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David Livingstone's Africa

Southern Africa

Illustration of Cape Town, Cape of Good Hope, from the Diary of Thomas Graham
Illustration of Cape Town, Cape of Good Hope, from the Diary of Thomas Graham
Credit: Wellcome Library, London

When he set foot in Cape Town in March 1841 David Livingstone had arrived at the administrative centre of a small British colony. Most of the sub Saharan interior of Africa was unknown to Europeans but from the east and west coasts, building on indigenous regional networks, they had developed long distance trade (notably in cloth and fire-arms for ivory and slaves) in alliances with African rulers. This movement of goods and people set off profound changes deep within the land mass -- producing new industries (mining, for example), tribal migrations, massacres and wars. Livingstone's first ten years were spent in mission stations north of Cape Colony. The colony was to be his lifeline for much of his first fifteen years in Africa. Correspondence and supplies were landed at Cape Town and he dispatched letters and scientific specimens and observations through the port. Most of the white population of the colony were descendents of the Dutch who had first settled in the region. It was home to thousands of former slaves as well as the Khoisan people and many people of mixed ancestry. However, English-speaking immigrants and their descendents dominated trade, politics and urban life. Colonists who spoke Afrikaans, a language derived from Dutch, were largely farmers -- the Boers.

Ink sketch of Farmer Peck's refreshment station, on the road from Simon's Town to Cape Town, South Africa 1844.
Ink sketch of Farmer Peck's refreshment station, on the road from Simon's Town to Cape Town, South Africa 1844.
Credit: Wellcome Library, London

From 1841 to 1849 Livingstone's trajectory was northwards and his route marked the beginning of an exploration of parts of the still largely unknown southern African interior. Livingstone's travels were profoundly affected by wider population movements. After Britain abolished slavery in its dominions in 1833-4 many Boers with their slaves left the Cape and crossed the Vaal River in the Great Trek to the northeast. The Boers were generally followers of Dutch Reformed Church which taught that slavery was divinely warranted. They were often openly hostile to British missionaries. Not surprisingly Livingstone had bad relations with the Boers of the Transvaal area although they distrusted him more as an agent of British political control than as an abolitionist. The migrations of the Boers themselves were complicated by clashes with the people involved in the second major population movement of the time -- the Zulus. This movement, the mfecane ('scattering' 'disruption'), followed the rise to power of the Zulu king, Shaka, whose kingdom lay northeast of the Cape. His wars of conquest and those of his former generals moving north and west caused massive disturbance of the interior tribal communities.

Three watercolour sketches entitled 'Cape of Good Hope'
Three watercolour sketches entitled 'Cape of Good Hope'
Credit: The RAMC Muniment Collection in the care of the Wellcome Library

In 1841 Livingstone left Cape Town and travelled about 550 miles north to a mission station at Kuruman in a region inhabited by various tribes of the Bechuana people who were mainly cattle farmers. Although many of the natives in the area had never seen a European before, others had traded with them in skins and ivory. In 1843 Livingstone camped at the village of the Bakwena or Bakwain chief, Sechele, who became Livingstone's friend and probably his only convert. Sechele told Livingstone about the Kalahari semi-desert area to the east and north and a great lake far north, beyond the Kalahari, Lake Ngami. By 1847 Livingstone was at Kolobeng, over 800 miles north of Cape Town, where he became friends with Sekhomi, chief of the Bamangwato tribe.

In 1849 Livingstone abandoned the role of a traditional missionary and went exploring in earnest. From then until 1856 he travelled through southern equatorial Africa comprising the central Zambezi region (modern Zambia), Portuguese Angola in the west and Portuguese Mozambique in the east. The idea to explore this massive area, however, had come to him earlier. In 1845 he had met a wealthy English hunter and explorer, William Cotton Oswell and in 1847 Livingstone had suggested they go in search of Sechele's Lake Ngami. They departed in June 1849 and five months later (and after three hundred miles of the Kalahari desert) they arrived at the lake. They were probably the first Europeans to do so. The party was financed by Oswell and contained a trader and a number of Sechele's Bakwains seeking sources of ivory. In 1851 Livingstone set off from Kolobeng again. This time, however, he struck out north east and encountered two peoples, the Makololo and the Matebele, who had been profoundly affected by the migrations of the Boers and the Zulus. They were to interweave their lives continuously with that of Livingstone as he explored the Zambezi region in the early 1850s. The Makololo people and their chief Sebitoane, forced northwards by the Zulu migration, had established themselves at Linyanti on the Chobe River, a region of the Zambezi above what Livingstone would call the Victoria Falls. The Makololo recurrently appear in Livingstone's letters from 1851. To the southeast of the Makololo were their enemies, a Matabele people, who had been driven out of Transvaal by the Boers. Their chief, Mosilikatze, also figures large in Livingstone's correspondence from around this time. In August 1851 Livingstone and Oswell arrived at a river which they soon worked out was the Zambezi.

Hundreds of miles from the sea in any direction, they were, nonetheless, at a point on the river already reached by the Portuguese who commanded most of the east and west coasts of sub Saharan Africa. The Portuguese had been established in Angola and Mozambique since the sixteenth century. In Mozambique, based around the last three hundred miles of the Zambezi, the Portuguese had three large towns, Quilimane, Sena and Tete which were administrative centres. Although the Portuguese mainly settled close to the river and towards its estuaries, their explorers had travelled several hundred miles upstream. The Portuguese ascendancy on the lower Zambezi was built on mining and trade. This latter included a declining movement of ivory and a huge trade in slaves even though this was banned by the Portuguese government in 1836. Mozambique traders resisted attempts to suppress the trade and their captives were still exported from Mozambique in the 1880s. If the Portuguese had ascended the Zambezi from the east they had also made their presence felt from the west. Livingstone learned from the Makololo that the cotton clothing they wore had come from Portuguese Angola by way of intermediate native traders, the Mambari. These people also dealt in slaves who, Livingstone realised, were thus being acquired far deeper in Africa than was commonly assumed. The Makololo, Livingstone soon discovered, were also slave traders, selling subject tribes to the Mambari.

Crossing Africa

A map of a portion of Central Africa by Dr Livingstone from his own surveys,drawings and observations between the years 1866  and 1873
A map of a portion of Central Africa by Dr Livingstone from his own surveys,drawings and observations between the years 1866 and 1873
Credit: © Royal Geographical Society

In March 1852 Livingstone was back in Cape Town and in June he travelled north yet again. His declared aim was to return to the Makololo country and discover whether a trade route for the British could be opened either along the Zambezi from the east or, by some means, across land, from the west. He stopped on his way at Kurumen and learned that the Boers had attacked Sechele as part of an assault on the Bakwains over trade routes and had sacked Livingstone's home at Kolobeng. In May 1853 Livingstone was back in Linyanti. The Makololo had a new chief, Sekeletu who, like Sebitoane, was well disposed to Livingstone by reason of the tribal politics of the region. Livingstone, for his part, needed Makololo porters and seems to have promised Sekeletu profitable trade with the Portuguese in Angola should he open that route. Livingstone first explored the area northwest of Linyanti, the Barotse valley, but the area was too malarious for a trading centre. In August 1853 he encountered another culture which had material interest in opening up the African interior. He met two Arab traders from Zanzibar who were assessing the slave and ivory resources of the area. They represented the tip of an iceberg of exploitation. The Arab slave trade of East Africa, however, was less well known in Britain than either the Portuguese or the earlier western Africa trade with the Americas.

In November 1853, with a party of Makololo, Livingstone struck out northwest and explored the upper Zambezi. Here he encountered the Balonda people and their chief, Shinte. The Balonda were slave traders selling to the Mambari and the Portuguese. Further northwest at Katema (a town named after a chief) slave trading was even more pronounced. Further on still he encountered the Chiboque people, without doubt the most aggressive he had met. Eventually he reached impoverished Portuguese settlements, notably Cassange, about four hundred miles from the coast. The Portuguese, here and on the Zambezi, unlike later colonists, never attempted massive inland settlement far from the sea or a waterway. Seven months and a thousand miles after leaving Linyanti, Livingstone reached Loanda, the Portuguese port in Angola. Loanda was once the major junction for shipping slaves to Brazil but British patrols of the west coast of Africa by the Royal Navy had virtually put a stop to this export. The Portuguese, now relatively poor, traded in ivory and slaves for domestic use in Angola itself. In spite of Livingstone's optimistic reports, he was well aware it was impossible, because of terrain, climate, local hostility and fever, to construct a trade route from Angola to central Africa. It might be noticed, however, in spite of these inhospitable conditions and although Livingstone met many people who had never seen a white face, nowhere did he encounter any inhbitants who had not, in some way, felt the reverberations of European coastal colonization. Everyone, for instance, knew what a gun was. In September 1854, after many bouts of fever Livingstone retraced his steps and arrived back at Linyanti a year later.

The Great Western Fall by Thomas Baines
The Great Western Fall by Thomas Baines
Credit: © Royal Geographical Society

In November 1855 he set off east, with a large Makololo party, to Portuguese Mozambique to see what possibilities the Zambezi offered as a navigable trade route. On finishing this journey he would complete the first authenticated west-east crossing of central sub Saharan Africa. After almost a month Livingstone arrived at a huge waterfall on the Zambezi which he named the Victoria Falls. From here he went directly east crossing the Bakota Plateau. In 1856 he arrived at the deserted Portuguese town of Zumbo about five hundred miles from the mouth of the Zambezi. He crossed the river and headed southeast again cutting out a river bend. This bend concealed the Kebrabasa rapids, a severe obstacle to navigation, of which Livingstone was unaware (he seems to have downplayed rumours he later heard of their size). He arrived at Tete, the most westerly Portuguese settlement, a town of 4,000 people almost all of them slaves.

This whole region -- 'Zambesia' as the Portuguese would call it -- was a nightmare of warring factions. In the 1830s various groups of the Ngoni people, called Landeens by the Portuguese, had arrived at the river causing major disruption. Although Portugal claimed colonial sovereignty over the area only small areas were fully under that country's control. Many lands granted by the crown -- prazos -- had been abandoned because of insecurity. Some Portuguese landowners paid tribute to African kings. In many places tribal or Portuguese clan control prevailed. Some clans with defined territories, such as the Pereiras of Macanga, acted as governments in their own right. The leaders of these clans were often of mixed background, typically Afro-Indian-Portuguese. The realities of Zambesia and Livingstone's visions of peace through commerce and Christianity made strange bedfellows. Livingstone travelled down the remainder of the Zambezi to Quilimane by canoe and in July 1856 boarded a vessel which began the first leg of his journey back to Britain.

Home 1856-1858

David Livingstone
David Livingstone
Credit: Wellcome Library, London

Livingstone used the two years he was home to convince various interests that the area he had explored east of Linyanti offered great opportunities for mining, agriculture and legitimate trade and which, if instituted, would edge out slavery and establish civilization and Christianity (Livingstone's idea of Christianity was a very broad, non-denominational Protestantism). As a national hero, Livingstone's status gave him access to the powers that could help him realise his plans to transform Zambesia. He deemed the presence of the Catholic Portuguese and the protectionist policies of their government the greatest obstacles to bringing these plans about. The problems of disease, tales of the Kebrabasa rapids, the entrenchment of the slave trade and endemic clan and tribal warfare were scarcely mentioned by him. Since 1849 and the discovery of Lake Ngami, he had had the support of Sir Roderick Murchison, President of the Royal Geographical Society and a massively important mobiliser of patronage for science. Livingstone also had the backing of the Royal Society, Britain's most prestigious scientific institution, of which he had been made fellow for his geographical discoveries. He enrolled other organizations, such as the British Association for the Advancement of Science, in his cause. What he needed was both the individual support of these sorts of bodies -- to provide funds, equipment etc -- but also the help of individual members to gain him personal access to the British government, without the support of which his project could not succeed (hindsight says it never could have done so anyway).

Livingstone's journey to Loanda in 1854 had been brought to the attention of the Foreign Secretary, Lord Clarendon, who wrote congratulating the explorer. Just before he left Africa in 1856 Livingstone wrote to Clarendon extolling the virtues of the lower Zambezi region. Back in London, both directly and through Murchison, Livingstone lobbied Clarendon for support of an expedition to prepare the way for the implementation of Livingstone's plans. By May 1857 the government agreed to pay Livingstone a salary to lead what became known as the 'Zambesi Expedition'. This was announced to parliament in December and much was said about the commercial prospects of the venture.

Title page (1876) of an American edition of Missionary travels and researches in South Africa (1857)
Title page (1876) of an American edition of Missionary travels and researches in South Africa (1857)
Credit: Wellcome Library, London

Financing the Zambesi Expedition was an almost reluctant decision by the government, forced on it by Livingstone's popularity. The Liberal government to which Clarendon belonged had no general imperial or colonial policy. The British who ruled in India, Canada, the West Indies, Australasia and many smaller lands had arrived there as independent entrepreneurs, members of trading companies, prospectors and so forth. When they were established in these areas the British government ratified their claims and supported them, but of itself showed no interest in deliberate colonisation, only in protecting the interests of its subjects. This was not the great jingoistic, deliberately imperialist, nation of say, 1890, convinced of its right to rule inferior peoples because of its assumed racial superiority and civilized values. Livingstone, if not quite an oddity at this time, was by no means voicing widely shared assumptions about Britain's role in the world.

The Portuguese government was well aware of Livingstone's goals (they were laid out in his many speeches) but, as an old ally of Britain, agreed to afford him assistance while at the same time proclaiming Zambesia to be Portuguese territory. The Portuguese government was handled very cautiously by the British one over these matters for it was trying to gain Portugal's aid in the suppression of the illegal slave trade from Mozambique The years of the expedition 1858-64 saw the Lisbon government struggle to tighten its grip on the region and suppress autonomous rulers and banditry. Ironically, by the time British missionaries and explorers had abandoned the area the Portuguese government's grip on it was tighter still.

The Zambesi Expedition

The intentions of the Zambesi Expedition to explore far up the river were thwarted by the Kebrabasa rapids. Instead the party turned to the lands around the River Shire northwest of the Zambezi where only one Portuguese explorer seems to have ventured. Travelling up the Shire Livingstone first encountered the hostile Manganja people. Further up, he met the equally aggressive Ajawa. He soon learned this hostility stemmed from the fact that the country was home to a massive slave trade. The Ajawa acted as middlemen and the Manganja were among the victims of the trade. While the Atlantic slave trade declined during Livingstone's life, traffic grew on the Indian Ocean as did the ivory trade. The two were of course related for slaves were often the porters used to carry ivory. The East African ivory trade saw a massive expansion in the nineteenth century. The soft ivory, ideal for carving, was traded for beads, cloth, copper and brass and exported to Asia and Europe (and later America). Ivory had myriad ornamental uses -- for inlay work, to make chessmen, cutlery handles, billiard balls, false teeth and piano keys.

Whalebone walking stick with skull pommel in ivory with green glass eyes, once owned by Charles Darwin
Whalebone walking stick with skull pommel in ivory with green glass eyes, once owned by Charles Darwin
Credit: Wellcome Library, London
Ivory was the plastic of the nineteenth century. Livingstone estimate that 44,000 elephants were killed annually to supply the demands of England was no doubt an exaggeration but it gives some idea of the scale of the enterprise.

In Livingstone's day Arab and African merchants dominated the slave and ivory trade from the east coast ports, notably Mombassa and Kilwa. From about 1840 the islands of Zanzibar and Pemba became increasingly important in this economy. These islands were under the control of the sultanate of Oman. They were slave-based plantation economies devoted to growing cloves. Many slaves were shipped from this area to the Sakalava chiefdoms of north western Madagascar and to the Persian Gulf. By the time of Livingstone's arrival, trade routes for slaves and ivory extended deep into Africa. Lake Nyassa, from which the Shire emerges, was the epicentre of this trade as slaves from central Africa were transported around or across the lake to reach the east coast. As slaves came east, so Islam spread inland. Between six and twenty million people (estimates vary) were victims of this trade between 1830 and 1873. In this later year, when the trading of slaves in East Africa was at its height, the Anglo-Zanzibar Treaty prohibited the export of slaves from the mainland.

Final African Years

The slave market in Cairo
The slave market in Cairo
Credit: Wellcome Library, London

The Zambesi Expedition was to a great extent a failure. Livingstone did heighten awareness of the Arab slave trade although the British and their government seemed nowhere as near as interested in it as they had been in west coast slavery. Livingstone returned home from the Zambezi in 1864. His final years in Africa, 1866-73, were largely spent travelling in the region around Lake Tanganyika, northwest of Lake Nyassa, where he searched for the source of the Nile and collected evidence on the slave trade. These years brought no new major cultural encounters of the sorts he had had with indigenous Africans, the Boers, the Portuguese and the Arabs. The trade in slaves and ivory, tribal warfare, banditry, population movement, mass slaughter even, dominated the regions he explored, but these sorts of things Livingstone had experienced in similar form before. During these years Livingstone was extremely reliant on the good will of Arab slave traders with a number of whom he had very friendly relations.

David Livingstone. Coloured wood engraving, 1870
David Livingstone. Coloured wood engraving, 1870
Credit: Wellcome Library, London

These journeys did, however, present him with one particularly gruesome example of trading rivalries. In 1871, the year Henry Morton Stanley "found" Livingstone, he reached the large town of Nyangwe on the Lualaba River, west of Lake Tanganyika. He had been there three months trying to buy canoes from the leading Arab trader when, on 15 July, a fight broke out at the market between three Arabs armed with guns and the local people. Panic ensued, other Arabs began shooting, and possibly four hundred people were shot or drowned as canoes capsized. Captives broke loose and looted the market. Livingstone's reading was that this episode was provoked by the Arabs to ensure native compliance. His account of the massacre at Nyangwe, published in the posthumous Last Journals of 1874, became famous and was an important source of public outrage in Britain and his own reputation as a champion in the fight against slavery.

Bibliography

  • Z. A. Konczacki and J. M. Konczacki, An economic history of tropical Africa, 2 vols (London: Frank Kass, 1977).
  • Tim Jeal, David Livingstone (London: Heinemann, 1973). Several subsequent editions.
  • M. D. D. Newitt, Portuguese settlement on the Zambesi: exploration, land tenure and colonial rule in East Africa (Harlow: Longman, 1973).
  • Horace Waller (ed.), The last journals of David Livingstone in Central Africa, from 1865 to his death, 2 vols (London: John Murray, 1874).

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