In 1855, the British explorer and abolitionist David Livingstone became the first European to set eyes on what was known as Mosi-oa-Tunya – “the smoke that thunders.” He named this mighty waterfall (located on the modern border between Zambia and Zimbabwe) after his monarch Queen Victoria, before continuing his unprecedented journey across Africa.
Livingstone was a prolific explorer and philanthropist who exercised a formative influence on Western attitudes towards Africa in the mid-19th century – today, his statues stand either side of Victoria Falls in recognition of his accomplishments. Here are 10 facts about the pioneer Christian missionary and abolitionist.
1. He worked in a cotton mill factory
Livingstone was born in 1813 in Blantyre within a tenement building for the workers of a cotton factory on the banks of the River Clyde. He was the second of seven children belonging to his father, Neil Livingstone and his wife Agnes.
He began work in his father’s cotton mill at the age of 10 alongside his brother John. Together they both worked 12 hour days tying broken cotton threads on the spinning machines.
2. He was influenced by German missionary Karl Gützlaff
Livingstone spent much of his youth reconciling his love of science with his all-encompassing faith in God. His father was a Sunday school teacher and teetotaller who handed out Christian tracts on his travels as a door-to-door tea salesman. He read books on theology, travel, and missionary enterprises extensively. This rubbed off on a youthful David Livingstone, who became an avid reader of the teachings of God.
It was, nevertheless, after reading an appeal by the German missionary Karl Gutzlaff for medical missionaries for China in 1834, that Livingstone saved up and worked hard in order to attend college in Glasgow in 1836. He applied to join the London Missionary Society and by 1840 the young Scot was medically trained and ready to go abroad.
3. He did not originally intend to go to Africa
Livingstone hoped to go to China as a missionary, but the First Opium War broke out in September 1839 and so the nation was considered to be far too dangerous for missionary and evangelist activity. Shortly after war broke out in Asia, the London Missionary Society suggested that Livingstone visited the West Indies instea, an area full of colonies that had very recently emancipated all inhabiting slaves.
In London, Livingstone met Robert Moffat, a missionary on leave from a posting in Africa. At the time, much of the interior of the African continent had yet to be explored by Europeans. Livingstone was entirely captivated by Moffat’s tales. He set out immediately for Bechuanaland (modern Botswana) as a missionary and with hopes of furthering the cause of abolitionism in southeastern Africa.
4. He was not very successful as a missionary
His success as a missionary was very mixed. While he tried to convert the tribes and chiefs bordering British and Boer territories at the southern tip of the continent, he failed to make any real breakthrough.
Livingstone concluded that before any progress could be made, he should first explore Africa to further his understanding. He identified the rivers as the best starting point for mapping and navigating inland.
Nonetheless, on more than one occassion throughout his career, he was called back by a government unimpressed by the results of his travels.
5. He was almost killed in a lion attack
Livingstone’s early years as a missionary were eventful. During his visit to Mabotsa in Botswana, an area where there were many lions terrorizing the villagers, Livingstone felt that, if he could kill just one lion, the others would take it as a warning and leave the villages and their livestock alone.
Proceeding to march forth on a lion hunt, Livingstone caughte the eye of a large lion and immediately fired his gun. Unfortunately for the Scottish missionary, the animal was not sufficiently injured to prevent it from attacking him whilst he was re-loading, seriously wounding his left arm.
The resulting broken arm never fully recovered and he could never raise the limb above shoulder height again. It was later reported that Livingstone attempted to have a depiction of this attack banned in later life.
6. He married his mentor’s daughter
In the early 1840s, Livingstone met the first daughter of his the man who had inspired him to explore Africa. Mary Moffat taught in the school at Kuruman in the Northern Cape Province of South Africa near where Livingstone had been stationed.
The two decided to marry in 1845, depsite Mary’s mother’s dissaproval. Mary would accompany David on many of his expeditions across Africa and bore six of his children. She would later tragically die from malaria, having rejoined her husband at the mouth of the Zambezi River in 1862.
7. He became the first European to see Victoria Falls
There were good reasons why Europeans had not explored inland before. Most explorers were ill-equipped to deal with tropical diseases. Exploring parties were also targeted by tribes who viewed them as invaders. For this reason, Livingstone travelled light with only a few native servants, guns, and medical supplies.
Livingstone’s journey began in 1852. He knew and respected the ways of the African tribes and tried to introduce Christianity and the abolitionist message gently, rather than haranguing proud chiefs into submission.
The chiefs warmed to his approach and even offered him men to assist him in his ambitious goal of mapping the Zambezi river all the way to the sea – a trans-continental journey that had never been completed before by a European, despite numerous attempts.
After several long years of exploration, Livingstone arrived at Victoria Falls on 16 November, 1855. We get a sense of his wonder at the sight through his later writings, in which he describes: “Scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight.”
8. His motto – the ‘3 C’s’ – became an embodiement of the British Empire
Livingstone sought to bring Christianity, commerce, and “civilization” to Africa when he undertook three extensive expeditions throughout the continent. This was a motto that he championed during his entire missionary career and was later engraved on his statue which stands next to Victoria falls.
The motto became a slogan that was used by officials of the British Empire to endorse the expansion of their colonial territory. It became symbolic of neo-Darwinistic ideas regarding the “White Man’s Burden” – an imagined responsibility on European nations to bring civilisation to the rest of the world. As a result colonial ambition was considered a ‘duty’ for European powers.
9. He was famously found by Henry Morten Stanley
After Lingstone’s expeditions to the Zambezi and later in search of the source of the Nile reached a sort of conclusion in 1871, after he fell extremely ill, Livingstone then disappeared for six years. He was later found, in the same year, by the American explorer and journalist Henry Mortan Stanley in the town of Ujiji in Western Tanzania. Stanley had been sent to find the legendary missionary in 1869 by the New York Herald.
In the subsequent encounter, Stanley introduced himself with the iconic line, “Dr Livingstone I presume”.
10. He died in the African Wilderness
Livingstone died deep in the African wilderness in 1873, at the age of 60. He left a legacy of mutual respect among the native people he encountered, and did more than any other man to combat slavery in that part of the world, which he had explored so thoroughly.