David Livingstone - The boy from Blantyre who became an African legend

19 Mar 2013
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David Livingstone, the world-famous missionary and explorer, was born 200 years ago today in Blantyre.

David Livingstone, the world-famous missionary and explorer, was born 200 years ago in Blantyre. He rose from humble beginnings to study at university and to train as a missionary. He spent 30 years in Africa - and today he is widely remembered there as a great humanitarian.

To imagine the kind of extreme poverty David Livingstone was born into on March 19, 1813, you need only visit the Blantyre centre that bears his name. The popular National Trust for Scotland property is housed in Shuttle Row, a humble tenement which the Livingstones shared with 23 other families.

By the age of 10, he was working no fewer than 14 hours a day in the local cotton works - which he would then follow with two hours of school, and then with private study. It says a lot for Livingstone that he was able to rise from such wretched beginnings to make a mark on the world stage.

"His ability to transcend the extreme poverty he was born into, gives a really good example of what people can achieve," says Karen Carruthers, the property manager at Blantyre.

"It was really dangerous, exhausting work at the cotton works. He would follow this up with two hours at school.

"He seemed to think this was the making of him. He later wrote about 'this life of toil' and seemed to think that his hard work as a child bred in him the strength and the determination to do what he did as an adult.

"But he did not promote it as a good way for children to spend their childhood."

Livingstone worked in the cotton factory until the age of 24, before studying medicine at Andersons College (today known as Strathclyde University), then applying to train as a missionary with the London Missionary Society.

He was aged just 27 when he sailed from Britain for Africa.

It was in Africa that he made his name, but he was more than just a Christian missionary.

While living in the Bakwain (Botswana, as it is now known) he set off on a series of expeditions.

In all his years in Africa, Livingstone travelled across the Kalahari, explored central and southern Africa, came across a stunning waterfall which he christened Victoria Falls, and became the first European to cross the vast width of southern Africa.

In Britain, he published a bestselling book, Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa, in 1857.

The following year, he sailed for Africa again. His wife Mary, whom he had married in 1844, died of malaria.

Back home again, he proved to be an influential voice against the evils of the slave trade.

In 1866 he made one final expedition to central Africa, in which he tried to locate the source of the Nile. In failing health, he died on May 1, 1873, at Chitambo's Village, in modern day Zambia.

His body was returned to England, and was buried at Westminster Abbey.

At the time of his death it was estimated that he had journeyed more than 30,000 miles across Africa - mostly on foot. The celebrations marking the 200th anniversary of Livingstone's birth have seen Dr Joyce Banda, the president of Malawi, visting the centre at Blantyre and attending a local church service with First Minister Alex Salmond.

She paid tribute to the Scots missionary who helped fight slavery in Malawi and other African countries. Dr Banda said:

"My visit seeks to deepen the relationship that has existed between Malawi and Scotland since Dr Livingstone visited our country.

"I am looking forward to engaging the Scottish people on matters of trade, investment and development, which Dr Livingstone aspired to achieve."

Speaking yesterday, Mrs Carruthers, said: "Livingstone will be remembered for his campaign against slavery in East Africa - which marks him out as a humanitarian.

"In our language, he was a fundamental believer in human equality; he believed that Africans were the same as Europeans, and in that respect he was really ahead of his time.

"Many Europeans went to Africa in the years after Livingstone, and while some adopted Livingstone as one of their own, many were more concerned with their own economic development rather than working with the local populations.

"He died hundreds of miles away from the coast, out of contact with home, and he was seen almost as a Christian martyr.

"The decision by his south Africa friends to prepare his body and help bring it back to Britain for burial, totally captured the imnagination of the British.

"When his body arrived at Southampton, nearly a year after his death, there were huge crowds there to pay their last respects.

"There was a day of national mourning - almost the entire country came to a standstill when he was buried at Westminster.

"When you think of all the distinguished people who are buried there, this was quite something for a wee boy from the Blantyre. It really is quite amazing."

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