Livingstone's 1870 Field Diary

and select 1870-1871 manuscripts

This page introduces our multispectral critical edition of David Livingstone's 1870 Field Diary and select 1870-1871 manuscripts. Livingstone composed these texts over various scraps of paper while stranded in Central Africa and used them to capture his first-hand impressions of the Central African slave trade, record the complex social dynamics among local populations, and set out geographical information gathered through travel and from Arab and African informants. Our edition uses advanced spectral imaging technology to recover the hidden material history of these manuscripts and reveals the story of their passage through multiple hands and spaces over the last 145 years.


Introduction to the edition

David Livingstone composed the 1870 Field Diary and a handful or related manuscripts over various scraps of paper while stranded in Central Africa. Because of his immobility, Livingstone focused his writing on African life to an extent usual both for his final writings (1866-73) and those of contemporaneous British travelers to Africa. The documents capture Livingstone's first-hand impressions of the Central African slave trade, record complex social dynamics among local Central African populations, and set out detailed geographical information gathered through travel and by interviewing Arab and African informants.

Livingstone sent some of the manuscript back to Britain, but carried others – notably the 1870 Field Diary – with him until death in 1873 in present-day Zambia. Thanks to these vicissitudes, the manuscripts circulated through a variety of environments, passed through multiple hands, and, ultimately, survived to the present day in a handful of archives in Britain.

This critical edition uses advanced spectral imaging technology to recover the hidden production and preservation history of these manuscripts over the last 145 years. In doing so, our edition breaks new ground in the study of David Livingstone's manuscripts and, potentially, those of other nineteenth-century explorers and travel writers, particularly because the edition restores some of the lost hands and voices that helped shape the text as it survives today.

A spectral image of David Livingstone's 1870 Field Diary, second gathering (Livingstone 1870i:LII). Copyright National Library of Scotland. As relevant, copyright Dr. Neil Imray Livingstone Wilson. Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/3.0/).
A spectral image of David Livingstone's 1870 Field Diary, second gathering (Livingstone 1870i:LII). Processed to enhance staining. Copyright National Library of Scotland. As relevant, copyright Dr. Neil Imray Livingstone Wilson. Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported. The image has been processed to reveal and characterize the extent of the staining.

The edition also represents the culmination of the second phase (2013-17) of the Livingstone Spectral Imaging Project. The first phase of the project (2010-13) built on the pioneering work of the Archimedes Palimpsest Project, the Galen Palimpsest Project, and others to demonstrate that spectral image processing could recover faded text composed over nineteenth-century newspaper pages. The second phase takes the technology in a new direction by successfully showing that spectral imaging can also reveal significant material information about nineteenth-century manuscripts.

Spectral imaging relies on imaging an object, such as a manuscript, under multiple wavelengths of light, ranging from ultraviolet through the visible color spectrum to the near-infrared. A high-resolution monochromatic digital camera automatically photographs each illumination. Imaging scientists then manipulate this raw image data with computers by applying various processing algorithms with the goal of enhancing features of interest. Often the features are made more visible by creating pseudocolor (false-color) representations of the object that foreground or suppress other object features.

Animated spectral image of four pages from the 1870 Field Diary, second gathering, as written over a leaf from the Pall Mall Budget (Livingstone 1871b:LXXXII color raking). Copyright National Library of Scotland. Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/3.0/).
Animated spectral image of four pages from the 1870 Field Diary, second gathering, as written over a leaf from the Pall Mall Budget (Livingstone 1871b:LXXXII color_raking). Copyright National Library of Scotland. Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported. The image shows the relationship between visible page features and underlying folds and creases.

The text of the 1870 Field Diary is not difficult to read with the naked eye and so does not require spectral image processing for legibility like Livingstone's 1871 Field Diary did. Rather a variety of other features make the 1870 Field Diary manuscript worth studying with processed spectral images, including a) Livingstone's decision to construct the diary out of multiple distinct printed and handwritten source texts, b) the presence of diverse inks and pencil marks (from Livingstone and others) on the diary's pages, c) unique elements of manuscript topography tied to events in the life of the diary, and d) environmental traces left on the diary's pages thanks to its complex history.

The second phase of our project, in contrast to the first, has therefore accomplished not one spectral image processing goal (the recovery of lost text), but several while producing a range of new spectral imaging techniques and new processed spectral images. The images offer insights into Livingstone’s creation of his text and the impact of both single moments and long-term processes in determining the manuscript’s current material state. These insights promise to enhance our understanding of the British empire, Victorian travel writing, Livingstone’s biography, and the history of the African cultures among which Livingstone worked and traveled. In using spectral imaging to analyze these features, we hope to open up new possibilities for the technological study of nineteenth-century manuscripts produced by British and other travelers around the globe.

Return to top