David Livingstone (1813-73) actually achieved a great deal as an explorer, missionary, and abolitionist, but he will forever be remembered for his bungled attempts to locate the source of the River Nile. Born in Glasgow, Livingstone worked in a cotton mill from the age of 10 whilst taking school classes at night, eventually studying theology and medicine from 1836. It was this confluence of academic disciplines that led to his decision to become a missionary doctor in Africa. His first assignment came in 1841, when he was posted to the edge of the great Kalahari Desert in Southern Africa.
Livingstone’s mission was to abolish the slave trade in Africa and simultaneously convert its inhabitants to Christianity. On his first assignment, Livingstone was mauled by a lion whilst protecting a village’s herd of sheep, and thenceforth could not raise his left arm above the shoulder. He left the first mission in 1845, when locals proved indifferent to his preaching and he fell out with another missionary. On his subsequent missions, Livingstone became an explorer by proxy, as he pushed further and further north in search of people to convert, becoming one of the first Europeans to make a transcontinental crossing.
As well as saving the locals’ souls, converting the Africans to Christianity had the practical purpose of inspiring sympathy for them amongst the British public, and so put an end to slavery. Livingstone also believed that finding new trade routes would make people turn away from slave-trading for new and lucrative ventures, ideas which he publicised in his best-selling memoir, Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa (1857). He became a national hero and an admired explorer, and received government backing for his expeditions, including a failed attempt to explore the Zambezi River and the ill-fated Nile expedition of 1866.
In the latter, Livingstone proposed, simply, to locate the source of the River Nile. In 1866, opinion on the matter was split between those identifying Lake Albert and Lake Victoria, respectively, as the source. Livingstone believed the source was further south, and set out with a party including his trusted African servants, Chuma and Susi, from the Ruvuma River. His party began abandoning the expedition, however, and rumours circulated that Livingstone had died. By the time he reached Lake Malawi, about eight months after the start of the expedition, most of his supplies had been stolen, and he fell ill.
Although he secured fresh supplies, Livingstone’s health meant that he suffered the indignity of travelling with slave traders. When he was knocked out with pneumonia in 1869, his supplies were again stolen, and he suffered a period of securing food from locals in exchange for allowing them to laugh at him eating it. In 1869, Henry Morton Stanley set out to find Livingstone, succeeding in November 1871 and allegedly uttering the famous line, âDr. Livingstone, I presume?’ Livingstone’s health never recovered, and he died about 18 months later. The trip to find the source had been an utter failure.