David Livingstone and the discovery of Lake Nyasa

This entry is part 3 of 9 in the series History of Malawi

The road to development, peace and Christian enlightenment in Nyasaland, as it was in most other facets of British interface in Africa, was paved with good intentions. The original architect of that road was David Livingstone. No man had more profoundly noble intentions than he, but one of the many tragedies of the John Chilembwe affair was the fact that those who took up the burden of the David Livingstone’s work after his death, and in fact those who, such as William Jervis Livingstone, carried his name, where among those identified as the worst offenders in a catalogue of abuses against the Nyasaland blacks.

David Livingstone was an idealist to the marrow of his bones. He was born in Lanarkshire in 1813, and by his death 1873 had forged a reputation as not only the premier African explorer of his day – a day replete with great explorers fascinated with the dark continent – but also as the moral conscience of a world battling to exorcise the legacy of the slave trade. He stamped his mark on central Africa more thoroughly than any other member of his race, and opened up to trade, commerce and Christianity the Shiré Highlands and the great inland sea of Lake Nyasa. It is therefore fitting that of the three principal foreign missionary organisations in the region – predominately Scottish in origin – all should in some way owe their roots to the work of David Livingstone. It is also deeply symbolic that, bearing in mind Livingstone’s mantra that only Christianity and legitimate commerce in Central Africa could dislodge the trade in humanity, that the primary commercial enterprise of the Shiré Highlands, the commercial estate of Alexander Livingstone Bruce, should likewise claim as it’s origin the legacy of Doctor David Livingstone.

The findings of the official Commission of Inquiry into the John Chilembwe affair were unequivocal in laying blame for the uprising at the feet of both the established missions, for imbibing the natives with, and furnishing education to facilitate access to, unhealthy ideas, and the A.L. Bruce Estates for questionable, and at times illegal labour practice, and most directly at William Jervis Livingstone himself for being heavy handed and insensitive in his treatment of those natives either obligated to the Estate or under his employ. It was also observed that a particularly sharp animosity existed between John Chilembwe and William Jervis Livingstone  which would in itself go a long way to explaining certain particular turns of events. Recommendations, in the meanwhile, included a sweeping review of current labour practices in the protectorate and greater government supervision of mission practice and education.

The arrival of Christian missionary activity in the Nyasaland region came about as a consequence of one of those peculiar incidences associated with the British love of both inspired amateurism and heroic failure. At 28 years old, David Livingstone arrived in Southern Africa as a junior member of the London Missionary Society. He was placed under the tutelage of the venerable missionary Robert Moffat, under whom he was to labour at the Kuruman mission station situated in the central regions of present day South Africa. By the end of the 1840s, however, he had revealed himself to be a reluctant missionary with a penchant for exploration and a desire to work beyond ‘another man’s line of things.’ This led him to venture  into the largely unknown wilds north of the Limpopo River, ostensibly to identify fresh regions for missionary endeavour, but in reality to satisfy a powerful urge to travel.

Between 1852 and 1856 Livingstone embarked on his first and perhaps his most spectacular voyage of discovery. In his search for fresh missionary fields he had come upon a region currently defined more or less by the junction of four nations – Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Zambia – in the district of the Victoria Falls and the Caprivi Strip. There, at a village called Linyanti, he came upon a local polity known as the Makololo with whom he developed an at times irrational bond. With the Makololo, Livingstone’s need for a viable cause upon which to base his travels was satisfied. His epiphany was simply that if he could find a viable route to either the west or the east coast, he could introduce into the dark interior of Africa his twin panaceas of Christianity and commerce in order to shine on the naked pagan the light of civilisation.

Upon this vocation, and equipped with almost nothing other than a profound faith in God, Livingstone set off to test the practicality of a land route to the west coast. Travelling northwards Livingstone followed the line of the upper Zambezi River almost to it’s watershed, before veering westward and plunging into the unpredictable wilds of present day northern Angola. While it is beyond the scope of this narrative to detail the privations and dangers that Livingstone endured, and the degree to which he was, through both simple faith and humility uncharacteristic of Europeans, afforded passage through lands by hostile tribes that neither Arab nor Portuguese had previously been able to enter, it is enough to say that the plaudits heaped on this journey from every quarter were not only richly deserved, but probably also understated. He emerged in the Portuguese port town of St. Paul de Loanda after almost six months of rigorous travel, and in due course, forswearing a sea passage home to England offered to him, he turned around and set off back the way he had come. He did this in order both to deliver his Makololo porters back to their homes, and, since he had clearly not identified the viable route that he sought, to explore the lower Zambezi to the east coast in the hope that it might prove to be a more suitable option.

Setting off from Linyanti on this second phase of his exploration of Zambezi, Livingstone, on November 16th 1855, made his signature discovery of the Victoria Falls. Thereafter, in what was probably and easier passage, he set off eastward in the direction of Portuguese administered East Africa, growing increasingly more optimistic as he did so that, with a suitably shallow draft, a commercial steamboat ought without much difficulty to be able to penetrate more or less to the foot of the Victoria Falls. Continuing east, and daily more eager to reach the coast in order to make public his findings, and to urge upon an increasingly enlightened world the imperative of his mission, he chanced to avoid a wide bend in the river, and hurried on to Quelimane, and thence back to England, where he arrived to a triumphant welcome on December 9th 1856.

1956 was the year of the Treaty of Paris that ended the Crimean War. Bruised but triumphant, the British public shed yet another layer of arcane convention in the scrutiny of the sale of commissions in the British Army. Florence Nightingale, a woman, emerged as popular hero, as did Mary Seacole, not only a woman, but a black woman. In the United States the indomitable John Brown led the forces of anti-slavery in the Battle of Blackjack which contributed much to outbreak of the American Civil War. The second Opium War was launched in the Orient. Worldwide, Mercantile adventures abroad grew apace as the British Empire continued to bloom in strange and diverse places. The world was being steadily mapped, and claimed, and yet almost nothing was known about the interior of the Dark Continent other than that surmised by Ptolemy more than a thousand years earlier.

And then word began to seep out of a lonely, destitute and humble Scottish missionary who had travelled on foot from one end of the continent to another. This was no incremental advance in knowledge. This was a giant leap. This was a triumph of the enlightened spirit. It was more explosive than mankind walking on the moon – for the moon was known and mapped long in advance of the first human footprint. David Livingstone had drawn a line across, not only the least known quarter of the world, but that quarter deemed so dangerous and imponderable that British factors on the west coast during the three hundred years of the slave trade had deemed themselves lucky to survive for three months.

As if this was not sufficient, Livingstone returned form Africa with no interest in claiming the laurels of exploration for it’s own sake. It astonished many in august society that this humble man was clearly irritated by the accolades that fell upon him like a tropical rain shower. Unlike Burton, Speke, Stanley and many others, he had not simply crossed the continent to see what it contained, but had done so in the service of humanity; to find a means by which Christianity and commerce could penetrate the dark continent; for the glory and greater wealth of Queen and Empire; but even more so for the simple upliftment of the blighted savage, still deeply mired in pagan idolatry.

As such Livingstone was not a man of his times, but rather a man who defined the times. He set the age in motion. He gave the Victorian public a means to quantify the nascent age of enlightenment emerging from the pen of the likes of John Ruskin, the brushes of Constable and Turner, and from the wealth of the industrial revolution itself. It was the beginning of a new era of Empire, the great cause, the great philanthropy, the principal that would, in partnership with fantastic wealth, underwrite the explosive social, moral and economic expansion of English speaking peoples. David Livingstone’s vision to open and utilize the Zambezi River, God’s highway into the interior, was a profound as Cecil John Rhodes’ vision to link the Cape to Cairo under the British flag, and as such it could not have been better timed.

For his part Livingstone rode above the euphoria that his emergence from Africa was generating, believing then, as he would continue to believe for all of his life, that he was merely an instrument of God, and through him God had identified the Zambezi River as the conduit of civilization for Central Africa. In the simplicity of this belief Livingston was entirely innocent, his vision wholly untainted by ambition and completely untroubled by doubt.

Despite the heavy demands of his celebrity, Livingstone managed to find the time to convert his exhaustive journals and diaries into a book, Missionary Travels and Researched in South Africa, which was published in the autumn of 1857. The narrative was simple and uncluttered and documented Livingstone’s meandering travels north from Kuruman to Linyanti, and then the two principal legs of his epic transcontinental journey. In his references to Makalololand and the navigability of the Zambezi River, and in particular it’s potential importance as a commercial highway, Livingstone succumbs to hyperbole and allows virtually no strain of negativity to sully the image he had created of his celestial waterway. Clearly in his mind the Zambezi River had by then taken on a mythical dimension. He was in danger of losing his way in the grandeur of his own vision, and vitally, so it seemed, was everybody else.

Meanwhile, the release of Missionary Travels was accompanied by an extensive speaking tour which took Livingstone from one end of the British Isles to the other. It concluded with a celebrated lecture delivered to a mixed audience crammed into the Senate House in the centre of Cambridge.

I know in a few years I shall be off in that country which is now open. Do not let it be shut again! I go back to Africa to try to make an open path for commerce and Christianity. Do you carry on the work which I have begun? I leave it with you.[1]

Little did Livingstone suspect that many in that audience would be so deeply impressed with this call that some would indeed follow on. Soon afterwards plans were underway to create a mission to follow Livingstone’s footsteps into central Africa that was to be backed and funded by the universities of Cambridge, Oxford, Durham and Dublin. The time would come, perhaps, that Livingstone would regret this open invitation. His persuasiveness, however, peaked at this lecture, despite the fact that the seed that he planted then would arguably later grow into something of a crooked tree.

Meanwhile, a publicly funded expedition, the Zambezi Expedition, was also proposed and agreed to with the purpose of bringing light to Livingstone’s vision. It’s mandate, as Livingstone himself defined it in his later account of the expedition, was:

…to extend the knowledge already attained of the geography and mineral and agricultural resources of Eastern and Central Africa—to improve our acquaintance with the inhabitants, and to endeavor to engage them to apply themselves to industrial pursuits and to the cultivation of their lands, with a view to the production of raw material to be exported to England in return for British manufactures; and it was hoped that, by encouraging the natives to occupy themselves in the development of the resources of the country, a considerable advance might be made towards the extinction of the slave-trade, as they would not be long in discovering that the former would eventually be a more certain source of profit than the latter.[2]

Added to which:

Her Majesty’s Government attached more importance to the moral influence that might be exerted on the minds of the natives by a well-regulated and orderly household of Europeans setting an example of consistent moral conduct to all who might witness it; treating the people with kindness, and relieving their wants, teaching them to make experiments in agriculture, explaining to them the more simple arts, imparting to them religious instruction as far as they are capable of receiving it, and inculcating peace and good will to each other.[3]

The Expedition was organised under the aegis of the Foreign Office, the Secretary of State for which was at that date George Villiers, the Earl of Clarendon. Much assistance was also rendered by the Admiralty in the formation of the Expedition, but also a great deal throughout it’s duration in terms of naval supply and support on the east coast of Africa. The Royal Geographic Society, the British Museum and the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew also rendered some financial, but much moral support, for, notwithstanding the lofty principals underwriting the expedition, there was a great deal of interest expressed within the scientific community for what might be discovered and returned as a consequence of the Expedition.

Thus it was that Livingstone set sail down the Mersey River on March 12th  1858 at the head of the Zambezi Expedition, and in charge of a curious sextet of personalities that historians have universally judged to be both hastily chosen and indicative of  Livingstone’s discomfiture in the company of other white men and his catastrophic inability to either lead or follow. Sailing with the doctor on board the good ship Pearl were his brother the Rev. Charles Livingston, whose role was described as general assistant and moral agent to lay a Christian foundation for anything that may follow: a gifted and experienced, but rather hapless artist by the name of Thomas Baines: Naval Commander Norman Bedingfield, who had received and nursed Livingstone back to health when the Doctor staggered into St. Paul de Loanda after his epic journey west from Linyanti: Dr. John Kirk as botanist and expedition doctor: John Rae, expedition engineer: and lastly, the youngest member, geologist and botanist Richard Thornton.

Also on board was Livingston’s wife Mary, and young son Oswell, who he had decided would accompany him on the expedition. Mary Livingstone, however, and somewhat to the annoyance of the Doctor, revealed herself mid passage to be pregnant, and was dropped off at the Cape to pass her confinement in the relative comfort of her father, Robert Moffat’s, mission station of Kururman. Thereafter Livingstone and the serving members of the Expedition continued north up the east African coast, arriving at the mouth of the Zambezi River in May.

It immediately became apparent that Livingstone had somewhat oversold the scheme. Captain Duncan, who commanded the Pearl, was rather surprised to be confronted by a series of false channels and sandbars that effectively blocked the mouth of the Zambezi to sea going traffic. The expedition members were also surprised, and then increasingly concerned as three weeks passed before a viable entrance to the main channel of the river was identified at a site called Kongone. This was hardly God’s highway into the interior. Livingstone muttered something to the effect of being deceived by the Portuguese, whose object, it seems, was to ensure that the British Navy would be preoccupied in the wrong place while illicit slaving craft could slip out into the open ocean undetected.

Meanwhile, a modest steam launch conveyed in three parts on the deck of the Pearl was unloaded and assembled and set upon the water. She was named after Livingstone’s wife Mary, who in native custom was known primarily as the mother of her eldest son, Ma Robert. In due course the craft would prove poorly adapted and would earn the alternative name, Old Asthmatic. The Ma Robert commenced the arduous business of conveying in relays the expedition’s stores and supplies some 275 miles upstream up to the Portuguese administrative settlement of Tete. A dreary and unhealthy settlement on an unremarkable bend in the river, Tete was nonetheless an important trading post and a busy entrepôt of the local Portuguese/Swahili slave trade.

The initial expectation of most of the members of the expedition had been that a comfortable cruise up the river in the Pearl would have taken the party as far as Tete in the usual comfort to be expected on one of Her Majesty’s ships. From there on the steamer was to have plied an only slightly less comfortable passage to the heart of the Dark Continent. No doubt the anticipation of a garden of Eden on the banks of the river had also warmed the hearts of the travellers as they approached their destination. It is hardly surprising, then, that discontent spread through the party like a virus the moment that the reality of heartbreaking toil in a thankless dystopia became their daily reality. Relentless cycles of malaria, prickly heat, heatstroke, dehydration and diarrhoea interspersed with numbing labour as the Ma Robert grounded on interminable sand bars, and consumed against the current the labour of two hours wood cutting for one hour under steam.

Livingstone himself did not help matters by branding the ill as malingering, and prescribing increased labour for the sake of a healing sweat. The more it became obvious that he had, if not lied, then at least been guilty of wholesale overstatement, the more withdrawn, argumentative and unreasonable he became. It is true that he had not tested the waters of the Zambezi in any kind of watercraft other than a native canoe, and so could not be held entirely to blame for the capricious channels and ubiquitous sand shoals. Certainly the Ma Robert was of inferior manufacture, and reflected poorly on Livingstone’s innate, Scottish preoccupation with thrift, and not necessarily on the river itself. The prevalence of malaria and other debilitating tropical ailments were critical then, as they always had been, but Livingstone himself had an unassailable constitution, and a will of iron that set a standard that few could match. So if he had been, as he was then, inclined to brush off all these disadvantages, and soldier on with Christian like fortitude, that did not imply bad faith in his portrayal of the hardships of the valley.

Worse was to come though, much worse. The signature catastrophe of the entire expedition came a month or so later when the party had toiled another 100 miles or so upstream and arrived at the sweeping bend in the river that hitherto Livingstone had thought to bypass in the interests of saving time.

Admittedly Livingstone was not a trained geographer, but as an explorer of some experience by the time he made this decision, he ought to have recognized that a deviation in the course of a river is usually occasioned by an obstacle. He also did not take into account, or seem to notice, a significant drop in the level of the river itself, which likewise would have indicated white water at the very least. In this case the obstacle was the famed and feared Kebrabasa Cataracts, more challenging than the Zambezi Gorge below Victoria falls, and most definitely the point at which the Zambezi River ceases to be navigable from the sea.

Although the Kebrabasa Cataracts were widely known to local natives, and to Portuguese traders and explorers, to Livingstone their existence came as a complete surprise. ‘This Kebrabasa is what I never expected.’ He confided to his journal. ‘No hint of its nature ever reached my ears.’[4] As the Ma Robert steamed against an increasingly persistent current, as mountains rose on either side, and as sharper bends obscured the stream ahead, the sound of a great disturbance in the river some distance in advance began very uncomfortably to reach his ears. And then, after navigating a series of smaller rapids, the party confronted the first of the major cataracts, and the nature of the obstruction at last became strikingly apparent.

For a while afterwards the party languished at anchor and forlornly pondered the head of what proved to be a 30 mile or so series of rapids and cataracts. Kirk and Livingstone conducted a survey with a view to assessing the severity of the obstacle, but it was an academic exercise. The obstruction was total. The Zambezi Expedition, insofar as navigating the Zambezi River was concerned, was over. For a time Livingstone allowed himself to indulge in the fantasy of discussing with his colleagues the practicalities of blasting a way through with dynamite, but in due course he too accepted the inevitable, and the party turned back.

It was, however, in the nature of David Livingstone to see the hand of God in all things. While his colleagues on board, not one of whom, not even his brother, could he by that stage call a friend, demolished his reputation behind his back, Livingstone himself prayed in earnest. From his meditations he gradually came to believe that the obstacle was in fact no obstacle at all, but a signpost. God was directing him not up the Zambezi, but up the Shiré, a tributary leading north off the main river, and draining, Livingstone had heard, a series of monumental lakes that cried – nay screamed – for discovery, and for the cleansing light of Christianity and commerce.

Livingstone’s heart was flooded with relief at having these scales of blindness removed from his eyes. If his companions shared their unease with the Expedition’s sponsors, if the pedestal on which Livingstone had lately been place had significantly slipped, in his own eyes it was a matter of faith, not of temporal weakness, reserve, exhaustion or disquiet. ‘It is presumptuous not to trust in Him implicitly,’ Livingstone later wrote of his epiphany, ‘…and yet this heart is sometimes fearfully guilty of distrust.’ [5]

So it was that the region of the upper Zambezi was consigned with little regret to another generation to develop. Within a few days of the new direction of the Zambezi Expedition being defined, Livingstone, his brother Charles, Doctor John Kirk and the faithful George Rae set off up the Shiré River to found an entirely new territory.

The Shiré River flows into the Zambezi at a point slightly less than halfway between the Indian Ocean and Tete. At a point where the Zambezi loses it’s muscular sinew and breaks up into countless channels, and meanders about an aging floodplain with a frustrating lack of continuity, the Shiré is narrow, dark and deep. Two wide sweeps and an ox bow lake mark the confluence of the two rivers. On either side is a low floodplain that, usually at a distance of a few miles, low hills rise that are green in the midst of the wet season. A mountain of sorts, Morambala, looms high and cloud draped on the east horizon. The river flows high and the current is steady. On either shore the reeds and riverine grass grow thick, while occasional fan palms, raffia or baobab trees break up the monotony. Hippopotamus are ubiquitous in the deep eddies and pools, while Elephants stand up to their shoulders in vegetation, rending the passive surface under heavy, silent and leaden clouds. At times they glance up at a native dipping his oars from a dugout, or, on that New Year’s Day of 1859, at the Ma Robert, with her asthmatic steam engine, moving steadily upstream in a moment of rare lightness and optimism.

It did indeed seem that for a moment God had blessed this diversion. Livingstone, alert always for signs of providence –  of holy esteem or rebuke – gambols through the prose of his journals in a striking departure from the heavy depression of earlier and later entries. His official account of the Expedition, laboriously entitled A Popular Account of Dr. Livingstone’s Expedition to the Zambezi and tributaries: And the Discovery of Lakes Shirwa and Nyassa 1858-1864, is no less buoyed by the certainty that it was this highway, and not the Zambezi, that God had intended for his servant to open up for His work and service.

In the first ascent of the Shiré our attention was chiefly directed to the river itself. The delight of threading out the meanderings of upwards of 200 miles of a hitherto unexplored river must be felt to be appreciated. All the lower part of the river was found to be at least two fathoms in depth. It became shallower higher up, where many departing and re-entering branches diminished the volume of water, but the absence of sandbanks made it easy of navigation.[6]

So the journey progressed. The natives that occupied the banks of the river were initially circumspect, and if not overtly hostile, wary of outsiders who may be agents of Portuguese slave interests at Tete. Livingstone made it is business on this occasion to announce that he and his companions shared the local abhorrence of the slave trade, and knowing somewhat the achievements of the British naval patrols along the coast, the local people were easier in mind and inclined to accept the Doctor at his word.

However, progress upstream towards the famed lake, that both Portuguese factors and local natives agreed was the source of the Shiré River, was abruptly arrested, and for much the same reason as the journey up the Zambezi had been halted. This time Livingstone was aggrieved at being confronted by ‘magnificent cataracts’ which he named after his friend and President of the Royal Geographic Society, Sir Roderick Murchison. These cataracts were less severe than the Kebrabasa, but no less impassable. Livingstone had, however, already identified a likely field of missionary enterprise in the apparently inviting highlands that had characterised the east bank of the river for some time. Far easier in mind, mindful also of torrential rain at the tail end of the season, and happy to allow the natives time to digest his arrival and plans, Livingstone turned the nose of the Ma Robert about and headed back to Tete to let the world at large be informed of his radical change of direction.

Within a few weeks the Ma Robert was back at the foot of the Murchison Cataracts with Livingstone, his brother and Doctor Kirk preparing for an overland exploration of the highlands. Their first practical contact was with a local chief by the name of Chibisa who proved to be friendly and reliable, and whose village would be the base of a number of expeditions into the highlands. From Chibisa’s Village the party ascended an escarpment that led to a broken plateau above 200ft that revealed countryside that Livingstone perhaps oversold by suggesting that he and his companions ….were all charmed with the splendid country, and looked with never-failing delight on its fertile plains, its numerous hills, and majestic mountains.’ Nonetheless the landscape of the Shiré Highlands, although very superficially European in character, represents an environment considerably less hostile to white wellbeing than the Zambezi Valley, or the Shiré Valley itself at lower elevations.

Standing at the lip of the escarpment, the highlands would indeed have appeared to be a land of unlimited potential, particularly to men who had lately become grimly accustomed to toil in the white man’s grave. Well watered, well drained, and with soils apparently inviting the plough, the moment seemed auspicious indeed. From the perspective of the native inhabitants of the region, Livingstone waxed hot and cold, describing the local Mang’anja as alternately suspicious and less hospitable than the tribes of the Zambezi, and at times erect of bearing, energetic in commerce, and competent as farmers and iron workers. They were men with personal decorations, jewellery and hairstyles that all tended to lend the impression that the explorers were moving through the domain of a people who had been afforded a sufficient period of peace and prosperity to develop a high degree of culture.

Livingstone, however, adds more soberly: ‘They were slow to believe that our object in coming into their country was really what we professed it to be. They naturally judge us by the motives which govern themselves.’ These motives, it seemed, were an unseemly willingness to sell one another into the slave trade, breeding amongst themselves an atmosphere of fear and suspicion. This comment in Livingstone’s official account of the expedition came on the heels of an admission that he had been upbraided by his Makololo retainers for being unwilling to force the release of a large group slaves. These had been encountered in transit to the coast, and under the guard of a group of villainous looking Arabs – a group, incidentally, who had offered him a number of little children for sale. Livingstone’s policy of non -interference was sound. What was he to do with the slaves once they were freed?

To liberate and leave them, would have done but little good, as the people of the surrounding villages would soon have seized them, and have sold them again into slavery. The Manganja (sic) chiefs sell their own people, for we met Ajawa [Yao] and slave-dealers in several highland villages, who had certainly been encouraged to come among them for slaves.

When Livingston attempted to criticize local chiefs for this practice, he encountered a shamed response, but also the explanation that only criminals were as a rule sold. His observations, however, told him otherwise. Accusations of witchcraft could also see a person sold into slavery, and ‘friendless orphans also sometimes disappear suddenly, and no one inquires what has become of them.’

It was evident, then, that Livingstone had arrived in the Shiré Highlands during a period of flux that was to see the established bonds of society crumbling under the worst influences of modernity, introduced mainly by the Portuguese and Arabs, and most often through the medium of slave procurement.

The accepted autochthons of the Shiré Valley and the Highlands are the Mang’anja language group who arrived and settled as part of a general confederacy migrating from the area of the Congo Basin between the 14th and 15th centuries. In common with a handful of related groups in the region, including the Bemba, Tonga, Chewa and Yao, and at variance with the common thread of lineage in Africa, the Mang’anja adhered to a matrilineal system.

The concept of slavery, meanwhile, was, not new to the region, but it was usually a style of slavery that would not readily bear comparison to what would later become the norm, when captives were exported overseas on an industrial scale, and where they laboured in anonymity and disposability as a pure commercial investment. Even the initial increase in the trade brought about by the arrival of the Arabs on the east coast, and the much later arrival of the Portuguese, did not critically impact the societal development of those communities in the interior, which were able to sustain a moderate loss of their numbers. Even when the trans-Atlantic slave trade brought about an accelerated scale of assault against the indigenous societies of West Africa, those along the east coast, and in the adjacent interior, were not affected to quite the same degree. The catalyst that turned the Indian Ocean slave trade into a humanitarian disaster comparable to that of the west coast was global abolition. The aggressive British naval patrols that were mounted against the main slave entrepôts along the west coast of Africa after 1833 tended to drive the Portuguese – by far the least scrupulous of a generally scurrilous fraternity – around the Cape of Good Hope to the quieter waters of the Indian Ocean, and the open access to the interior that was provided by the Zambezi River.

By 1842, when the British Navy first commenced patrols in the Moçambique Channel, it was estimated, probably conservatively, that 300 000 men and boys had emerged from the Zambezi catchment and had been exported to markets in Brazil, Cuba, as well as the Indian Ocean islands and the Persian Gulf. The economy of the region, particularly that of Zanzibar which was the main handling depot for the Indian Ocean trade, exploded. By the late 1850s, as David Livingstone was exploring the adjacent interior, he was usually at fault when he laid claim to new discoveries. The Arabs, who might not necessarily count among Europeans vying for the laurels of geographic discovery, had been abroad in the region for centuries. The Portuguese, who although undeniably European, where often regarded as somewhat less than white by the likes of Livingstone and his peers, had also preceded the Doctor almost everywhere that he had travelled. The reason that Portuguese feats of exploration in Africa were rarely celebrated was because they were seldom revealed, for quite clearly the Portuguese convict/explorers sent to break ground in the region were up to no good, and there was little therefore to be gained by publicising their exploits.

So, while still gathering momentum, evidence of the slave trade was everywhere in the Highlands as Livingstone and his companions made their way through. Perversely this fact simply added impetus to the Doctor’s now determined belief that it had been to the Shiré Highlands that the hand of God had been guiding him. With his titanic conscience Livingstone was obviously both outraged and aggrieved, but also he was more than a little relieved that the disaster of the Kebrabasa could be ameliorated by new discoveries, but more importantly by a new and vital mandate.

So much for the Zambezi Expedition. For Livingstone personally, more than anybody else, the exposure of the slave trade, underway after the abolition movement had claimed moral ascendancy in Europe – although not necessarily abolished in Catholic Portugal, and certainly not in the Ottoman Empire – was a pivotal moment. What had previously been for him a rather jumbled vocation, suddenly crystallised to become what it would remain until his death. The epitaph of Livingstone’s gravestone in the Westminster Cathedral perfectly defined it, and defined in many ways the philanthropic goal of western Africanists ever since.

All I can add in my solitude, is, may heavens rich blessing come down on everyone, American, English, or Turk, who will help to heal this open sore of the world.

However Livingstone’s moment of profound solitude was many years in the future. In 1859 he was still in commanded an expedition whose object prior to this moment had vaguely been defined as being for betterment of the natives. What better and more noble objective could there be than focusing the efforts of himself, and his subordinates and followers, on the destruction of this most pernicious enterprise. ‘We are in the centre of a slave market,’ he wrote, ‘…and it is against this gigantic evil that my own mission is directed.’

So it was. As the exploration party moved steadily in the direction of the Zomba Plateau, at times visible like a blue grey monolith in the distance, it passed to the east of Mount Chiradzulu, and visited the village of a minor but amiable local headman by the name of Chibaba. Chibaba’s village occupied an unremarkable promontory on the banks of the Magomero stream, and as was in keeping with Livingstone’s nature, he judged the merits of local political leaders on the friendliness of his own reception, and on the sympathy shown for his objective. A positive and receptive chief of village headman in Africa was usually found in the end to be weak and vulnerable and in need of outside strength and support. Livingstone tended not to linger long enough in any one area to scratch beneath the surface of local political dynamics, and sometimes did more harm than good in acting on a superficial assessment and an overall ignorance.  Thus its was, for better or for worse, that Livingstone judged Chibaba to be a most manly and generous Mang’anja chief, and his village to be the most propitious site of a future mission.

Meanwhile, continuing in a north-easterly direction through the highlands, the party eventually cross the watershed and encountered streams and rivers flowing not west into the Shiré River, but east into the catchment of a large lake, evidently not one of the Great lakes, but nonetheless a generous body of water that Livingstone recorded as Lake Shirwa, but which on contemporary maps is listed as Lake Chilwa. From there Livingstone learned – although by his account the further north the party travelled the less pleasant and accommodating did they find the local people – that a far larger lake called Nyinyesi, or Lake of The Stars lay to the northwest of Lake Shirwa, on the other side of a ridge running north of the Zomba Plateau and obscuring the catchment of the Shiré River.

Sensing that as much had been achieved on this journey as was practical, and divining that, having introduced himself and his objective to the local people, time was best prescribed to allow them to accept it, he decided to turn around and begin the journey back to the Ma Robert still moored on the Shiré River at Chibisa’s village. As he did so, Livingstone led his party around the south buttresses of Zomba, and was rewarded with a tantalising glimpse of Lake Nyasa, later to be Lake Malawi.

It was not until mid August 1859, however, that Livingstone was able to return up the Shiré River in order to establish finally the existence of the lake. Much was afoot to lend urgency to the objective of completing this ‘discovery’. News had reached him that Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke – the Cain and Abel of African exploration – had between them laid claim to respectively Lake Tanganyika and Lake Victoria, and where then bickering over the holy grail itself, the source of the Nile. Livingstone surmised correctly that those great lakes in the north were part of a chain that would, if time allowed, lead others south to stumble on the one lake that he had determined would be his own.

This was not all. The Zambezi Expedition at that point required rescue not only from Livingstone’s imperfect geographic exploration, but from its own internal dissention, and Livingstone’s flawed, and at times non-existent leadership abilities. One of the greatest and most curious dichotomies of Livingstone’s nature was the rigorous and usually hopelessly misinformed treatment he meted out to his colleagues on the Expedition, the aversion with which he regarded them all, and the strikingly different way that he was able to live and interact in almost perfect harmony with blacks.

Almost from the moment that Livingstone set foot on the continent of Africa his movements were followed by natives. Be they the Makololo retainers who stayed with him, served him, and remained loyal for many years beyond the duration of his interest in Makalololand, or the legendary Susi and Chuma who attended him at his death, and carried his remains some two thousand miles to the coast, and then on to England for internment, all remained true and loyal in the face of great turmoil, and constant against Livingstone’s ultimate estrangement from his family, and those Europeans who spent any time with him and came to know him well.

This tendency was first revealed on the Zambezi Expedition, which suffered the successive and early departure of Bedingfield, Baines and Thornton, all in a storm of acrimony, and with each bearing testimony that in one way or another contrasted with the reputation of Livingstone’s early successes. Livingstone was left, in due course, with only the dubious companionship of his brother, the unstinting if weary support of Dr. John Kirk, and the labour of George Rae, who, as a simple working man, could perhaps relate more easily to Livingstone than most.

Parallel to this, and in his sensitive diplomacy with the Mang’anja during the first, and subsequent explorations of the highlands, Livingstone at all times was sensitive to local protocol, and acted always in accordance with the expectations of common people and local leaders. ‘On entering a village,’ he wrote, ‘we proceeded, as all strangers do, at once to the Boalo: mats of split reeds or bamboo were usually spread for us to sit on. Our guides then told the men who might be there, who we were, whence we had come, whither we wanted to go, and what were our objects. This information was duly carried to the chief, who, if a sensible man, came at once; but, if he happened to be timid and suspicious, waited until he had used divination, and his warriors had time to come in from outlying hamlets.’

With very rare exception on these early journeys among the Mang’anja, the atmosphere was friendly and the mood cheerful. Even some of the less flattering habits of the native – for example a tendency to petty greed and cupidity – where treated with a degree of indulgence that those of his own race who lived and worked with him never witnessed, let alone enjoyed. At each village:

Meal and peas were then brought for sale. A fathom of blue cotton cloth, a full dress for man or woman, was produced. Our Makololo headman, Sininyané, thinking a part of it was enough for the meal, was proceeding to tear it, when Chitimba remarked that it was a pity to cut such a nice dress for his wife, he would rather bring more meal. “All right,” said Sininyané; “but look, the cloth is very wide, so see that the basket which carries the meal be wide too, and add a cock to make the meal taste nicely.

A brisk trade would soon begin that in due course saw every woman in the busy pounding maize and every little boy engaged in chasing cockerels around the village.

It was therefore in the company of Doctor John Kirk and his brother Charles that Livingstone set off up the Shiré River for the third time to complete the vital link of discovering the existence of the Lake, and the potential for Christian/commercial communication that it might provide for a large swathe of the interior. The Ma Robert again moored at the foot of the Murchison Cataracts, by then leaking, and barely afloat, while the three Europeans, the Makololo and a number of Senna men from the lower Zambezi set off to march over the cataracts and begin the exploration of the upper Shiré. In reasonably short order, the lower lakelet of Pamalombé, or Malombe as it is currently listed, situated in a deep and wide bottomed valley, was discovered.

Overcoming quite a degree of misinformation at the hands of local people petitioned for guidance and information, perhaps due to fear that the slave trade further north would be unearthed, the three men and their retainers continued north through heavy swamps ringing the lake, and began to ascend higher ground to the north. Livingstone was moving some distance ahead of the others. Tension was again rife in the party. The drowning of a native member of the support party a week or so earlier had depressed the Doctor, and then his loosing his temper with another native member of the group to the extent that he delivered a beating with a flat piece of wood had further oppressed his spirits. Preoccupied then with this extraordinary lapse, Livingstone consumed pages of his journal in contrition and self examination, which all adds to the appearance of some sort of looming nervous breakdown.

Meanwhile, on the 16th of September 1859, with the widening Shiré River on his left, and the expansive swamps of the Malombe behind him, Livingstone trudged up a dry promontory and, reaching the top, at last stood with a clear view of the great expanse of Lake Nyasa before him. He by then knew that it was there, but none the less it was a moment of supreme importance in the annals of African exploration.

Livingstone himself was curiously unmoved by the event. In his journals he devoted just a few lines to this successful conclusion of a year’s endeavour, and the vindication of his decision to turn north from his original objective. All that was written was ‘We discovered Lake Nyassa (sic) a little before noon of the 16th September, 1859. Its southern end is in 14 degrees 25 minutes S. Lat., and 35 degrees 30 minutes E. Long. At this point the valley is about twelve miles wide. There are hills on both sides of the lake, but the haze from burning grass prevented us at the time from seeing far.’[7]

Sadly much more literary effort was expended in acrimonious verbiage heaped on those of his companions who laboured behind him in the swamps of Lake Malombe, and those further behind the scenes, none of whom shared with him, or cared to share with him, that pinnacle moment. He afforded he and his companions one night to camp on the shores of the lake – a night when the party where visited by a group of slavers nearby who sauntered over and offered Livingstone a handful of malachite for sale, or three little blacks girls at near enough a shilling each – an incident which served to reinforce the point that here in this earthly paradise his new vocation was profoundly manifest.


[1] Oliver Ransford, Livingstone’s Lake, 1966, page 78.

[2] David Livingstone, A Popular Account of Dr. Livingstone’s Expedition to the Zambezi and its Tributarie and the Discovery of Lakes Shirwa and Nyassa 1858-1964.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Oliver Ransford, Livingstone’s lake, 1966, page 87.

[5] Ibid. page 90.

[6] A Popular Account of Dr. Livingstone’s Expedition to the Zambezi and tributaries: And the Discovery of Lakes Shirwa and Nyassa 1858-1864

[7] David Livingstone, A Popular Account of Dr. Livingstone’s Expedition to the Zambesi and its tributaries
And of the Discovery of Lakes Shirwa and Nyassa, 1858-1864
, Project Gutenberg, 2001, page 37.

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