Who Was David Livingstone?

Image of the Week: A 1879 monument pays homage to an abolitionist with an extraordinary legacy.

John Mossman, bronze relief from the base of the Livingstone Monument, erected in 1879 (Glasgow, Cathedral Square)
John Mossman, bronze relief from the base of the Livingstone Monument, erected in 1879 (Glasgow, Cathedral Square)

(The Root) — This image is part of a weekly series that The Root is presenting in conjunction with the Image of the Black in Western Art Archive at Harvard University’s W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research.

Since his “rediscovery” by Stanley in 1871, David Livingstone, the legendary missionary, explorer and abolitionist, has remained one of the most enduring symbols of Western involvement with the continent of Africa. The 200th anniversary of his birth, which is being celebrated this year, is an opportunity to consider his legacy.

A good place to start is with an imposing monument erected in his native Scotland not long after his death in 1873. Here the missionary-turned-explorer, only several years after his death, has already been canonized as one of the exemplary men of his age. The simple yet imposing work consists of a larger-than-life figure of Livingstone standing on a high base. Around the base are four reliefs, one inscribed with the data of his life, the others representing the key accomplishments of his career in Africa.

On the sides of the base are panels representative of Livingstone’s opposition to the slave trade and of his importance as an explorer. The largest relief on the front face is the one seen here, which distills Livingstone’s missionary activity in the form of an idealized tableau of religious evangelization. He sits beneath a canopy of palm trees, reading from a large Bible spread across his knees. His slightly slumped posture is more in keeping with an intense, silent reading of the Scriptures rather than with the dynamic delivery of a sermon to those gathered around him. The only sign of his engagement with the group is the motive of his right hand clasping that of the woman kneeling beside him.

The exotic scene is articulated in the formal language of Western classical sculpture. The man standing with an assegai at the right adopts the pose of an ancient Greek warrior, while the two women and their children are cast in the role of the Christian Madonna. The man moving forward at the left, his wrists bound with chains, recalls the figures of captives forced to march in Roman victory monuments.

Livingstone’s zeal for the conversion of the native people of southern Africa struck a responsive chord within the highly sentimentalized culture of Protestant England. Aspirations toward a universal religious community may seem quaint and naively, if not dangerously, misguided to us today, but in the 19th century there was no higher ideal than the bestowal of revelation on a benighted world.