Thursday, November 10, 2011

Livingstone’s invisible writing

A remarkable diary left behind by the famous British explorer and missionary David Livingstone has just been revealed, literally, for the first time - and published on the internet - thanks to a trans-Antlantic team of scholars and scientists. The so-called 1871 Field Diary was written in the run-up to Livingstone’s meeting with the journalist Henry Morton Stanley, and covers a horrific massacre by Arab slave traders.

David Livingstone was born in Blantyre, Scotland, in 1813. He went to work at the local mill aged only 10, which also provided some schooling. In 1836, he began studying medicine and theology in Glasgow, and then decided to become a missionary doctor. In 1840-1841, he was posted to the edge of the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa. In 1844, he married Mary Moffat, daughter of another missionary; they had six children, one dying in infancy.

During this first 16 year unbroken period in Africa, Livingstone undertook several expeditions north and into the continent’s interior in search of converts. In so doing, he added hugely to Western knowledge of central and southern Africa. On one of his expeditions, starting in 1853 and lasting three years, he discovered some spectacular waterfalls, which he named Victoria Falls. On arriving at the mouth of the Zambezi in 1856, he became the first European to cross the southern width of Africa.

Livingstone returned to Britain that same year, something of a national hero; and subsequently went on speaking tours. He also published his best-selling Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa, before heading out to Africa again (arriving in 1858). This time he stayed for five years working on official explorations of eastern and central Africa for the British government. In 1864, though, he was ordered home by the government, dissatisfied with his work. His wife had died some two years earlier.

Back in Britain, Livingstone spoke out against the slave trade, and secured private support for another expedition to central Africa, this time searching for the Nile’s source. The expedition began in 1866 and went on for years; indeed, when nothing was heard of Livingstone for many months, the journalist and explorer, Stanley, set out to find him. And find him, he did, in November 1871, greeting him with the now-famous phrase: ‘Dr Livingstone I presume?’

Livingstone continued on his exploration but increasingly suffered ill health; and he died in May 1873. His body was shipped to England and buried in Westminster Abbey. There is plenty of information about Livingstone on the internet, at Wikipedia, Livingstone Online, Believer’s Web, and Wholesome Words which has a long list of biographies.

Livingstone was a meticulous diarist, recording his journeys in pocket books, and then writing up the journals in larger volumes. All of these survived (brought back with his body in fact) and were edited by Horace Waller and published in two volumes by John Murray in 1874 as The Last Journals of David Livingstone in Central Africa from 1865 to his Death. These books are freely available at Internet Archive.

However, for some months in 1871, Livingstone ran so short of writing supplies that he resorted to using improvised composition materials to keep up his diary habit. This so-named 1871 Field Diary was thus composed on a series of odd scraps of paper, some of which already contained pre-printed text, such as an old copy of The Standard newspaper, and was penned using an ink made from the seed of a local berry. This manuscript, though carefully preserved by the National Trust for Scotland at its David Livingstone Centre in Blantyre, was unreadable: the paper had deteriorated badly and the ink had faded.

In 2009, a research team led by Dr Adrian S Wisnicki, assistant professor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and honorary research fellow at Birkbeck, University of London, began a spectral imaging project to recover the lost text. And, on 1 November 2011, announced it had succeeded. The team says the story they found, in the hitherto illegible diary, ‘offers a unique insight into Livingstone’s mind during the greatest crisis of his last expedition.’ Of particular importance, it adds, in relation to what was already known of Livingstone’s diary in 1871, is the original description of a massacre in which slave traders slaughtered hundreds of local people. Stanley’s report of this massacre to the world press, sourced at the time on what Livingstone told him, prompted the British government to close the East African slave trade.

The David Livingstone Spectral Imaging Project has now made the complete original text freely available on the internet, complete with everything you would want to know about the project, the manuscript, and more! The website is hosted by the University of California, and the project was funded by the British Academy and the US National Endowment for the Humanities.

The 1 November press release from the project team highlights one of the key aspects of its findings: ‘The massacre is one of the most important events in The Last Journals of David Livingstone (1874), edited after Livingstone’s death in 1873 by his friend Horace Waller. Until now this book was the main source for historians and biographers. However, critical and forensic analysis of the original 1871 text reveals a very different story from Waller’s heavily edited version. In particular it sheds light on a heart-stopping moment when Livingstone gazes with ‘wonder’ as three Arab slavers with guns enter the market in Nyangwe, where 1,500 people are gathered, most of them women: ‘50 yards off two guns were fired and a general flight took place - shot after shot followed on the terrified fugitives - great numbers died - It is awful - terrible, a dreadful world this,’ writes Livingstone in despair as he witnesses the massacre. ‘As I write, shot after shot falls on the fugitives on the other side [of the river] who are wailing loudly over those they know are already slain - Oh let thy kingdom come.’ ’

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