Livingstone on African massacre

Dr Livingstone's lost 1871 'massacre' diary

A diary written 140 years ago by the Scots explorer David Livingstone with makeshift ink on old newspaper can be read today for the first time.

An international team of experts has used modern technology to recover the past. In the process, they have revealed Livingstone’s harrowing account of the massacre of 400 slaves from a script that has long since faded into illegibility.

Later, Livingstone recounted the story to the journalist H M Stanley whose report of the massacre changed history and forced the British Government to close the East Africa slave trade.

The remarkable story of an 18 month project to uncover Livingstone's personal account of the 'unspeakable horror' of the slave trade was revealed today at the National Library of Scotland, home to many of Livingstone's papers including parts of his African diaries. The diary pages about the massacre come from the David Livingstone Centre in Blantyre, run by the National Trust for Scotland.

When he wrote this diary, Livingstone had been forgotten by the public and was stranded without supplies in Central Africa. He was forced to make ink from berry seeds and wrote over the pages of a single copy of the London Standard. Exposed to the African environment, the manuscript deteriorated rapidly and today is virtually invisible to the naked eye.

A team of scholars and scientists from the United States and the UK used spectral imaging to recover Livingstone's original text. This involves illuminating the manuscript with successive wavelengths of light — starting with ultraviolet, working through the visible spectrum, and ending with infrared. Processed digital images enhanced the selected text.

'Livingstone's 1871 field diary' — a project funded by the British Academy and the US National Endowment for the Humanities — is a free online public resource published by the UCLA Digital Library Program in Los Angeles.

It offers a unique insight into Livingstone's mind when he faced the greatest crisis of his last expedition, on which he would die. It also suggests that he altered his original account of the massacre in later journals which may change the way history interprets Livingstone legacy. Livingstone was horrified at the massacre. The diary records him gazing with 'wonder' as three Arab slavers with guns enter the market in Nyangwe, a Congolese village, where 1500 people were gathered, most of them women.

'50 yards off two guns were fired and a general flight took place — shot after shot followed on the terrified fugitives — great numbers died — It is awful — terrible, a dreadful world this,' writes Livingstone in despair as he witnesses the massacre. 'As I write, shot after shot falls on the fugitives on the other side [of the river] who are wailing loudly over those they know are already slain — Oh let thy kingdom come.'

However, Dr Adrian Wisnicki, who led the project, says there is evidence in the diary that suggests members of Livingstone’s party might have been involved in the massacre.

'Livingstone seems to have considered this possibility and this, together with his failure to intervene, appears to have left him with a profound sense of remorse,' says Dr Wisnicki, assistant professor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and honorary research fellow at Birkbeck College, London.

'In copying over the 1871 diary into his journal, Livingstone decided to rewrite or remove a series of problematic passages. It's taken 140 years to discover Livingstone's original words and reveal the many secrets of the original diary.'

What we know of Livingstone is largely based on 'The Last Journals of David Livingstone' (1874), edited after Livingstone's death in 1873 by his friend Horace Waller. But the original account of the massacre — which Dr Wisnicki analysed with contributing editor, Dr Debbie Harrison, also an honorary research fellow at Birkbeck — is just one of many passages in the 1871 field diary that is significantly different from the 1874 book.

'Livingstone would never have published this private diary in his own lifetime,' says Dr Wisnicki. 'In particular his attitude to the liberated slaves in his entourage is one of disgust — an attitude greatly at odds with his public persona as a dedicated abolitionist.'

Dr Wisnicki anticipates that the publication of the 1871 diary will change the way we look at Livingstone. 'Instead of the saintly hero of Victorian mythology, the man who speaks directly to us from the pages of his private diary is passionate, vulnerable, and deeply conflicted about the violent events he witnesses, his culpability, and the best way to intervene — if at all.'

1 November 2011

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