Scottish missionary, explorer and anti-slavery campaigner David Livingstone was born on 19 March 1813 in Blantyre, Lanarkshire. Livingstone came from a humble background and was dedicated to studying from an early age. It was through his education, in fact, that he was able to bring together his interest in medicine and theology with his Christian faith. After studying medicine at Anderson’s College in Glasgow in the mid- to late 1830s, Livingstone applied to train as a missionary with the London Missionary Society (LMS), with a view to becoming a medical missionary abroad. Prior to the Disruption of the Church of Scotland the LMS was a common route for Scots to take who were interested in missionary work as the Church of Scotland did not yet send particularly many missionaries on foreign missions – this only became more common with the establishment of the Free Church as a ‘missionary competitor’.
Originally, Livingstone had been keen to go to China, but the outbreak of the First Opium War put an end to that idea. Instead, he continued with his studies at the LMS in London for a while, which allowed him to meet fellow Scottish missionary Robert Moffat, who was on leave from his missionary work in Africa at the time. It was this encounter with Moffat that awakened Livingstone’s interest in Africa, which subsequently became his destination of choice (and, it’s worht noting, Robert Moffat’s daughter Livingstone’s wife).
Livingstone’s accounts of Africa and his explorations throughout the southern parts – he headed several expeditions – already cemented his legacy in his own lifetime. He was the first European, for example, to see Victoria Falls, giving the Falls their name in honour of Queen Victoria in 1855 (to learn more, have a look at British Pathe’s video of the 1955 centenary celebrations of the discovery of the Falls) .
So interested was the world in David Livingstone that, when no news was received from him for several years in the late 1860s, the New York Herald sent journalist/explorer Henry Morton Stanley on a mission to find Livingstone in 1869. Stanley did so in November 1871, allegedly greeting Livingstone with the words ‘Dr Livingstone, I presume’ (click here for a drawing of the scene). Livingstone remained in Africa, but the remainder of his life was plagued with illness. He died at the village of Ilala southeast of Lake Bangweulu in present-day Zambia in May 1873, probably of malaria and dysentery. Livingstone’s heart was burried under a tree near to where he died, but his body was returned to Britain and interred at Westminster Abbey.
Given Livingstone’s legacy it comes as no surprise that the centenary of his birth in 1913 was celebrated widely. In the British Isles a national memorial service was held at St Paul’s Cathedral in the morning of 19 March, and in the evening a ‘Centenary Celebration’ held at the Royal Albert Hall, with speakers including Lord Balfour of Burleigh (President of the World Missionary Conference) and explorer Sir Harry Johnston. Glasgow had its own celebrations and the LMS issued a Centenary medal. Celebrations were not confined, however, to England and Scotland.
One important initiative abroad that was designed to keep alive the legacy of David Livingstone was the establishment of the David Livingstone Centenary Medal in 1913 by the Hispanic Society of America to be awarded by the American Geographical Society. The first medal was awarded, in 1916, to Sir Douglas Mawson, an Australian geologist and explorer of the Antarctic (click here for images of the medal).
Throughout the Scottish diaspora church services were held in honour of Livingstone. As a report from Cape Town notes, Livingstone ‘was celebrated in most of the churches in South Africa’ – one of the countries where his legacy had been most profound. In Australia, too, such celebrations were common. In Melbourne a gathering was held at the Independent Church, and addresses were delivered by several reverends. In Adelaide, people came together at a meeting at Pirie Street Church. As the Acting Premier, the Hon. R. Butler, stated,
they were met together to keep green the memory of one of Britain’s most noble sons. The Empire was that day doing honour, in all its parts, to one who had sacrificed his life in the cause of humanity. … He was an Imperialist of the widest sympathy, who had lived a life of heroic self-sacrifice. His most remarkable trait, perhaps, was his love for his fellow creatures.
But Livingstone was not only an explorer, of course. Hence the Rev. Dr. Jeffries went on to explore his missionary activities in more detail, observing that people ‘all over the world, from Winnipeg to New Zealand, from London to Hongkong’, were paying ‘tribute of loving admiration to the memory of David Livingstone.’
And that was very true indeed. In Hobart, Tasmania, the local auxiliary of the London Missionary Society had organised an exhibition in the Town Hall (click here to read the report of the opening), and a little further, across the Tasman Sea in New Zealand, the Dunedin auxiliary held a meeting in Moray Place Church (full report here). In Fielding, a good two hours north of Wellington, a lecture ‘illustrated by lantern views’ was given. Celebrations for the Livingstone Centenary were, as the Straits Times (Singapore) noted, really held ‘in every part of Empire’.
In 2013, one hundred years after these celebrations took place, Livingstone’s legacy lives on, and a number of events havr been organised for the bicentenary celebrations of Livingstone’s birth:
- check out Livingstone 200
- National Museums Scotland has a great exhibition on display until early April, check Dr Livingstone, I presume?
- check out Celebrating Lanarkshire 2013 Hall of Fame
The Wellcome Images holds a lot of interesting records connected to David Livingstone, including photographs and digitised images of his letters. To search the archive click here.
You might also like to learn more about Livingstone’s memory: Malawi leader visits Blantyre.