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Mary Livingstone, née Moffat

Mary Moffat sitting under an almond tree at Kuruman (NPG D18382).
Mary Moffat sitting under an almond tree at Kuruman (NPG D18382).
Credit: National Portrait Gallery, London

Mary Moffat (1821-1862) was the wife of David Livingstone. Her father, Robert Moffat, was a famous Scottish missionary working among the Bechuana people at Kuruman. She was born in Griquatown, about 93 miles north from Kimberley in southern Africa, in 1821, the first of ten children. Brought up in the mission station, she spent five years at Salem School in the eastern Cape Colony, followed by informal teacher training at Cape Town. From 1839 to 1843 she lived in Britain with her parents but found life there uncongenial. On the family's return to the Cape, she taught at the school at Kuruman. There she met David Livingstone. Although her mother disapproved of Livingstone, Mary and David married in January 1845. Mary showed astonishing resilience during her life with him and joined fully in his missionary work. At first they lived in Kolobeng and she accompanied him on his two journeys north to Lake Ngami across the Kalahari desert in 1849 and 1850. She had six children, two of whom were born during these ox-wagon treks, delivered by her husband. She did not go on his first major expedition to the Zambezi, 1853-1856. Instead, for the sake of the children's education, she spent four unhappy years in Britain. She was joined there by her husband in 1856-1858 when Missionary travels was published (1857). They lived for a while in Highbury, London.

She insisted on returning to Africa in 1858 in order to accompany Livingstone on the official Zambesi Expedition but became pregnant again. She left the expedition and went to her parents' home in Kuruman for the birth of this child. The Ma Robert, the little steamer (sadly, as it turned out, useless) that Livingstone sailed upriver, was named after her in the traditional African manner of honouring the mother of a first son.

Mary Livingstone's 'best' tea-set
Mary Livingstone's 'best' tea-set
Credit: The David Livingstone Centre, Blantyre/Gary Li
After a further brief period in Scotland, spoiled by rumours of over-drinking and too close a friendship with Dr James Stewart, she returned to meet Livingstone at the mouth of the Zambezi. However in camp at Shupanga on the Zambezi River, she became very ill with fever and died on 27 April 1862. She was buried there, under a baobab tree. The nature of her relationship with Livingstone has been much discussed by historians, both in the light of his tough, independent nature, and from the feminist perspective. But it is clear that they were extremely close partners, and that she was just as tough in her way. The old mission house in Griquatown today houses the Mary Moffat Museum.

Bibliography

  • Margaret Forster, Good wives?: Mary, Fanny, Jennie & me, 1845-2001 (London: Chatto & Windus, 2001).
  • Edna Healey, Wives of fame (London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1986).

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