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David Livingstone — famous missionary explorer

December 2012 | by Nigel Faithfull

David Livingstone  — famous missionary explorer

David Livingstone, the fabled explorer, was born nearly 200 years ago at Blantyre, which is about seven miles from Glasgow, on 19 March 1813.

His father, Neil, worked industriously as a tea-dealer around the local villages. He was a Sunday school teacher and total abstainer, who honoured the Lord’s Day. David’s kindly mother, Agnes, came from an old Scottish covenanting family and provided a happy home environment for their five boys and two girls.

Missionary call

As a boy, David had a passion for collecting flowers and shells, and could boast of climbing higher up Bothwell Castle than any of his comrades — signs of the future missionary-explorer.
Aged just ten, he began work at the Blantyre cotton mill and, such was his hunger for knowledge, that out of his first week’s wages he bought himself a Latin grammar, and by the age of 16 could read Virgil and Ovid with ease.
He laboured from 6.00am to 8.00pm, and then rushed a meal before going out to night school until 10.00pm. After that David would read at home until midnight. His favourite books concerned science and travel, and his father once caned him for refusing to read Wilberforce’s Practical Christianity.
This combination of labour and learning continued until he was 20. At this time he came to believe that ‘the salvation of men ought to be the chief desire and aim of every Christian’ and resolved ‘that he would give to the cause of missions all that he might earn, beyond what was required for his subsistence’.
Livingstone next came to realise that it was not only his financial support that was required by the overseas missionary enterprise; he must give himself to it.
He heard of the need for medical missionaries in China, so studied Culpeper’s Herbal, and scoured the countryside looking for plants used in herbal remedies. He once found himself in a limestone quarry and was fascinated by the fossil shells there.
In pursuit of his missionary goal, Livingstone entered Glasgow University in 1836 to read medicine and theology. He tramped seven miles through the snow, with his father, to find lodgings in Rotten Row. His first landlady there began stealing his tea and sugar, so he moved to better accommodation.
David supported himself financially by continuing to work at cotton-spinning and befriended his chemistry professor’s assistant, James Young, who taught him how to use the tools and lathe in his workshop, skills that were to prove invaluable later on.

London Missionary Society

David favoured the non-sectarian London Missionary Society (LMS) and applied to join it in 1838. He was interviewed by the directors, who sent him on probation to Rev. Richard Cecil, at Chipping Ongar in Essex.
After three months probation, Cecil was critical of Livingstone’s hesitant manner and inability to preach. He was initially refused by the LMS, but accepted on the second occasion.
His meeting at this time with a Dr Moffat, recently returned from 30 years as a doctor at Kuruman in South Africa, inspired his desire to go to Africa and its vast unreached northern plains.
Livingstone returned to his studies in Glasgow, and passed as Licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1840. He was ordained as a missionary later that year and set sail for the Cape in December.
He spent the three months voyage learning navigation skills from the captain, which were to prove vital in his pioneering explorations. After proceeding to Algoa Bay, he then set out on the 700-mile trip north to Kuruman in an ox waggon. Livingstone remarked: ‘I like travelling very much indeed’, which was an understatement to say the least.
He wrote home with detailed observations of the flora and fauna, and commented: ‘Whatever way my life may be spent, so as but to promote the glory of our gracious God, I feel anxious to do it … My life may be spent as profitably as a pioneer as in any other way’.
Having reached Kuruman, he chose to visit a mission station a further 250 miles away. Livingstone soon came to believe that native agents were best suited to spread the gospel, and that the LMS should adopt a policy of expansion to achieve this.

Cultural isolation

To get close to the Bakwain tribe so he could reach them with the gospel, Livingstone needed to assimilate their culture. He, therefore, isolated himself from all European society for six months to study their language, laws, habits and ways of thinking, taking two native teachers to help him.
The region being in drought, Livingstone offered to bring ‘rain’, but not by using enchantments. He employed irrigation, and even the witch doctor cheerfully helped divert the river to achieve this. Shortly after, one of the sorcerers was trying to take the ‘witchery’ out of gunpowder and caused an explosion, resulting in the death of Livingstone’s teacher Bubi.
Livingstone travelled over a large part of the Kalahari Desert before returning to Kuruman. Although he could be angular in character, he had the gift of charming all who met him, and this was invaluable in dealing with the many murderous tribal chiefs he encountered. His medical skills also helped gain their confidence.
The LMS directors eventually gave their authorisation that the pioneers ‘go forward to the dark interior’ of Africa. Livingstone objected to missionaries remaining in holy huddles in sparsely populated areas; he had the vision of opening up unexplored regions where there were thousands of tribal villages unreached by the gospel.
There were no well-established routes or outposts, so he saw it as his main task to lay such foundations to facilitate the work of many future missionaries, rather than remain in one place.
He now departed with three hunters and a brother missionary to establish a station among the Bakatlas, in a fertile valley near the Mabotsa mountain range, in Bechuanaland (Botswana).

Lions

There was just one problem in this idyllic location — it was infested with lions. But Livingstone believed that if one were killed, then they would all abandon that place.
Having shot both gun barrels into one lion, which was also shot by another of the party, he reloaded before approaching it. The lion was far from dead, however, and sprung at him, catching him by the shoulder and then shaking him violently with one paw on the back of his head.
One of the other hunters fired two barrels at it, but missed. This caused the lion to release Livingstone and attack the other man, biting his thigh. Later the lion dropped down dead, but Livingstone’s left arm was crippled for the rest of his life.
In 1844 David married Dr Moffat’s daughter, Mary, who later gave birth to three boys and three girls.
David’s zeal provoked jealousy amongst other missionaries, so he left the station he had financed with his own money and settled at Chonuane among the Bakwains.
He travelled east and met the Transvaal Boers, who used the natives and their children as slaves. Livingstone always campaigned strongly against slavery, and the Boers became hostile, accusing him of gun-running.
Lack of rain forced a removal with the whole tribe from Chonuane to Kolobeng. The continuing drought caused Livingstone to cross the Kalahari Desert to Lake Ngami to find a constant supply of water. The desert journey took two months, reaching the lake on 1 August 1849. He was the first European to discover this great lake, 80 miles long and 20 miles wide.
It was 870 miles from their base at Kuruman, so Livingstone wrote to the directors that ‘We must have a passage to the sea on either the eastern or western coast’. He met with blunt refusal for this seemingly impractical scheme, so he financed the next phase of the journey out of his meagre salary and a gift of £25 sent by the Royal Geographical Society (RGS) for reporting his river explorations.

Zambezi

Livingstone next explored the Zambezi river, which flows across northern Botswana eastwards into the Indian Ocean, and discovered the Victoria Falls. Then he tracked the Congo river to the Atlantic Ocean, and so became the first European to cross the entire width of the African continent.
He returned to Britain in 1856 and wrote Missionary travels. He was awarded the Gold Medal of the RGS. He returned in 1858 with his brother Charles and a £5000 government grant to explore the tributaries of the Zambezi.
Here a fierce alligator took one of his men under the water, but Livingstone stabbed it with a javelin and the man was released, albeit with teeth marks in his thigh.
Mary Livingstone died from malaria in 1862 and was buried under a baobab tree at Chupanga (Mozambique). But David continued his travels, saying, ‘I am doing something for God’.
He visited Britain from 1864-5, but then, after burying his mother in Scotland, set out for Africa once more, to discover the source of the Nile. There were many setbacks. Some of his native helpers absconded and another stole his medicine chest. Arab slave traders accused him of being a slave trader too.
He reached Ujiji (Tanzania) in October 1871 to discover all his goods had been stolen. Five days later, Sir Henry Morton Stanley arrived with supplies, greeting him with the now famous words, ‘Dr Livingstone, I presume?’
Stanley was Madrid correspondent of the New York Herald, who had been sent to find out whether Livingstone was still alive, as no news had been received for two years.

Forward!

Livingstone travelled with Stanley for some time before Stanley departed, but by January 1873 was very ill and bleeding profusely.
In Old Chitambo (Zambia), on the morning of 4 May 1873, his boy attendant found him kneeling at his bedside, his head in his hands in his usual attitude of prayer. His spirit had already left on its final journey.
Stanley said Livingstone was a man full of gentleness and hopefulness, who depended on providence. His heart was buried where he died, but his embalmed body was eventually laid to rest in Westminster Abbey.
When once asked by Sir Roderick Murchison to be an explorer rather than a missionary, he replied, ‘I could only feel in the way of duty by working as a missionary’. Yet his constant travels made him an unusual missionary. He once said, ‘I will go anywhere, provided it be forward’, and, ‘There is one safe and happy place, and that is in the will of God’.
The questions we must ask ourselves are, ‘Are we going forward in the faith?’ and ‘Have we found that one safe place, which is in the will of God?’
Nigel T. Faithfull