Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Dr. David Livingstone, a Bicentenary

Scientist, explorer, missionary, humanitarian, 19 March 1813?1 May 1873

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Dcoetzee/Frederick Hamil

Two hundred years ago the remarkable Dr. David Livingstone was born in the small village of Blantyre, Scotland.

His family was poor, and he started work in a cotton mill at the age of 10. His life as a laborer did not prevent him from the Herculean task (for a poor man) of pursuing the study of medicine, and at the age of 23 he entered Anderson College in Glasgow.

Livingstone was from a deeply religious family, but he rejected the antagonism growing between Science and Religion. He believed in a Christian theology that was dedicated to a scientific understanding of nature.

Starting in 1840 he worked in and explored Africa as a missionary and a scientist. His contributions to medicine, geography, and natural history were, and still are, significant. His experiences led him to become a leading anti-slavery crusader. His phrase describing the East African slave trade, ?this open sore of the world,? still condemns the slave trade of today.

His life is not without contradictions, however. His efforts to expand commerce in Africa leave his legacy open to criticism that he helped in the European exploitation of that continent. Current research reveals a muddy record of poor organizational skills. His lack of funding led him to an unfortunate over-reliance on the same slave-traders he condemned. Yet by the end of his life he had travelled farther on foot than most people today travel on airplanes, in the process surmounting formidable challenges and demonstrating great fortitude (including having his shoulder ripped apart by the jaws of a lion).

As an explorer famous in his own time, his work was noted in the pages of Scientific American. On the occasion of Dr. David Livingstone?s 200th birthday it is fitting to see the admiration for his work in contemporary accounts.


From 1841 to 1856 he lived, worked, and traversed Southern Africa. At the age of 40 he returned to England, and wrote and lectured on his work:

Dr. Livingstone Discoveries in Africa.

The celebrated traveler, Dr. Livingstone, has been lecturing since his return to England, as we learn by recent news. His adventures have been of the most dangerous and thrilling character. He traced by him self the course of the great river Zambesi, in Eastern Africa, extending two thousand miles.

This immense stream, whose discovery is the great fruit of the journey, is in itself an enigma without parallel. But a small portion of its waters reach the seacoast. Like the Abyssinian Nile, it falls through a basaltic cleft, near the middle of its course, which reduces its breadth from 1000 to 20 yards. Above these falls it spreads out periodically into a great sea, filling hundreds of lateral channels; below it is a stream of a totally different character. Its mouths seem to be closing. The southernmost was navigable when the Portuguese first arrived in the country, 300 years ago, but it has long since ceased to 'be practicable.

During his unprecedented march, alone among savages, to whom a white face was a miracle, Dr. Livingstone was compelled to struggle through indescribable hardships. The hostility of the natives he conquered by his intimate knowledge of their character and the Bechuana tongue, to which theirs is related. He waded rivers and slept in the sponge and ooze of marshes, being often so drenched as to be compelled to tum his armpit into a watch pocket. Lions were numerous, being worshiped by many of the tribes as the receptacles of the departed souls of their chiefs; however, he thinks the fear of African wild beasts greater in England than in Africa. He has memoranda of the latitudes and longitudes of a multitude of cities, towns, rivers, and mountains, which will go far to fill up the "unknown regions " in our atlases.

Toward the interior he found the country more fertile and more populous. The natives worshiped idols, believed in transmigrated existence after death, and performed religious ceremonies in groves and woods. They were less ferocious and suspicious than the seaboard tribes, had a tradition of the Deluge, and more settled governments. Some of them practiced inoculation and used quinine, and all were eager for trade. Their language was sweet and expressive. On the arid plateau of the interior, watermelons supplied the place of water for some months of the year, as they do on the plains of Hungary in summer. A Quaker tribe, on the river Zanga, never fight, never have consumption, scrofula, hydrophobia, cholera, smallpox, or measles.

Source: http://rss.sciam.com/click.phdo?i=56f1d9bef26d3064b1ad3c9e7bb4faeb

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