A Natural Wonder
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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
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Discovery of the Victoria Falls

Death of Livingstone

Following his failed Zambesi Expedition, Livingstone continued to publicise the horrors of the slave trade, securing private support for his third and final expedition to central Africa, in search of the source of the Nile. He left in 1866, at the age of 52 and it would last until his death in 1873. Later the same year the Anglo-Zanzibar Treaty prohibited the export of slaves from the mainland.

Dr David Livingstone
Dr David Livingstone

Death of David Livingstone

In 1871, David Livingstone spent five months stranded in a small village of Nyangwe in the Congo. He had become increasingly reliant on the good will of Arab slave traders for supplies and assistance. On 15 July 1871, while still in Nyangwe, Livingstone witnessed a massacre of the local African population by Arab slave traders from Zanzibar. Some 400 or 500 Africans, the majority of them women, died in a single day – a scale of murder and death unprecedented even in Livingstone’s experience.

The massacre horrified Livingstone, leaving him too shattered to continue his mission to find the source of the Nile. He travelled 240 miles from Nyangwe – violently ill most of the way – back to Ujiji, an Arab settlement on the eastern shore of Lake Tanganyika. His account of the massacre at Nyangwe, published in the posthumous Last Journals of 1874, would become well known and was an important source of public outrage in Britain, cementing his reputation as a champion in the fight against slavery.

His lack of contact with the outside world over a period of four years raised concerns for his welfare, many believing he was dead, and prompted the New York Herald to send Henry Morton Stanley to on an unlikely mission to find Livingstone. Stanley achieved his goal on November 10, 1871 approaching the with the immortal words "Dr. Livingstone, I presume".

With Stanley's supplies Livingstone continued his explorations, but he was weak, worn out and suffering from dysentery:

I have drunk stagnant water populated with insects, with mud rotten with the urine and dung of rhinoceroses and buffalos. Oh, I pray that the Almighty will grant me time to complete my work.

Soon after writing these words, at Chitambo in what is now Zambia, on the morning of April 30, 1873, his two African assistants found him dead, still kneeling at the bedside in his camp, apparently praying when he died. They embalmed his body, according with his wishes they buried his heart under a baobab tree, and carried Livingstone and his papers on a dangerous 3000 kilometre trip to Bagamoyo, north of Dar es Salaam, on the east coast. They accompanied his body all the way on its 11 month journey via Zanzibar to Britain. He was buried on a day of national mourning in Westminster Abbey on April 18, 1874, nearly a year after his death.

After hearing of Livingstone's death, Florence Nightingale said: "God has taken away the greatest man of his generation....".

David Livingstone himself was a curious combination of missionary, doctor, explorer, scientist and a pioneer in the abolition of the slavery trade. His motto, inscribed in the base of the statue to him at the Victoria Falls, was ‘Christianity, Commerce and Civilisation’. He believed the key to achieving these goals was the navigation of the Zambezi River. When he ‘discovered’ the Falls in 1855, David Livingstone was seeking to utilise the potential of the mighty Zambezi – he saw the great river as ‘God’s highway’ - the transport route by which he felt south-central Africa would become open to Christianity and commerce. He used a mirror and magnifying glass to win over suspicious chiefs and difficult situations, and applied his medical skills to saving lives.

Livingstone was a perceptive and accurate observer, an ethnographer and naturalist and a prolific writer. As the writer Don Pinnock remarks:

...he speculated on the food value of maneko fruit and the seeds of nux vomica; watched in amazement as mopane trees folded their leaves, presenting the smallest surface to harsh sunlight; experimented with the navigation abilities of soldier ants, concluding (quite rightly) that they tracked by scent; watched ‘plasterer’ wasps stunning creatures in which to lay their eggs; filled pages of his diary on the environmental value of termites; noted the diets of oxpeckers; turned “with a feeling of sickness unrelieved by the recollection that the ivory was mine” when his men killed an elephant; and followed honey guides to see if they really led to honey (they did – 114 times to hives and only once to an elephant).

Take for example Livingstone's notes on the Giant Bullfrog:

"These enormous frogs, which, when cooked, look like chickens, are supposed by the natives to fall down from thunder-clouds, because after a heavy thunder-shower the pools, which are filled and retain water a few days, become instantly alive with this loud-croaking, pugnacious game. This phenomenon takes place in the driest parts of the desert, and in places where, to an ordinary observer, there is not a sign of life.

Having been once benighted in a district of the Kalahari where there was no prospect of getting water for our cattle for a day or two, I was surprised to hear in the fine still evening the croaking of frogs. Walking out until I was certain that the musicians were between me and our fire, I found that they could be merry on nothing else but a prospect of rain.

From the Bushmen I afterward learned that the matlametlo makes a hole at the root of certain bushes, and there ensconces himself during the months of drought. As he seldom emerges, a large variety of spider takes advantage of the hole, and makes its web across the orifice. He is thus furnished with a window and screen gratis; and no one but a Bushman would think of searching beneath a spider’s web for a frog.

They completely eluded my search on the occasion referred to; and as they rush forth into the hollows filled by the thunder-shower when the rain is actually falling, and the Bechuanas are cowering under their skin garments, the sudden chorus struck up simultaneously from all sides seems to indicate a descent from the clouds.

Livingstone also had a dry sense of humour:

"It is remarkable that attempts have not been made to any extent to domesticate some of the noble and useful creatures of Africa in England... there is a splendid esculent frog nearly as large as a chicken, it would no doubt tend to perpetuate the present alliance if we made a gift of that to France."

His journals, letters and published narratives also provide observations on African diseases such as typhoid, dysentery and malaria. More than 30 years before the link between mosquitoes and malaria was established, Livingstone suggested their association: "Myriads of mosquitoes showed, as probably they always do, the presence of malaria". He was also one of the first to administer quinine in a dosage that is now considered effective.

It is estimated he walked or travelled over some 48,000 kilometres through unknown and unmapped central Africa.

In 2001, vandals destroyed metal plaques on Livingstone’s statue in the Victoria Falls Park, Zimbabwe, which proclaimed the Scottish missionary as the discoverer of the waterfall.

Next page: Discovery of the Upper Zambezi

Recommended Reading

Waller H [Editor] (1874) The last journals of David Livingstone in Central Africa, from 1865 to his death, (2 vols). John Murray, London.

Jeal T (1973) David Livingstone Heinemann, London.

Livingstone, David (1857), Missionary Travels and Researches in Southern Africa, London.

Livingstone, David (1865), Narrative of an Expedition to the Zambezi and its Tributaries, London.

Livingstone, David & James I. Macnair (ed.) (1954). Livingstone's Travels. J.M. Dent, London.

Mackenzie R (1993) David Livingstone, the Truth Behind the Legend. Fig Tree Publications, Zimbabwe.

Martelli, George (1970). Livingstone's River: A History of the Zambezi Expedition, 1858–1864. Chatto & Windus, London.

Parsons J W (1997) The Livingstone’s at Kolobeng, 1847-1852. Pula Press, Botswana.

Ransford O (1978) David Livingstone. The Dark Interior. John Murray, London.

Ross, Andrew C. (2002). David Livingstone: Mission and Empire. London and New York.

Schapera I [Editor](1960) Livingstone's Private Journals 1851-1853. Chatto & Windus, London.

Wallis J P R [Editor](1956) The Zambezi Expedition of David Livingstone 1858-1863 Chatto & Windus, London.

Waters, John (1996). David Livingstone: Trail Blazer. Inter-Varsity, Leicester.

Life and Death at the Old Drift, Victoria Falls 1898-1905

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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.

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