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
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Footsteps Through Time - A History of Travel and Tourism to the Victoria Falls

To The Victoria Falls

Discovery of the Victoria Falls

Dr David Livingstone

A Scottish medical missionary and explorer would be the first to make two important discoveries regarding the Zambizi river. Dr David Livingstone was the first to realise that the upper section of the river became the Zambezi known from the east coast, and the first to see the magnificent Victoria Falls, naming them after his British Queen and making them known to the world.

Early Life

David Livingstone was born on 19 March 1813 in Blantyre, Scotland, the second of seven children. His parents were strict Calvinists who believed in hard work and schooling.

His father was a tea salesman, and to supplement the family income, the young Livingstone started working in the local cotton mills at 10, putting in 14-hour days, six days a week, for 16 years. His father taught him to read and write, and in addition to evening classes provided by the milling company, Livingstone taught himself, including learning Latin at the age of 13 by propping a book on the spinning jenny while he worked.

He studied the Bible and aimed to become a medical missionary, planning to go to China after training as a physician and minister. In 1834 he heard about an appeal by British and American churches for medical missionaries to go to China. He decided this should be his career whilst continuing to work part-time enrolled in Anderson's University, Glasgow to study medicine. Two years later, he had suspended his course and spent a year at the London Missionary Society in Chipping Ongar, Essex. He moved to London in 1840 to complete his medical studies and was ordained a missionary by the London Missionary Society, setting sale for Africa in December.

In 1840, while continuing his medical studies in London, Livingstone met LMS missionary Robert Moffat, on leave from Kuruman, a missionary outpost in the Northern Cape, South Africa, north of the Orange River. Excited by Moffat's vision of expanding missionary work northwards, and influenced by abolitionist T.F. Buxton's arguments that the African slave trade might be destroyed through the influence of "legitimate trade" and the spread of Christianity, Livingstone focused his ambitions on Southern Africa. His plans for China had been hampered by the outbreak of the Opium Wars and the LMS had suggested the West Indies instead, but Africa beckoned.

Britain had abolished slavery in its dominions in 1833-4. The Arab slave trade of East Africa, however, was less well known in Britain than the earlier western Africa trade with the Americas. Loanda, on the west coast was once a major port for shipping slaves to Brazil but British naval patrols off the west coast of Africa had virtually put a stop to this trade. Livingstone would discover that the slavers trade networks extended deep into central Africa, and encounter the horrors and destruction it caused, and dedicate his life to exposing its evils to the world.

'While the Atlantic slave trade declined during Livingstone's life, traffic grew on the Indian Ocean as did the ivory trade. The two were of course related for slaves were often the porters used to carry ivory. The East African ivory trade saw a massive expansion in the nineteenth century. The soft ivory, ideal for carving, was traded for beads, cloth, copper and brass and exported to Asia and Europe (and later America). Ivory had myriad ornamental uses - for inlay work, to make chessmen, cutlery handles, billiard balls, false teeth and piano keys.'

'Arab and African merchants dominated the slave and ivory trade from the east coast ports, notably Mombassa and Kilwa. From about 1840 the islands of Zanzibar and Pemba became increasingly important in this economy. These islands were under the control of the sultanate of Oman. By the time of Livingstone's arrival, trade routes for slaves and ivory extended deep into Africa.'

David Livingstone the Missionary

David Livingstone arrived in Cape Town on 14 March 1841.

'A long delay at the Cape gave Livingstone an insight into Missionary work which he never forgot. He saw many Mission Stations crammed into a scantily populated area with the region beyond left without – he saw bickerings among the missionaries themselves and made no effort to hide his feelings, thus arousing some hostility towards himself.' [Clay, 1964)]

He arrived at Kuruman, a mission founded by Scottish missionary Robert Moffat in Bechuanaland (now Botswana), in July. He made few converts during his time as a missionary, but quickly learnt native languages and focused on teaching agriculture and medicine.

Kurman was the northern-most mission station in southern Africa, but Livingstone's thought were soon occupied by the unknown territories to the north, and "the smoke of a thousand villages where no missionary has ever been". In 1843, together with his wife and fellow missionary Roger Edwards, Livingstone established a mission station on the Kalahari margins at Mabotsa (near present-day Zeerust) amongst the Bakwena people, the chief of who, Sechele, would become Livingstone's only recorded religious convert.

Against the wishes of the worried tribe who feared the wrath of their ancestors, Livingstone baptised Sechele. Livingstone banned Chief Sechele, the tribe’s chief rainmaker, from invoking rain (and from polygamy) as a price for salvation, and as a result was blamed by his people for the droughts which followed. Sechele told Livingstone stories of a 'great water' in the desert, which caught Livingstone's imagination.

In 1843 David Livingstone nearly lost his life. Encouraged by the local people to help them deal with a troublesome lion, his shot merely wounded it and it charged and leapt at him.

Starting, and looking half round, I saw the lion just in the act of springing upon me ... Growling horribly close to my ear, he shook me as a terrier dog does a rat.

His assistant shot the lion and saved his life. The lion fractured Livingstone's left arm "to splinters", and despite lack of anaesthesia and antibiotics, he recovered "with only the inconvenience of a false joint in my limb". However he could never again raise his weak left arm to the level of his shoulder.

Livingstone attacked by lion
David Livingstone attacked by lion

When this event was illustrated by the artist Joseph Wolf for Livingstone's book, 'Missionary Travels', Livingstone wrote to the publisher describing it as 'abominable' and complaining that "[e]very one who knows what a lion is will die with laughing at it".

Returning to Kuruman, Livingstone was helped to recuperate by Robert Moffat's eldest daughter, Mary Moffat. They were married in 1845. She was, he wrote to friends, "a matter-of-fact lady, a little thick black-haired girl, sturdy and all I want". Their honeymoon would be the 12-day journey by ox wagon back to Livingstone’s first mission at Mabotsa.

Many biographers doubt his devotion to Mary and recount the expectation, current at the time, that every missionary needed a wife to look after him. Livingstone abandoned Mary for long periods during his subsequent explorations, often leaving her and his young family in abject poverty. She was later to travel with him some of his expeditions, until her death in what is now Mozambique, from malaria.

Livingstone was soon on the move with his new wife, returning to a second mission station he had established among the Bakwena at Tshongwane. After two difficult years drought forced them to move, and they established another mission amongst the Bamangwato people under chied Sekhomi on the banks of the Kolobeng River.

At Kolobeng Livingstone built a home, erected a church, farmed, healed the sick and preached to Sechele’s people. Mary taught in the school they built, cooked and raised their first two children, Robert and Agnes. Livingstone's letters to Robert Moffat indicate the difficulties encountered and his reliance on his father-in-law. His requests were endless:

"I may as well tell you some more of our wants... a trowel; large and small beads; a ladle and bullet mould; heifers if you can get them at any price; she goats; a musket if you have one to spare; vine cuttings; fruit stones for seed; pictures; the large vice mentioned."

However he thrived on the challenges thrown at him. In a letter he criticised missionaries languishing "down in the Colony". They should be "right up here, riding on the world’s backbone and snuffing like zebras the free, pure, delightful air of the great western desert!"

David Livingstone the Explorer

In June 1849 David Livingstone, together with a wealthy hunter, William Cotton Oswell, set off in search of a great inland lake of which they had heard rumours – despite of the concerns of his employers, the London Missionary Society.

They nearly perished crossing the Kalahari Desert but on the 1st August 1849 they became the first Europeans to discover Lake Ngami. Oswell has happy to take a back seat, and Livingstone took full advantage of their discovery, showing early signs of the skilled self-promotion which would make him the most celebrated explorer of his time. He received a gold medal by the Royal Geographical Society in London for his efforts.

After discovering the upper Zambezi with Oswell in 1851 Livingstone wrote to the London Missionary Society that he needed three years’ freedom from family responsibilities, and assuming that the Society would ensure their wellbeing, he trekked with his wife and children all the way to Cape Town, from where he sent them to England.

While in Cape Town, Livingstone took instruction in mapping and navigation from the Astronomer Royal, Thomas Maclear. They also discussed the possibility of a trip across the continent from the west coast to the east, and of great lakes rumoured to be located in the heart of the continent.

Returning to Linyanti, Livingstone was now ready to start his first great expedition, lasting from 1852-1856. David Livingstone followed the Zambezi River to its mouth in the Indian Ocean, after initially crossing to the west coast, on the way becoming the first European to see Victoria Falls (see main section) and the first to cross the width of the African continent.

After discovering the Falls Livingstone continued downstream, travelling on the north bank of the river. He met the Batoka people and was startled by their tradition of removing the front teeth at puberty, considering front teeth to be ugly. The reason the Batoka told him was that "they wished to look like oxen, and not like zebras".

Travelling through what is now the Kafue region in Zambia, and of the confluence of the Kafue River with the Zambezi, he recorded:

"Hundreds of buffaloes and zebras grazed on the open spaces, and beneath the trees stood lordly elephants feeding majestically. The number of animals was quite astonishing. I wished I could have photographed a scene so seldom beheld, and which is destined, as guns increase, to pass away from Earth."

Passing through another modern national park, the Lower Zambezi National Park, he reached the Luangwa river as it joined the Zambezi, and the present-day town of Feira, thanking God "for His great mercies in helping us thus far". Here he discovered the remains of a stone church, a broken bell with the letters IHS and a cross, but no date. Across the Luangwa at Zumbo were several ruined houses, and he concluded they belonged to Portuguese missionaries or slavers.

Downriver from the confluence of the Luangwa River Livingstone and party encountered Chief Mpende and his people. The missionary roasted an ox and sent a hind leg to the chief. Mpende responded with friendship, saying a Mozunga (Portuguese), his enemy, would never have done such a thing.

"All the slaves of Tete are our children," he told Livingstone. "The Bazunga have made a town at our expense". The chief lent them canoes to cross to the south bank, cutting out a large bend in the river. Thus, by diverting from the coarse of the river Livingstone failed to appreciate one of its defining features - the Cahora Bassa rapids. He also nearly missed one of the Zambezi's major tributaries, the Shire, but records being told in Tete of a river which, it was said, drained a great lake, the 'Nyanja'.

From Tete Livingstone journeyed on down the river past Senna to the Zambezi Delta, then northeast to Quelimane on the Indian Ocean coast, which he reached in May 1856. Leaving behind his Makololo companions, he caught a sailing ship to Mauritius, then hitched a ride home to England on the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Ship Company vessel Candia.

Livingstone returned to his family in England in 1856, receiving a hero's welcome. He actively promoted himself and his discoveries, attracting huge crowds wherever he spoke and being mobbed in public. By the mid-nineteenth century the development of industrial printing fed a growing market in newspapers, magazines, journals, books, bringing the exploits of explorers to a Victorian public hungry for adventure. Within months of his return he secured a deal to publish his journals with a leading geographical publisher, John Murray of London. In fact Livingstone's friend and supporter, Roderick Murchison, President of the Royal Geographical Society, had already set up the deal before Livingstone had even set foot back on British soil.

In 1857 his book, Missionary Travels and Researches in Southern Africa, was finally published to an eager public and became an instant best-seller, along with his six month speaking tour. Livingstone dedicated it to Murchison and for "the kind interest he has always taken in the Author's pursuits and welfare". The first edition of 12,000 copies sold out immediately despite its price tag of one guinea. To cope with the demand, the publisher Murray ordered the printing of another 8,000 copies of the 689 page volume. By the beginning of December this run too had sold out and Murray sent another 5,000 to the presses.

"I think I would rather cross the African continent again than undertake to write about it. I intended on going to Africa to continue my studies; but... I entailed on myself, in addition to teaching, manual labor in building and other handicraft work, which made me generally as much exhausted and unfit for study in the evenings as ever I had been when a cotton-spinner. The want of time for self-improvement was the only source of regret that I experienced during my African career."
[Livingstone, from preface to Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa (1857)]

Dr David Livingstone
Dr David Livingstone (etching, from Missionary Travels)

David Livingstone and slavery

Livingstone soon resigned from the London Missionary Society, which wanted him to concentrate his energies on missionary work, and planned is own programme to bring salvation to the people of the Zambezi.

Livingstone had the support of Sir Roderick Murchison, President of the Royal Geographical Society, and the backing of the Royal Society, Britain's most prestigious scientific institution, of which he had been made fellow for his geographical discoveries, and used these contacts to promote his next expedition. Livingstone’s diaries reveal that he hoped to develop the Zambezi region in such a way that the Africans would engage in commercial agriculture and commerce, and reduce Britain's dependence on American cotton. He would use peaceful commerce and Christianity to defeat the exploitations of the slave trade.

Livingstone's journey to Loanda in 1854 had also been brought to the attention of the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Clarendon, who wrote congratulating him. Just before he left Africa in 1856 Livingstone wrote to Clarendon extolling the virtues of the lower Zambezi region. By May 1857 the British government agreed to pay Livingstone a salary to lead what would become known as the 'Zambesi Expedition'.

Livingstone’s hope was to supply cotton seeds to the villagers of the Zambezi whose traditional farming patterns had been severely disrupted by decades of inter-tribal war and kidnapping to supply slaves to the east and west coasts. He wrote:

On my return from Africa my chief efforts will be directed to making the river Zambezi an open pathway to the interior healthy highlands in order that a centre of civilisation and commerce will be formed. I shall visit all the chiefs along the banks and distribute cotton seeds – inviting the people to cultivate for our markets and I think if what I hope to begin is carried out that in the course of a dozen years Africa itself will have some material influence in diminishing the value of slave labour in America.

He also wrote of the Shire River and Lake Nyasa:

It is highly probable that a small steamer on the Shire and Lake Nyasa would through the influence of the English name, prevent slave parties from passing the fords and, should our merchants not be obliged to pay dues for entering upon English discoveries for trade by a part of the Zambezi unused by the Portuguese, goods could be furnished to the native traders at Lake Nyasa as cheap as they can get them on the East coast which involved a month’s journey further... The capability of the country for the production of cotton cannot be exaggerated

Determined to devote himself to what he called his 'spiritual calling', to abolish slavery, and to explore and develop the region, the expedition lasted from March 1858 until the middle of 1864. It was during this period, in 1862, that Livingstone’s wife, having just joined him from Scotland, died from complications related to malaria, causing David Livingstone to suffer a prolonged period of depression and inertia.

The expedition was plagued with difficulties from the start, not least as Livingstone had completely under estimated the scale of the rapids which blocked his navigation of the Zambezi, but also poor leadership resulted in arguments and a false accusations amongst his own men. In 1864 he sold his ship so he could return to England, where he was condemned as a failure.

Livingstone publicised the horrors of the slave trade and secured private support for his third and final expedition to central Africa, searching for 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.

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

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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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