Dr Livingstone, I presume?


19 March 2013 marked the 200th anniversary of the birth of David Livingstone. This explorer, writer, missionary, medic and anti-slavery campaigner rose from humble beginnings in a Lanarkshire tenement in Blantyre, to become described as “Africa’s first freedom fighter”.   

Is that description justified? Was he simply a man of his time or a man ahead of his time? Whatever conclusions you reach it would not be accurate to see this man who sought to bring Christianity, Commerce and Civilisation to southern Africa as a typical colonialist. That would be to presume wrongly.

Writing in the New Statesman, Michael Barrett,a professor of biochemical parasitology at the University of Glasgow, describes those who were inspired to follow in Livingstone’s footsteps – “Yes, they were making a living but they weren’t there to exploit anything or anyone. They wanted to help and they were embedded in, not segregated from, the local people. It was this notion of integrating people who could bring sustainable development to Africa that was Livingstone’s dream, a far cry from the cruelties of so many white European colonialists.”

He learned to speak the languages of those he worked among.  He treated Africans with respect; he tested their medicines and embraced many of their customs. He gave his life in the fight against the slave trade. Far from imposing his religion, he was criticised for probably not making a single convert to Christianity as he immersed himself in fighting the causes of disease and indulging his obsession for exploration. Few European place names were preserved in post-colonial Africa but it is still possible to visit the towns of Livingstone in Zambia and Blantyre in Malawi. It was the late Kenneth Kaunda, the former president of Zambia, who described David Livingstone as the first African freedom fighter.

The celebrations to mark the 200th anniversary of his birth have included an extensive programme of events, activities and projects spread throughout the year. Lord Jack McConnell delivered the Glasgow University 2013 Memorial Lecture; a commemoration ceremony took place in Westminster Abbey where Livingstone’s body was eventually returned for burial (his heart was buried in his beloved Africa); Malawi’s President, Joyce Banda visited his birthplace at Blantyre, Lanarkshire and Livingstone’s surviving family members were guests of honour at this year’s General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.

In his memorial lecture which you can watch in full below Jack McConnell describes Livingstone’s life and contribution to Africa and the impact and legacy of his work over the years. The final section considers what Livingstone would make of Africa today.

“As an optimist – he would see the great potential that is finally emerging. Economic growth is high in Africa, and seems to have resisted the worst of the recent global crisis to provide real hope that many former impoverished states can reach middle-income status in the not too distant future.

Millions more go to school, deaths from preventable diseases are down dramatically, and cross border conflicts can be counted on one hand. Across the continent, stable democracies are becoming the norm against which others are judged, not least by their own people.

So, despite all the setbacks and the challenges, there is real hope that the future he imagined might be on the way at last.

Against that backdrop, what can we do in his name in this Bicentenary year? For me, he stood for understanding others and ourselves; for celebration of diversity, partnership with other cultures, judging human beings by their character and actions not by their colour, or where they come from.

This year, we can individually and collectively resolve to redouble our efforts to put that into practice at home and abroad. We can maintain Britain’s leadership in recent years in development aid and post conflict peacebuilding. We can support those who are trying step by step to build a more even distribution of power in the world.”


Lecture link


Alastair Osborne, Scottish Officer LCID