David Livingstone, Abolitionist

“To all our subjects who may see this and also to others, may God save you, know that we have prohibited the transport of slaves by sea in all our harbours and have closed the markets which are for sale of slaves through all our dominions. Whoever therefore shall ship a raw slave after this date will render himself liable to punishment and this he will bring upon himself. Be this known.” – From a notice, posted on a customhouse in Zanzibar on June 5, 1873, about 1 month after David Livingstone’s death.

Every biography of David Livingstone picks up on a different aspect of his life. He’s hailed as a paragon of missionaries for abandoning the colonial model of a mission station to push to the interior of Africa. Unfortunately, by most ways missionaries are measured, he was not terribly successful, with few converts in his lifetime. He is sometimes celebrated as a scientist due to his medical discoveries, particularly his pioneering of the treatment of quinine for the prevention and treatment of malaria. Often he is known as a great explorer because of his expeditions into the heart of Africa to map the territory and to attempt to find the headwaters of the Nile.

Jay Milbrandt’s recent biography, The Daring Heart of David Livingstone: Exile, African Slavery, and the Publicity Stunt that Saved Millions highlights an element of Livingstone’s life that is often little publicized: Livingstone was passionate about ending the brutal slave trade in East Africa. In fact, the closing of the slave markets in Zanzibar, highlighted in the statement above, was one of the greatest accomplishments of his career, which unfortunately he did not live to see.

Reading of Livingstone’s life is heartbreaking. He failed at several major efforts. He won the hearts of the people of Britain and America due to his discoveries and his missionary accounts. But then he lost the crowd’s applause due to his public failures, which were driven in part by his personal weaknesses. He was, at times, a poor leader. By any reasonable metric he was a terrible father whose children barely knew him, if at all. Still, his wife had every reason to despise him and yet she loved him. I have read several biographies of Livingstone before. I have at times wondered why he is such a celebrated hero. Milbrandt has done a service by highlighting Livingstone’s greatest achievement.

This is a dark book at many points. In order to illustrate the importance of Livingstone’s fight against the slave trade, Milbrandt reveals some of the gruesome details of the conditions in East Africa during Livingstone's time.

For example, in order to destabilize conditions in an otherwise generally peaceful region of Africa, slave traders sent parties in to murder as much as to capture slaves. Villages would be wiped out with a few survivors taken captive, tied together, and sent on a death march toward the coast where they would be sold to the highest bidder. Disease, starvation, and exhaustion took the lives of many of the captives before they reached their destinations.

Livingstone records something more horrifying than the direct deaths due to the brutal slave raids:

“The strangest disease I have seen in this country seems really to be the broken-heartedness, and it attacks free men who have been captured and made slaves. . . . They ascribed their only pain to the heart, and placed the hand correctly on the spot, though many think that the organ stands high up under the breast bone. Some slavers expressed surprise to me that [their slaves] should die, seeing they had plenty to eat and no work . . . it seems to be really broken-hearts of which they die.”

Their families slaughtered, the captives in the slave camps died because their freedom was gone. They ceased to live because they had nothing left to live for. Slavery was a misery worse than the physical ailments that beset them. The blackness of the evil of slavery in that context must be understood if the value of Livingstone’s life work is to be recognized.

One of the more intriguing twists in Livingstone’s fight for abolition is that it was a publicity stunt that had the most impact in stopping the brutal slave trade. Livingstone had been reported dead by some of the natives who had accompanied his expedition to find the headwaters of the Nile. In order to scoop the British papers, the New York Herald sent Henry Morton Stanley to go find the wayward explorer.

Against all odds, Stanley was successful. After a series of interviews over a period of four months, Stanley left Livingstone, unable to convince the explorer to return to civilization. Livingstone did, however, send journals and letters with Stanley, which were influential in spurring political action in Britain to lean on the African nations to end their trade in slaves.

Contributing to the building momentum toward abolition was the dynamic between Britain, who had ended slavery in the early 19th century, and the United States, who had only ended their barbaric human trafficking after a bloody and divisive Civil War. Stanley’s efforts, funded by a US paper helped to shame the British into a more forward action against the slave trade.

Stanley’s encounter also provides a less biased picture of the man who was David Livingstone. Though Stanley was not particularly religious, he wrote this about Livingstone:

“His religion is not of the theoretical kind, but it is a constant, earnest, sincere practice. It is neither demonstrative nor loud, but manifests itself in a quiet, practical way, and is always at work . . . In him, religion exhibits its loveliest features; it governs his conduct not only toward his servants. . . . Religion has tamed him, and made him a Christian gentleman.”

Stanley’s admiration for the man, despite his failings, helps explain why Livingstone’s legacy is as great as it is. It also helps to explain why his wife, Mary, risked disease and death to be with her husband, though he had frequently left her behind for years at a time during his explorations. It also explains why so many of the Africans loved the man so dearly.

As Milbrandt aptly writes, “Livingstone’s story is one of failure and falling from grace. But it is also a story of relentless commitment that brings redemption we may never know, and a story greater than we could ever image. This is David Livingstone’s legacy.”

I am thankful to Jay Milbrandt for investing his time to write this biography. He has done a good thing to draw out the victory against slavery that came through Livingstone’s work. Milbrandt illustrates the reality that many great men and women had serious failings, and that despite these failings their memories should not be cast aside forever, nor should their weaknesses be ignored.

Though Livingstone did not accomplish all he set out to do, a worthy tribute was once paid to him in a speech made by an old African man that had once met the explorer:

“A white man who treated black men as his brothers, and whose memory would always be cherished all along the Rovuma Valley after we were all dead and gone. A short man with a bushy moustache, and a keen piercing eye, whose words were always gentle, and whose manners were always kind, whom as a leader it was a privilege to follow, and who knew the way to the hearts of all men.” 

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