Dr Livingstone, I Presume?

An artist's impression of Stanley meeting Livingstone
An artist's impression of Stanley meeting Livingstone

by Ray Setterfield

March 19, 1813David Livingstone, born on this day, became not only a famous African explorer, he also turned into one of the most popular British heroes of the late 19th Century.

Among his attributes, he was a pioneering medical missionary, a scientific investigator and an anti-slavery crusader, at the same time as being an enthusiastic supporter of colonial expansion and trade.

In 1866 he set out to find the source of the River Nile, but when nothing was heard from him journalist Henry Morton Stanley was commissioned in 1869 to find the explorer.

Livingstone, it must be said, had an ulterior motive for seeking the Nile's source. Though it was an ancient mystery, mere geographical accomplishments took second place to his passionate desire for ending the East African Arab-Swahili slave trade.

He is reported to have said: "The Nile sources are valuable only as a means of opening my mouth with power among men. It is this power with which I hope to remedy an immense evil."

In fact, he never did find the source. It was discovered by Sir Richard Francis Burton, English scholar, traveller and translator of the Arabian Nights.

Livingstone at least had the consolation of being the first European to see the Mosi-o-Tunya (the "Smoke that Thunders") waterfall. Describing it later, he wrote: "Scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight." Livingstone honoured his Queen by calling it Victoria Falls.

Pushing through what is now Tanzania with more than 100 porters, many of whom deserted or became incapacitated by tropical disease, Stanley was to finally encounter his quarry in the town of Ujiji on the shores of Lake Tanganyika in 1871.

Livingstone was clearly thin, ill and weak – and surrounded by a possibly unfriendly tribe.

Theologian and writer the Very Rev William Garden Blaikie was later asked by Livingstone's family to write a biography of the adventurer. His book, The Life of David Livingstone, published in 1880, includes an account of the historic encounter:

'As I advanced towards him,' says Mr Stanley, 'I noticed he was pale, looking wearied, had a grey beard, wore a bluish cap with a faded gold band round it, had on a red-sleeved waistcoat and a pair of grey tweed trousers.

'I would have run to him, only I was a coward in the presence of such a mob, – would have embraced him, only he being an Englishman, I did not know how he would receive me; so I did what cowardice and false pride suggested was the best thing – walked deliberately to him, took off my hat and said:

'Dr Livingstone, I presume?'

'Yes,' said he, with a kind smile, lifting his cap slightly.

I replace my hat on my head, and he puts on his cap, and we both grasp hands, and then I say aloud:

'I thank God, Doctor, I have been permitted to see you.'

He answers: 'I feel thankful that I am here to welcome you.'

A greeting hardly as stirring as Veni Vidi Vici, or I Have A Dream, but the words became famous partly because of their humour: apart from Livingstone there was no white man around for hundreds of miles.

David Livingstone died two years later from malaria, aged 60.

Published: March 4, 2018

Articles on Events in March