Star Rating: 3
This concise, fast-moving narrative relates what the last page of the book calls ‘the puzzle of Livingstone’s life’.
Taking a strictly chronological approach, Stephen Tomkins follows the steps of the great Scottish missionary-explorer across southern and central Africa, reflecting along the way on his character and motivations.
A popular hero in his own lifetime, David Livingstone is portrayed as an apparent failure in his primary calling, his converts numbering ‘between one and none’, and an independent-minded obsessive whom almost every colleague and collaborator struggled to work with.
He sought to open up Africa to Christianity allied with commerce, yet for a time the enterprise most assisted by his pioneering journeys was the slave trade, which he detested so vehemently. When commerce came after Livingstone’s death, it was accompanied by European imperialism quite distinct from the benign colonialism he envisaged.
Readers looking for an uplifting account of missionary endeavour will not find it here. Livingstone’s evangelical convictions are acknowledged, but fade from view as the focus moves to his successive expeditions.
While not unsympathetic to his subject, Tomkins dwells frequently on his deficiencies: impatience with the realities of missionary work; self-promotion; bitter disputes; inability to follow instructions or lead a team; manipulation of facts.
All may be true, but one wonders if other, more positive aspects of Livingstone’s character could have been highlighted. Constant travel in difficult and dangerous conditions is probably not conducive to easy inter-personal relationships. Livingstone himself always played down the hardships he faced, but his sheer physical endurance stands out throughout the story.
Only in the final chapter does the author attempt to evaluate Livingstone’s contribution to missionary advance and the destruction of the East African slave trade. In both cases, the fruit came after his death, particularly with the establishment of African churches with African preachers — Livingstone’s original dream. Perhaps his real success, aside from geographical discoveries, was in inspiring others to missionary work.
In a short book, the detail of names and places can occasionally be confusing, and more and better maps than the four included would have been useful. This biography offers a fascinating and succinct historical summary of David Livingstone’s work and a corrective to some of the Victorian myth-making surrounding him.