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)

Nowhere did this seem more urgent than the largely unexplored continent of Africa. But around this firm conviction of religious authority coalesced a whole array of other intentions, imperial, commercial and scientific. Livingstone himself often expressed his conviction that the missionary was the herald of all the benefits of civilization.

In his view, progress and development brought by modern capitalistic, industrial societies would end the slave trade; open the interior to commerce; and, in the Eurocentric worldview, bring reason to those held in the throes of superstition and ignorance. The actual outcome of these aspirations is all too well demonstrated by the tragic history of large-scale European colonization of Africa, which soon followed.

Livingstone’s missionary career represents only the first phase of his activity in Africa. The highlight of this experience was surely the time he spent during the 1840s with the remarkable Kgosikgolo (Paramount Chief) Sechele I, king of the Bakwena people of present-day Botswana. Despite Livingstone’s considerable reputation as an evangelist, it turns out that Sechele may have been his only real convert.

Even so, the uncompromising missionary seems to have soon regarded Sechele as a backslider. Disappointed by the leader’s continuing practice of polygamy, Livingstone struck out in search of Lake Ngama far to the north. Undaunted, Sechele continued to enthusiastically develop his own brand of Christianity, pragmatically adapting it to existing cultural norms. At his death in 1892, he ruled 30,000 people, most of whom had adopted the new religion.

Today Livingstone is still remembered sympathetically by many black Africans in Botswana and Zambia for his role as both missionary and explorer. Correspondingly, Sechele can rightly be regarded not just as a worthy counterpart but also as the fulfillment of Livingstone’s hope for the spiritual health of Africa. His response to his friend’s advice regarding the survival of his state against the threat of the slave-trading Boers on his frontiers was just as astute. Today many Botswanans consider him to be the father of their country.

The Image of the Black in Western Art Archive resides at Harvard University’s W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research. The director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute is Henry Louis Gates Jr., who is also The Root’s editor-in-chief. The archive and Harvard University Press collaborated to create The Image of the Black in Western Art book series, eight volumes of which were edited by Gates and David Bindman and published by Harvard University Press. Text for each Image of the Week is written by Sheldon Cheek.