David Livingstone — national hero

Engraving of David Livingstone

Engraving of David Livingstone, used in his book 'Missionary travels and researches in South Africa' (1857).


David Livingstone (1813-1873) fully earned his place in history by becoming the first European to travel across southern Africa from coast to coast.

His exploits made him a hero in Britain and his common humanity, which inspired his crusade against slavery, has ensured his legacy lives on.

The extent of his popular appeal owed much to the images Livingstone brought back from Africa. They helped Victorian Britain to understand that mysterious and often misunderstood continent in a way that words alone could never have achieved.


Images reproduced many times

Highly skilled engravers worked in wood to reproduce the artist's pictures so that they could be printed many times. By the mid- and late 19th century, the skills and processes involved allowed many thousands of detailed and clear prints to be produced cheaply.

The engraving shown here was based on a painting by Henry Phillips which was owned by John Murray III, Livingstone's publisher.


Relationship with African people

Engraving of African woman preparing food

Fascinated by their culture, Livingstone was keen to show African communities involved in their age-old customs.

Learning the various African languages was essential to Livingstone’s preaching, travelling and acceptance by African people. He even prepared an 'Analysis of the Bechuana language' (1858) to be privately printed for African expedition parties.

The mutual respect between Livingstone and many Africans led to a strong, if at times unequal, relationship. Near the end of his life, while suffering from poor health, the Scot became increasingly reliant on his African companions.


Mapping Africa

Before Livingstone's explorations little was known for sure about the interior of sub-Saharan Africa. It was during his lifetime, and to a large extent due to his efforts, that the blank map of Africa began to be filled in.

Though Livingstone only received brief instruction in the use of a whole range of navigation and mapping equipment, he became quite proficient. At times he was able to produce remarkably accurate maps.


Written accounts in diaries

Lines from the manuscript of Livingstone's first account of his travels
Part of a page of the manuscript of Livingstone's
'Missionary travels'

Livingstone filled his field diaries with written accounts, scientific measurements and sketches of all he observed.

The sheets of his last journals were revered as relics of a national hero and martyr. Images of his diary were used in his 'Last journals', published in 1874, as well as in newspapers and biographies.


The 'Picturing Africa' exhibition at the National Library of Scotland ran from 14 June to 3 November 2013.

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