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«Dr. Livingstone... I Presume»

Dr Livingstone Stanley Meeting

[Image: Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons] (en translation)

In the second half of the 19th century, the African territories that became the target of the European powers - in particular Great Britain, France, Germany and Belgium -, which they tried to find in those regions, still unexploited and largely not even explored by Europeans, the raw materials at low prices and the vast markets that their industries needed. The occupation of Africa was not exempt from brutalities against the indigenous people, and the exploitation to which they were subjected does not constitute an honorable page in the history of European civilization.

However, since Africa was at that time a continent largely unknown to Europeans, the colonization process had to be preceded by the exploration of those territories. Many of those who called themselves explorers were, in reality, adventurers who were only looking for the fastest way to enrich themselves at the expense of the unfortunate indigenous people or the governments that financed their expeditions. Others, on the other hand, were scientists and missionaries who entered the heart of Africa driven by the desire to know and to bring European civilization to peoples who, in many cases, they supposed were less civilized than they really were. To this second category belonged David Livingstone.

Dr. Livingstone
David Livingstone. [Image: Frederick Havill, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons]

Born in Blanthyre, near Glasgow (Scotland), on March 19, 1813, Livingstone was a simple employee of the cotton industry when he became interested in religious problems, mainly those related to missionary activity. After completing his studies in Theology and Medicine at Anderson College in Glasgow, in 1841 he accepted his transfer to Kuruman, in Bechuanaland -Botswana-, where there was a missionary center.

From 1840 to 1873, the year of his death, Livingston alternated the apostolate and assistance to the indigenous people with exploration trips that, for 30 years, allowed him to travel throughout southern Africa in all its length and breadth. Thus, while proving himself as a physician and missionary, he explored the northern regions of the Tropic of Capricorn, traversed the sandy desert of the Kalahari, and discovered Lake Ngami.

Discoverer of the "Thunderous Smoke" Falls

In 1851, having traversed part of the course of the Zambezi, Livingston headed west across Angola and reached the Atlantic coast at São Paulo de Loanda -Luanda-. From there, he retraced his steps, reached the Zambezi again, in the course of which he discovered the great falls to which he gave the name of Victoria (the natives called them Musi-oatunya, «thunderous smoke») and, continuing his march towards the East, he arrived at Quelimane, on the coast of the Indian Ocean, thus becoming the first European known to have traversed Africa from one ocean to the other. In the five years between 1858 and 1863, he traveled along the lower Zambezi, discovered Lake Chirua and explored the Nyassa basin.

Finally, in 1866, he undertook what would be his last trip, with the aim, which would later prove futile, of searching for the sources of the Nile. To the west of Nyassa, he discovered Lakes Bangueolo and Moero, and in 1869 he made a long journey over the waters of the great Lake Tanganyika. The physical prostration, the pain caused by the loss of his wife (who died as a result of an illness contracted on the previous expedition) and, above all, the objective difficulty in communicating with the civilized world, led Livingstone to seclude more and more into himself and, at the same time, refrain from giving news about his movements.

Cataratas Victoria Falls Africa
Victoria Falls.

We must bear in mind that, at that time, David Livingstone, a doctor, missionary and explorer, was a world hero, which explains the interest his fate could inspire in public opinion. The great American newspaper The New York Herald then had a director, James Gordon Bennet Jr., endowed with what is called a journalistic "smell", and he was the one who understood the importance it could have, above all for the diffusion of his newspaper, the location of the already legendary Scottish missionary. Gordon Bennet therefore ordered a special envoy of his to search for Livingston.

The man who could be entrusted with such a difficult mission, James Rowlands (born 1841, in Denbigh, a small town in Wales), was known by the adopted name of Henry Morton Stanley and had a checkered past. His childhood recalled the adventures of David Copperfield, Dickens's character, without missing sordid environments, misery, schools with ruthless staff, and unnatural parents. After immigrating to the United States, he joined the Confederates and participated in the Civil War; later he became a journalist and, as a correspondent, he attended the wars against the Indians, the Anglo-Abyssinian campaign (1867-1868), and the events of the Spanish revolution of 1868.

The Encounter and Stanley's Famous Question

Judging by credible testimonies provided by Arab and indigenous travelers in Zanzibar, where Stanley had begun to organize the relief caravan, it seemed that Livingston had established his base, some time ago, in Ujiji, by Lake Tanganyika. Therefore, on March 21, 1871, at the head of 192 men, Stanley set out for said lake. He traversed mountains, deserts, jungles, swamps, and savannahs; he entered the regions infected by the tsetse fly , which caused havoc among the animals of the expedition; he was a victim of malaria and rheumatic fevers; He took quinine and faced the rainy season, which left the roads almost impassable. But finally near Ujiji, on the side of a steep hill overlooking the waters of the Tanganyika, he found a European, a sickly-looking old man with a white beard. Stanley took off his helmet, waved, and asked, "Dr. Livingstone, I presume?" The old man replied in the affirmative. It was November 10, 1871.

Footage from the movie 'Stanley and Livingstone' (1939).

The two men separated after spending four months together. Stanley returned to his country, while Livingstone, with the means and men his friend had provided him, made new voyages of exploration. However, he had already reached the limit of his strength and on May 1, 1873, along the shores of Bangueolo, the lake he had discovered a few years earlier, Livingston closed his eyes for good. His body, carried to the coast and put on board an English ship, was transported to England and buried in Westminster Abbey.

In the End... Who Ended Up Eating Who?

Made, thanks to his articles on Livingstone, one of the most famous people in the world, Stanley returned to Africa in 1874. After a long reconnaissance in the Great Lakes area, he descended by canoe along the Congo River, the second of Africa after the Nile, but the first of the continent for its flow and for the extension of its basin. It was a dramatic journey, as Stanley and his companions, dazed day and night by the beating of drums, were forced to repel several assaults by tribes of natives in despair caused by hunger (and for this reason cannibals). Finally, after 999 days of travel, Stanley arrived on March 12, 1877 in Cabinda, on the Atlantic coast, near the estuary of the river, and thereby demonstrated the existence of a penetration route into the Congo Basin from the same Atlantic coast.

Meanwhile, in those same years Leopold II, King of Belgium, had founded an International African Association and a Study Committee for the Upper Congo, with the vague mission of proceeding with the exploration and civilization of Africa, but actually created to prepare the Belgian colonial expansion in southern Africa. Stanley was entrusted with the commission, which he accepted and succesfully fulfilled, to establish a series of river stations along the course of the Congo, which practically meant the birth of the Belgian Congo.

One of the Most Atrocious and Ignored Carnage in History

In 1885, the Berlin Conference created the Congo Free State, whose crown was offered to Leopold II (only later, in 1908, he would cede it to the Kingdom of Belgium as a colony), who began a systematic process of exploitation of that extremely rich territory in raw materials. For the millions of natives, the arrival of European civilization meant unpaid work and the end of any form of independence, and many of them rebelled. For 30 years, one of the most atrocious and ignored carnage in history took place in southern Africa, and the population of the Congo fell from 25 to 12 million inhabitants. During this period and after making other discoveries in African lands (the discovery of Lakes Alberto and Eduardo, and the Ruwenzori massif), Henry Morton Stanley expired in a London suburb on May 9, 1904. More than likely, a very different final destination from that of those who entrusted their missions to him, who have tried to go down in history as leaders of countries that proclaim themselves champions of democratic values ​​and Human Rights. Moral lessons, the fair ones. In the end, history, sooner or later, places everyone in their place, setting itself up as a judge and passing an unappealable sentence against the ambition and the mean and miserable character of those who, believing themselves to be above good and evil, despise and they commit the most terrible barbarities on their fellow men.

Who civilized whom?


[Source: Vv.Aa. (1978). Livingstone's quest. In Maravillas del Saber. Consultor didáctico (Tome III, pp. 33-36). Milan, Italy: Editrice Europea di Cultura]