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Missionary-explorer, explorer-missionary. Although the emphasis in David Livingstone’s life’s work alternated, both vocations are united in his legacy as the most revered and influential foreign traveler to the African continent. His journeys--conducted on foot, by oxcart, canoe, and boat, and on the shoulders of native companions--spanned thirty-two years and covered forty thousand miles of terrain virtually unknown to Europeans. He was the first white man to cross the continent (west to east) and the first to view Victoria Falls, which he named. Although Livingstone is known to have converted only one African to Christianity, a friend who was a Bakwain chief, he showed vast possibilities for the missionaries who followed his path of practical benevolence. As a recent biographer put it: “Through him, the centre of Africa ceased to be a dark, unknown space on the map and became a real place, full of interesting human beings wonderful wildlife. . . .”

I think I would rather cross the African continent again than undertake to write about it. I intended on going to Africa to continue my studies; but as I could not brook the idea of simply entering into other men"s labors made ready to my hands, I entailed on myself, in addition to teaching, manual labor in building and other handicraft work, which made me generally as much exhausted and unfit for study in the evenings as ever I had been when a cotton-spinner. The want of time for self-improvement was the only source of regret that I experienced during my African career.

—Livingstone, from preface to Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa (1857)

Born in Blantyre, Scotland, the second son of strict Calvinist parents, Livingstone was working long hours in the textile mills there by the age of ten. In an early display of the concentration and determination that would characterize his whole life, he learned Latin from a textbook propped up against a spinning jenny, undisturbed by the noise of the machinery. (Considering that only 10 percent of child factory workers achieved partial literacy, Livingstone was already proving himself a rarity.) In 1834, he resolved to become a missionary after reading a pamphlet by Karl Gutzlaff of the Netherlands Missionary Society, appealing for missionaries trained in medicine to be sent to China. At the age of twenty-three he began his medical studies at Andersonian University (Glasgow) and later applied to and was accepted by the London Missionary Society (LMS). Originally hoping to be sent to China, he changed his goal to South Africa after hearing Robert Moffat speak about his experiences there. Moffat was one of the most successful missionaries of his generation and was considered an LMS model, having worked in Africa for many years and established a settlement in Kuruman (South Africa). The two men became lifelong friends.

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At a public meeting on 1 June 1840, Livingstone heard Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton of the Society for the Extinction of the Slave Trade and for the Civilization of Africa offer a plan to resolve the problem of slave trading in Africa: open up the country to trade in other commodities that the inhabitants could produce or grow. As a leader of the antislavery movement, Buxton passionately believed in bringing the three Cs to the continent: Christianity, Commerce, and Civilization. It was a eureka moment for Livingstone: here was the way forward in Africa, to which he would devote the rest of his life.

With his certificate of ordination in hand, Livingstone sailed for Africa in December 1840. He spent the next several years journeying around southern Africa, visiting mission stations and developing the modus operandi of his missionary life: traveling with few Europeans (he was never a team player), immersing himself in native language and life, sometimes offering his medical services and scientific advice (on irrigation, for example), teaching, and preaching. His visit to the LMS “jewel,” Moffat’s Kuruman settlement, was a disappointment. It seemed minuscule and inadequate, and perhaps confirmed his belief that he could better spend his time traveling than staying put in one spot, hoping to convert only a few local natives. Livingstone wanted to throw as wide a net as possible.

In January 1845, he married Mary Moffat, the missionary’s daughter, who traveled with him for brief periods at his insistence, despite pregnancy and her mother’s objections. Livingstone eventually sent his wife and four children back to England in 1852, essentially to rely on the benevolence of the LMS, family, and friends, and was not to see them for four and a half years. In the period between 1849 and 1856, his explorations took him to Lake Ngami across the Kalahari Desert, to the Zambezi River, and from there west to the Atlantic Ocean at Loanda (today’s S~o Paulo de Loanda, Angola). He turned down a chance to return to England, but entrusted his reports, maps, and letters for transport. The ship went down with all hands except one, and all of Livingstone’s papers were lost, forcing him to re-create everything. He followed his track back to Linyanti (in Botswana) and then decided to assess the possibilities of the Zambezi as a highway into the heart of Africa by following it to the Indian Ocean. He reached Victoria Falls in 1855, confirming what he had heard from natives for many years. “Scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight,” he wrote. It was the only site in Africa that he named with English words.

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“The Victoria Falls, of the Leeambye or Zambesi River, Called by the Natives Mosioatunya (Smoke Sounding).” From David Livingstone’s Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa, Including a Sketch of Sixteen Years’ Residence in the Interior of Africa . . . (London, 1857).