Dr Livingstone, I presume?

Livingstone and Stanley


On November 10th 1871, the explorer and journalist Henry Morton Stanley met with fellow explorer David Livingstone at Ujiji, near Lake Tanganyika in Central Africa. It is claimed that Stanley’s first word to Livingstone were, ‘Dr Livingstone, I presume?’

Born near Glasgow on 19th March 1813, David Livingstone was a Scottish missionary doctor and explorer who devoted much of his life to discovering as much of Africa and its people as he could. In 1841 he was posted to the edge of the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa, and became convinced of his mission to introduce the local population to Christianity, and free them from slavery.

In 1852, Livingstone began a four year expedition to establish a mapped route between the upper Zambezi to the coast. By 1855 he had discovered the biggest waterfall he’d ever seen. He named it the ‘Victoria Falls’ in honour of Queen Victoria. Once he was back in Britain, Livingstone spoke at length about his travels. He campaigned for an end to slavery, though this made the government suspicious of him. Determined to continue with his campaign, his missionary work and his explorations, he returned to Africa. His quest this time was to find the source of the Nile. It would be while he was on this mission that he was to meet a fellow explorer and journalist, Henry Morton Stanley.

Born on 28th January 1841 in Wales, Stanley was originally born John Rowlands. However, because his parents weren’t married, he lived in a workhouse until 1859, when he left for New Orleans. He was befriended by a merchant, Henry Stanley, and it was he whose name he took.

A special correspondent for the New York Herald, in 1869 Stanley was commissioned by the paper to go to Africa. His quest was to search for the Scottish missionary and explorer David Livingstone, who at this time hadn’t been heard of since 1866, when he set off on his Nile expedition.

During the 700-mile expedition through the tropical forest to find Livingstone, dozens of Stanley’s party died from many tropical diseases. Still more of his men left him, and his horse died within a few days after a bite from a tsetse fly. It was 1871 before Stanley got to Lake Tanganyika, and in November he finally found Livingstone in poor health. He is said to have greeted him with the famous words, later recorded in The Herald on July 1872, “Preserving a calmness of exterior before the Arabs which was hard to simulate as he reached the group, Mr. Stanley said: – “Doctor Livingstone, I presume?” A smile lit up the features of the pale white man as he answered: “Yes, and I feel thankful that I am here to welcome you.”

Livingstone had been determined to continue with his exploration of the region, but his health never improved, and in 1873 he died. Stanley resolved to carry on with the work, and funded by the Herald and a British newspaper, he explored vast areas of central Africa until he reached the Atlantic in August 1877.

David Livingstone had planned to persevere with his quest to free as many people from slavery as he could. With his death however, Stanley was free to employ his own methods, and rather than continue with all of Livingstone’s work, he concentrated on the discovery of more the Congo – but not the campaign to abolish slavery. Gaining financial support from King Leopold II of Belgium, who was eager to tap Africa’s wealth, Stanley worked to open the lower Congo to overseas trade by the construction of roads. In stark contrast to Livingstone’s wishes, Stanley used brutal means that included the widespread use of local slave labour to complete his work.

Rather than using his explorations to end slavery, as Livingstone had dreamed of, Stanley used slavery to aid his work and improve his own status. Unfortunately, in this he was undeniably successful. By 1890, he was touring Europe with a lecture tour, had become an MP for Lambeth in south London, and was knighted in 1899.

Livingstone and Stanley’s meeting, so famous for its opening words, could have helped the anti-slavery movement. Instead it ensured that slavery of the most brutal kind continued, and that the British and European attitude to Africans and the usefulness of slaves to create roads and trade routes through Africa lasted longer than perhaps it otherwise might, should Livingstone have survived. Indeed, even with slavery’s abolition, the damage Stanley encouraged was felt, directly and indirectly, for decades, and arguably to this day. Livingston would have been greatly saddened by it.

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Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.

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