David Livingstone was born on 19 March, 1813 in Blantyre, South Lanarkshire, Scotland. His father was a committed Protestant Sunday school teacher and probably influenced the young David to grew up with an aspiration to become a missionary.
Since his family was poor, David worked from the age of 10 to 26 at a cotton mill company and did his school work during the evenings and at weekends. He then studied medicine in Glasgow before going on to train with the London Missionary Society for a year. After studying at various institutions, he completed his medical studies in 1840 in London, England.
From an early age, David was intrigued by geology, science and the natural world. He was concerned that science would clash with religion. However, after reading Thomas Dick’s Philosophy of a Future State, David was able to reconcile religion with science.
He moved to Africa as a medical missionary in 1841, arriving in the Cape Colony (Cape Town, South Africa) on 15 March, 1841. He reached Robert Moffat's station, Kuruman, at the time an outpost of European penetration in southern Africa, on July 31.
Livingstone soon moved north to the Khatla people. It was here that he permanently injured his left shoulder in an encounter with a lion. In 1845, he married Mary Moffat, the daughter of the missionary Robert Moffat and sister to the missionary transformed imperial agent, John Smith Moffat, and settled further north at Kolobeng.
Later he set out with two friends, Oswell and Murray, to cross the Kalahari Desert, ‘discovering’ Lake Ngami on 1 August 1849. He moved across central and Southern Africa at a time when the risks were high due to the prevalence of diseases such as malaria, sleeping sickness and dysentery – as well as hostile African rulers.
Prior to Livingstone’s expeditions, Africa's interior was almost entirely unknown to the outside world. Available knowledge about Africa’s geography, fauna, flora, and human life was vague and stereotypical. Livingstone dispelled much of this ignorance and opened up Africa's interior to further exploration. His expeditions became famous throughout the world. He alerted the world to the tremendous potential of Africa for human development, trade, and Christian missions and uncovered the horrors of the East African slave trade.
He was also one of the first Europeans to make expeditions along the Zambezi River in 1851. Over the years, Livingstone continued his explorations, reaching the western coastal region of Luanda in 1853. Livingstone was the first to make a transcontinental journey across Africa from Luanda on the Atlantic, reaching Quelimane (Mozambique) on the Indian Ocean by 1856. Moving along the Zambezi River, in 1855 he became the first European to see the “Mosi-oa-Tunya” (Smoke that Thunders), which he named the Victoria Falls after Queen Victoria of England.
Unlike other explorers who attracted suspicion because of their numbers and ammunition, Livingstone travelled with a small group and had just a few guns for protection. He secured most of his provisions by bartering with local Africans. He did not appear to be a threat to the African order. He toned down his Christian evangelism so that his Christian message did not coerce tribal chiefs into accepting the religion, as some of his contemporaries did. However, although he endeared himself to the locals, he was criticised by fellow members of his own expeditions for poor leadership – his judgement was said to be subject to his moods and he was perceived as intolerant of criticism.
Livingstone saw the Zambezi River as central to his dream of developing the area for trade. He had a firm belief that ‘Christianity, Commerce and Civilization’ were intertwined and the development of each would lead to the development of the others. His strong belief is inscribed on a statue commemorating him at Victoria Falls, which reads ‘Christianity, Commerce and Civilization’.
Upon his return to England, Livingstone received accolades and, in 1857, he published Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa. Livingstone left missionary work for exploration his attempt to convert Africans to Christianity resulted in only one genuine convert. In 1858, he ventured into the Zambezi Expedition, for which he got funding from the British Government. The expedition lasted until 1864 and was the first European attempt to reach Lake Malawi. The expedition was abandoned in 1864 due to high costs and the failure to find a navigable route to the interior. Livingstone’s wife, Mary, died from fever in 1862 during the period of the Zambezi Expedition.
Livingstone returned to England again in 1864 and spoke out against slavery. In 1865, he published Narrative of an Expedition to the Zambesi and Its Tributaries. In this book, Livingstone also wrote about his use of quinine as a remedy for malaria and theorised about the connection between malaria and mosquitoes.
Livingstone embarked on another expedition to Africa that led him to Zanzibar early in 1866, in the hope of locating the source of the Nile River. He found himself in the village of Nyangwe, where he witnessed Arab slave traders killing hundreds of people. Although the expedition fell short of its objectives, it helped to fill in details about the great lakes – Lake Tanganyika and Lake Mweru. Livingstone also helped identify Lake Malawi and Lake Ngami. Unfortunately, on this expedition he again lost helpers due to illness or desertion and his supplies were stolen. This ironically saw him come to depend on the slave traders for help, which annoyed him.
For six years, Livingstone was invisible to the rest of the world. With the explorer thought to be lost, a transatlantic venture was undertaken by the London Daily Telegraph and New York Herald, and journalist Henry Stanley was sent to find Livingstone. Stanley located him in Ujiji on the shores of Lake Tanganyika on 27 October 1871 – about a year before his death.
Livingstone could not be persuaded to leave Africa and continued his explorations. After suffering a variety of tropical illnesses throughout his life, he succumbed to malaria and dysentery and died on 1 May, 1873 at Chief Chitambo's Village near Lake Bangweulu, Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia). His body was eventually transported to and buried at Westminster Abbey. Some accounts argue that local African attendants were somewhat reluctant to give up Livingstone’s body and at the end they cut out his heart and gave back his body, arguing that his heart belonged to Africa.