Dr. Livingstone, I Presume? Missionaries, Journalists, Explorers and Empire/Zambesi: David Livingstone and Expeditionary Science in Africa

By MacKenzie, John M. | African Research & Documentation, January 1, 2010 | Go to article overview

Dr. Livingstone, I Presume? Missionaries, Journalists, Explorers and Empire/Zambesi: David Livingstone and Expeditionary Science in Africa


MacKenzie, John M., African Research & Documentation


Dr. Livingstone, I presume? Missionaries, journalists, explorers and Empire, by Claire Pettitt. London: Profile Books, 2007. 244 pp. ISBN 978-1-861977281. £15.19.

Zambesi: David Livingstone and Expeditionary Science in Africa, by Lawrence Dritsas. London: LB. Tauris, 2010. 242 + xii pp. ISBN 9781845117054. £54.50.

Here are two more books for the already vast Livingstone and Stanley bibliography. With each new publication, it becomes increasingly difficult to write about these figures without spending a lifetime in reading. Yet these two are strongly contrasting books and both are very well worth having.

Claire Pettitt has indeed read staggeringly widely, but she has joined the Tim Jeal camp. It is always attractive to "write against the grain" and contradict consensus. Jeal did this by puncturing the Livingstone hagiography with a rather hostile biography. He then went on to write much more positively about Stanley, having gained access to the Congo /Leopold documents held at the Tervuren museum in Belgium (Musée Royale de l'Afrique Centrale). The problem with this kind of approach is that it invariably takes the pendulum too far the other way. The reviews of Jeal's biographies were invariably hostile (particularly of his book on Stanley) and this reviewer has never been convinced by his revisionism. Moreover, Jeal never fully understood either the missionary or scientific dimensions of his subjects. Pettitt is, however, entirely supportive of Jeal describing his work as 'definitive'. Now that is always dangerous: one generation's 'definitive' is quite likely to be deflated and denied by the next.

Pettitt writes on p. 11: "Without Stanley and the famous meeting, we would probably not have heard of Livingstone." Later she writes that Livingstone's iconic status was simultaneously reported and created by the New York Herald. That may be described as the Jeal fallacy and it is surely an indefensible proposition. Livingstone was already exceptionally well known, if also often controversial, by the time Stanley published the story of his encounter at Ujiji. Horace Waller kept his name prominently before the British public throughout his final journey in Africa. Samuel Smiles had long since (1859) singled out Livingstone as one of the classic examples of his self-help, in a book which was one of the greatest best-sellers of the age. Missionary Travels and Researches was also a best-seller and remained highly influential in exploring, missionary, and even scientific circles. Countless missionary biographies and memoirs extolled the influence of Livingstone and it seems highly unlikely that they were all influenced by Stanley's publicity and selfprojection. He was a man whom, by and large, they despised. Yet, curiously, Pettitt writes much that discounts her p. 11 proposition. She provides any amount of evidence for Livingstone's fame in both Britain and the US before Stanley's story broke. She also concludes that Stanley's hero-worship of the older man has to be taken as genuine.

There is in fact much of interest in this book. She charts the Livingstone and Stanley story through so many other cultural forms, from the music hall to children's literature, from the new journalism to moving films. She is also extremely interesting on the subject of the African followers of Stanley and Livingstone, the ones who became celebrated in their own right and about whom Donald Simpson wrote so sympathetically many years ago. Her chapters on Livingstone, on 'the meeting', on the followers ('faithful to the end') and finally Stanley are all eminently readable. Yet it is hard to establish whether this is intended as an academic or as a popular book. It is very usefully illustrated, but it contains no footnotes (only chapter bibliographies), which will much reduce its academic value. Yet she offers a grand historical theory. In attempting a fully developed cultural survey of the intersection of these two figures, she tries to establish a concept of the operations of 'memory' and hero-worship, concluding that the 'global history of modernity is much more complicated than we like to think'.

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