(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.
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.
The Image of the Black Archive & Library resides at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. The founding director of the Hutchins Center is Henry Louis Gates Jr., who is also chairman of The Root. 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.