The legacy of Dr David Livingstone: Problematic, I presume?
Missionary, explorer… colonialist? As the museum at the birthplace of 19th century British icon David Livingstone reopens in Blantyre, just outside Glasgow, we follow in his footsteps to look at the impact of his legacy at home and abroad.
What’s the name of the famous waterfall in Africa?
I learned this fact long ago from a Ladybird book about David Livingstone. I still have it. Originally published in 1960 as part of An Adventure from History series, it sums up his African odyssey on the final page with: “Livingstone had travelled 29,000 miles in Africa and added 1,000,000 square miles to the map. He discovered six lakes and many rivers and mountains, including the biggest waterfall in the world.”
This is what generations of us were taught about the almost mythic missionary. Seemingly the only white man in Africa, he “civilised” an entire continent and “discovered” a mile-long waterfall that’s twice as high as Niagara Falls – as if none of the locals had ever noticed it before.
Victoria Falls was – and still is – known as Mosi-oa-Tunya by the people who live around that part of the Zambezi. That name means The Smoke That Thunders. The name Victoria Falls has new meaning today. It’s another reminder that Brits abroad have a history when it comes to assuming an attitude of superiority and entitlement, whether that’s complaining that menus aren’t written in English or renaming countries.
During the last four years, the museum housed in the building where David Livingstone was born in 1813 has been undergoing renovation. Livingstone’s reputation too has been re-examined during the time of the Black Lives Matter movement amid fresh focus on the persisting damage done by British imperialism.
Sir Geoff Palmer served on the museum’s advisory committee. The 81-year-old was born in Jamaica, followed his mother to the UK as part of the Windrush generation and became Scotland’s first black academic.
“The emphasis is put on education,” Palmer explains. “The public is going to be educated about Livingstone and his work. That’s very important because it was a very significant saga in Scottish history.”
Palmer is on the front line when it comes to helping people understand how our history is connected with that of other countries and peoples. He says that while Britain remembers Livingstone first and foremost as an explorer, in the countries he visited he is remembered more for his missionary work.
He adds: “We have this aspect of Livingstone associated with colonialism and I think his work as a Christian missionary is almost played down. If you ask Africans, they are aware primarily of his missionary work and involvement in converting Africans to Christianity.”
Of course, there’s another debate to be had about whether the western belief system is better than any other.
“We have then got to be very careful,” Palmer says. “If somebody is a Christian in Africa then you’re attacking their beliefs. My church [in Jamaica] was started by a missionary from the London Missionary Society in 1837. Although it derived from somebody who people may feel was just a frontman for colonialism, you could not criticise my church’s existence. The people in my church wouldn’t accept that today.”
The David Livingstone Birthplace reopened last month, and there is an emphasis throughout the museum on the other people who were part of Livingstone’s story. In the reception area, banners set out urgent questions: “He accepted help from slave traders. Why is he known as an abolitionist and freedom fighter?”; “Hailed as a hero in books, movies and his own words. Who are the other heroes of this story?”
Throughout the slickly refurbished museum, there are displays dedicated to his crew members including Abdullah Susi and James Chuma. Livingstone freed the 11-year-old Chuma from slavery and after Livingstone’s death, aged 60 in 1873, he was one of the team that helped carry his body 1,000 miles to the coast so it could be returned to Britain.
One of the most notorious incidents of Livingstone’s life has also been rewritten. Outside the museum is a staggering statue of Livingstone bravely fighting off a lion that was designed by film special effects pioneer Ray Harryhausen – who married Livingstone’s great granddaughter. Reminiscent of the mythical monsters he made for movies, there are also two local men included in the scene, there to cower to make the lion more fearsome and Livingstone more heroic.
The original plaque from two decades ago recounts the 1844 event with the words: “Livingstone shot one of the lions, it then attacked him but suddenly dropped dead.” It didn’t quite happen like that. Lions don’t magically drop dead – even if it’s a missionary they’re trying to eat.
Two new information boards fill in the detail, adding: “Thanks to the actions of the Southern Africans on the scene, no human lives were lost… One of the men is thought to be local Tswana school master, Mebalwe Mohelabangwe… These historic depictions often focus on the novelty and drama of the event at the expense of celebrating the African men’s heroic deeds.”
A complex picture of Livingstone emerges from the museum. You visit the tiny room he shared with six other family members. He started working long, dangerous shifts aged 10. His mission eventually became about encouraging a cotton trade in Africa to serve as competition to crops in the colonies and prevent slaves being transported across the ocean.
He failed, and instead the 1,000,000 miles’ worth of detail he added to the map unwittingly guided the machinery of empire to follow.
It’s hard to think of a more tangible piece of Livingstone’s legacy than the town in Zambia named after him.
Livingstone was founded at the turn of the 20th century by Cecil Rhodes’ British South Africa Company. Today, it is the seventh largest town in Zambia with a population of over 130,000 – and in normal times thousands more tourists stop over to take in the wonder of the world that Livingstone “discovered”, Mosi-oa-Tunya. It too has a museum, the largest and oldest in Zambia.
The name of the museum tells its own history. It opened in 1934 as the David Livingstone Memorial Museum, later renamed the Rhodes-Livingstone Museum, then after independence in the 1960s, it was named for the town rather than person.
In 2018, when you could travel places, and the biggest blot on the horizon was Brexit rather than a pandemic, I was fortunate enough to find myself in Livingstone, Zambia. Knowing I wasn’t the first Scotsman to pass that way, I was interested to visit the local museum to find out what it made of my predecessor.
From the steps of the museum you can see the mist rising from the falls about 5km down the main road. Inside, there is only a small section on Livingstone now. His meeting with Henry Morton Stanley is commemorated with a map of where he wandered.
I get in touch with Chiku Ikakena, a historian working at the museum today, to ask what local people in the town named after Livingstone think of his legacy.
“The local people are well acquainted with the history,” she says. “They have continued to appreciate the works done by Livingstone especially that he introduced Africans to the Bible, which helped to enlighten them on the gospel.
“His impact on Zambia is definitely positive, although some of the locals feel he aided slavery when in actual sense he aided its eradication.”
Is there ever any debate about officially renaming the waterfall?
“The Victoria Falls is locally called Mosi-oa-Tunya as well as another name from the Toka people called Shungu Namutitima [boiling water]. Currently, there isn’t much debate as people have adapted to the Victoria Falls name, although the locals still refer to it as Mosi-oa-Tunya.”
Back in Blantyre, the museum (where incidentally, Victoria Falls is primarily referred to by its original name) concludes with a room dedicated to “recognising Scotland’s history entwined with at least 15 African countries because of Livingstone’s expeditions.” The final display consists of video screens where you can listen to different people’s perspectives on what he means to them today, for instance: “To some people David and his legacy are a best-forgotten hangover from Scotland’s colonial past, whereas for others he is a cherished part of their cultural identity.”
It makes me wonder about the legacy Britain is creating today and how it’ll influence how people see us in the future. Looking back on the couple of days I spent in Livingstone, Zambia, it’s not the wondrous waterfall that comes to mind.
One night after a hard day of selfies, I was in the supermarket across from the hostel where I stayed (called Fawlty Towers). There was an international edition of the Daily Express that people had to file past on their way through the checkouts.
“AT LAST! MAY GETS TOUGH ON MIGRANTS”
Theresa May may be history, but this debate still rages. Politicians in power may have changed but attitudes have not. What impact will the hostile environment we project have on how people around the world see us in the future? What would southern Africa be like if there had been as stringent an immigration policy back when David Livingstone was on his rounds?
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