Several people have told me that the extent of their knowledge concerning David Livingstone is the well-known catchphrase, “Doctor Livingstone, I presume?” Some first saw the phrase used in one or another of a number of cartoon depictions of Livingstone being found in the jungles of Africa. Others first heard it in a classic Sesame Street episode involving Bert and Ernie.

Here’s the true story of how that phrase was first used in an extremely significant turn of events that took place toward the end of Livingstone’s life. It involves another individual who, like Livingstone, came to gain eminence as an explorer in Africa.

Livingstone spent the final seven years of his life (1866-1873) journeying in south-central Africa under the auspices of Britain’s Royal Geographical Society. During that time he explored the vast system of rivers and lakes in that part of the continent. He desired to discover if they might prove to be the then-undetermined headwaters of the Nile River, which was a question of enormous interest to British geographers in that day. However, his highest objectives throughout those years continued to be his desire to promote Christianity and to help bring an end to the slave trade in that portion of Africa.

For five years Livingstone carried out a series of journeys which involved all types of extreme difficulties and dangers. Finally, after getting to within just 100 miles of completing his westernmost exploration of the water system, he was forced by a combination of insurmountable circumstances to backtrack over 300 miles to the town of Ujiji on the eastern shore of Lake Tanganyika. There he would likely need to wait many months for adequate supplies and reliable carriers to be sent to him from the coast before he could return to continue his westward explorations.

More than once Livingstone had made arrangements for food staples, trading items and dependable carriers to be sent by the British Consul on Zanzibar to him at Ujiji. But on at least one earlier occasion and again now, the supplies which were sent for him never reached Ujiji. Or after arriving there they were consumed by the unreliable individuals who were to preserve them for him there.

So presently, on his first evening back at Ujiji on October 23, 1871, he was distressed to learn that the man who had been placed in charge of his belongings, had sold all of them. 3,000 yards of Livingstone’s cloth and 700 pounds of his beads had been traded away in exchange for food, drink and other goods for the unfaithful steward and his associates.

Livingstone now found himself with almost no food or possessions in Ujiji. Referring to Jesus’s parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:30-37, the Doctor later wrote: ‘I felt, in my destitution, as if I were the man who went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves. But I could not hope for priest, Levite or Good Samaritan to come by on either side.’ Then, however, he added: ‘But when my spirits were at their lowest ebb, the Good Samaritan was close at hand.’

Late in the morning of November 10, the sound of rifles being fired from the top of the hill some 500 yards east of Ujiji was suddenly heard in the town below. At first the townspeople feared that Ujiji was under attack. But the group of people at the top of the hill carried a flag at the front of their procession, approached the town slowly, and fired their guns only to signal their approach, all of which showed that they were a peaceful caravan and not an attacking war party. Soon hundreds of townspeople ran up the hill to welcome the approaching caravan.

From the verandah of his rented house beside the Ujiji marketplace, Livingstone watched the excitement caused by the caravan. ‘Rejoice, old master,’ men soon called out to him, ‘it is a white man’s caravan. It may belong to a friend of yours.’

At first Livingstone was too surprised to believe that an Englishman was actually approaching. He had not seen a single white person since returning to the African mainland five years earlier.

Minutes later the Muslim Arab leaders in Ujiji gathered at Livingstone’s house and said, ‘Come, arise, friend David. Let us go and meet this white stranger. He may be a relative of yours. If God is pleased, he is sure to be a friend. The praise be to God for His goodness!’

They reached the center of the marketplace just moments before the caravan did. Livingstone afterward recorded of the approach of the procession and its leader: “The American flag at the head of a caravan told of the nationality of the stranger. Bales of goods, baths of tin, huge kettles, cooking pots, tents, etc. made me think, ‘This must be a luxurious traveler, and not one at his wits’ end like me’.”

The caravan’s leader, a young man of thirty years of age, pressed through the dense crowds and slowly walked toward Livingstone and the semicircle of Arabs standing behind him. A hush fell over the large crowd of more than 1,000 people who eagerly desired to see and hear what was about to happen.

The American wore a new flannel suit which he had reserved for this special occasion. The evening before his boots had been polished and his pith helmet freshly chalked in preparation for the meeting. He observed that Livingstone was pale, looked tired and had a gray beard. The Doctor wore a dark blue cap, like what a sea captain would wear, with a faded gold band around it. He had on a red-sleeved waistcoat and a pair of gray tweed pants.

At five feet, five inches tall, the American was three inches shorter than the Doctor. Approaching Livingstone in a deliberate, dignified fashion, he took off his hat, bowed and posed his immortal question: ‘Doctor Livingstone, I presume?’

‘Yes,’ Livingstone replied simply with a kind smile, lifting his cap slightly in respectful greeting to the young man.

‘I thank God, Doctor,’ the American announced aloud, ‘I have been permitted to see you.’

‘I feel most thankful that I am here to welcome you,’ Livingstone responded sincerely.

The American was Henry Morton Stanley, a traveling newspaper correspondent of the New York Herald. Stanley had been sent out by the Herald to find out if Livingstone were still alive and, if so, to assist him in any way he could.

While Livingstone had been in remote inner Africa, there was no reliable mail delivery system. It took many months for letters to be carried to the British Consul at Zanzibar or to friends and family in Britain. There were long periods when Livingstone was not heard from. More than once rumors circulated that he had died. 

Both in Britain and in America there was considerable interest in learning if Livingstone were still living and what new discoveries he was making. The proprietor of the New York Herald, James Gordon Bennett, knew that considerable prestige and financial profit would come to his newspaper if it were the first to discover and publish this information. That is why he sent Stanley out in search of the Doctor.

Bennett gave Stanley an unlimited budget with which to accomplish his assignment. Stanley informed Livingstone that the undertaking was being carried out at an expense of more than 4,000 pounds. That equaled over 20,000 American dollars, an immense sum of money at that time.

Livingstone had been eating only two small, tasteless meals a day before Stanley’s arrival at Ujiji. But now he ate four delicious and nutritious meals each day with the food that Stanley provided for him. ‘You have brought me new life,’ the Doctor kept telling his generous new companion.

Stanley also delivered a whole bag of mail and newspapers which the British Consul at Zanzibar had sent for the Doctor. It was the first news Livingstone had heard from the outside world in over two years, as well as the only personal letters he had received from family and friends during that period.

Stanley had arrived at Zanzibar in January of that year, 1871. There he collected a whopping six tons of equipment and supplies for his upcoming expedition to find Livingstone. He hired 191 people to serve as his carriers, armed guards, and cooks. He also purchased twenty-seven donkeys to carry supplies and two horses for riding.

It took Stanley’s expedition over seven and a half months to traverse more than 800 miles from the coast to Ujiji. That included a three-month delay at another important Arab settlement, Unyanyembe, along the way, because a powerful African chief was blocking the route between there and Ujiji. Advancing from Unyanyembe with a smaller company of fifty-four well-armed men, Stanley skirted around the blocked territory and succeeded in reaching Livingstone at Ujiji.

After spending four months with Livingstone, Stanley returned to Zanzibar where he hired fifty-seven dependable carriers to take an abundance of supplies back to the Doctor and to assist him in carrying out his final explorations. Stanley continued on to Britain then America, where he gained great acclaim as the man who had successfully found and rescued Livingstone. Stanley published a massive 719-page book, How I Found Livingstone, in which he detailed his search for and assistance to the Doctor.

#          #          #

My recently published book David Livingstone: Missionary, Explorer, Abolitionist (Christian Focus, 2023) provides a comprehensive account of Livingstone’s remarkable life and ministry.

Copyright 2024 by Vance E. Christie

About Vance Christie

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

2 Thoughts on ““Doctor Livingstone, I Presume?”

  1. Alice Williams on February 24, 2024 at 12:56 pm said:

    Thank you so very much for this thrilling account! I have shared the link to it on my facebook page and hope your account will reach many more people.

  2. Thanks much, Alice, for your kind commendation and sharing of this account. This event is one of my favorite incidents in the entire Livingstone narrative. Blessings!

Post Navigation