A Natural Wonder
The Zambezi River
The Victoria Falls
Ecology of the Victoria Falls
Formation of the Victoria Falls
People of the Victoria Falls
Enter the Ndebele
Discovery of the Victoria Falls
In Livingstone's Footsteps
Development of the Rhodesias
Development of the Railway
Development of Tourism
Development of Victoria Falls Town
Recent History
Further Information
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Footsteps Through Time - A History of Travel and Tourism to the Victoria Falls

To The Victoria Falls

Development of the Victoria Falls

European Settlers

After the arrival at Bulawayo of the railway from Cape Town in 1897, a shorter and easier route to the Falls quickly became established. A wagon road was opened in 1898, and the old hunter's road, forming the modern day border with Botswana and Zimbabwe, fell into disuse.

Clark (1952):

Even then, the country could not really be said to be open to settlers until the railway reached the Falls in 1904. Prior to this the journey from Bulawayo was a hard one and often attended by danger. During 1898, the road from Bulawayo to the Falls which had been partially cut, was completed under the direction of Captain (later Major) Jesser Coope.

Trade wagons pulled by upwards to twenty oxen, ferried supplies from Bulawayo to the growing settlement at Victoria Falls. This 475 km trek often took a month or more depending on season. The track was often littered with wagon debris as a result of repairs to shattered wheels and axles.

The Wagon Road to the Victoria Falls
The Wagon Road to the Victoria Falls, circa 1900 (Image from a postcard by Percy Clark).

A regular coach service was established by Doel Zeederberg, with journeys taking 10 to 12 days. In the small coaches were packed 4 passengers, luggage and a number of mail bags. The coach, drawn by eight oxen, struggled through bush, forest, boulder-strewn track and great belts of sand dunes making the trip a very rough experience.

As McGregor explains in 'Crossing the Zambezi':

"The new road from Bulawayo to the waterfall had a regular wagon service from 1898, and saw an increasing volume of traffic as miners and prospectors, administrators, traders and missionaries crossed into Northwest Rhodesia by way of the Falls, and as visitors came up the road specifically to see the waterfall itself. Colonial settlement initially took the form of a handful of pioneer traders and others grouped at Sekute's old crossing point on the river above the waterfall, now known as the Old Drift, where new ferry services were run by Europeans. Sekute and his people, like the other Leya and Toka communities that had clustered around the waterfall and lived in its islands for security began to spread out away from the river as the threat of raiding ceased."
[McGregor, 2009]

In 1898 the BSAC's Controllers Camp was opened. It was situated five km above the Falls on the north bank of the Zambezi River near the confluence with the Maramba River and in the BSACs reserve. Next to Maramba Drift a canoe connection operated with Giese's Ferry on the south bank.

Giese's Ferry was the closest to the Falls of three ferry points, located near the famous Victoria Falls 'Big Tree', a huge baobab tree situated where early pioneers made camp before crossing the river. Further upstream where the river bends significantly was the Palm Tree Ferry, which portered travellers across the river to two points on the north bank.

In 1898 the first permanent European white settler, FJ 'Mopane' Clarke (1873-1937) arrived in the area. It was Lobengula who had given Clarke the name by which he would be known in Rhodesia for forty years, because, he said, Clarke was like a Mopane tree, "tall, straight and hard of heart". Clarke was one of the early negotiators with the Ndebele chief, working as a labour recruitment agent for the mines. With the money he made from this he established the Zambezi Trading Company in 1898, and set himself up on the northern shores of the great river.

A rare image of the Old Drift
A rare image of the Old Drift crossing on the Zambezi above the Falls

He noted that 9km upstream of the Falls the narrowest crossing point was less than 1km, and realising the potential of the site, established 'Clarke's Drift', which became the most significant of the crossing points of this period. Here, all supplies for the north bank were unloaded and ferried across the river – cattle were swum across, and a settlement soon grew on the opposite bank, to become known as Old Drift. Using his carpentry skills, Clarke set himself up as a trader, hotel keeper and forwarding agent. He built a general store, hotel and bar, complete with roulette wheel and croupier and would stay open all night if there was demand.

However the site he chose was not so attractive - a mere metre above high water level, and a flat marshy quagmire in the wet season. The site proved unhealthy with blackwater feaver (a particularly virulent form of malaria) becoming a common cause of death among the early settlers of the small town which would later become known as Old Livingstone.

Mission Station at the Old Dirft
Mission Station at the Old Dirft, circa 1900 (Image from a postcard probably by Percy Clark).

In 1899 the Paris Missionary Society sent an Italian born cleric, the Rev Giovanni Coisson and his wife to open a mission. By 1900 the mission had its own landing stage and within a stake fence stood a spacious church. The mission station was allowed to remain open after the forced closure of Old Drift in 1905.

The Old Drift post office was in operation during 1901 with the very scarce post mark "Victoria Falls, S Africa" known dated between April and December. The "S Africa" in this context referred to the British controlled Southern African territories.

The Old Drift
The Old Dirft, circa 1900 (Image from a postcard by Percy Clark).

Three Zambezi River crossing points were in use, but by far the busiest and quickest was the Old Drift crossing where the Zambezi was less than a kilometre wide. 'Mopane' Clarke ran the crossing using a steam launch provided by the BSAC. Passengers were taken in a pontoon boat paddled by eight Barotse men, whilst wagons and goods were ferried across the river on a pont towed by the launch.

By the end of 1901 the decision was made to move the BSAC offices, including the post office, to the healthier site away from the river and on the higher sand belt, on Constitution Hill, to be called Livingstone, where the Victoria Falls Government Station had been established in November 1899. To coincide with the move the first Livingstone postmark appeared, with the earliest known date 28 Jan 1902.

By 1902, Old Drift had attracted at least 25 residents, who were predominantly male. Entertainment centered on the hotels and in particular the bar of Clarke's establishment. In 1903 the population of Old Livingstone had risen to 68, including 17 women and 6 children, with Mopane Clarke as its chief citizen.

Clark (1952):

Life at the Old Drift must have been very hard indeed – there was no finesse or etiquette about the mode of living and pastimes were the same for all, mainly drinking and gambling at the bars of Clarke’s, Pieter’s or the Bechuanaland Trading Association. But read what Henry Rangeley, the first Magistrate for North-western Rhodesia, had to say about the Old Drift:

“On the north side there was a small settlement of pole and mud buildings, not very far from the bank of the river. This later became quite a small township, until the township now known as Livingstone was surveyed, when the settlers all moved up to that. In those days the District Commissioner of what was known as the ‘Falls District’ had his house and offices where Livingstone now is, as he considered very rightly, that the Old Drift was not a very healthy site. But the distance between the Drift Township and the District Commissioners’s office (and the Post Office) was six miles, over a track which was ankle deep in sand in most parts. So when, later on, I established a periodical Court, it was at the OD that it was held, for the convenience of the public.

It was quite and orderly little place, but the pub kept open all night if there was custom, and an American gambler ran a roulette table in the bar, with very monotonous “Round and round the little ball goes and where she’ll stop there’s nobody knows. Now gentlemen make you stakes, if you don’t speculate, you can’t accumulate”...

There was a pole and mud eating house connected with the bar, run by a man and his wife. She did the cooking and he the waiting. I do not think there were any bedrooms, although there ay have been one or two mud huts.

The Old Drift owed its importance to the fact that all stores for the Tanganyika Concessions and the Northern Copper Company, as well as for the North-Western Rhodesian Government and the traders in the Barotse Valley, came up through there from the south, the owner of the store and bar [Mopane Clarke] doing a large business as a forwarding agent.”

The Old Drift
The Old Dirft, circa 1900 (Image from a postcard probably by Percy Clark).

Outspans and Drifts

C W Mackintosh (1922), describes her first journey to the Zambezi, in the company of her uncle, the Rev. Francois Coillard ('Uncle Frank'), in 1903, visiting the Falls and crossing the drift, and one of the last made under pioneer conditions, for a few months later the railway had reached the Victoria Falls.

By 9 o'clock we reached the outspan which is quite close to the cataract, so close that the intervening woods quite conceal it. The noise too, strange to say, was much more audible at a distance of two or three miles than close by. After a hasty walk and a glimpse of the Falls, of which we could only see a very small part from this point, we resumed our trek... From 10 a.m. to 12 we skirted the river, but at a considerable distance. The heat was very great...

Evidently the days of untamed Nature are already gone by. "Trespassers will be prosecuted" and "Keep off the grass." It was not exactly in these words, but an adaptation of the same to local exigencies; one commanding travellers and traders to camp on the south side of the road, and to abstain from cutting down palms or brushwood for fuel; the other warning them that they must, under grave penalties, "declare" everything they bring into the country to the appointed official. No question after this, but that N.W. Rhodesia is a civilized country.

At midday precisely we reached the Zambesi at Clarke's Drift. Mr. Clarke is the trader and agent to the B.S.A. Co. and intermediary between the Northern Copper Mines and civilization, and seems to act as a kind of Honorary Lord Mayor, organizing festivals and everything else unofficial. He owns the steam launch which plies across the ferry. I was disappointed not to cross in a native canoe - till I saw one! The cool breeze crossing was delightful, but we had to wait for the launch an hour and a half: the most disagreeable of my existence. The sun was vertical and penetrated the leafless woods remorselessly. We had been up since five, and had had no breakfast, a circumstance to which hardened Africans seem quite indifferent, but one requires more than a week to get acclimatized in this respect...

Delightful as our cart journey had been in many ways, it was a very pleasant change to bathe and dine and have a good rest, first under Mr. Clarke's hospitable roof and then at the mission station, ten minutes away in the bush. Here we were kindly entertained by some friends — settlers — who were occupying the station in the Coisson's absence on furlough. I was very glad to enter a house that was a "going concern" instead of having to picnic there all the time, as we had expected to have to do.

The mission station, which Mr. Coisson has entirely built and planned himself, stands on the peninsula formed by a bend of the Zambesi which flows close behind it, though the front of the house is quite a little walk from our landing place. Within a stake fence stands a spacious church, a cottage with veranda and a high-pitched thatched roof, divided into two rooms, another much smaller cottage divided into kitchen and store, and three or four round huts. Uncle Frank has one of these, our hosts another, the others are pack houses. I am lodged in the house itself, ceilings of reeds, walls and floors of mud. There is also close to the front door, a tiny garden with spinach, lettuce, etc. On one side the bush is fairly open towards the river; thick woods close it on the other sides. A very tall tree grows by the back gate shedding immense blossoms all over the ground. Imagine musk flowers as large as melon flowers and cut out of crimson velvet. The husks of last year's fruit still hang on it, long pods like cucumbers. Seed vessels lie all about, most curious and interesting: some are large flat disks, four or five inches across, with prickly rosettes on either side; others butterfly shaped.

Mission Station at the Old Drift
Mission Station at the Old Drift (Mackintosh, 1922).
After tea, we strolled down to the broad river, unspeakably beautiful in the red evening glow. We passed a missionary's grave and another, and from the improvised churchyard we passed to the improvised church, namely, Mr. Clarke's dining room — a round hut — where Uncle F. was going to hold an English service, by request, at 8 o'clock. Nearly all the residents, Dutch and English, must have turned up ; there were twenty inside not counting ourselves and the blacksmith's five children, and a few who could not stand the stuffiness and stayed outside. There were several ladies. Uncle Frank preached "To as many as received Him, to them gave He power to become the Sons of God." The exalted pedigree, how to be adopted into it; and the privileges and responsibilities of the position. We had three hymns, "Holy, Holy, Holy," "O God our help in ages past," and "Rock of Ages," which every one knew by heart and sang heartily; we had no hymn books, and couldn't have seen to read them if we had...

We had two days' rest (badly needed) before going to visit the Falls. It gave me an insight into the life of a pioneer woman, of whom I saw several. "One's life seems to slip away so uselessly," said one. "Oh," I replied, "you don't know what it looks like to us at home. We think of you as Making History and Building up Civilization." "To me," she answered, "it just seems that l am clearing away a little dust here and there and always beginning over again."

Death at the Drift

The major problem encountered at Old Drift was malaria. Quinine was readily available but the abundance of mosquitoes and the haphazard supply of drinking water caused many to succumb to fever with blackwater fever particularly common. In 1902 Dr J Wilson arrived and set up a private clinic. At the end of 1902 many settlers were fever ridden and by January 1903 the doctor, and soon after two pharmacists, had also died.

Many of the early settlers were interred in the small cemetery up river from Old Drift- the cemetery is now all that remains of the settlement. 1903 proved a disastrous year with close to 20% of the residents passing away. Such was the shortage of coffins that whisky crates were pressed into service. Such a disastrous situation could not be allowed to continue in by the end of 1903 the BSAC administration decided that they would have to move to a healthier location.

But the settlement was booming, with drinking and gambling giving the town a wild west feel. The sand on the floor of the bar was said to be often sifted every morning for dropped coins.

The Old Drift
The Old Dirft, circa 1900 (Image from a postcard probably by Percy Clark).

However it soon became apparent to all that the route of the railway would make the Old Drift settlement redundant. The new town was carefully planned, and on 23 February 1905 the BASC auctioned 100 stands, and the town of Livingstone was born.

Clark (1952):

The birthday of the town of Livingstone can be said to be the 23rd February 1905, when the first sale of stands took place. For some time there was talk of abandoning this site for one on the south bank, and it was not until Robert Codrington moved the headquarters of the Government from Kalomo to Livingstone in August 1907, taking over the North-Western Hotel, which had been somewhat of a white elephant, as Government House, that the inhabitants of Livingstone felt any measure of security. Leopold Moore, the proprietor of the Livingstone Mail, first published on 31st March 1906 [This was not the first newspaper published in Livingstone. At the Old Drift a cyclostyled sheet called The Pioneer appeared irregularly, and the first number of the Livingstone Pioneer & Advertise was published at Empire Street, Livingstone, on 13th January 1906; this only survived the advent of the Mail by a few months], led a campaign for the removal of the township to Salmon’s Camp, near the site of the proposed new hotel on the Hubert Young Drive. This, the BSAC would not agree to and in August 1907, the Marquis of Winchester speaking at a meeting in Livingstone, stated that a township on the south bank was inevitable; the pioneers of Livingstone would be given a choice of stands at the new site. However, it was finally decided that this was not practicable and Livingstone prospered...

At the end of June 1905 the District Commissioner instructed the residents of Old Drift to cease trading by 24 August and move from the place by 23 September. By Jan 1906 a handful of settlers still remained, protesting that the proposed relocation site was too far from the Falls, but the threat of 1 pound per day fines finally ended the life of Old Drift. A stone cairn, erected by the National Monuments Commission, marks the site of the settlement and where the wagons landed.

It is interesting to note that at one stage there was a strong possibility of the new town of Livingstone being relocated south of the river. In 1906, a Mr Henery Birchenough, one of a three-man commission sent out from Britain by the BSAC to here resident's complaints, favoured a south bank site, the other two believed residents should decide by themselves whether to stay in Livingstone or move to the south bank. In the end, they decided to stay where they were.

By 1907 the European population of Livingstone was 180 and the BSAC moved its administrative departments from Kalomo to Livingstone, which became the captial of the then Northern Rhodesia. It remained the capital until 1935 when the administration was moved to Lusaka.

Among the earliest white settlers north of the Zambezi were many Jews from the Baltic states of the Russian Empire, now Lithuania and Latvia. They came in large numbers as economic migrants, and refugees fleeing religious and political persecution, to the goldfields of South Africa from the 1880s onwards. Some more adventurous souls moved on north to Bulawayo and then, attracted by the cattle stocks of Barotseland, crossed the Zambezi shortly before the 'Cape to Cairo' railway reached the Victoria Falls in 1904. Jewish traders played an important role at the Old Drift on the Zambezi river bank and then in the new town of Livingstone which was laid out in 1905. A Hebrew Congregation was established in 1910 and the foundation stone of the synagogue, now the Church of Christ, was laid in 1928. Livingstone's Jewish population was reinforced in the late 1930s by a new influx of German Jewish refugees from Nazism. There was an even larger influx of Polish, and mainly Christian, refugees during the Second World War.

Leopold Moore and the Livingstone Mail

Leopold F Moore, an early resident of the Old Drift, founded the Livingstone Mail in 1906.

Moore was to be a major player in settler politics in North Western/Northern Rhodesia until his death almost forty years later. He came from England and worked his way as a pharmacist through Mafeking and Bulawayo to the Old Drift – the malarial settlement on the banks of the Zambezi that preceded Livingstone as the commercial centre of North Western Rhodesia. Moore was a rumbustious character who had made pre-siege Mafeking too hot for himself, and had gone bankrupt in Bulawayo in 1903 before moving north with his young wife. A populist politician, and a stern critic of Chartered Company rule, he was member of the Advisory Council set up under the Chartered Company in 1918 and of the Legislative Council from 1924. He had opposed the move from the Old Drift to Livingstone, and used his paper to campaign against Belgian rule in the Congo, the influence of missionaries, the imposition of municipal rates and income taxes, the Colonial Office doctrine of ‘Native Paramountcy’ for territories north of the Zambezi, and, at least until the late 1930s, the amalgamation of Northern and Southern Rhodesia. He would have a good claim to be Northern Rhodesia/Zambia’s first nationalist. He was a white supremacist, but his paper was relatively free of colonial racism. He was knighted in 1937 and died in 1945.
[Macmillan, 2005]

The Livingstone Mail, Xmas 1910
The Livingstone Mail, Xmas 1910.

Cattle and Competition

The growing needs of the expanding Hotel and increasing numbers our tourists would have benefited businesses in Livingstone, such at the Susman brothers, who took over the Pioneer Butcher and Bakery in 1909, and who had made their fortunes dominating the trading of cattle in the early pioneer days.

The Livingstone Mail reported in its review of 1923 that ‘the first rumblings of the meat war’ were heard in April when two new butcheries opened up in town and prices fell. However the Susman brothers were able to drop their prices even lower, and withstand the loss in profits for longer, until their competitors went out of business. A friend of the Susmans, F D Law, ran the Victoria Falls Butchery, being their only surviving competitor by 1934, but who was said to have ‘an arrangement’ with the Susmans.

In 1925 the Livingstone Bakery, Tea Room and Frascati Restaurant was opened, securing the contract to provide the catering for the Prince of Wales during his visit to the Falls in the same year.

The Livingstone Museum

In 1934 Sir Hubert Young, Governor of the territory, decided to extend the existing cultural and ethnic collection into a memorial of David Livingstone. A collection of letters and other relics of the explorer and missionary were obtained through donations and loans from individuals. Consequently the new museum was named the David Livingstone Memorial Museum.

In 1937 the Rhodes-Livingstone Institute was started. The Museum was incorporated in the Institute and the collection was expanded to include the relics of Cecil Rhodes and the British South Africa Company. The first full-time Curator, Dr Desmond Clark was appointed in 1938. In 1945 the Museum was separated from the Institute as the Rhodes-Livingstone Museum. In the same year fund-raising for a purpose-built Museum building started, spearheaded by Colonel Sir Ellis Robins. Work on the building started in 1949 and the building was completed in November 1950. This first part of the building constitutes the present Galleries of Archaeology, Ethnography, David Livingstone, History, and the Temporary Exhibition Gallery. The first exhibitions in the galleries were completed in 1951 when the Museum was opened to the public.

By 1958, the Museum building was found to be inadequate for the growing needs of the Museum. Work on a Research Wing began in January 1960 and was completed by December the same year. It was officially opened in 1961. The name of the Museum changed from the Rhodes-Livingstone Museum to its present name of the Livingstone Museum in 1965.

Next page: To The Victoria Falls

Recommended Reading

Macmillan H (2005) An African Trading Empire - The Story of Susman Borthers and Wulfsohn, 1901-2005. I B Tauris & Co Ltd, London.

Sun, Steel and Spray - A History of the Victoria Falls Bridge

Corridors Through Time - A History of the Victoria Falls Hotel

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'To The Victoria Falls' aims to bring you the wonder of the Victoria Falls through a look at its natural and human history.

This website has been developed using information researched from a wide variety of sources, including books, magazines and websites etc too numerous to mention or credit individually, although many key references are identified on our References page. Many of the images contained in this website have been sourced from old photographic postcards and publications and no infringement of copyright is intended. We warmly welcome any donations of photographs or information to this website.

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