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Dr Livingstone: The best of men. The worst of men.

November 5, 2014

Dr Livingstone.
What do you think of when I say that?

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I presume…it is Stanley’s famous ‘discovery’ of the good Doctor in 1871, with those famous words (which were probably never uttered, historically speaking).

For 100 years after Livingstone’s death in 1873, Livingstone was considered perhaps the closest thing possible to a Victorian-era Saint. A bundle of biographies had been released in that time, mostly written by sympathetic clergyman, that glossed over much of the available historical data concerning Livingstone’s career. Until 1973, no-one would have questioned the received wisdom over the previous 100 years. Livingstone was the greatest Victorian, and perhaps even the greatest missionary in history.

And then Tim Jeal wrote this: And Livingstone’s saintly reputation was largely demolished in an instant.


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Jeal reveals (not discovers, but reveals) a number of extraordinary realities from Livingstone’s life that simply does not tally with the reputation that he gained until the release of this book:

Most shockingly, Livingstone was an appalling husband and father. I was almost in tears reading the troubles his wife (a missionary kid from Southern Africa) and 6 kids went through. Livingstone dragged them on dangerous journey’s (travelling hundreds of miles through almost waterless Southern Africa desert whilst heavily pregnant) that almost killed them. He sent them all back to England whilst he stayed in Africa for 4.5 years on his first (of three) Africa trips, then after 18 months back, left them again for 6 years. His firstborn son became a delinquent and died fighting (randomly) in the American civil war. His wife became an alcoholic and died a terrible death in Africa shortly after rejoining her husband there on his 2nd trip. It was utterly heartbreaking to read.

Most surprisingly, Livingstone was, by any traditional evangelical perspective, a poor missionary. It is true that he only made one convert, who later apparently backslid (the evidence being that one of the wives that Livingstone insisted he leave when he converted became pregnant again by him). In the early years of his first African trip he proved unable to stay in one place and conduct the slow, long-term ministry that African evangelisation demanded at that time.

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Most startlingly, Livingstone was an extraordinarily difficult man to get on with, if you were a white Westerner at least. Harsh, inflexible, unkind, guiltlessly able to lie, unsympathetic, dangerously and obsessively driven, deeply stubborn. There are almost no examples of Westerners who he got on with for any sustained (a few months or more) length of time.

Most disappointingly, and I say this as a passionate and committed geographer and wannabe cartographer, Livingstone failed mostly even in these tasks. He died whilst wandering around the malaria-ridden swamps of South-Central Africa searching for the source of the River Nile that actually lay hundreds of miles to the North (in Uganda). His second trip to Africa (a 6-year trip in the Zambezi region) was meant to be searching for safe places for mission stations. Out of pride, Livingstone claimed to have found the perfect site when clearly it was not. A universities mission team that soon travelled there lost several members through fever. Livingstone blamed them for being weak, instead of admitting that he had effectively sent them to their death by refusing to concede that his convictions about a ‘safe paradise’ in Central Africa had been wrong.

However…however….however…I still consider the guy one of my personal heroes. I know that sounds utterly bizarre considering what I wrote above (and believe me, that list could have been much longer and more shocking), but there is also so much to admire.

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• Livingstone had a remarkable love for Africans. Whilst Stanley was beating and whipping his way through Africa with hundreds of porters, Livingstone at one point was left with just 4, an astonishingly low number. After Stanley (the last white man ever to see him alive, 2 years before Livingstone’s death in 1873) gave him some more, he ended up with 40 or so, all of whom risked their lives by spending 5 months bringing his body back from modern-day Zambia to Zanzibar. Their love for him reflected his love for them. At a time when Victorian ‘gentlemen’ thought nothing of indulging in horrible racial prejudice, Livingstone repeatedly went against his culture by regarding black African as (almost) equals.

• Livingstone had a remarkable, breath-taking toughness. His tenacity and hardiness are almost unparalleled in that or any generation since. The difficulties he went through, spending years at a time trekking through malaria and tsetse-ridden Southern and Eastern African scrubland, are utterly extraordinary. He was almost killed by a lion, butchered by leeches, wrecked by repeated bouts of horrendous malarial fever (been there, mildly, once. It’s awful), developed agonising ulcers on his feet, and basically died as a result of anal bleeding from untreated haemorrhoids. Yet he never, never gave up on anything. Partly that was pride, but partly it was simply a desperate desire to serve the Lord faithfully, as he felt called to do.

• Livingstone broke through some deeply entrenched social hierarchies to achieve what he did. He was not, as you might expect in this kind of man, born into wealth and privilege. He spent his early and teenage years not in school, but working 70-hour weeks in a mill. There he took every opportunity possible, in the few remaining hours he had, to educate himself and get himself out of the downward spiral of poverty that this sort of upbringing often produced.

• Finally, and crucially, although Jeal gives no outward indication of writing in any way as a man sympathetic to Christian faith, Livingstone’s faith shines out. He never stayed in one place long enough to make many explicit ‘converts’ (even the decades-long ministries of great missionaries like Robert Moffat in modern-day Botswana only produced converts in their tens, not hundreds or thousands) but did seek to speak of Christ everywhere he went, recognising that his work would lay the groundwork for those that came after him.

And come they did. Within 30 years of his death hundreds of missionaries had come to Africa as an almost direct result of his example, his letters, and his call to ‘heal this open sore of the world’ (a quote which now lies on his grave in Westminster Abbey. That’s now the next thing on my ‘whilst in the UK bucket-list)

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Bizarrely, after writing an expertly researched biography, the last line threatens to scupper almost all Jeal’s good work. “Undoubtedly Livingstone’s greatest sorrow would have been that Africa never became a Christian continent”. I appreciate it was written in 1973 (although note that the line is retained in the 2001 revision), and I appreciate there are different definitions of such a concept, but given that almost 2/3 of Sub-Saharan Africa now claim to be followers of Christ (over 500million people), that seems a misleadingly negative way to finish.

I’m not sure, unless you are particularly into African history, or biographies, this is the book for everyone. It’s dense, aged, and traumatic to read. If you want a short article effectively summarising it from the author, look here:

When I get back to Uganda, I will pick up and no doubt devour Jeal’s other major biography – about Henry Stanley himself. In this book he apparently does the reverse – takes a much-maligned man in history and revises his reputation to show how he has perhaps been unfairly portrayed. Watch this space or thoughts on that one….


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  1. Martyn Taylor permalink

    Hi Chris, typo comes twice… 1871 not 1971.

    Have you read Blood River yet? Good read and good comments about Livingstone’s influence.

    • Thank you. Got it. How silly of me, well spotted.

      Not read it yet – but picked it up for 50p in charity shop recently…on it very soon!

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