Livingstone Online

Explore the manuscripts of David Livingstone

 

Welcome > About Livingstone Online

About Livingstone Online

Who was David Livingstone?

For the late Victorians, David Livingstone (1813-1873) was one of the great heroes of their era. The "greatest man of his generation", Florence Nightingale called him. He was a household name, recognised as a courageous explorer of Africa, a tireless missionary and a champion of the fight against slavery. That he was also a doctor contributed to his renown. Livingstone's fame was largely posthumous. Although he was hailed as a missionary and explorer on his return to England from Africa in 1856 and 1864, it was to a great extent Henry Stanley's celebration of Livingstone after "finding" him in 1871 that was the source of his great public esteem. Today he is widely remembered. Ever since the return of his body to Britain in 1874 and his burial with honours in Westminster Abbey, his life has been commemorated in many parts of the world by exhibitions, monuments, museums, statues and memorials of all kinds. Nowadays Victorian estimations of Livingstone's achievements are often viewed in a different light. But it remains beyond doubt that in the nineteenth-century English-speaking world no one achieved anything remotely near the greatness the Victorian public accorded him as explorer, Christian missionary, humanitarian and doctor. In 1913, celebrating the one hundredth anniversary of his birth, the British Medical Journal observed that he "opened up the Dark Continent to the light of medicine, of civilization, and of Christianity."

Livingstone's greatness was not merely thrust upon him. He was a prolific writer and his letters and other works and his occasional presence in Britain kept him intermittently in the public eye. Livingstone was an untiring correspondent with family, friends, colleagues and official bodies. He wrote well over 2,000 letters. These letters cover a vast range of subjects. Their contents include family and religious matters, observations on African customs, geography, the slave trade and a great deal relating to the details of the organisation of expeditions. A large number of his letters contain commentaries on scientific and medical affairs.

What is Livingstone Online?

The aim of Livingstone Online is to use the potential of electronic publishing to make available an online edition of the medical and scientific correspondence of David Livingstone. We have now produced transcriptions and high-quality colour reproductions of the letters from Livingstone held by several major libraries in the United Kingdom and elsewhere as well as letters held in smaller collections. Livingstone's surviving letters are scattered across the world. There is no one collected edition. All letters written by Livingstone along with his other writings that were known before 1985 have been listed in G.W. Clendennen and I.C. Cunningham, David Livingstone: a catalogue of documents (Edinburgh: National Library of Scotland, 1979) and I.C. Cunningham, David Livingstone: a catalogue of documents: a supplement (Edinburgh: National Library of Scotland, 1985), both of which have been collected in a digital version through Livingstone Online. A few letters have been discovered since then and others may exist. Many letters are known only as copies of originals. Some exist only in printed form. Letters to Livingstone have not as yet been catalogued. In spite of Livingstone material having been located in over eighty archives and libraries (with other material in undesignated private hands) the bulk of the letters are held in a small number of institutions in Britain and Africa. Of these the National Library of Scotland has impressive holdings, including a large (although not comprehensive) number of copies of letters held elsewhere. Its holdings have recently been increased by the acquisition of the materials in the John Murray Archive. This collection contains more than 150,000 letters by a variety of individuals, including many by David Livingstone. In Africa the National Archives of Zimbabwe and the Livingstone Museum in Zambia are the other institutions with sizeable collections.

Many Livingstone letters have been published to date. However, the explorer has not always been well served by his editors. The volumes edited by Boucher, Foskett, Holmes and Schapera reproduce letters nearly entire. However, in deference to the wishes of a descendent, Schapera omitted a few short passages from his transcriptions. All are carefully edited and those published by Schapera have extensive annotations. The volumes of Blaikie, Chamberlain and of Seaver contain large numbers of letters but they are often shortened. Extracts from letters are reproduced in numerous biographies. Small numbers of letters have been carefully reproduced in academic journals.

Learn about our staff & contact us