Source and activity 6

Lake Nyassa sketch

Map showing Lake Nyassa
Map of of Lake Nyasa,
View larger map image

This is a map of David Livingstone's explorations south and west of what was then known as Lake Nyassa and now Lake Malawi in modern-day Malawi, 1859-1863.

Livingstone and his companions made new maps as they travelled across Africa. Maps were important cultural artefacts for Victorians. Through them, they were able to get a detailed perspective of the places that had previously been unknown and which so many of them had led in 'discovering'.

Documenting discoveries

Without the technology we enjoy today, these maps filled in the visual gaps and gave the Victorians a physical grasp not only of the mysterious 'dark continent' but of other remote territories of the British Empire.

As a result, maps and mapmaking was a very important and tangible output of Victorian exploration and discovery.

Charting every detail

Look at this work-in-progress of a map of Lake Nyassa and the level of detail that is being marked up.

This map would have been the only way people in Britain could see that this place existed at all so it's easy to see that the person who was working on this map was careful and meticulous to get it right.

Maps as art

Both lakes are coloured in with a very vibrant blue watercolour. It's clear that the person making this wanted to make sure that the finished map would not only provide an accurate detail of landmarks and features but would also be visually enticing too.

Think about the skills that went into making a map like this. Do you think they were technical, artistic or perhaps both?

Compare this map to a Google Maps, satellite or Google Earth image of Lake Malawi today.

Modern-day mapping

Now try looking at photographs of Lake Malawi on the same Google Maps page (the option to look at photos appears in the box on the top right side of the page) or on Flickr. Can you find the places that are sketched in this map?

Imagine you've just arrived at Lake Nyassa, what sort of images would you make for people who've never been here to help them get an idea of it?

Would you make a drawing, take a picture, shoot a video or maybe make an audio recording? What sort of details would you include? 

To find out more about how important geographical discovery was in the 19th century, visit the Royal Geographical Society website.


Themes in focus: David Livingstone


Find out more about David Livingstone in NLS collections

David Livingstone is one of a number of authors featured in the John Murray Archive.


The David Livingstone collections are listed under ‘L’ in our Guide to Manuscripts Collections


Search the John Murray Archive catalogue for material relating to David Livingstone.

David Livingstone on the web

Visit Livingstone Online for detailed information about the explorer and to view his letters online.


The Royal Geographical Society website has factsheets, quiz and image gallery on David Livingstone and his travels.

NLS learning for you

If there's a topic you'd like more information about or if you have any suggestions for learning, email us.

Speak me