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The Legend Livingstone

David Livingstone is one of the most famous explorers ever, without the true story being told.

The Legend Livingstone
This entry about David Livingstone first appeared in a Dispatch, the updates sent to all Society members. You can join for free here.


The life of David Livingstone, the most prominent of all the African explorers, is one that is hard to encapsulate. It’s partly because of his fame and the legends that have come out of his adventures. It’s also because he lived far longer than other explorers, into his 60’s. Because of this length of time and this fame, he went further and ‘discovered’ more than many did before, or have since. The life of David Livingstone is far too rich to be summarised in one simple article, especially with the risk of it turning into a dot-point biography. It’s even too complex to fit into a single film.

We think his life, although still abridged, would suit a limited TV series. If we were to write it, this 10-episode series is what we think would result.

Episode One – Simple Beginnings

We cut to David Livingstone, aged 40, sitting with his head in his hands. The camera slowly pans out to reveal an empty bush camp, a fire smouldering. Bodies float past in the river.

We then go back in time to Blantyre, Scotland. Young David, aged 10, is working in a cotton mill and dreams of something bigger. With his small wage each week he goes to the bookstore, buys a book and gives the change to his mother. Each day he sits at the loom and whilst working, reads his books. And so, in a montage, he teaches himself Latin, mathematics and other subjects required for a full education.

David, now a teenager, sees a public call from British and American churches for some qualified doctors to join them on their missions. He decides to study medicine as a gateway to adventure. Whilst still working part-time at the mill, he also studies medicine, Greek and theology in Glasgow before he is accepted into the London Missionary Society. After a warm welcome, he is told his first official posting and where he is to spend his life.

He’s going to China.

Episode Two – We’ve all gone south

The plan has changed.

The Opium Wars have broken out in China, and David’s mission has been cancelled. Lost and without a purpose, he runs into a notable missionary by the name of Robert Moffat. Robert is working in Southern Africa and sees potential in David. Not long afterwards, David is instead on a ship heading for Cape Town.

On arrival, he joins Robert and his family in the bush. It’s here he meets Robert’s daughter Mary. There is no spark between them, but here marriage options are slim. But, over time, they become firm friends, and then slowly fall in love.

Whilst that is all happening, David is struggling at being a missionary. In fact, he doesn’t convert anyone. None of the mission do. Convinced that they need new people to convert instead of trying the same old people, they plan to head further north, across the deadly Kalahari Desert, to find new converts. It’s a crazy plan, but they do it anyway. Along the way, David clashes with the Portuguese and Boer over their treatment of the locals and is appalled at the effects of the slave trade. We also see him begin to really love the life of an explorer and earn a name for himself, with Mary struggling to always be relegated to second place. They head further and further north into Kalahari country, each learning the ways, cultures and languages.

David confides to Mary that he is a devout Christian but the missionary conversions aren’t as important to him anymore. Instead, he is keen to explore Africa further and end the slave trade he has seen along the way.

The next day, on the way to settle a new mission, David is attacked and mauled by a lion.

Episode 3 – Departures

We open with a wedding, that of David and Mary a year later. David has mostly recovered from his lion attack but still struggles to get ready, his left arm permanently damaged.

They settle in one location called BaKwena, but David can’t stop exploring and Mary doesn’t want to be left alone. On their first trek, Mary becomes sick and their newborn baby dies. Despite this, they carry on. Four children later, we still see them continue to explore, discovering Lake Ngami along the way. David is welcomed into the Royal Geographic Society, winning a gold medal and some money. He is planning a new expedition to bring commerce into the centre of Africa, as a way of ending the slave trade. He has obtained a map from the Portuguese showing the Zambezi river emptying into the Atlantic. He declares “I shall open up a path into the interior, or perish”. But, this life is not suited for a young family, with the children having almost died of thirst on a previous trip. For the children’s safety, they agree to send Mary and the children home to Scotland.

It is ‘for only two years’ he tells them.

They head off, and so does David. Meeting up near Linyanti with the Makalolo people, who he thinks are well suited for this type of missionary work, David heads off northwestward to open a new route. His plan is to find a route that allows commerce into the heart of Africa, ending the slave trade. Livingstone contracts malaria and nearly dies, but they keep going. In the end, the map isn’t correct. Six months later, after reaching the Atlantic Ocean on the west coast of Africa, he realises it isn’t a viable trade route. Determined to find an option, they turn around and head back. He gets sick again multiple times but they make it back to Linyanti. They decide to see if they can follow the river the other way, into the Indian Ocean, as a Plan B.

He hears a mighty roar one morning and sees smoke. He asks if it is a bushfire, and the locals say no. It is “the smoke that thunders”. He asks the locals to take him towards it so they take a canoe and transport him downriver towards an island on the edge of a mighty inferno – a massive waterfall. He names it Victoria Falls after his queen, and comments in his notes “No one can imagine the beauty of the view from anything witnessed in England. It had never been seen before by European eyes; but scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight.”

They continue to head towards the Indian Ocean coastline, following the river. David gets seriously sick again (his 20th time) and they are taken in by some local villagers. They tell him the river bends downstream through a particularly rugged mountain range, so he should bypass the mountain and rejoin the river downstream. He does.

He finally arrives in Quelimane on the Indian Ocean, diary in hand, as he watches the sunrise. He has found a route. Time to go home. It has been four years.

Episode 4 – Returning home

This episode starts with Mary returning back to England with the children. Staying with David’s parents, things don’t go to plan and a year later she finds herself unable to stay there any longer. Struggling to make ends meet on David’s meagre salary, she makes her way from boarding house to other temporary accommodation. A powerful woman, but under immense stress and loneliness, she turns to alcohol.

Life is grim.

One day, she hears the news of David’s arrival back in England. He finds her living in less-than-desirable conditions and the family is finally reunited.

David is a public hero, being stopped in the streets to have his hand shaken. He is elected to the Royal Geographic Society and awarded the Patron’s medal. He writes his first book and it is a major seller, with twelve thousand copies sold before it was even printed. He proposes returning to Africa to take his Zambezi route back to Victoria Falls. He wants to provide cotton seeds, bringing in a tradable good to the Makalolo, ravaged by slavery. Livingstone becomes a celebrity, meets royalty and is appointed Consul over the entire area he visited. The missionary society congratulates him for his success but, with his interest now in exploring and not in missionary work, they don’t want to support his travels. He resigns from the society and instead, supported by the government, raises funds for another expedition up the Zambezi, which he calls “God’s Highway”. It raises over £100,000 pounds, an unimaginable amount of money considering he could have bought Mozambique for £15,000.

The family doesn’t stay together too long, as David is travelling the country doing speaking tours and promoting his book on his travels. Mary feels left behind again and demands to come along on the next expedition. He agrees, and leaves his children to be raised by relatives.

Onboard the HMS Pearl, heading for the Zambezi, David and Mary look to the horizon. They are heading back to Africa.

Episode 5 – Disaster

Early into the departure, Mary finds out she is pregnant again, this time with her sixth child. She is turned around and sent back alone to England to give birth there.

After a mistaken start at the wrong river mouth, David and his team reach the Zambezi. Doubts are starting to show about David’s leadership skills and his crew slowly mutiny. When they run aground again and again on this “highway” and with the river level dropping, they unload a portable steamship called the “Ma Robert”. With this, they plan to head upstream towards Victoria Falls. But, with too many supplies funded by too much money, even ferrying the supplies and getting to the starting point takes them four months. The starting point for the expedition was the village he recovered in when last here. It’s the same village that told him to take a shortcut. It turns out to be a fatal mistake.

Taking the Ma Robert upstream via the river and through this mountainous area, they run into the Cahora Bassa, a massive set of rapids and cataracts. It punches a hole in their boat, and their attempts to navigate via land come to nothing. This was the part of the river Livingstone didn’t see, which the entire expedition was unaware of. “God’s Highway” turns into hell. They try the nearby Shire River but it ends at a waterfall, which Livingstone names Murchison Falls. His team starts to die from malaria or quit with frustration over his poor leadership, lack of accountability and lack of progress. The banks of the river are an actual war zone, with the Portuguese and their slaves fighting the nearby slave traders. He tries the Zambezi again, ignoring local advice about water levels, but it’s the same result. He tries the Shire River again, going around the waterfall in canoes and discovering Lake Nyasa. Along the way, he frees a group of slaves, one of them being a young boy named Chuma.

David writes to England asking for another ship, a steamboat that can be disassembled to go around the waterfall to operate on Lake Nyasa. He sells the whole area as a new Eden, perfect to be settled, as a pitch. Meanwhile, his team is either dying or leaving in droves.

Whilst he is waiting for the ship to arrive, he decides to take the Makalolo home to the Linyanti area. This trip enables them to scout out the journey again and revisit Victoria Falls. On the way back to the coast they try to navigate the Cahora Bassa gorge but are thrown from their boats and barely survive.

The new dissembling ship, called the ‘Lady Nyasa’, arrives with missionaries keen for this new Eden. They walk into hell, with barely any original explorers left and the area at war. There is news of more settlers coming, along with Mary Livingstone. When they arrive, the boat going out to meet them sinks and kills more missionaries and the bishop.

Mary and David are reunited. Realising the area is quickly becoming treacherous, they forbid their eldest son from coming to the area, with him having just arrived in Cape Town. In frustration, he instead heads to the United States.

Mary discovers that the Ma Robert is named after her, the “Mary of Robert”, Robert being her father. More and more settlers arrive, and more and more die from famine and disease. Meanwhile, another local African man joins the expedition on the Lady Nyasa, a young riverman named Susi.

Mary falls sick. David tries to nurse her back to health, but only three months after arriving, she dies.

Episode 6 – Recall

David, in denial of the situation and in grief, doesn’t want to give up. He says “I am prepared to go anywhere, provided it be forward.”

He decides to explore his last option, a nearby river called the Ruvuma, in the hope it connects with the Zambezi or provides a way inland. It doesn’t. At a loss, he heads back to Shire River to transport the Lady Nyasa to the lake it was named after. On the way there, the new missionaries from the area cross paths with him. They are leaving because of the danger. He continues, but the paddle wheels of the ship are constantly getting stuck. Upon closer inspection, they are being jammed with the bodies of slaves discarded into the river. The porters, walking along the river bank with supplies, see so much death and destruction that they refuse to go any further.

We see David, sitting in a bush camp, bodies in the river, just like the opening shot from the series.

On arrival back to the base of operations, David receives the news from England: The expedition has been cancelled, and he is being recalled.

Determined to deny the slavers the use of the Lady Nyasa, he sails the leaky steamer across the Indian Ocean to Bombay where he sells it. He uses the money to provide an education for the Africans who accompanied him, including Susi. He heads home to raise money for another expedition.

He arrives back home a laughing stock. His reputation is ripped apart in the newspapers and his finances dry up. Not only that, but his exploration and then the removal of the missionary stations have made it easier for slavers to exploit the area.

And then, he receives word that his son has died in the US Civil War. A son he sent away from danger instead became embroiled in danger on the other side of the world.

David is a shadow of his former self, a pariah and unable to raise funds to return to Africa. He retires to his flat in Kensington and writes his second book. It sells only a couple of hundred copies. He is advised to have surgery for crippling haemorrhoids but refuses on pride and finances.

One day, much later, he sees an ad in the classifieds from the Royal Geographic Society. They are looking for someone to solve a very public and embarrassing spat between two of their other explorers. Burton and Speke set out to find the source of the Nile but split up halfway into their journey. They now both claim to have discovered the source and are battling it out.

Livingstone applies and gets the job. He is heading back to Africa. For the last time.

Episode 7 – The Slavers

David first heads to Bombay and recruits the Africans he left there to come with him for his expedition. He also stops in at Zanzibar and recruits more African and Asian locals, thinking them better suited and less likely to mutiny than the last crew. Among them are both Susi and Chuma. He sets off inland to find the Nile source with his porters but some very quickly abandoned him. A little later, after seeing the horrors of slavery, a larger number leave as well. To avoid punishment when they return they tell the public that Livingstone has died.

Left with only 10 people, the expedition slows. His supplies are then stolen and he falls terribly ill. He is heading towards the first claimed source of the Nile, but alone in the interior of Africa with no supplies, he is in serious trouble. He comes across some slave traders who take him in, provides supplies and nurse him back to health. The slave trade he despises is keeping him alive.

The slave traders know that he is trying to stop their business. They also know that he is too famous to be murdered. So, they agree to take him into the centre of Africa, along with Susi and Chuma, towards the Nile source. It’s here, far away from everyone, that they can keep him quiet.

Five years pass.

In the meantime, he has battled cholera, hemorrhoids, malaria and terrible ulcers on his feet. He develops a remedy for malaria, having correctly surmised its cause. His remedy is made from herbs and quinine and has helped him through over 40 attacks of the disease. He still relies on various slave traders for assistance, but all 44 of the letters he writes and gives them to send out are later destroyed. He is trapped in Africa. Whilst he is the first European to see countless sights in Africa, he has no way of communicating with the outside world.

Meanwhile, the world is abuzz. Word of the missing Livingstone is across all the newspapers and the mystery of the missing explorer has everyone talking. When it was discovered that his death was a lie and with his location still a mystery, many search parties have set off to find him. They all fail.

One awful day, David witnesses a massacre of over 400 slaves. It’s the last straw. It breaks his spirit. Alone, and with a broken heart, he abandons his mission and returns to Lake Tanganyika to wait for the inevitable end.

The New York Herald decides to write a blank cheque to a eager young correspondent to find him and get the story. That young man is Henry Stanley.

Episode 9 – Presumptions

Stanley immediately sets off and spends a vast amount of the blank cheque on the expedition. A young man with a blank cheque isn’t always a great idea. This includes buying fine clothes for the porters, the best camping equipment, many supplies and even a bath for himself. He heads into the interior and eventually hears word that Livingstone is at Tanganyika. Knowing he will run into him the next day and keen to create an impression for his story, he decides to make an entrance.

With the American flag at the front, a full procession and even a brass band playing, Stanley approaches the confused Livingstone. It’s here he utters the famous words “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”. They are the only two white men for hundreds of miles.

Stanley wants to take Livingstone back out to tell his story and expose the slave trade, but Livingstone refuses. He has kept copies of all his letters, and all the details, writing between the newsprint of an old newspaper. He tells Stanley to tell the story on his behalf. David will stay in Africa until his job is done. Stanley pleads but to no avail.

We follow the letters. Stanley takes them back to England, where he gets a hero’s welcome himself, and then gives them to Livingstone’s sister. From there they go through various people to the houses of parliament and are read out to the nation. Finally, the 15th amendment to the Slavery Act is passed and slavery is made illegal. The British send warships to Zanzibar to stop the slave trade and, when the sultan surrenders, they take over Zanzibar. In areas under their control, the slaves are slowly freed.

Livingstone never hears of any of this. Rejuvenated by the meeting with Stanley and his letters finally being sent out, he heads off to find the source of the Nile and complete his original mission.

Episode 10 – Returning home

Heading south, he gets turned around by the rivers and ends up exploring for almost two years. By the end of it, he can barely walk. Falsely thinking that the Bangweulu swamps are the source of the Nile, he ends up getting stuck in there. He is there for three weeks, at times up to his chest in water, wading through crocodile and hippo-infested waters. It is exhausting work, and he falls ill again.

Camping nearby, Livingstone retires early. The next morning, they find him kneeling in prayer beside his bed. When they come back a few hours later, he is in the same position.

He is dead, at age 60.

In an age when the average life expectancy of an African explorer is six months, he has made it to 60.

Susi and Chuma have a tribal belief that you don’t bury someone away from the land of their birth, as your spirit will then wander endlessly. They also know that his heart belonged to Africa and its people. They take his heart, place it in a tin box they used to carry flour and bury it underneath a nearby mpundu tree. Knowing that they will be killed if found carrying his body, they take the corpse, cover it with salt and leave it in the sun. Two weeks later, they fold up the dried body in disguise as a parcel of fish and with 10 volunteers, begin the long journey back to Zanzibar.

Before they leave, they break off a branch from the tree and begin to carve.

It takes nine months, an epic journey of over two thousand kilometres, with six volunteers dying along the way. They continue to carve along the way. They give David to the Jesuits, who take him to Zanzibar and the British consulate. From here Susi and Chuma escort him all the way back to England, where he is then interred in Westminster Abbey.

We then see a final montage.

We see Susi and Chuma in England, finishing his final novel. It becomes a best seller.

In a bag next to them as they write is Livingstone’s homemade malaria treatment. It was sold as a treatment until the late 1930s.

We see the grave of Mary Livingstone, still in Mozambique to this day.

We see David’s final resting place in the Explorers Wing of Westminster Abbey.

We see the tree in Zambia where his heart remains, a modern-day memorial replacing the tree.

Finally, we see a church in Zanzibar. It is built on top of old slave-holding cells. Inside, next to the main altar, is a small wooden cross. It has been carved from the tree under which his heart has been buried, and then carried all the way here. And here it remains to this day, in a holy place, in an exotic land, above the horrific thing that he helped end.

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