David Livingstone is best known as a renowned nineteenth century missionary and explorer in Africa. Another vital aspect of his ministry career was the crucial role he played in exposing and helping bring about the abolition of the slave trade in southcentral and southeastern Africa in the latter half of the 1800s. To follow is a summation of his important part in that epic accomplishment.
Throughout his first eleven years of missionary service in Africa (1841-1852) Livingstone heard of and witnessed instances of Boers oppressing and even enslaving Africans beyond the borders of Cape Colony in southern Africa. The Boers were Dutch farm families who had emigrated by the thousands in the 1830s and 1840s, resettling north of Cape Colony in order to avoid being under British rule there. Eventually a Boer militia attacked a group of tribes to whom Livingstone had been ministering and ransacked his residence at Kolobeng, destroying his personal property valued at more than 300 British pounds (then equaling over 1,500 American dollars, likely worth at least thirty or forty times that amount today).
In 1851 Livingstone came in contact with and began ministering to the Makololo, a powerful marauding tribe that had settled in the area between the Chobe River and the upper reaches of the Zambesi River. The Makololo had subjected a number of other tribes living in that same region, which was several hundred miles further north than Livingstone had previously ministered. Those tribal groups, including the Makololo, had a long history of attacking neighboring tribes and carrying off livestock and people as slaves. In addition, Portuguese traders from Angola to the west, assisted by African Mambari tribesmen, entered that region and carried away scores or hundreds of slaves each year.
Livingstone spent two and a half years seeking to determine if a river transportation route could be established from either the west or east coast of Africa, to effectively and affordably transport missionaries and supplies to the inner area of the continent. In doing so he became the first European ever to make a transcontinental journey across Africa. As he approached and stayed for a time at both coasts, Portuguese officials were uniformly supportive of and helpful to him. But he noted that a number of those officials were themselves involved in slave trading to help supplement their income.
While back in Britain during 1857-1858, Livingstone wrote his first book, Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa. In it he exposed and condemned the different types of slavery he had seen practiced by the Boers, various tribes and the Portugues. In his many well-attended speeches given throughout Britain he put forth a plan to bring Christianity and legitimate commerce to inner Africa, which would in time destroy the slave trade there. He accepted the British Government’s invitation to head the Zambesi Expedition in exploring the Zambesi and its tributaries. The expedition’s further objectives, which were clearly and repeatedly stated in official documents, correspondence and public speeches, were to promote commerce and Christianity to the tribes of that region, with the intention that doing so would help Africans in various ways—economically, spiritually and by putting a stop to the slave trade.
The Zambesi Expedition explored: the lower portion of the Zambesi; the Shire River region and Lake Nyassa (modern Lake Malawi) north and northeast of that part of the Zambesi; the Rovuma River east of Lake Nyassa. Portuguese slave traders, operating with the knowledge and approval of their regional Governors, were found to be active in the Zambesi and Shire regions while Arab slavers prosecuted their trade at Nyassa. Not a few tribes in those areas eagerly participated in the slave trade, selling into slavery people they had captured from other villages or sometimes even the undesirables of their own clans.
Aggressive Portuguese slave trading turned the once well-populated and agriculturally-prosperous Shireland into a wasteland of largely-deserted villages, filled with skeletons and left with only a few starving, dispirited residents. An estimated 19,000 slaves per year were being taken by Arab traders from the Nyassa region and sold in the slave market at Zanzibar. Many more people than that died each year from killing and famine associated with the slave trade. On a few occasions the Zambesi Expedition interfered with the Portuguese slave trade by freeing captured slaves. But it was forced to stop doing so after the premiere Governor of Mozambique instructed slave parties to use lethal force in withstanding such interference.
Livingstone sent a steady stream of letters and official dispatches to acquaintances and Government officials in Britain, detailing the slave trading circumstances they were encountering. In addition to providing the macro view of the situation, he also described tragic individual occasions they had witnessed of: individual slaves who were brutally killed when they no longer had the strength to continue carrying a burden; groups of slaves, still bound together, left behind to die when their strength similarly failed them; numerous skeletons scattered along the roads or in deserted village huts; corpses which had been cast into the Shire being devoured by crocodiles.
After returning to Britain in 1864 following the completion of the Zambesi Expedition, Livingstone delivered a major speech to 2,500 delegates at the annual meeting of the British Association (an eminent scientific organization) on the theme of the Portuguese connections with the African slave trade. He also wrote his second book, Narrative of an Expedition to the Zambesi and Its Tributaries. In it he not only chronicled the Zambesi Expediton’s discoveries and experiences (including those related to the slave trade), but also spoke out forcefully against Portugal’s guilt and even Britain’s complicity in allowing the slave trade to continue in southcentral and southeastern Africa.
Livingstone spent the final seven years of his life (1866-1873) in Africa, under the employ of Britain’s Royal Geographical Society, attempting to determine if a massive watershed in the southcentral portion of the continent provided the headwaters of the Nile River or the Congo River. Gradually most of his carriers proved unreliable and had to be sent back to the southeast coast, or deserted him out of fear of being killed or taken as slaves themselves. Livingstone repeatedly requested new supplies and carriers from the British Consul at Zanzibar. More than once those were sent out, but failed to reach him owing to dishonest carriers pilfering and consuming virtually all his goods rather than delivering them to him.
As Livingstone progressed further west, seeking to circumnavigate the watershed, his band of carriers was reduced to less than ten. The only way they could safely advance or retreat was in company with Arab trading parties who were traveling in the regions around Lake Tanganyika, Lake Moero and Lake Bangweolo. A few Arab leaders protected and provided for Livingstone while they traded with the Africans for ivory. But many Arab slavers attacked and enslaved the Africans, often murdering in order to take slaves rather than trading for them.
Eventually Livingstone left the company of the Arab trading parties, after watching in horror and disbelief as a group of Arabs massacred 300-400 Africans, mainly women and children, at a market town. As had been anticipated, he and his few men were repeatedly attacked by area tribesmen as they made their way back to Ujiji on the eastern shore of Lake Tanganyika.
Throughout the closing years of his life Livingstone continued sending letters and dispatches to friends and officials in Britain, relating the enormities of the Arab slave trade he heard of and witnessed. As a result, Britain’s conscience and determination to put a stop to the deadly, immoral trade was stirred. Sir Bartle Frere was sent out by the British Government to negotiate an end to the East Africa slave trade with the Sultan of Zanzibar.
The president of the Royal Geographical Society wrote Livingstone: “For this great end, if it be achieved, we shall be mainly indebted to your recent letters, which have had a powerful effect on the public mind in England, and have thus stimulated the action of the Government.” Livingstone, however, died before this heartening intelligence could reach him.
Livingstone died without any awareness that the bloody trade he had steadfastly opposed for so many years was about to be brought to a swift end. Beginning on the very day of his death, the British naval patrol was instructed to prevent the export of slaves from the eastern coastal ports. (The British Navy had already been preventing that from Africa’s western ports for years.) Just five weeks after his death the great slave market at Zanzibar was permanently closed. Less than two years later “all conveyance of slaves by land under any conditions” was also outlawed, dealing a final death blow to the East Africa slave trade.
# # #
If you missed it, you might also appreciate my May 10, 2023, Perspective on “David Livingstone, Missionary and Explorer.” Much more about all aspects of Livingstone’s highly-significant life can be found in my comprehensive new biography David Livingstone: Missionary, Explorer, Abolitionist.
Copyright 2023 by Vance E. Christie