David Livingstone, a 27 year old Scottish doctor and ordained minister, sailed from Britain to the Cape, to work as a medical evangelist with the London Missionary Society in 1840. He was to open central Africa to the gaze of British imperialists. Meanwhile, Portugal was planning to consolidate its African territories by uniting Angola and Mozambique across the central plateau. Unlike the Portuguese, the British knew next to nothing about the interior of this part of Africa. “Armchair Geographers” as Livingstone called them, thought the area was a desert of blistering sand and were in the 19th Century as ignorant as their predecessors in the 18th, who had been nicely satirised by Jonathan Swift:

So Geographers in Afric-maps
With Savage-Pictures fill their Gaps
And o-er uninhabitable Downs
Place Elephants for want of Towns

Livingstone was to give the true picture. He started his activities at the L.M.S. station at Kuruman (in today’s Northern Cape), but soon moved north to found his own mission at Kolobeng, near Gaberone, Botswana, where he stayed for a decade. He made only one convert, Chief Sechele, who soon lapsed. Livingstone grew bored with conventional missionising and started going on longer and longer journeys of exploration, receiving help from a wealthy Englishman named William Cotton Oswell: the two of them were the first Europeans to visit Lake Ngami in the middle of the Kalahari, led there by Tswana guides who knew the way. Asked once to describe Livingstone, Oswell remarked: ‘Well to look at the man you would think nothing of him, but he is a plucky little devil.’

In 1851 Livingstone and Oswell crossed the Kalahari to visit Sebitwane, whom we have already met, on the Upper Zambezi. Oswell in his memoirs describes the King thus: ‘This really great Chief….just though stern, with a wonderful power of attaching men to himself.’

Livingstone was equally impressed and thought it a sign of God’s blessing that the Kololo language was similar to the Tswana he had become fluent in. But at Sebetwane’s he had his first sight of the slave trade – the Kololo nobles were wearing Manchester cloth obtained from the Portuguese in Angola in return for ivory and slaves.

He and Oswell, who was also a staunch abolitionist, concluded that the only way to stop the trade would be through a new type of mission where a combination of Christianity and Commerce would lead to Civilisation: in fact a sort of Christian development programme under which slaving would be replaced by ‘legitimate’ trade in for instance cotton, which grew in the area and for which there was a large market in Britain. The scheme would be managed by carefully selected Scottish settlers.

Sebitwane, though scarcely interested in Christianity itself agreed that Livingstone could establish a mission in his country, if only because it might afford him protection against his enemy Mzilikazi of the Ndebele, whose warrior kingdom bordered his own.

Although Sebitwane died shortly after coming to this agreement, his successor, Sekeletu undertook to honour it, and Livingstone promised to establish the mission himself. All that remained was to find a suitable outlet to the sea.

The most economical passage for anticipated cotton (and ivory) exports might be through the Portuguese port of Luanda on the Atlantic and Livingstone decided to see if there was a feasible route from Barotseland (as the Kololo Kingdom is called) to there.

The journey was financed by Oswell and Sekeletu, and after an interlude at the Cape to get supplies, Livingstone set off from the Upper Zambezi in 1853. The return journey of over a year was a nightmare, the route totally unsuitable for the export trade.

Livingstone then convinced himself that the Zambezi could be ‘God’s Highway’ to the Indian Ocean. Again with the support from Sekeletu, Livingstone marched off eastwards down the river. He ‘discovered, and named after Queen Victoria, the great Waterfall, which the Kololo has already called Mosi oa Tunya (The Smoke that Thunders). To the Leya, who lived right beside it and held it sacred, it was called Shongwe (Rainbow).

After reaching the port of Quelemaine, Mozambique, towards the end of 1856, Livingstone sailed to Britain by way of the Red Sea and the Mediterranean. He was welcomed in triumph as the greatest explorer of the age.

Livingstone put his 15 months in Britain to good use. He wrote and published Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa (1857), a detailed and ideologically loaded account of his experiences, which became an inspirational best-seller. He made speeches up and down the land promoting his idea of a cotton exporting Christian venture in central Africa, with the Zambezi as its ‘highway’.

He resigned from the London Missionary Society, but arranged for them to send a mission to the Kololo (thus by not going himself, breaking his promise to Sekeletu). Meanwhile, the church of England backed a Universities Mission to Central Africa, which Livingstone would have under his aegis.

To crown his glory he was appointed leader of a government sponsored expedition to the Zambezi, the secret objective of which was to found a British colony on the ‘healthy highlands’ (Livingstone’s phrase) near the present town of Mazabuka in southern Zambia. There would be a port for steamers nearby at the confluence of the Zambezi and Kafue Rivers.

But the whole grand scheme collapsed in ruin and recrimination when it was found that the Cabora Basa gorge in Mozambique, which Livingstone had not inspected, made God’s Highway totally unnavigable. The LMS mission to the Kololo was likewise a complete failure as most of its members died.

After the Cabora Basa fiasco, Livingstone turned his attention to the area around Lake Malawi (which he claimed falsely to have discovered) and placed the Anglican mission at the foot of the highlands to its south. Its personnel suffered deaths and disasters and the remnants were soon withdrawn.

At the end of 1863 the mandate of the Zambezi Expedition expired. Livingstone returned to Britain under a cloud of failure and disappointment with nothing seemingly accomplished.

By the end of 1865 he was off to Africa again, seeking another place for his colony and searching in vain for the source of the Nile. He was apparently lost in the heart of Africa when his much-dimmed reputation was suddenly restored by the newspaper man H.M. Stanley in his reports and in his book How I found Livingstone (1872).

memorial siteLivingstone died, his ambitions unfulfilled, at Chief Chitambo’s village near the southern shore of the Bangweulu Swamps in Zambia in 1873. Stanley had convinced the world that Livingstone was a hero-saint, and his embalmed body, was carried to the coast by his servants and shipped to Britain, to be entombed with royal honours in Westminster Abbey, London. A memorial has been erected on the spot in his honour.

Livingstone’s new reputation however, did not crumble to dust with his remains. Within a year it had inspired Scottish missionaries to begin work in Malawi in his name. Also in his name the French Huguenot Francois Coillard was established in Barotseland a decade later and other Protestant missionaries were moving into Zambia. Not to be outdone, the Roman Catholics sent Henri Dupont of the White Fathers to convert the Bemba.