Shaping Public Perception of Africa: David Livingstone

Happy Birthday, David Livingstone!

“Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”

Most of us have heard that famous phrase, uttered by Henry Morton Stanley of the New York Herald upon finding David Livingstone in Ujiji, Tanzania, on November 10, 1871.  However, just because you know the phrase doesn’t mean you know the man. Come with us as we explore this legendary explorer and celebrate his birthday!

Humble Origins

David Livingstone was the second of seven children born to a tea salesman in Blantyre, Scotland in 1813. From the age of ten, he worked in a cotton mill spending twelve hours a day tying broken threads on spinning machines. Fortune, however, had him destined for much greater things. At 23 years old, he entered Anderson’s University in Glasgow to study medicine, and in 1840, after completing his studies in London, he was licensed as a physician and ordained as a missionary. Originally intending to serve in China, Livingstone was inspired by the convictions of Robert Moffet, a missionary stationed at Kuruman, a missionary outpost in South Africa. Thus, Livingstone began his lifelong affair with Africa and set out in 1840 as a medical missionary to South Africa. He would spend the rest of his life exploring Africa, with only two visits to England over the subsequent 32 years.

An Account of More than a Decade in Africa

Livingstone, David. Missionary Travels and Researchers in South Africa. (1857). Contributed by Smithsonian Libraries.

Livingstone recounted his explorations and experience in Africa between 1840 and 1856 in his acclaimed publication Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa. One of the nineteenth century’s best-selling books, Missionary Travels established Livingstone’s reputation as not only an exciting explorer, but also a kind-hearted humanitarian aching to improve conditions for Africans.

Missionary Travels is a narrative compilation of Livingstone’s personal field diaries.  Livingstone was careful to construct the composition to appeal to both scientific and religious readers, hoping to encourage further positive involvement in Africa. The work also includes 47 illustrations – most crafted by Captain Henry Need and Joseph Wolf.

Livingstone published the work with John Murray, one of the era’s most renowned publishers of geographical books. Murray was so anxious to secure the publication that he offered to finance all expenses in return for only one-third of the profit obtained.  

The most famous illustration in Missionary Travels is entitled “The Missionary’s Escape from the Lion,” which depicted Livingstone pinned by a lion with his fellow travelers attempting to rescue him. Livingstone called the illustration “abominable,” asserting that “[e]veryone who knows what a lion is will die with laughing at it.” Murray ignored Livingstone’s dissatisfaction and included the illustration, knowing that most people reading Missionary Travels would not have the knowledge necessary to detect its absurdity. Furthermore, Murray understood that many audiences might never actually read the book but experience it only through illustrations. Thus, it was necessary to craft a dramatic story through images alone.

12,000 copies of the first edition of the book published in 1857, and, even at a price of one guinea each, sold out immediately. Several additional printings were ordered, selling with such success that Murray did not publish a cheaper, abridged version of the work (A Popular Account of Missionary Travels in South Africa) until 1861.

An Explorer at Heart

As Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa confirms, though a missionary, Livingstone spent much of his career exploring the wilds of Africa. Enthused by Livingstone’s discoveries as related in his book, the British government funded an expedition up the Zambezi River (1858-64), tasked with uncovering a route between the upper Zambezi and the coast. Extensive rapids past Cabora Bassa unfortunately made negotiating the river to the coast impossible, and the British government recalled the expedition 1864. Though unsuccessful, naturalists in the expedition party collected a wealth of valuable specimens during the six years of the expedition.

From 1866-67, Livingstone led a privately-funded expedition to discover the source of the Nile, which was debated at that time to be either Lake Albert or Lake Victoria. Arriving at Lake Bangweulu on November 8, 1867, Livingstone mistakenly asserted it as the upper reaches of the Nile. In truth, the source of the Nile lies in the high mountains of Burundi.

By the end of the Nile expedition, Livingstone’s public image was suffering due to the failures of his expeditions and reports that Livingstone was a poor leader and manager. After 1867, Livingstone’s health failed and he lost contact with the outside world completely, prompting the New York Herald to send Henry Morton Stanley in search of him in 1869. Stanley located him in Ujiji in 1871, and the article he later published about Livingstone restored public opinion of him, casting him as a great hero of adventure and discovery. However, despite Stanley’s urging to return to England to recover his health, Livingstone refused. He died in 1873 in present-day Zambia. His heart was buried under a Mvula tree and his body was transported to England, where it was interred at Westminster Abbey.

Though many of the expeditions that Livingstone undertook were unsuccessful at achieving the undertakings’ primary goals, the discoveries made along the way, and the natural riches recorded – many for the first time for Western people – made a monumental impact on the future of African exploration, understanding, and native relations.

A Monumental Legacy

David Livingstone left behind an impressive legacy. He was the first European to successfully complete a transcontinental journey across southern Africa. He was the first European to see Victoria Falls, which he named after the British Monarch of the time. He discovered for Western science many locales throughout Africa, including Lake Tanganyika, Lake Ngami, Lake Mweru, Lake Bangweulu, and the upper Zambezi River. He was instrumental in increasing European awareness of the horrors of the slave trade in Africa and encouraging equitable, rather than dictatorial, European relations and fair commercial interactions with Africa. His explorations and zeal for Africa inspired and enabled future missionaries to serve in Africa, providing valuable medical and educational support.

He was awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Geographical Society and memorials exist for him throughout Africa, the United Kingdom, and North America. Today, we celebrate the scientific contributions, as well as the humanitarian considerations, of this icon of nineteenth century science and exploration. Happy Birthday, David Livingstone!

Additional Livingstone Resources

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Avatar for Grace Costantino
Written by

Grace Costantino served as the Outreach and Communication Manager for the Biodiversity Heritage Library from 2014 to 2021. In this capacity, she developed and managed BHL's communication strategy, oversaw social media initiatives, and engaged with the public to excite audiences about the wealth of biodiversity heritage available in BHL. Prior to her role as Outreach and Communication Manager, Grace served as the Digital Collections Librarian for Smithsonian Libraries and as the Program Manager for BHL.


  1. Avatar for Minoru Ito (Mr.)
    Minoru Ito (Mr.) September 16, 2019 at 6:37 am Reply

    Dear Ms. Grace Costantino,

    My name is Minoru Ito, and I am a PhD student at Graduate School of Engineering and Design Major in Architecture, Hosei University, Tokyo, Japan. The research I pursue for my doctorial dissertation involves the spatial development and urban transformation of colonial and postcolonial cities, and I am planning to conduct research on the Livingstone City. My research project has been conducted under the supervision of Professor Masahiko Takamura:

    I am hereby seeking your consent to access relevant documents held in your Library
    Thank you for your time and consideration.
    Sincerely yours,

    Minoru Ito
    Graduate School of Engineering and Design Major in Architecture
    Hosei University, Tokyo, Japan

    • Avatar for Biodiversity Heritage Library
      Biodiversity Heritage Library September 16, 2019 at 8:46 am Reply

      Dear Mr. Minoru Ito,

      Thank you for your comment and interest in our Library. All of our collections are completely free and open access, so you are free to access and use any of our content for your research.

      Below are some links with more information about how to use our collections, which you might find useful:

      How to search BHL:
      How to download content from BHL:
      Information on reusing content from BHL:

      I hope this information is helpful. Thank you again for reaching out, and good luck with your dissertation!


      Grace Costantino
      Outreach and Communication Manager
      Biodiversity Heritage Library

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