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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'Discovery' of the Victoria Falls

David Livingstone first ‘discovered’ and named the Victoria Falls in 1855, naming them the Victoria Falls in honour of the reigning British monarch, Queen Victoria. His written accounts caught the imagination of Victorian Britain and, together with the later paintings of Thomas Baines, brought the Falls to the attention of the world.

Travelling downstream with a group of Makalolo paddlers as guides, Livingstone was struck by the beauty of the river above the Falls, recording “scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight”. This quotation is often used in reference to the Falls themselves, but it was the stretches of river immediately upstream of the Falls which had enchanted Livingstone.

Arriving at the island which now bears his name, on the very lip of the Falls, he gained his first view of them from what must be one of the most breathtaking of viewpoints, describing it as “the most wonderful sight I had witnessed in Africa”. [See Discovery of the Victoria Falls for more information.]

Many explorers and early European pioneers followed [see In Livingstone's Footsteps for more information.], but when Livingstone first set eyes on the Falls in 1855 he could have hardly imagined that less than 50 years later engineers and workmen would be planning to construct a steel railway bridge across the gorge immediately below the great waterfall.

It is often debated if it can be truly said that David Livingstone 'discovered' the Victoria Falls, and more often than not the word is now avoided in a perhaps miss-placed sense of political correctness. Martin (1997) records:

Such a claim pre-supposes that for a white man - as opposed to a black man or a woman of either hue - to see the Falls is of added significance. Beyond the obviously racist and sexist (not to mention irrelevant) connotation of such a statement, there is also a question mark as to whether Livingstone was indeed the first white man to see the Falls.
[Martin, 1997]

However, Livingstone was the first to publish descriptions of the Falls, and through his writings and self-promotion they became known to the rest of the world. Just as a scientist discovers a new species by being the first to notice its distinctions, describing and publishing them, so our Victorian explorer can be said to be the discoverer of the Falls, with no disrespect to those who may have known of them before. The nationality, or colour of the individual is, as Martin rightly says, irrelevant, and to diminish Livingstone's achievement is a disservice to a man who did much to further the rights of black Africans, specifically his role in the abolishment of slavery, the destructive horrors of which penetrated deep into the Dark Continent, as Livingstone himself witnessed and recorded in his travels.

Names for the Victoria Falls

Livingstone named them the Victoria Falls, after the reigning British Queen, Victoria, and they are still globally known by this name today. The Makololo (or Kololo) people who guided Livingstone to the Falls called them Mosi-oa-Tunya, which Livingstone translated as 'smoke sounder there' or the 'smoke which sounds', but which today is commonly translated as the 'Smoke that Thunders' (alternative translations include the 'smoke which explodes', the 'smoke that fumes', or 'the mist which thunders').

However the Makololo themselves were newcomers to the region, having temporarily overthrown the Lozi overlords. By the time of Livingstone's second visit, in 1860, the period of Makololo rule had ended, but they have left their mark in the language with their name for the Falls, which is still used locally, especially within the Lozi peoples on the northern banks of the river.

Livingstone records that prior to this the Falls were simply known as Shongwe (translated as 'boiling water in a pot'), but recent historians have doubted his interpretation in its use. The Nambya people south of the river call them Chinotimba, the Place that Thunders. Chinotimba is now also the name given to the township and suburbs of the Victoria Falls tourist town. The Ndebele (or Matabele as they were known) call them Amapopoma efolosi, meaning 'waterfall at a place called Falls'.

The Toka-Leya, who can claim to be the traditional inhabitants of the local region, originally knew them as Shungu na mutitima which translates similarly to the Makololo phrase, and is probably the source of this name. They apparently expanded their definition by qualifying it with Mutuba wati nkayoke mulilo, meaning 'a fool might think he could collect fire from it' [Northern Rhodesia Journal, Vol 1, No 4, p80-82, and Vol 1, No 6, p68]. The Matabele, later arrivals, named them aManz’ aThunqayo. All these names mean essentially 'the smoke that thunders'.

Another name Motse-oa-Barimo was translated by Livingstone as the 'pestle of the gods'. Livingstone recorded being invited to a ceremony on what is now Livingstone Island, writing:

They choose their places of prayer within the sound of the roar of the cataract, and in sight of the bright bows in the cloud... The play of colours of the double iris on the cloud, seen by them elsewhere only as the rainbow, may have led to the idea that this was the abode of some Deity.

Writing later in 1878, Francois Colliard described a similar ceremony, again from Livingstone Island. He wrote how local inhabitants;

believe it is haunted by a malevolent and cruel divinity, and they make offerings to conciliate its favour, a bead necklace, a bracelet or some other object, which they fling into the abyss, bursting into lugubrious incantations, quite in harmony with their dread and horror.

Next page: A Tour of The Victoria Falls


Coppinger M & Williams J (1991) Zambezi - River of Africa. Struik, Cape Town.

Gupta, A (2007) [editor] Large Rivers: Geomorphology and Management John Wiley and Sons, England.

MacDonald J R (1955) Zambesi River. MacMillan & Co Ltd, London.

F B Macrae (1938) Some notes on part of the Gwembe Valley In Northern Rhodesia. The Geographical Journal, Vol. 91, No. 5, May, 1938

Main, Michael (1990) Zambezi – Journey of a River, Southern Book Publishers.

Teede, Jan & Fiona (1990) The Zambezi - River of the Gods Andre Deutsch Ltd, London

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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