Critical Reflections on the Manuscripts (2)

Livingstone's Manuscripts in South Africa (1843-1872)

Cite page (MLA): McDonald, Jared. "Critical Reflections on the Manuscripts (2)." Mary Borgo Ton, ed.; Adrian S. Wisnicki, ed. and illus. In Livingstone’s Manuscripts in South Africa (1843-1872). Jared McDonald and Adrian S. Wisnicki, dirs. Livingstone Online. Adrian S. Wisnicki and Megan Ward, dirs. University of Maryland Libraries, 2018. Web. http://livingstoneonline.org/uuid/node/137ba52d-89ac-4b85-b172-b57d2f32c1b7.


This page, the second part of a two-part essay, presents critical reflections on the contents of the letters contained in the present edition of Livingstone’s manuscripts in South Africa (1843-72). The essay explores several themes and topics that emerge from a close reading of the letters together. These themes and topics include Livingstone’s global correspondence network, his views on mission, his representations of African peoples, his reflections on phrenology and scientific racism, and his penchant for wit and humour. Critical reading of the letters published through the present collection offers fresh perspectives on Livingstone, but also valuable information on his contexts and the peoples he encountered. Read the first part of the essay here.

Medicine and Medicine Men    Top

In addition to being a missionary and an explorer, Livingstone was, of course, also a qualified medical doctor. As such, it is not surprising that he wrote about the benefits of having medical knowledge for missionaries and the missionary project alike. The letters in the present collection show that Livingstone also commented on the medical practices he observed in Africa.

Livingstone explains the advantages which medical skills gave missionaries in the field in a letter to John Kirk from March 1858. Livingstone writes that by giving host peoples the benefit of one’s “medical skill and remedial aid” it was possible to gain their favour, then continues on to explain that African communities often have their own “medical men” who are “generally the most observant people to be met with” (Livingstone 1858c:[12]). As such, Livingstone stresses that it is “desirable to be at all times on good terms with them” (1858c:[12]). Furthermore, he notes, the “bed of sickness” provides an opportunity to say “a few kind words in a natural respectful manner” and affords one the chance to “imitate […] the conduct of the Great Physician” (Livingstone 1858c:[13]).

Livingstone's surgical instruments in leather pouch, nineteenth century. Image copyright Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow. Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/3.0/).
Livingstone's surgical instruments in leather pouch, nineteenth century. Image copyright Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow. Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported

The respect that Livingstone wishes to see shown towards traditional healers is telling and by referring to them as “medical men” rather than witch-doctors, Livingstone reveals a certain consideration towards African knowledge systems which many, if not most, other missionaries and explorers wilfully failed to acquire (Livingstone 1858c:[12]). African traditional medicine was generally considered to be synonymous with witchcraft and superstition during the mid nineteenth century. Livingstone’s comments in 1858 stand in sharp contrast to the predominant sentiments of the time.

However, Livingstone held similar views to those of his contemporaries during his earlier years in Africa. Writing from Kuruman in July 1843, Livingstone describes Sotho-Tswana notions of medicine as “puerile” (Livingstone 1843b:[4]). He notes that witchcraft is widely practiced and mentions that when he happened to cure an individual, it is often ascribed to his “powers as a wizard” (1843b:[4]). He also suggests that some community members think that he is capable of raising the dead.

Image of a page of David Livingstone, Letter to John Kirk 2, 18 March 1858, detail: [12]. Image copyright The Brenthurst Press (Pty) Ltd, 2014. Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/3.0/).
Image of a page of David Livingstone, Letter to John Kirk 2, 18 March 1858, detail: [12]. Image copyright The Brenthurst Press (Pty) Ltd, 2014. Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported. In this passage, cited partly above, Livingstone both discusses the advantages of having medical skills as a missionary and describes the importance of African medical men in local communities. The letters in the present collection show that Livingstone's thoughts evolved over time towards being more appreciative of African medical practices.

By the late 1850s, Livingstone’s understanding of African traditional medicine developed to a point where he did not simply dismiss such ideas as baseless or belonging to a “black art,” as he did previously (Livingstone 1843b:[4]). For example, while traveling along the Zambezi River near Victoria Falls in early 1856, Livingstone notes that he has been “examining native remedies more attentively than formerly” and is of the opinion that there were “a few of value” (Livingstone 1856c:[4]).

Read together, these letters reveal a transformation in Livingstone’s representations of African languages, traditions, and medicine over time, as he progresses from offering stereotypical views to more favorable, and better informed, representations. Observations on the topic of African physical attributes, by contrast, are rare. What he does offer on the topic in these letters is particularly illuminating when considering how his ideas contrasted with dominant European thinking towards the end of his career in Africa.

 

Thoughts on Phrenology and Scientific Racism    Top

Towards the end of his life, Livingstone strongly objected to the growing influence of phrenology and scientific racism in Europe. His letter to James Gordon Bennett following his meeting with Stanley is particularly revealing in this regard (Livingstone 1872a). The letter reads more like a reflective essay in which Livingstone draws upon his experiences in Africa over a period of thirty years and makes several observations about the peoples he encountered. As such, the letter is unusual, for Livingstone seldom devoted more than a cursory few sentences to detailed descriptions of African peoples in the letters in this collection, as noted earlier.

Livingstone was usually far more concerned with matters pertaining to his own business or the potential of a particular place for trade and commerce. For example, in October 1858, while sailing along the Zambezi River, Livingstone notes that the “most important piece of news” he has to tell is that the first coal “ever taken from the earth” in the interior has been dug (Livingstone 1858g:[3])-[4]). He also observes that there is an abundance of quality iron ore in the area. Livingstone declares that “[w]ith a great abundance of good coal and no end of the finest iron ore surely something will be done for the civilization of Africa” (1858g:[4]). Africans are conspicuously absent in this declaration and others of this sort.

Length of copper wire wrapped in barkcloth, collected by David Livingstone, mid-nineteenth century. Image copyright National Museums Scotland. Used by permission. Any form of reproduction, transmission, performance, display, rental, lending, or storage in any retrieval system without the written consent of the copyright holders is prohibited. Downloading the images for use by third parties and end users is strictly prohibited, except for private study. Downloading of images for commercial purposes will be treated as a serious breach of copyright and strong legal action will be taken by National Museums Scotland.
Hand weaving loom of wood and cane with weaving sample, Collected by David Livingstone, mid-nineteenth century. Image copyright National Museums Scotland. Used by permission. Any form of reproduction, transmission, performance, display, rental, lending, or storage in any retrieval system without the written consent of the copyright holders is prohibited. Downloading the images for use by third parties and end users is strictly prohibited, except for private study. Downloading of images for commercial purposes will be treated as a serious breach of copyright and strong legal action will be taken by National Museums Scotland.
(Left; top in mobile) Length of copper wire wrapped in barkcloth, collected by David Livingstone, mid-nineteenth century. (Right; bottom) Hand weaving loom of wood and cane with weaving sample, collected by David Livingstone, mid-nineteenth century. Images copyright National Museums Scotland. Used by permission. Any form of reproduction, transmission, performance, display, rental, lending, or storage in any retrieval system without the written consent of the copyright holders is prohibited. In the letters in this edition, Livingstone devotes little attention to descriptions of African peoples. Rather, he most often focuses on his own activities or points related to trade and commerce. As these images show, the latter interests also extended to his collecting practices in the field.

Nonetheless, in his observations to Bennett, Livingstone laments that he has witnessed much distress during his time in Africa. He writes: “often wish I could forget the scenes I have seen and certainly never to inflict on others the sorrow which being a witness of man’s inhumanity to man has often entailed on myself” (Livingstone 1872a:[1]). Livingstone adds that the effects of slavery and the trade in rum had been ruinous, bringing about a “monstrous injustice to the main body of the population living free in the interior under their own chiefs and laws – cultivating their own farms – catching the fish of their own rivers or fighting bravely with the grand old denizens of forests […]” (1872a:[5]).

The latter statement is telling for its portrayal of Africa. It has a nostalgic tone and describes an era that Livingstone himself would probably not have encountered first hand and may have been conveyed to him in conversation by an unknown interlocutor. In reference to the African peoples he had interacted with, he comments: “I have no prejudice against their colour – Indeed any one who lives long among them forgets that they are black and feels that they are just fellow men” (Livingstone 1872a:[5]).

'Liberating a Slave.' Image from Lantern Slides of the Life, Adventures, and Work of David Livingstone, Date Unknown: [22]. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Libraries, Washington, D.C
'Liberating a Slave.' Image from Lantern Slides of the Life, Adventures, and Work of David Livingstone, Date Unknown: [22]. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Libraries, Washington, D.C. In a key letter written to James Gordon Bennett (Livingstone 1872a), Livingstone sets out his generally egalitarian views of Africans and, rather than ascribe African social ills to inherent racial characteristics, underscores the deleterious effects of the slave trade on communities in the interior.

The letter then continues on as he attempts to refute the empirical basis for phrenology and scientific racism. For Livingstone, there are numerous examples of “finely formed intellectual heads” in Africa, similar to any in London or Paris, a point which calls into question the supposed link between physical form, especially of the skull and intellectual superiority (Livingstone 1872a:[7]).

Instead, Livingstone describes the inhabitants of the south-central African highlands as “fair average specimens of humanity” (1872a:[5]). In a rare description of female beauty, he adds that “Many of the women were very pretty” with “charming black eyes – beautiful foreheads – nicely rounded limbs – well shaped forms and small hands and feet” (Livingstone 1872a:[9]). In other words, in terms of contemporary European concepts of beauty, Livingstone apparently thinks there is much to admire among Africans.

'Londa Ladies' Modes of Wearing the Hair, No. 2.' Image from David Livingstone, Missionary Travels (London: John Murray, 1857): 510 . Courtesy of Internet Archive (https://archive.org/details/Missionarytrave00LiviA).
'Londa Ladies' Modes of Wearing the Hair, No. 2.' Image from David Livingstone, Missionary Travels (London: John Murray, 1857): 510. Courtesy of Internet Archive. Although the present collection does not offer many insights into Livingstone's early views on phrenology and scientific racism, the evidence of the collection suggests that Livingstone's later views leaned towards a more universal concept of humanity and drew on idealized depictions of select African individuals. Such idealizations hearkened back to the professional illustrations of African individuals, as in this example, that appeared on the pages of Livingstone's first published book.

With regards to the Manyema men, he notes that if they were placed randomly alongside members of the Anthropological Society of London “clad like them in kilts of grass cloth,” Livingstone would “like to take [his] place alongside the Manyuema on the principle of preferring the companion of [his] betters” (Livingstone 1872a:[35]).

The letters thus show that, at times, Livingstone embraced a more nuanced and universal concept of humanity than many of his contemporaries. The letters in this collection clearly demonstrate how his thoughts on this topic evolved over time, even as he was unable to completely divest himself from the racial profiling typical of the era.

 

Negotiating the Portuguese Presence    Top

Apart from his observations of African peoples, Livingstone also passed judgement on other Europeans and people of European descent in Africa. Livingstone portrayed the Boers in less than flattering terms and appeared to have imbibed John Philip’s strong dislike of them. For instance, in a letter penned in June 1847, Livingstone notes that “the state of these people [the Boers] – our own flesh and blood is anything but encouraging” (Livingstone 1847a:[3]). As Livingstone ventured further north, he began to interact with the Portuguese in Africa, of whom his opinions transitioned over time.

At the end of his transcontinental journey in 1856, Livingstone suggests it would not be difficult to establish “a communication between the Western and Eastern possessions of the Portuguese.” For the time being, he finds the Portuguese agreeable. Writing from Tete, he comments that the Portuguese in the region are “as kind as in Angola,” which is “saying a great deal” for he is particularly grateful for the “hospitality and good will of the Angolese both official and private” (Livingstone 1856e:[7]).

Image of David Livingstone, Map of Loanda, [1853]. Image from SOAS Library, University of London. Image copyright Council for World Mission. Used by permission for private study, educational or research purposes only. Please contact SOAS Archives & Special Collections on docenquiry@soas.ac.uk for permission to use this material for any other purpose. As relevant, copyright Dr. Neil Imray Livingstone Wilson. Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/3.0/).
Image of David Livingstone, Map of Loanda, [1853]. Image from SOAS Library, University of London. Image copyright Council for World Mission. Used by permission for private study, educational or research purposes only. Please contact SOAS Archives & Special Collections on docenquiry@soas.ac.uk for permission to use this material for any other purpose. As relevant, copyright Dr. Neil Imray Livingstone Wilson. Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported. This map traces the first portion of Livingstone's celebrated transcontinental African journey, from the center of southern Africa to the Portuguese settlement of Loanda on the southwest coast (1852-53). The prose section at the top right of the map references information collected from Captain Neves, "a Portuguese gentleman who travelled in these parts." The prose section in the lower left-hand corner notes that at one point in this journey Livingstone was misled by information on "Portuguese maps." The map as a whole illustrates the role of Portuguese colonists in Livingstone's knowlege production efforts and, additionally, demonstrates how Livingstone could combine information based on his own first-hand observations with that drawn from "the authority of others" (as the map puts it).

By 1863, Livingstone’s opinion of the Portuguese presence in Africa had become tainted by his frustration over the rampant slave trade he encountered in the eastern part of the subcontinent. In one letter, he describes the valley of the lower Shire River as “quite depopulated” and blames the Portuguese traders based at Tete for fuelling a conflict that has resulted in captives being exchanged for arms and ammunition (Livingstone 1863a:[1]).

“The slave hunting system to which the Portuguese [had] long been addicted” has, according to Livingstone, resulted in the disappearance of whole villages with “only a few starving wretches” left (Livingstone 1863a[1]). Livingstone also records that he believes that there were at least five “private marauders” operating in the region. These marauders, he notes, enjoy the backing of the Governor of Mozambique (1863a:[4]).

Slave chain for children, nineteenth century. Image copyright Livingstone Online. May not be reproduced without the express written consent of the National Trust for Scotland, on behalf of the Scottish National Memorial to David Livingstone Trust
Slave chain for children, nineteenth century. Image copyright Livingstone Online. May not be reproduced without the express written consent of the National Trust for Scotland, on behalf of the Scottish National Memorial to David Livingstone Trust. The specific provenance of these chains is unknown, and the chains may not even have been collected by Livingstone. Nonetheless, the chains are an important historical artifact and, in the present case, help clarify both the role of slavery in nineteenth-century Africa and the motivations for Livingstone's work as an abolitionist. Livingstone Online users, however, are urged to remember that such objects remain a source of trauma in many communities in Africa, the Americas, and elsewhere, and images such as this one should be referenced with due caution and consideration in any educational context.

In the same letter, Livingstone further dismisses all previous claims by the Portuguese administrators that they intended to put an end to the slave trade in their territories. Instead, Livingstone suggests that these territories ought to be declared “free to all nations,” by which he means that they should be considered as possible colonial possessions by other European powers (Livingstone 1863a:[4]).

Livingstone even questions the extent to which the Portuguese maintain control over their colonial territories, noting that they do not make use of the mouth of the Zambezi River (which for Livingstone was the great waterway to the heart of south-central Africa) and that they have “to pay tribute to the natives” who inhabited the right bank of the River (Livingstone 1863a:[4]).

It is apparent from these letters that a sore point for Livingstone was the risk he saw the Portuguese presence posing to the realization of his own vision for the African interior. Related to this were his concerns over his legacy in the region and how he would be remembered, for the Portuguese presence threatened to undermine his anti-slavery efforts and call into question his pioneering role in opening up the African interior to trade and commerce.

 

Concerns over Legacy    Top

Livingstone began to have his doubts about the benefits of the Portuguese presence in southern Africa earlier in his career. The change of opinion was partly brought about by what he perceived to be threats to his reputation as an explorer. In May 1859, Livingstone notes that he shares “very little” with the Portuguese colonial authorities, in contrast to his previous, more enthusiastic interactions (Livingstone 1859a:[4]).

In particular, Livingstone indicates that he is frustrated with the Portuguese authorities for suggesting that “two black men with Portuguese names” had been the first to cross the continent from west to east, “in order to establish a claim to lordship over the whole territory” (Livingstone 1859a:[4]). This point brings into question Livingstone’s own claim to having achieved the first transcontinental crossing.

Envelope with Rhodesia and Nyasaland stamps commemorating the centenary of David Livingstone’s sighting of Victoria Falls in 1855, 19 June 1955. Image copyright Christoffel Kok. Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/3.0/).
Envelope with Rhodesia and Nyasaland stamps commemorating the centenary of David Livingstone’s sighting of Victoria Falls in 1855, 19 June 1955. Image copyright Christoffel Kok. Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported. This is one of four "bonus" commemorative items included in the present critical edition. The lack of any reference, either in the illustration or on the stamps, to the African populations inhabiting Rhodesia and Nyasaland (present-day Zimbabwe and Malawi, respectively) demonstrates how popular commemoration of travelers like Livingstone often goes hand-in-hand with the elision of the non-western communities among which the individuals traveled.

Along with his frustrations over the Portuguese presence, Livingstone also had to contend with the disappointments of the Zambezi expedition. After realising that the Cahora Bassa rapids were impassable, he decided to turn his attention to the Shire River highlands and Lake Nyassa as new points of focus in the realization of his vision for the interior.

Though he had criticised Britain’s policies in the Cape Colony, particularly with regards to the Colony’s expansion and encroachment on amaXhosa territories in the eastern Cape, Livingstone considered the introduction of British settlers to the Shire River highlands as the best means of effecting the sort of change he hoped for.

In March 1860, he writes that he desires “a few good industrious English” to settle the region and in doing so, eradicate slavery (Livingstone 1860a:[3]). While Livingstone still had hopes for the Makololo, in April 1860 he reveals that he considered the Shire River highlands to be “admirably adopted for European enterprise and residence” (1860c:[3]). Livingstone was capable of being persuasive when he needed to be. Indeed, the Zambezi expedition had been organised and funded on the basis of his exaggerated claims about the African interior’s favourable prospects for trade and evangelism.

Engraver's watercolour sketch of Mary Livingstone's grave at Shupanga with annotations from David Livingstone, 1864-65. Copyright National Library of Scotland, Creative Commons Share-alike 2.5 UK: Scotland (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.5/scotland/), and Dr. Neil Imray Livingstone Wilson (as relevant), Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/3.0/).
Engraver's watercolour sketch of Mary Livingstone's grave at Shupanga with annotations from David Livingstone, 1864-65. Copyright National Library of Scotland, Creative Commons Share-alike 2.5 UK: Scotland, and Dr. Neil Imray Livingstone Wilson (as relevant), Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported. One of the most tragic outcomes of Livingstone's overly optimistic beliefs about the suitability of the African interior "for European enterprise and residence" was the death of his wife, Mary Livingstone, in 1862 during the Zambezi expedition, an event that this note references.

Now Livingstone suggests that the Shire River highlands would “prove a blessing” to Britain’s “own overcrowded population” (Livingstone 1860c:[3]). As far as the church’s role in this venture is concerned, Livingstone argues that “she never had such an opportunity” (1860c:[3]). Livingstone is “of the decided opinion […] that a colony of [his] own people” needs to be established for there to be any success in introducing Christianity, commerce, and civilization in the interior (1860c:[3]).

This correspondence shows that at this stage Livingstone still clung to the vision of opening up the African interior to British influence. However, this particular letter from 1860 also reflects a degree of disillusionment with the idea of the vanguard missionary working to convert and civilize in remote territories plagued by challenges such as slavery. Perhaps in a bid to restore his reputation as a respected explorer following the disappointments of the Zambezi expedition, Livingstone was prepared to consider the relocation and settlement of Britons as a feasible option for achieving his aims.

 

Humour and wit    Top

In contrast to some of the many serious letters cited above, some of the letters contained in this collection take a more light-hearted approach to their subject matter and reveal a human side to a man who has often been rendered as heroic and stoic, and little else. Livingstone’s penchant for humour and banter in his letters to close friends and family affords the chance to juxtapose a private profile alongside his persona as a Victorian icon.

'I Presume' (Victoria Falls Hotel Cocktail List), [1980-1990]: [1]. Copyright Gail van Jaarsveldt. Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/3.0/).
'I Presume' (Victoria Falls Hotel Cocktail List), [1980-1990]: [3]. Copyright Gail van Jaarsveldt. Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/3.0/).
'I Presume' (Victoria Falls Hotel Cocktail List), [1980-1990]: cover and inner page. Copyright Gail van Jaarsveldt. Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported. This segment of the cocktail list begins and ends with Livingstone-themed drinks.

In particular, some of the letters in this edition show that Livingstone clearly valued the correspondence he had with friends, family members, and acquaintances. In April 1845, while at Mabotsa, Livingstone described the news contained within a letter from Reverend Bateman as being like “cold water to a thirsty soul” (Livingstone 1845:[1]). However, Livingstone scolds a member of the London Missionary Society staff for sending notes that are “really too short” (1845:[1]). Such notes to “a brother in a dry and thirsty land” are akin, Livingstone writes, to dipping one’s finger in the water when seeking “a refreshing draught” (1845:[1]). Livingstone also remarks that if future notes from Bateman are longer, he, Livingstone, will be “much more cordial” in his acknowledgements (1845:[1]).

A sense of Livingstone’s wit and fondness of occasional light-heartedness is also revealed in a letter addressed to one of his nephews (John Livingstone or Neil Livingstone; the letter does not make it clear). Livingstone indicates that he approves of his nephew’s neat hand-writing and that he hopes that future letters will be similarly written in such “a fair hand.” Livingstone also instructs his nephew “never [to] make [his] letters as some do about as good as if they had dipped a spiders legs in ink and let it run across the sheet” (Livingstone 1863f:[1]).

Image of David Livingstone, Letter to [William Thompson], [late September 1853], detail: [2]. Image from SOAS Library, University of London. Image copyright Council for World Mission. Used by permission for private study, educational or research purposes only. Please contact SOAS Archives & Special Collections on docenquiry@soas.ac.uk for permission to use this material for any other purpose. As relevant, copyright Dr. Neil Imray Livingstone Wilson. Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/3.0/).
Image of David Livingstone, Letter to [William Thompson], [late September 1853], detail: [2]. Image from SOAS Library, University of London. Image copyright Council for World Mission. Used by permission for private study, educational or research purposes only. Please contact SOAS Archives & Special Collections on docenquiry@soas.ac.uk for permission to use this material for any other purpose. As relevant, copyright Dr. Neil Imray Livingstone Wilson. Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported. Although instances of humour and wit are infrequent in the Livingstone corpus as a whole, instances of humorous illustrations, such as this one, are exceptionally rare. The full context of the illustration is not clear, but Livingstone is apparently referencing an inside joke between him and Thompson. In a marginal comment (omitted here), Livingstone writes, "Not for every one's eye of course."

Certain letters, by contrast, reveal a degree of insecurity, especially those written at the time that Livingstone’s celebrity status was on the rise. While in England in 1857 and attempting to organize supplies for his return to Africa, Livingstone comments that he has “been so long out of the world” that he feels “quite bewildered in trying to send anything anywhere” (Livingstone 1857c:[12]).

Livingstone’s ability to be self-deprecating is also illustrated in a letter written in November 1872, towards the end of his life. Feeling self-conscious about the condition of his teeth, Livingstone notes that before any possible meeting with the addressee, Dr Marsh, he hopes to get his “mouth trimmed up” for he, Livingstone, is “nearly toothless” – though this is to be expected from “a dreadful old fogie” (Livingstone 1872b:[1]).

 

Concluding reflections    Top

Apart from a limited range of historians and other scholars, few individuals have had the opportunity to access manuscripts collected in this edition. Yet, when read together, the letters offer fresh perspectives on Livingstone’s life and his historical contexts, particularly southern and central Africa during the mid to late nineteenth century.

The letters in this collection can be mined for insights into this period of African history and for information on African peoples: their places of settlement, traditions, medicine, agricultural practices, trade networks, and conflicts with other groups. The influence of the Portuguese presence in southern Africa as well as the devastating impact of the slave trade emanating from the east African coast also feature as subjects in Livingstone’s letters.

The Livingstone Memorial at Ujiji, Tanzania, 2017. Copyright Neil R. Lindsay. Courtesy of Neil R. Lindsay.

The Livingstone Memorial at Ujiji, Tanzania (then called Tanganyika), c. mid-twentieth century. Copyright David Livingstone Centre. Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/3.0/).
(Top) The Livingstone Memorial at Ujiji, Tanzania (then called Tanganyika), c. mid-twentieth century. Copyright David Livingstone Centre. Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported. (Bottom) The Livingstone Memorial at Ujiji, Tanzania, 2017. Copyright Neil R. Lindsay. Courtesy of Neil R. Lindsay. These images offer two distinct representations of a monument in east Africa dedicated to Livingstone. The color image reveals how the memorial has deteriorated over time. The monochromatic image offers a decidedly colonialist perspective with the children (about whom no other information is available) posed within the scene and seemingly documented through the photograph for another, presumably British, audience. Juxtaposition of the images, in turn, creates the opportunity for comparing and contrasting the images, but also draws attention to the local communities in which such colonial monuments exist and raises questions about the actual ways that such monuments function within those communities, both at specific moments and over time. For instance, the background of the monument differs considerably between the images.

The collection furthermore presents a sample of Livingstone’s writings by which we can evaluate his life, career, and experiences on his own terms, rather than as mediated via biographies and other published works. Though our edition represents a relatively small selection of Livingstone’s letters, it provides insight into Livingstone’s thoughts, opinions, judgements, anxieties, ambitions, and frustrations over a period of thirty years.

Indeed, the extensive period covered by this collection shows that Livingstone’s ideas were not static, but rather were continuously evolving during the course of his career as a missionary and a missionary-explorer. The letters reveal that some of his ideas were remarkably progressive for the time, while others were decidedly conventional.

In some ways, Livingstone was an outlier in a generation that was becoming increasingly convinced by the claims of scientific racism. In this sense, he was more typical of the missionary movement of the early nineteenth century and akin to missionaries such as John Philip, who subscribed to the ideas of one humanity and African rights. Livingstone was even prepared to question the opinions of his father-in-law Robert Moffat, one of the most important and influential missionaries in the southern African mission field, though Livingstone did so in private correspondence which Moffat probably never read.

Image of a page of David Livingstone, Letter to Jean Fredoux and Ann Fredoux, 26 March, 12 July, 12 August 1856: [3]. Image copyright The Brenthurst Press (Pty) Ltd, 2014. Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/3.0/).
Image of a page of David Livingstone, Letter to James G. Bennett, February 1872: [44]. Image copyright The Brenthurst Press (Pty) Ltd, 2014. Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/3.0/).
(Left; top in mobile) Image of a page of David Livingstone, Letter to Jean Fredoux and Ann Fredoux, 26 March, 12 July, 12 August 1856: [3]. (Right; bottom) Image of a page of David Livingstone, Letter to James G. Bennett, February 1872: [44]. Images copyright The Brenthurst Press (Pty) Ltd, 2014. Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported. The material dimension of travel manuscripts, like those of Livingstone, represents a key area of growing critical focus. Often this material dimension – the non-textual elements of the page – tells a very different story than the words themselves. Moreover, these non-textual elements complicate received notions of authorship, as the elements point to actors involved in the life of a manuscript beyond the named authors. In the context of an internationally collaborative edition such as the present one, foregrounding such histories takes on a new significance.

How Livingstone may have thought about his own memorialization following his death is hinted at in some of these surviving manuscripts. He took exception to Portuguese claims on what he considered to be his “discoveries” or accomplishments, thus revealing that his reputation and legacy as a pioneer were important to him.

By revealing the mundane, the inconsequential, the anecdotal, and the contradictory, these letters promise to enhance the ongoing project of re-evaluating the Livingstone myth. Access to these letters also, importantly, draws more attention to the historical contexts in which Livingstone operated, but which have often been elided from the published record.

 

Works Cited    Top

[View a full list of manuscript items included in our critical edition through our project bibliography. Study images, transcriptions, and metadata related to these items through our Digital Catalogue.]

Livingstone, David. 1843a. Letter to Hamilton M. Dyke. 24 February 1843. Cory Library for Historical Research, Grahamstown, South Africa.

Livingstone, David. 1843b. Letter to Robert N. Hayward. 17 July 1843. Book no. 5318, Acc. Reg. 4669. Brenthurst Library, Johannesburg, South Africa.

Livingstone, David. 1845. Letter to [Member of London Missionary Society Staff]. 28 April 1845. Book no. 5318, Acc. Reg. 4669. Brenthurst Library, Johannesburg, South Africa.

Livingstone, David. 1847a. Letter to Andrew Murray. 10 June 1847. Graaff-Reinet Museum, Graaff-Reinet, South Africa.

Livingstone, David. 1847b. Letter to Robert Moffat 2. 13 August, September, 30 September 1847. Book no. 4730. Brenthurst Library, Johannesburg, South Africa.

Livingstone, David. 1852a. Letter to Mary Livingstone. 28 May 1852. MS. 20. Brenthurst Library, Johannesburg, South Africa.

Livingstone, David. 1856c. Letter to Alfredo Duprat. 4 March 1856. Grey Collection, G.13.b.45(35). National Library of South Africa, Cape Town, South Africa.

Livingstone, David. 1856d. Letter to Jose R. Coelho do Amaral. 25 March, [25 June 1856?]. MS. 22. Brenthurst Library, Johannesburg, South Africa.

Livingstone, David. 1856e. Letter to Alfredo Duprat. 26 March 1856. Grey Collection, G.13.b.45(36). National Library of South Africa, Cape Town, South Africa.

Livingstone, David. 1856f. Letter to Jean Fredoux and Ann Fredoux. 26 March, 12 July, 12 August 1856. Book no. 6092. Brenthurst Library, Johannesburg, South Africa.

Livingstone, David. 1857c. Letter to J.E. Grey. 31 July [1857]. Book no. 5352. Brenthurst Library, Johannesburg, South Africa.

Livingstone, David. 1858c. Letter to John Kirk 2. 18 March 1858. MS. 19. Brenthurst Library, Johannesburg, South Africa.

Livingstone, David. 1858g. Letter to George L. Conyngham. 5 October 1858. Book no. 5318, Acc. Reg. 4669. Brenthurst Library, Johannesburg, South Africa.

Livingstone, David. 1859a. Letter to Adam Sedgwick. 27 May 1859. Book no. 5521. Brenthurst Library, Johannesburg, South Africa.

Livingstone, David. 1860a. Letter to Unknown. [1860]. Eric Anderson Walker Papers - BC 618 C2.1. University of Cape Town Libraries, Special Collections, Cape Town, South Africa.

Livingstone, David. 1860c. Letter to Edmund Gabriel. 25 March 1860. Book no. 6754. Brenthurst Library, Johannesburg, South Africa.

Livingstone, David. 1863a. Letter to The Earl of Clarendon. 24 February 1863. Book no. 5318, Acc. Reg. 4669. Brenthurst Library, Johannesburg, South Africa.

Livingstone, David. 1863f. Letter to [John Livingstone or Neil Livingstone 3]. 25 July 1863. Kimberley Africana Library, Kimberley, South Africa.

Livingstone, David. 1872a. Letter to James G. Bennett. February 1872. Book no. 5318, Acc. Reg. 4669. Brenthurst Library, Johannesburg, South Africa.

Livingstone, David. 1872b. Letter to John C.L. Marsh. 21 November 1872. MS. 12. Brenthurst Library, Johannesburg, South Africa.

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