Dr Livingstone, I Presume?

Like every schoolchild in my era, I had heard of the great Victorian explorer, David Livingstone. But he was a figure I always felt I didn’t know enough about. Then, a couple of years ago, I visited the David Livingstone Centre in Blantyre, South Lanarkshire. The centre, which includes his birthplace and a museum, is currently undergoing a much-needed investment process, but is definitely worth a visit if open.

It was here I also picked up the book Livingstone by Peter Turner (Hodder and Stoughton, 2007). For a concise profile of the man and a good introductory guide to his adventures, it’s the biography I would recommend.

In the book, the author examines Livingstone’s background and remarkable adventures as explorer, missionary and doctor in ‘darkest’ Africa.

Livingstone was born into a Scottish crofting family in 1813. As a young man he worked in a local mill. Without proper schooling he managed to get into university. He paid his way through college and found work as a doctor in Glasgow. Then he decided to become a medical missionary. In 1840, aged 27, he left for South Africa, learning cartography during his voyage. He travelled from Cape Town to Dr Moffat’s missionary station at Kuruman. He learnt the language and culture of the natives and used natural medicine to help the sick, and his faith to engage and convert them to Christianity. Today, I guess he might be accused by some quarters of ‘white saviourism.’

One amazing episode occurs when we find out he was mauled by a lion that had been stalking a village. He shot the lion, then repaired his own injured arm. He put live maggots in the wound to eat the rotten meat. He arm was crippled but he was nursed back to health by Moffat’s daughter, Mary, whom he later married.

In the second part of the biography, we learn how Livingstone documented Africa during his ‘Great Trek’, including naming the largest waterfall in the world after Queen Victoria.

After 16 years he returned to Britain a hero. His bestselling adventures captured the public imagination.

Buoyed by his success, he set off on another expedition to map the east coast of Africa. However, this was a disastrous venture. Twelve of his team died, including his wife. He returned home and was jeered by the same press that had lionised him just a couple of years before.

Craving credibility he set off again in 1866, this time to search for the source of the Nile.

He disappeared for five years and was reported dead. Then, on November 10, 1871, after a seven-month search, journalist Henry Stanley discovered the explorer living in a village near Lake Tanganyika, and uttered the immortal words: ‘Dr Livingstone, I presume?’

The world was utterly astounded that Livingstone had survived against seemingly impossible odds. This time, he managed to achieve not just national fame, but global.

Two years later, Livingstone died on expedition. His devoted African porters carried his body for 10 months across 1,500 miles to the nearest sea port. The Royal Navy was deployed to bring him home and he was buried in Westminster Abbey.

The last words on his tomb are from his final letter beseeching the world to abolish the slave trade: ‘Help to heal this open sore of the world.’


Livingstone by Peter Turner. Hodder and Stoughton. 2007.

Published by Soul City Wanderer

Soul City Wanderer is the alias of London journalist and author Frank Molloy, a writer on the city’s history and culture. Born south of the river, he has an MA in London history (Birkbeck) and lectures at various institutions including the Museum of London and the National Portrait Gallery. He is also a fully-qualified Blue Badge Guide (MITG), Westminster Guide and City of London Guide.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: