That is the radical end to a most spectacular life of one consumed by the evangelistic zeal and the passion to open Africa up to the trinity of Christianity, civilization and commerce. That is the life of one David Livingstone. Born on 19th March 1813 Blantyre, Scotland to Agnes and Neil Livingstone, a tailor, a tea merchant, and a Congregationalist, he was destined to be a traveller both as a missionary and an adventurer. This year marks 200 years since his birth and Jeff Ramsay delivered a lecturer at the Livingstone Kolobeng College organized by the Botswana Society last week. The title of his lecture was David Livingstone and the Making of Modern Botswana: Portrait of a Young Radical. I was invited to offer a response to Ramsay’s lecture. Ramsay demonstrated that “the Livingstone who lived among Batswana from 1841-1853 was a far more radical figure than commonly portrayed. In his early periodical writings, as well as correspondence, all but forgotten, one finds a fierce critic of racism, colonial conquest, and coerced labour.” He also showed “…a militant commitment to the universal right to armed resistance by any people seeking to secure their freedom from oppression.” He was “as scathing in his denunciation of British war crimes against the AmaXhosa as he was of Boer subjugation of BaTswana.” Ramsay spent some time demonstrating how Livingstone, and to some extent, Robert Moffat, aided persons like Sechele to arm themselves against boer aggression.
But the question that confronts us still remains: What is it that makes David Livingstone a radical? Is it his anti-racist and anti-slavery views? Or perhaps it is his military aid to the Batswana, especially Kgosi Sechele of the Bakwena? It appears to me that we must determine what forms the basis of Livingstone’s conviction to risk his own life, abandon his own wife and children and press into the heart of Africa in a quest to spread the gospel. His passion for Africa is captured in his letters to England where he raises that rhetorical question: “Who will penetrate the heart of Africa?” It appears that Livingstone’s religious conviction was a sufficient driving force and basis for his strong anti-slavery and antiracist position. His commitment to his Christian faith was without question. Henry Stanley sent by James Gordon Bennett to find David Livingstone after spending about three months with Livingstone once remarked: “I challenge any man to find a fault in his character… The secret is that his religion is a constant, earnest and sincere practice.”
Livingstone felt strongly that: “It is my desire to show my attachment to the cause of Him who died for me by devoting my life to His service.” I wish to suggest that it is helpful to consider Livingstone’s unrelenting devotion to the service of Christ as a useful framework that explains his passion for the salvation and emancipation of Africa. This emancipation is not purely from colonial bondage and slavery but also liberty from heathenism and idolatry as he understood the practices that he encountered on the African terrain.
So sensitive to the human condition was Livingstone that on his arrival in Africa, on his way to where Moffat was working, he “…was incensed at the unkind treatment of the natives by Europeans. Mingling freely among them, healing their diseases, disarming their hostilities by interesting them in something unusual, he soon reached the conclusion that a noble and true heart was a better mainspring to overcome and direct raw natives than the abuse heretofore given them. His intense desire that all natives should have an opportunity to embrace Christianity, and his decided preference to labor where no white man had worked, led him to locate at Mabotsa, northward in the interior.”
His commitment was so intense to the gospel that Livingstone “…sickened at heart when he heard of well-fed Christians at home engaged in hair-splitting discussions over doctrinal themes when millions were dying without the Gospel where he was.” His passion was for the ceaseless march of the gospel. He once wrote that “I place no value on anything I have or possess except in relation to the kingdom of Christ.” He also observed that: “As for me, I am determined to open up Africa or perish.” This opening of Africa was not just for the gospel but it was opening Africa for Christianity, civilization and commerce. “Livingstone conceived the idea that, if a way were opened from the interior to the coast, Christianity, civilization and commerce would move freely to these benighted people”
He faced disease – malaria and fever on his route to St. Paul de Loanda (modern Luanda, Angola). Often he was destitute of food and especially of the kind needed for his sickly condition. He confronted the horrors of polygamy, incest and cannibalism on his route. The cruelties of slavery, bodies of those that perished from indescribable brutalities, lying by the wayside or their skeletons hanging from trees, while others were floating in the river all tortured his travels across Africa
To preach, heal and help the African, and not to give up his missionary purposes, was still the impelling motive of all his efforts.
The day before he died he rested quietly on the 30th ; but at four on the morning of May 1,1873, the boy who slept at Livingstone’s door woke up and saw his master. “By the candle still burning they saw him, not in bed; but kneeling at the bedside, with his head buried in his hands upon the pillow. The sad, yet not unexpected truth soon became evident; he had passed away on the furthest of all his journeys, and without a single attendant. But he had died in the act of prayer; prayer offered in that reverent attitude about which he was always so particular; commending his own spirit, with all his dear ones as he was wont, into the hands of his Savior; and commending Africa, his own dear Africa, with all her woes and sins and wrongs, to the Avenger of the oppressed and the Redeemer of the lost.”
They removed the heart from his body as he had requested, and buried it under a tree near where he died. They dried the body in the sun, tied it to a pole and after nine months’ march reached the coast and shipped it to England. On April 18, 1874, he was buried amidst greatest honors, in Westminster Abbey, London.
So, we reeturn to the question we raised: What was so radical about David Livingstone? He was radical in his life in the way he dealt with his family. He was radical in his dealings with the LMS. He was radical with the Royal Geographical Society. He died a radical death on his knees. And even after his death, he was radical. His heart was ripped out and now lies buried in Africa while his body was ferried to England. Mr Livingstone was not just radical as a young man, but he was a radical in his entire life.