Magazine article History Today

Dr. Livingstone Reconsidered

Magazine article History Today

Dr. Livingstone Reconsidered

Article excerpt

* Presumably, the best known thing about Dr David Livingstone is that quote by Henry Stanley. This month, a new exhibition at London's National Portrait Gallery aims to expand the public's scanty knowledge of the man. David Livingstone and the Victorian Encounter With Africa looks like stripping away a few of the myths surrounding Britain's most famous missionary, explorer and embodiment of Victorian Values'.

Bringing together a wide range of ethnographic items and natural history specimens, as well as portraits and paintings (especially by Thomas Baines who accompanied Livingstone on his travels), original photographs, maps, travelling equipment and the manuscript of his great book, Missionary Travels and Researches in Africa, the display offers the most fully-rounded examination of Livingstone to date. The result may surprise some people.

Tim Jeal, Livingstone's biographer, reveals in the introductory essay of the exhibition catalogue how `Livingstone failed in all he most hoped to achieve'. He was not a successful missionary, notching up just one convert - a Chief Sechele whose faith soon foundered on the rock of enforced monogamy. Similarly, in his role as traveller and geographer his success rate was mixed. He frequently became lost and rescue parties were sent out to find him - one, in 1871, during Livingstone's final ill-fated expedition to find the source of the Nile, contained Henry Stanley of the New York Herald and led to their celebrated meeting, where the legend of Livingstone the Great Explorer began.

After his death in Africa in 1873 this legend took hold, encouraged, partly, by politicians and businessmen keen to justify their burgeoning interest in Africa, with its material and strategic benefits (the Suez Canal had opened in 1869; Britain acquired it in 1875). Livingstone's motives in Africa had always been a mixture of the Christian and the commercial, but it was the latter that his successors concentrated on. Advocates of Empire, like Cecil Rhodes, invoked Livingstone's name and legacy whilst gobbling up large chunks of the continent. Livingstone's attitude to Empire was more ambiguous.

Some see his work as a precursor of imperialism, bringing not only Christianity and civilisation to Africans but also `softening' them up for the sucker punch that was colonisation. The exhibition, and lecture programme accompanying it, shows this is too simplistic an approach. In June this year, Lancaster University's Professor John Mackenzie, who is also the exhibition catalogue advisory editor, will deliver the lecture Livingstone: Myth and Reputation at the NPG. …

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