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
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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

Livingstone's Second Expedition

After David Livingstone's first exploration had explored possible routes from the east and west coasts, Livingstone planned a trip navigating the Zambezi from the coast upstream to the Falls, and thus open the full length of the Middle Zambezi, and the Falls region, to development.

Livingstone's plan was simple. He would enter the mouth of the Zambezi with a shallow-draught steamer, progress to Tete and then proceed to the Cahora Bassa rapids "to discover whether the launch would be able to steam up there when the river is high". Then he would continue upstream to the plateau, erect an iron house as the centre for stores, and begin agricultural experiments 'aimed at proving that enough sugar and cotton could be grown to make the area a commercial paradise'.

Livingstone returned to England a heroic explorer. His first book, Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa was published in 1857 and became an instant best-seller. On the back of this success he was sponsored by the British Government to explore the Zambezi and to ascertain the economic potential of the area and, ultimately, the possibilites of establishing an English colony in central Africa.

He arrived back in Africa two years later, departing from Liverpool on 10 March 1858, having severed his connections with the London Missionary Society and now under British Government auspices and appointed as 'HM Counsel for the East Coast of Africa to the south of Zanzibar and for the unexplored Interior', as the leader of an expedition "to survey and report on the country watered by the lower Zambezi". Livingstone estimated it would take two years. It was to last from March 1858 until the middle of 1864, and became known as the 'Zambezi (or Zambezia) Expedition' (in those days spelt 'Zambesi') or Livingstone's second expedition.

Livingstone's party included his younger brother Charles, taken as general assistant, 'moral agent', and photographer, Dr John Kirk as botanist and medical officer, Richard Thornton, the expedition geologist, Thomas Baines, as artist and stock-keeper, Commander Norman Bedingfield RN, naval officer and navigator, and George Rae, engineer. The modest party, and the parts of a paddle-steamer, the Ma Robert, to be assembled on the Zambezi, sailed for Africa from Liverpool in March 1858 on the SS Pearl, a Colonial Office steamship, reaching the mouth of the Zambezi in May. Mary also joined them, but it was soon discovered that she was pregnant again, and on arrival in Africa she headed back to England.

The Ma Robert.
The 'Ma Robert', photographed on the Zambezi at Lupata by Sir John Kirk. Part of the National Library of Scotland collection.

It was not known whether the Zambezi was navigable to its middle sections, although Livingstone, in his determination, presumed it was. Although all of his major 'discoveries' had resulted from listening to the local knowledge of the people he encountered, he chose to blindly ignore all who told him that the Cabora Bassa rapids could not be navigated. As a result the expedition spent most of its six years along the final 250 miles of the Zambezi and the lower 130 miles of its northern tributary the Shire River.

It was soon discovered that their steamership, the 'Pearl', would not be able to manage the journey to Tete, so the Ma-Robert, a small paddle steamer, was called on and hastily bolted together. Named in a Scots custom, it honours Livingstone's wife, Mary, mother of their first-born son, Robert.

It soon became apparent that the Ma Robert was not up to the job either. It started to leak and took too much fuel, requiring huge quantities of wood. Its engine, Livingstone observed, was "evidently made to grind coffee in a shop window".

Near the town of Tete, the expedition members had to continue on foot.

The Ma Robert
The Ma Robert aground at the head of the eastern branch of the West Luabo river, by Thomas Baines (Royal Geographc Society)

It took six months to establish a base at the Portuguese settlement at Tete. The expedition intended to navigate the Zambezi inland to the Bakota Plateau but by December 1858 Livingstone had arrived at the Cabora Bassa, a major series of cataracts and rapids that he had failed to explore on his earlier travels, and found its way to the upper Zambezi barred.

'To Kirk it was obvious that no vessel could pass upstream, but Livingstone hedged: maybe when the river was flooded? He even wrote a dispatch to the British Foreign Secretary that "a steamer of light draught would pass the rapids without difficulty when the river is in full flood." Kirk, who saw the dispatch, was appalled. But finally it sunk in: the boiling rapids were not navigable. "Things look dark for our enterprise," Livingstone wrote in his diary.' [Pinnock]

Livingstone had another problem. As a result of his campaining in Britain, a Bishop was on his was to establish a mission to the Batoka Plateau. The so-called Universities Mission was reliant on Livingstone paving their way.

Instead of the Zambezi, Livingstone turned his attentions to his only other option, heading north to explore the River Shire, a tributary of the Zambezi, and recommending it as the base for the mission, although in his diary he expressed concerns over slaving in the area and the local tibes being "stirred up".

'The Universities Mission was a disaster from beginning to end. They had to wait months for the rainy season in order to get up the Shire. The party was involved in skirmishes with slavers, many, including Bishop Mackenzie, died of malaria. The mission was eventually abandoned.' [Pinnock]

Livingstone ordered two more steamers (one he paid for himself) to replace the unreliable Ma-Robert, and in time the 'Pioneer' and 'Lady Nyasa' were eventually delivered. With them came Mary, having left her youngest child with relatives in Britain. She was to survive only four months before succumbing to malaria and dying on the banks of the Zambezi on 27 April 1862.


Livingstone eventually explored the Shire all the way to its source, Lake Nyasa, now Lake Malawi, becaming the first European to reach the second largest lake in Africa. Kirk’s journals account of the expedition is often harrowing: it describes the hard labour of hauling the paddle steamer over shallows where its draught was too deep for the river, of constantly cutting wood for its voracious and inefficient boiler. Kirk wrote in his journal:

"I can come to no other conclusion than that Dr L is out of his mind . . . his head is not of the ordinary construction but what is termed cracked."

It was a paradise polluted by the human hell of slavery. The region was in the grip of famine and racked by slavery. Dead, bloated bodies floated downstream and became entangled in the paddle wheels (in one week he counted 19). His bearers, travelling on the shore, proceeded north until overcome by the burned villages littered with skeletons and decimated, starving people, they refused to go any further. It was Livingstone’s first contact with large-scale slavery, and it was to set the course of the rest of his life. Only commerce could kill the horror trade in humans, he concluded, and colonisation was therefore the Crown’s moral duty. It was at this point that he uttered his most famous quote, "I am prepared to go anywhere, provided it be forward". In his diary he wrote perceptively: "Am I a martyr to my own cause? I begin to think that I may not live to see success."

Over 100 Makololo from Linyanti had accompanied Livingstone on his trans-African journey and had remained at Quelimane (in modern day Mozambique) on the Indian Ocean awaiting his return. Consequently, after investigating the Shire, Livingstone proceeded up the Zambezi to escort these Makololo home. The Zambezi river turned out to be completely unnavigable past the Cabora Bassa rapids, and Livingstone had to abandon his route upstream and travel overland to the Falls.

The Livingstone brothers, together with Kirk, set out for the Falls in March 1869. When they reached the Kafue, they heard of the arrival in Matabeleland of the London Missionary Society Mission; this was the ill-fated Makololo expedition which the Society had instigated as a consequence of the openings made by Livingstone. Although Livingstone had not gone out on this journey under the auspices of the Society, it was confidently expected that he would help the newcomers.

'In spite of the misgivings by Moffat, Livingstone had assured the Society that Sekeletu would move to higher and more healthy ground if missionaries were sent to him – it would appear that Sekeletu expected that Livingstone would be sent in charge of the missionaries. The Makalolo Mission eventually sent consisted of Holloway Helmore, his wife and four children, and Roger Price and his wife and child. When they arrived at Linyanti they found that there was no news of Livingstone, whom they expected to be there, and the area assigned to them by Sekeletu was swampy and fever-ridden. Helmore and Price commenced to work, but in a short time tragedy hit the mission; all except Price and two Helmore children died of fever, these survivors eventually struggled back to Kuruman.' [Clay, 1964]

Not only did Sekeletu treat the mission badly in the choice of site, but at the first sign of weakness he began to rob them and the survivors were left with merely the bare necessities. And yet this was the man who guarded a wagon and stores for Livingstone for several years under he returned! The Bechuanas who were with the mission insisted that its members had been poisoned, but this seems unlikely; probably none of the party was aware of the devastating effects of African fever. Livingstone paid no attention to this rumour; in a letter to J S Moffat he said:

"We were very much grieved at the sad turn things have taken at Linyanti, but no note was left and I had to gather all I could from the natives alone. They seem to have taken cordially to Helmore and would have removed soon had his life been spared. Indeed, if they do not depart soon from the unhealthy valley they will ere long break up as a tribe... All agreed as to the propriety of going to the Highlands, and nothing but the death of Moselekatse [the Matabele Chief] prevents them from going along...”

Return to the Victoria Falls

After his first visit, the next European to visit the Falls was William Charles Baldwin, who arrived on 2 August 1860. Baldwin was an English hunter who spent much of the 1850s wandering widely between Natal and the Zambezi. He found his way to the Falls, via the Chobe River, navigating by pocket compass:

"The Makololo are very jealous, and very much alarmed at my having found my way hither, and cannot account for it. I show them the compass, and say that is my guide, and they are sorely perplexed.

He describes his arrival at the Falls in his journal:

"I set off resolutely on the 1st [August], being determined to find the Falls; walked all day and all night, and towards morning I heard the roar of them. I never rested till I threw myself down, just before daybreak, within 300 yards of the river... Rougher traveling I never encountered, but I had the benefit of the full moon".
"I struck the river first about two miles wide, covered with islands of all sizes, one at least ten or twelve miles round, wooded to the waters edge... The river is the finest and most beautiful I ever saw. It is rocky and rather shallow, and, just above the Falls, about one mile wide. And now for the Falls. I heard the roar full ten miles off, and you can see the immense volumes of spray ascending like a great white cloud, over which shines an eternal rainbow. The whole volume of water pours over a huge rock into an enormous chasm below, of immense depth. I counted from sixteen to eighteen, while a heavy stone of about twenty pounds weight was falling. I could not see it to the bottom, but only saw the splash in the water. I stood opposite to the Falls at nearly the same elevation, and could almost throw a stone across. The gorge cannot be more than a hundred yards wide, and at the bottom the river rolls turbulently boiling."

Through these methods Baldwin made the first reasonably accurate estimate of the size of the Falls - he considered them to be two thousand yards wide and three hundred feet high, remarkably close to the true figures and a great improvement on the underestimates made by Livingstone in 1855.

I had the honour yesterday of cutting my initials on a tree on the island above the Falls, just below Dr. Livingstones, as being the second European who has reached the Falls, and the first from the East Coast.

On his second visit however, Livingstone and his team were able to make more detailed study of the area than had been possible five years earlier. They actually arrived whilst Baldwin was still present in the area. It is reasonably clear than they crossed to the south bank and explored the Rain Forest - probably the only time David Livingstone set foot in what is today Zimbabwe.

They determined the total width of the Falls "to be a little over 1860 yards, but this number we resolved to retain as indicating the year in which the fall was for the first time carefully examined." (Livingstone & Livingstone 1865) :

"The depth of the rift was measured by lowering a line, to the end of which a few bullets were tied. One of us lay with his head over a projecting crag and watched until, after his companions had paid out 310 feet, the weight rested on a sloping projection, probably 50 feet from the water below. On measuring the width of this deep cleft by sextant, it was found at Garden Island, its narrowest point, to be 80 yards."

Part of this material was a detailed study of the Falls which Livingstone undertook with John Kirk, drawing a surprisingly detailed and accurate, if somewhat conservative, map of the Falls in his notes, (below, and which can be seen in the Livingstone Museum collection).

Map of Victoria Falls sketched by David Livingstone
Livinstone's original watercolour sketchmap of the Falls, with annotated notes on distance measurements. The map is part of the Livingstone Museum collection.

Both Kirk and Charles Livingstone took cameras on the expedition. The latter, in Kirk's words, recorded in his journal and letters, published in 1965, "made a mess of it".

"Mr L. succeeds to get something having a faint likeness to a picture, but it is a nasty unhealthy work in a tropical country and he has no idea of chemistry or of manipulation, I don't anticipate much to come of the Photography."
"A little further on we came to the Shibade, the rapid ... Baines sketches here and Mr. L. gets up his photographic apparatus and might have had several splendid views but having accustomed himself to lounging indoors and never exposing himself without an umbrella and felt hat, with all the appurtenances of an English Gentleman of a well regulated family, he cannot stand the fatigue of remaining in the sun and after taking one which he subsequently made a mess of, he knocked off and had a cup of tea under a stone."

Charles Livingstone's attempts were a failure. Kirk however, who had practised photography in his youth and appears to have taken his photographs for his own personal use rather than in any official capacity, was more successful, however there are no known photographs of the Falls from this expedition. A near-fatal accident in the Cabora Bassa Rapids, where he was sucked under his overturned canoe, cost him a large amount of material and equipment, but a great deal remains, including one of the 'Ma Robert', and one of Mary Livingstone's grave.

Charles Livingstone appears to have been an unstabling influence on the expedition, holding grudges over little things and then influencing his brother to criticise the others, such as the young geologist, Richard Thornton and the artist, Thomas Baines who was also in charge of the stores. Charles accused Thomas of stealing sugar and other supplies, and Livingstone eventually dismissed both Richard and Thomas.

The expedition was ill-fated from the start, with Bedingfield resigning in the early months and Baines and Thornton dismissed by Livingstone in 1859. Kirk, who became second-in-command on Bedingfield's resignation, remained on the expedition until 1863.

In London patience, and funding, had run out. The Zambezi had not been navigated, a dozen lives had been lost and there was little to show for the money spent. The expedition was deemed a failure and in in July 1863 Livingstone was recalled to Britain.

'But Livingstone was not quite done with adventure. He decided the best place to sell his riverboat, Lady Nyassa, would be in Bombay. The 12-metre vessel was a river craft, he was no sailor and the monsoons were due. But he set off for Zanzibar with an African crew which had never been to sea before, then headed out across the Indian Ocean. It took him 45 days, but he made it. The monsoons broke the next day. He sold his boat and hitched a ship home.

When he reached London in July 1864 there were no banquets or official receptions. The powerful and the public had lost interest. “All my work,” he wrote, “seems in vain.”' [Pinnock]


Livingstone has been criticised for his leadership of the second expedition. On top of logistical problems, the death of Livingstone's wife caused him to suffer a prolonged period of depression and inertia. But Livingstone continued to explore, eventually returning home in 1864 after the government ordered the recall of the Expedition. Britain feared that Livingstone's presence could cause political tensions with the Portuguese.

Livingstone's second expedition was castigated as a failure in many British newspapers of the time, and Livingstone experienced great difficulty in raising further funds to explore Africa. Nevertheless, the scientists appointed to work under Livingstone, John Kirk, Charles Meller, and Richard Thornton did contribute large collections of botanic, ecological, geological and ethnographic material to scientific institutions in the London. Along with Baines's oils and field sketches, Kirk's photographs remain the only substantial visual records of the expedition.

The expedition was the subject of David and Charles Livingstone's Narrative of an Expedition to the Zambezi and its Tributaries; and of The Discovery of the Lakes Shirwa and Nyassa. 1858-1864, published in London in 1865.

Two expeditions led by Major A. St Hill Gibbons in 1895 to 1896 and 1898 to 1900 continued the work of exploration begun by Livingstone in the upper basin and central course of the river.

Next page: Baines and Chapman

Recommended Reading

Baldwin W C (1863) African Hunting and Adventure from Natal to the Zambesi. Bentley, London.

Coupland, R (1928), Kirk on the Zambezi A Chapter of African History, Oxford

Foskett (ed.). (1965) The Zambesi Journal and Letters of Dr John Kirk Edinburgh and London

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

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

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