David Livingstone was born in 1813 in Scotland. As one of seven children, Livingstone was raised in poverty and at the age of ten he began work in the local cotton mill, studying the classics in his spare time.
As a young man he became a minister in the London Missionary Society – as a medical student as well as a religious leader, Livingstone’s original ambition was to travel to China, gaining access to potential converts by using his medical knowledge. But the Opium Wars made him rethink his plans as Europeans could hardly gain access to the continent.
He attended a lecture on the work of Robert Moffat in Africa and was inspired to follow this new direction. From 1840 he worked in Bechuanaland – now known as Botswana – and married Moffat’s daughter, Mary in 1844. She travelled with him in the African hinterland, at his insistence, despite her pregnancy and the protests of her parents before returning to England with their children.
He explored the African interior, travelling inland, looking for converts and seeking to end the slave trade, which he saw as his life’s missions. By 1842, he had already gone further north into Kalahari country than any other white man and was the first European to see the Mosi-oa-Tunya waterfall, which he renamed Victoria Falls after Queen Victoria.
He was an advocate of combined trade and Christian missions being established in central Africa and he believed the key to this would be found in the navigation of the Zambezi River. He returned to Britain to drum up support and publish a book on his travels, during this period he resigned from the London Missionary Society, to which he had belonged.
Livingstone returned to Africa as head of the Zambezi Expedition, a British government-funded project to examine the natural resources of south-eastern Africa. The Zambezi turned out to be completely un-navigable at a series of cataracts and rapids that Livingstone had failed to explore on his earlier travels.
This expedition lasted from March 1858 until the middle of 1864! There were many complaints during the mammoth exploration: Livingstone was an inexperienced leader and had trouble managing a large-scale project, he dismissed the artist Thomas Baines for theft – which Baines denied hotly, Livingstone’s wife Mary died in1863 of dysentery, but Livingstone continued the journey until the government ordered the expedition’s recall. Because the Zambezi Expedition was considered a failure by many newspapers of the time, Livingstone experienced great difficulty in raising future funds. He seems to have been a man whom many struggled to get on with, and that didn’t help, when his ambitions were so huge.
In March 1866, Livingstone returned to Africa, seeking the source of the Nile. Finding the Lualaba River, which feeds the Congo River, Livingstone decided that this river was the real Nile.
At this point he became ill and completely lost contact with the outside world for six years. Only one of his forty four letters made it to Zanzibar and Henry Morton Stanley, who had been sent (as a publicity stunt) to find him by the New York Herald newspaper in 1869, finally located Livingstone in the town of Ujiji, near Lake Tanganyika, in 1871.
Despite Stanley’s urgings, Livingstone was determined not to leave Africa until his mission was complete. His illnesses, and tendency to self medicate made him confused and affected his judgement. As evidence of this, he accepted help from Arab slave merchants who were seeking slaves and who used him to make contact with local people.
He died on the southern shores of Lake Bangweulu in 1873 from malaria and internal bleeding caused by dysentery. His body, carried over a thousand miles by his servants, was returned to Britain for burial in Westminster Abbey. His motto, inscribed in the base of his statue at Victoria Falls, was Christianity, Commerce and Civilisation.