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In Livingstone's Footsteps
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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!"

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

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.

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.

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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