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David Livingstone (1813-1873): Explorer and Missionary

David Livingstone (1813-1873) stands as a giant not only in the history of Christian missions, but also in the history of exploration. He was able to overcome his humble background to study theology and medicine, as well as become one of the most daring Christian missionaries in the African continent.

David Livingstone was one of the most impactful 19th-century Christian missionaries. His contributions to the history of Christian missions were significant, but his beginnings were quite humble. Livingstone was born on March 19, 1813, in the town of Blantyre, Scotland. His family was poor, so he was forced to go to work in one of the town’s cotton mills at a young age. It was not unusual for workers even as young as Livingstone to work 14 hours each day.

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His punishing work schedule did not stop Livingstone from getting an education. He read everything he could get his hands on, from scientific books to religious literature that he borrowed from his devout father. He was particularly interested in nature and theology. Despite his early struggles, he was able to enroll at Charing Cross Hospital Medical School.

The young man’s interest in missionary work began after reading Karl Gützlaff’s Appeal to the Churches of Britain and America on Behalf of China. The road to becoming a missionary was not easy. Livingstone knew that no organization would accept him if he presented himself as just another devout Christian with some background in medicine. He needed to stand out to be considered as a missionary.

In order to achieve this, in 1836 Livingstone enrolled at Anderson’s College in Glasgow where he studied Greek and theology. He also studied Latin to get into advanced medical school, as well as Hebrew to deepen his understanding of the Bible. It was during this time that he joined the London Missionary Society (LMS). It was not long before he acquired his Licentiate of the Faculty of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow.

Early Years in Africa

Missionary David Livingstone was one of the most popular British heroes of the late 19th-century.

The First Opium War began in 1839. Because of the war between China and Britain, serving as a missionary in China was not possible. A meeting with Robert Moffat, a renowned London Missionary Society missionary, changed the course of Livingstone’s life. Moffat suggested that instead of going to China, David should join him in South Africa where he had a base.

Livingstone agreed and accepted Robert Moffat’s suggestion. He left England, and arrived in Bechuanaland (modern-day Botswana). He settled temporarily in a place called Mabotsa to preach to the natives there. During his stay in Mabotsa, Livingstone learned that a lion was terrorizing the locals. He decided to help the natives and join the lion hunt.

Livingstone was attacked and wounded by the lion during the hunt. His left arm was seriously wounded, but thanks to his medical training, he was able to set his broken arm. Although his arm healed, it was not set properly. This injury hampered his movement for the rest of his life.

His first decade in Africa was marked with challenges and a lack of success in the area of evangelization. Over the years, he moved from Mabotsa to Chonuane. He then moved to Kolobeng, but was met with little success when it came to converting the natives.

Frustrated with his failures in southern Africa, Livingstone decided to explore the heart of the continent instead and see if he could bring the natives in these uncharted territories to Christ.

Across Africa

The starting point in his first voyage was a place called Linyati in what is now Namibia. Livingstone and his companions (which included guides and warriors loaned to him by the chief of Linyati) crossed the jungle into Luanda, Angola which they reached in the middle of 1854.

He recrossed the jungle throughout 1855, following the Zambezi River until he reached the east coast of Africa in what is now Mozambique. Although many Portuguese traders had already come before him and had explored the region, Livingstone was the first known European to cross the continent in this particular latitude. The journey was extremely difficult and Livingstone nearly died from fever on the way to Luanda.

Slavery was abolished by the United Kingdom in 1833, but the Portuguese led African slave trade was still ongoing when Livingstone made his first journey. He was deeply affected by the abuses he saw and he made it his mission to garner support for the permanent abolition of slavery through Christianity and commerce.

He returned to England and decided to publish a book to raise awareness about the scourge of slavery in hopes that it would be permanently eradicated. He also decided to focus on exploring the continent instead of preaching to the natives because of the lack of support he received from the leadership of the LMS.

In England, Livingstone received the support he needed from the British government and the Royal Geographical Society. Despite this additional support, he did not completely cut his ties with the London Missionary Society.

From the Zambezi to the Source of the Nile

Livingstone, his wife Mary, and their English and African companions began the second Zambezi expedition in the spring of 1858. The journey was perilous in itself, but it was made more difficult due to Livingstone’s poor leadership.

Despite the difficulties, the group able to reach Lake Malawi. This was the first time a European expedition was able to reach this location. Livingstone’s misery, however, was compounded with the death of his wife from malaria.

The odds that were stacked against him did not stop Livingstone from moving forward. He was finally forced to put a stop to the expedition when some of his companions began to die and others abandoned him en route. He was finally forced to return to England in 1864. The expedition was considered a failure by the general public.

Livingstone found it difficult to raise funds for his forthcoming expedition in Africa after the fiasco of the Zambezi expedition. That failure, however, was not quite enough to stop him from returning to Africa.

He traveled to Zanzibar in 1866 to begin another journey. This time, his goal was to look for the source of the Nile River. He was accompanied by two of his faithful servants (Chuma and Susi), some Sepoys, some Comoros islanders, and several freed slaves. The starting point of the expedition was the Ruvuma river.

From the Ruvuma river, he reached Lake Malawi, Lake Tanganyika, Lake Mweru, and Lake Bangweulu. He discovered that the Lualaba River flowed into the River Congo, and not into the Nile River.

This expedition was marked by desertions, declining health, and theft. In 1869, the explorer contracted pneumonia, cholera, and jungle rot (tropical ulcers). He was rescued from death by Arab traders and the locals. He abhorred slave traders, but ironically, it was the traders who repeatedly rescued him from certain death.

In 1871, Livingstone was forced to put an end to the expedition after witnessing a massacre of hundreds of Africans. He was horribly shaken by the experience and also seriously ill, and this forced him to return to Ujiji in fall of the same year. 

Despite the numerous setbacks, Livingstone’s reputation as an explorer was growing in Europe and America. But no one from the outside world knew whether he was still alive or not. For many, it was if he had fallen off the face of the earth. 

A Meeting with H.M. Stanley and Livingstone’s Final Years

A hunt for the intrepid adventurer began soon after he embarked on his disastrous Nile expedition. Henry Morton Stanley, a journalist for the New York Herald, managed to find him while he was recuperating in Ujiji. In spite of his illness and problems that plagued him in his quest to look for the source of the Nile, Livingstone was still determined to begin another expedition after his recovery. 

Stanley tried to dissuade him from carrying out his plan, but Livingston would not relent. He embarked on an expedition for the last time after he and Stanley parted ways. Unfortunately, Livingstone’s quest for the source of the Nile River remained fruitless. He wandered the Lualaba and Lake Bangweulu for a couple of years to no avail.

Livingstone died from malaria and dysentery on May 1 or 4, 1873 near Lake Bangweulu. After his death, his heart was buried under a baobab or mvula tree by Chuma and Susi, his loyal servants. His body was carried by the very same servants to Bagamoyo. His remains were returned to London, and he was buried in Westminster Abbey.


Picture by: Unknown – This image is available from the National Library of Wales.  You can view this image in its original context on the NLW Catalogue, Public Domain, Link

Hughes, Thomas. David Livingstone. New York: Macmillan And Co., 1889.

Morrison, J.H. Missionary Heroes of Africa. New York: George H. Doran Co., 1922.

Seaver, George. David Livingstone: His Life and Letters. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1957.

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