Dr Livingstone, I presume?

March 19, 2013


Today marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of David Livingstone. You may have heard the popular quotation before – “Dr Livingstone, I presume?” – in fact the meeting between David Livingstone and Henry Morton Stanley on the shores of Lake Tanganyika is the subject of several movies. But who exactly is the man behind the myth?

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To mark his anniversary, the National Museum of Scotland is currently showing an exhibition about Livingstone’s life. At first glance, one might wonder why he was one of the most popular public figures of Victorian Britain. Of his three expeditionary journeys, one was recalled by the government and branded a failure after his team succumbed to disease, sickness and death and costs spiralled, while the last led to his disappearance and eventually his death. Yet until this day he is considered an inspiration and a national hero both in Scotland and in Africa, where towns and schools are named after him, and statues and monuments erected in his honour.


So what is it that led to Livingstone’s lasting legacy? For one, there is his inspring ‘rags to riches’ story. He was born in 1813 in to a working class family and worked as a mill boy from age ten, before studying medicine at university after his father had taught him to read and write. He later enrolled as a missionary and took his first journey to Africa in 1840. Despite never managing to sustain any Christian converts in the parts of southern Africa he was stationed in, Livingstone was hailed in his home country for his pioneering expeditions in to the African interior, including the discovery of what he renamed the Victoria Falls. But also within Africa he was – and still is – held in favour by many. As a missionary, he introduced not only the bible but also education and the concept of trade. He was an advocate of commerce and also inspired the development of Christian missions and schools. And as an abolitionist he came to be regarded as an anti-slave hero.


After an introduction to Livingstone’s ‘Early Years’, the exhibition largely focuses on his three great excursion: the ‘First Journeys’ from 1841-1856, the later recalled ‘Zambesi Expedition’ from 1858-1864, and ‘Livingstone’s Last Travels’ from 1866 until his death in 1873. It was on this last journey that he met Stanley, a US American journalist sent to find him after Livingstone lost all contact. Exhibits include portraits, photographs and personal possessions of Livingstone and his family; maps and paintings of the areas in Africa he explored; Livingstone’s sketches and journals from his travels – he wrote a book, published in 1857, but was quoted to prefer travelling than writing about it; certificates and medals awarded to Livingstone; medical and navigational instruments from the expeditions; and items that Livingstone collected to document local customs and culture, such as headrest, fire making sticks or a tobacco pipe. There is also a display with Livingstone memorabilia, marking his legacy, from a commemorative cloth from Malawi, to souvenir postcards and stamps and a board game. One of the exhibition highlights included a copy of Livingstone’s 1871 field diary, written with hand made ink on newspaper pages, which was recently restored with advanced imaging technology.


The exhibition also  includes two short films: One introducing Livingstone and his life story, with a focus on the special relationship between Scotland and Malawi that his name and legacy have fostered. The other showing a selection of clips from films that have portrayed David Livingstone and key events in his life, from British patriotic cinema of the 1920s or Hollywood action packed blockbusters of the 1930s, up until today. Whether you consider Livingstone to be a heroic pioneer of his time or an agent of colonialism, he remains one of the most written about figures of the 19th century. As the exhibition concludes, perceptions of Livingstone might change, but he will never be forgotten.

The exhibition is showing at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh until 7th April 2013 and is free to visit.


The first image was generated from words taken from the the intermission of one of the exhibition films.

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