire altogether, in Argentina. Vast spaces spread over about a third of the globe were open to those who wanted to leave Britain. With such opportunities before them, why should they want to spend their lives dodging malaria and the tsetse fly in central Africa?

Yet Livingstone’s worst error was his insistence that the Zambesi would prove to be the African Mississippi. In England he detached himself from the London Missionary Society and persuaded the government to fund an expedition up the river which he would lead with the title of consul in Quilimane. The prime minister, Lord Palmerston, did not want more African colonies. Nor did he or his Cabinet colleagues wish to annoy their Portuguese ally, the colonial power in the region which Livingstone seemed bent on antagonizing. But they could not resist the popular clamor for further heroic adventures.

If the coast-to-coast trek had exhibited Livingstone at his best, the Zambesi expedition showed him at his worst. However impressive he had been as a leader of Africans, as a captain of Europeans he was disastrous—obstinate, taciturn, intolerant, and vindictive. Perhaps this would not have mattered if he had displayed a calmer and more scientific judgment about the navigability of the Zambesi as far as the Victoria Falls. Instead he dismissed all warnings that the rapids at Cabora Bassa were insurmountable and insisted that steamers could get through them during the rainy season. The fact that the Portuguese had failed to make anything of the river over the previous three centuries suggested to him not navigational difficulties but Portuguese incompetence. Livingstone’s absurd optimism not only led to the failure of his own expedition but also to a tragic missionary endeavor that ended in a large number of deaths.

Another victim of the scheme was the luckless Mary, whose years of misery had already resulted in alcoholism and a loss of religious faith. Determined not to be left behind in Britain, she had insisted on accompanying her husband on the expedition. On becoming pregnant, however, she had been forced to remain in Cape Town and, on rejoining Livingstone, she succumbed to malaria and died.

The failures on the Zambesi persuaded the government to recall the expedition. They also prompted The Times to publish a critical article:

We were promised cotton, sugar and indigo…and, of course, we get none. We were promised trade; and there is no trade, though we have a Consul at £500 a year. We were promised converts to the Gos-pel, and not one has been made…. In a word, the thousands subscribed by the Universities [Mission], and the thousands contributed by the Government, have been productive only of the most fatal results. To say nothing of the great mistake of attempting to establish a mission and a colony among remote savages, the first great blunder was to attempt to plant them in the foreign territory of a European nation; for wherever Dr Livingstone attempted to set himself down he found he had been on what had been Portuguese territory almost from the time of Vasco da Gama.2

Considering the stack of blunders and the paucity of results, this seems a fairly restrained reaction. Andrew Ross, however, complains of its “venom” and describes it as a “devastating and pro-Portuguese diatribe.”

On his return to Britain in 1864, Livingstone realized he had lost his heroic status: he was only occasionally recognized in the street and then usually by “imbecile old ladies.” But the experience may have been salutary. When he went back to Africa two years later, he was a humbler and more tolerant man. It was during those final journeys that he accomplished the most useful work of his life: the reports he sent the Foreign Office about the iniquities of the Zanzibar slave trade, a traffic which the British government forced the Sultan to end in 1873, shortly after Livingstone’s death. It would have ended anyway—Parliament had abolished the Atlantic slave trade in 1807 and slavery in the colonies in 1833—but the rugged old explorer hastened its demise.

Yet the last meanderings showed that the stubbornness and self-delusion had not dimmed. Ross claims that Livingstone did not seek fame for himself but “fame as a means to an end—a platform from which to make his words heard about the horrors of the slave trade and Africa’s future.” But this does not explain the last obsessive search for the source of the Nile. That was surely a quest for personal fame.


In 1858 two explorers, John Speke and Richard Burton, had become the first Europeans to reach Lake Tanganyika. When Burton had fallen ill, Speke had traveled on alone, discovered an enormous lake, which he called Victoria, and proclaimed it to be the source of the Nile. Burton insisted that Speke was wrong, and so did Livingstone, who loathed both men (especially Burton, whom he called a “scoundrel,” a “blackguard,” and a “ruffian”) and was determined to prove that the real source was much further to the south.

The quest suffered from the usual problems: bad geography, bad luck—damage to his chronometers made Livingstone persistently miscalculate where he was—and the blinkered obstinacy that made the explorer ignore all indications that the River Lualaba might be the source of the Upper Congo River and led him to insist it was the source of the Nile. As scientific exploration the journey was not a great success: his discovery of Lake Bangweolo is made less impressive by his multiplication of its real length by a factor of six (150 miles instead of 25). Livingstone’s reputation was in any case pretty low by the time Stanley found him and informed the world of the saintly figure in the wilderness combating evils without hope of reward. The myth was subsequently reinforced by Livingstone’s death while praying, the complicated embalming of his body followed by its transport to the coast, and his burial in Westminster Abbey.

Stanley turned out to be an ambiguous figure in the saga of Livingstone. Although he encouraged the view of Livingston as “Friend of the African,” his own travels diminished the reputation of the explorer. In 1876 and 1877, when both Speke and Livingstone were dead, Stanley proved that Speke had been right about Lake Victoria and Livingstone had been wrong about the Lualaba River.

Andrew Ross’s short biography of Livingstone is thoughtful and intelligent but not always convincing. There is a little too much chiding of previous biographers and of people he thinks let Livingstone down. His defense of his subject is certainly sometimes justified: he rightly absolves him of Presbyterian missionary zeal and praises him for his denunciation of the slave trade; he also reveals a broad-minded religious approach that included admiration of the Jesuits. But his denial of Livingstone’s colonialism is less convincing. Ross claims that his advocacy of large-scale immigration was an aberration, limited to the year 1857 when he was in England. Yet Livingstone was writing about “millions” settling abroad in the 1860s. Certainly he did not want Africans to be dispossessed—no doubt he would have been horrified by Cecil Rhodes and his schemes of white supremacy—but he was nonetheless a colonialist.

As Michael Fry has pointed out, Livingstone is “the one imperial figure of the nineteenth century to be honoured in the independent Africa of today.”3 Ross’s claim that he is the “patron saint of African nationalism” thus seems plausible. But this identity does not exclude other ones, especially that of the colonial paternalist, the ideal of Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden,” the imperialist (not the settler) who sees his role as a benefactor and educator. Early-nineteenth-century India was largely governed by men such as Thomas Munro and Mountstuart Elphinstone who believed their job was to prepare Indians for self-government. Like them, Livingstone showed that an imperialist could also be a prophet of liberation.

What Ross and his predecessors have inadvertently done is to show how ambiguous and complicated Livingstone was. On the whole, twentieth-century scholars have regarded a variety of talents as the mark of the amateur and the dilettante. But the Victorian giants thrived on diversity. The greatest among them were like Proteus, assuming different shapes, looking different from diverse angles. Burton, for example, was a soldier, scholar, explorer, linguist, sexologist, and Orientalist, a man memorably described by Alan Moorehead as “an orchestra without a conductor.” His rival Livingstone may have had fewer interests and fewer abilities, but appears to have been a more complex person and more influential in capturing the public imagination. His mind and character were a jumble of ill-assorted contrasts—he was partly good, partly great, partly stupid, and partly ridiculous.

This Issue

June 23, 2005