This is the second of two articles in which I’m chronicling the high level of support and sacrifice which Mary Livingstone gave in aiding her husband David, the renowned nineteenth-century missionary doctor, explorer and slavery abolitionist in southern Africa. Mary’s unflagging support was an essential component in her husband’s outstanding accomplishments and success.

Ultimately, Mary’s support of and sacrifices for her husband were given as service to the Lord Jesus Christ. To follow is a summary of the remainder of her selfless, sacrificial service, not only as the wife of David Livingstone, but also as a faithful servant of her Savior.

In 1851 David and Mary, again accompanied by their young children, succeeded in reaching the powerful Makololo tribe, located some 200 miles north of Lake Ngami and 800 miles from their mission station at Kolobeng. Livingstone related an extremely trying circumstance they faced, and Mary’s response to it, while passing through an extensive arid region along the way:

“The supply of water in the wagons had been wasted by one of our servants, and by the afternoon only a small portion remained for the children. This was a bitterly anxious night. And next morning the less there was of water, the more thirsty the little rogues became. The idea of their perishing before our eyes was terrible. It would almost have been a relief to me to have been reproached with being the entire cause of the catastrophe. But not one syllable of upbraiding was uttered by their mother, though the tearful eye told the agony within.”

The Livingstones had hoped to stay with the Makololo for at least a year and to establish a mission work among them. But they were unable to determine a healthy location where they could do so, as virulent fever existed throughout the region.

As the Livingstones returned toward Kolobeng, Mary gave birth to their fifth child, a son whom they named William Oswell, on September 15. Thankfully, Mary’s delivery was “quick and safe,” and she experienced better health at that time than during any of her earlier confinements.

David Livingstone Family
David Livingstone Family

Livingstone determined to devote two years to living among the Makololo, to identify a salubrious location where a mission station could be established, and to determine if a river route could be found from either the west or east coast of Africa. It was hoped that by such a water route missionaries and supplies could be brought to the interior of the continent with the expenditure of far less time, money and effort than was required in using the existing overland route from the southern coast.

In the meanwhile, Mary would return to Britain with the children, where they could be educated and avoid the dangerous fevers of inland Africa. Owing to a variety of unforeseen circumstances beyond Livingstone’s control, it was actually four and a half years before he was able to fulfill his undertakings in behalf of the Makololo and to return to his wife and children in Britain. Those were extremely difficult years for Mary.

She experienced the heartache and loneliness of being separated from her husband whom she loved devotedly. She was prone to anxiety and apprehension. Though Livingstone wrote her and the children regularly, it took many months for his letters to make their way from the interior of Africa to Britain, if they ever were successfully delivered. When Mary didn’t hear from him for long stretches at a time, she experienced deep anxiety that sorely tested her faith. Sometimes Livingstone’s letters brought deeply concerning news, as when he wrote to inform her that Boers (Dutchmen who had emigrated from Cape Colony and opposed his ministry to African tribes beyond the Colony’s northern border) had ransacked their home at Kolobeng and destroyed their possessions valued at nearly 300 pounds.

The London Missionary Society, with which the Livingstones served, supported Mary and the children at a seemingly adequate rate of thirty pounds per quarter. But expenses for travel to Scotland and England, modest lodgings and furnishings, clothes, food and other necessities soon left her financially straitened.

Livingstone’s parents were willing to have Mary’s two older sons live with them in Scotland and to provide for their education there. But Livingstone had made it clear that he desired his children to live and be educated in England, where he thought the climate would be less severe and healthier for them.

Perhaps also out of her own desire to keep her young family from being separated, Mary chose to settle with all her children in England. Happily, a series of friends of her parents helped watch out for her and the children. They were especially cared for by the Braithwaites, a Quaker family at Kendal in the scenic Lake District of northwest England. The Braithwaites opened their own home to Mary and her children. They provided them with food, clothing and medical care, also enrolled the children in the local Quaker school.

Livingstone was reunited with his wife and children in Britain from December 1856 to March 1858. Due to the exceptional missionary exertions and remarkable geographical explorations and discoveries that the Doctor had carried out in his opening sixteen years of service in Africa, he was welcomed back to Britain as a national hero by Christians and secularists alike. He was lauded not only by common people, but also by Government officials, members of the nobility, high-ranking churchmen, and prominent people in various fields of scientific endeavor. A number of public receptions were held in his honor.

At some of those gatherings Mary was also highly praised for her active support of her husband and her selfless enduring of difficult trials in order to help advance civilization and the interests of Christianity in Africa. The Royal Geographical Society (RGS) held a farewell banquet in Livingstone’s honor shortly before he returned to Africa as the newly appointed head of the Zambesi Expedition. The hall was crowded with dignitaries representing a broad spectrum of vocations. When RGS President Sir Roderick Murchison spoke in praise of Mary, a gentleman in the audience called for three hearty cheers for Mrs. Livingstone. The whole assembly stood to salute her with sustained cheering and waving of handkerchiefs.

The Zambesi Expedition had as its stated objectives to explore the Zambesi River and its tributaries with the intention of introducing Christianity, commerce and civilization into that region of Africa for its spiritual and economic benefit. As Livingstone and Mary prepared to return to Africa, they decided to leave their three oldest children (then ages twelve, ten and nearly nine) in Britain to continue their education there. Oswell, their youngest child at seven years of age, would accompany them back to Africa. While the couple’s decision to leave their older children in Britain was quite common practice for missionaries in that day, the final parting with Robert, Agnes and Thomas was excruciating.

Mary Livingstone with son William Oswell
Mary Livingstone with son William Oswell

While en route back to Africa the Livingstones discovered that Mary was pregnant. Rather than accompanying Livingstone to the Zambesi’s fever-ridden delta region at the coast of the Indian Ocean, it was decided that Mary would instead proceed to her parents’ mission station at Kuruman, to deliver her new baby there. Of their unanticipated and undesired separation from each other at the Cape, Livingstone recorded: “It was a bitter parting with my wife, like tearing the heart out of one.”

Mary gave birth to their sixth child and third daughter, naming her Anna Mary, in November 1858. Credible reports had been received that the Boers were planning an attack on Kuruman, and it was uncertain when and where Mary would be able to rejoin Livingstone. So she decided instead to return to Britain with her youngest son and infant daughter, for their protection. This she did in the opening months of 1859.

Upon reaching Britain, Mary settled with her children in Glasgow. Because of Livingstone’s increased income as a Government consul, her pecuniary circumstances were more comfortable than they had been during her previous stay in Britain. Besides caring for her toddler daughter, she had concerns about the health and education of her other children. Robert, then fifteen years of age, was especially worrisome to her, as he was struggling in school and beginning to be adversely affected through his poor choice of friends.

In July 1861 Mary made the heart-wrenching decision to leave her children in Britain and to rejoin her husband in Africa. During the voyage she wrote: “I must not complain. I am as comfortable as I can be … but I long to hear of my darling children. It is with the utmost difficulty that I keep up heart. … My dear baby, how my heart yearns for her. I miss her much.”

Livingstone and Mary were reunited on February 1, 1862, at one of the mouths of the Zambesi on the coast. The Zambesi Expedition made its way upriver to the scenic settlement of Shupanga, arriving there on February 26. The Livingstones set up a tent as their temporary residence under the mango trees on the bank of the river. Work was carried out nearby, assembling the sections of a new iron steamship that had recently arrived from Britain and was to be used in the ongoing expedition.

The Doctor and Mary were delighted to be back together again and greatly enjoyed each other’s company. Livingstone related: “In our interaction in private there was more than would be thought by some a decorous amount of merriment and play. I said to her …, ‘We old bodies ought now to be more sober and not play so much.’ ‘O no,’ she said, ‘you must just be as playful as you have always been. I would not like you to be so grave as some folks I have seen.’ … She was always young and playful.”

But not a few concerns troubled Mary’s mind at that time as well. She was concerned and even despondent over their son Robert in his unsettled state back in Britain. In addition, as Livingstone later revealed: “She had a strong presentiment of death being near. She said that she would never have a house in this country. Taking it be despondency alone I only joked, and now my heart smites me that I did not talk seriously on that and many other things besides.”

Malicious and totally unfounded rumors about Mary had begun in Britain and at the Cape, then followed her to the Zambesi: that Livingstone stayed away from her for such long periods because she was unpleasant to live with; that she had developed a serious drinking problem; that her interaction with James Stewart (a Scottish Free Church missionary ten years her junior, who had acted as her escort throughout the voyage to Africa) had been imprudent and too familiar according to the conservative standards of the era. Livingstone, to whatever degree he was aware of such cruel slander, put no stock in any of it, and always maintained a positive, harmonious relationship with his wife.

Mary also started experiencing intermittent fever not long after her arrival at the Zambesi. At first her recurring fevers raised little concern, as many individuals in the Zambesi expedition experienced them, and usually they could be treated simply enough with medicine. But on April 26 she spiked a fever that was accompanied by “obstinate vomiting,” which prevented treatment using oral medications.

Mary Livingstone's Grave Shupanga
Mary Livingstone’s Grave Shupanga

Despite the diligent treatments of Livingstone and another skilled medical doctor on the expedition, Mary’s condition steadily declined. She died at sunset the following day, a Sunday. Her forty-first birthday had occurred just fifteen days earlier. Sadly, she had only been reunited with her husband for not quite three months.

In the months that followed Livingstone often wrote in his journal and in more than a score of his letters to family and friends of Mary’s passing. He recorded many words of praise for Mary’s selfless love and support of him and their children, as well as for her service of the African people.

To site but one example, in the book that Livingstone later wrote about the Zambesi Expedition, he paid tribute to Mary by stating of her: “Those who are not aware how this brave, good English wife made a delightful home at Kolobeng, a thousand miles inland from the Cape, and as a Christian lady exercised most beneficial influence over the rude tribes of the interior, may wonder that she should have braved the dangers and toils of this downtrodden land. She knew them all and, in the disinterested and dutiful attempt to renew her labors, was called to her [heavenly] rest instead.”

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An account of Mary’s girlhood and early years of missionary service with David Livingstone is recorded in my October 3, 2023, Perspective on “Mary Livingstone, Praiseworthy Missionary Wife and Mother.” A much-fuller record of Mary Livingstone’s steadfast service of Christ Jesus, her unfailing support of her husband’s remarkable ministries, and the significant sacrifices she made as a result is included in my comprehensive new biography David Livingstone: Missionary, Explorer, Abolitionist.

Copyright 2023 by Vance E. Christie

About Vance Christie

An avid fan of historic Christian biography throughout his ministry, Vance has published nine books.

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