AT the end of 1871, David Livingstone was six years gone on his last journey into central Africa, and lost to the view of those who had encouraged and supported him from home.

But there was a brother Scot determined to track him down through the jungle – James Gordon Bennett, editor of the New York Herald. He gave the job to his star reporter, H.M. Stanley. “Find Livingstone,” he said.

Here was how, in November that year, Stanley came to be striding along the shore of Lake Tanganyika at Ujiji, the great emporium in what is now western Tanzania selling everything from slaves to ivory.  He found resting in the shade a white man who looked terrible  but was glad to see him. “Dr Livingstone, I presume?” said Stanley. The doctor was already famous across three continents.  Now the newsman would match him by telling the world his story.

Each man could already look back on formidable feats. Stanley, by far the better equipped, had in four months gone as far as Livingstone in six years – not that the doctor was interested in speed. Both had, as the crow flies, traversed 1200 kilometres of wilderness wasted by local wars and the slave-traders’ exploitation of them, in order to get up country from the Indian Ocean to the Great Lakes.

The doctor was of course repeatedly held up by his wish to collect evidence of slaving, all the more difficult in unmapped country. He originally aimed to get to Lake Bangweulu, far to the west, which he had identified as a link to Lake Tanganyika and so, he wrongly assumed, to the River Nile. But he had arrived at his present spot in the rainy season, and the country further on was so swampy as to forbid further progress for the time being.

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Livingstone now thought it  likely that the upper Nile was  the Lualaba River, still further  west, and vainly sought canoes  to explore its course. In fact it is one of the main headwaters of the River Congo.  The doctor’s obsessions drove  him to seek not where the Lualaba went but where it came from. He  set out for the south-eastern shore  of Lake Tanganyika, yet did not reach it till March 1871, after having further supplies relayed by John Kirk, the companion on a previous expedition who was now British vice-consul in Zanzibar. By October, Livingstone arrived back at Ujiji  to find little left of the shipment  of goods funded in the UK.

Nothing much could now be done about the explorer’s other great problem, his own state of health. He was suffering from pneumonia, dysentery, ulcers and haemorrhoids. It was possible for him to order medication from the coast, but he could never be sure it would arrive intact or before local conditions had demanded he move on.

At least there was by the end of 1871 a new partnership of Livingstone and Stanley. They travelled together to the northern end of Lake Tanganyika and saw it had no outlet there. They parted in March 1872 on the caravan route to the eastern coast, where Livingstone now expected his fresh supplies. These arrived in August, with 60 porters hired by Stanley.

Livingstone’s efforts to push still further westwards in 1872–3 were again delayed by heavy rains and by his own weakness. In the spring he started bleeding profusely and soon needed to be carried in a litter. He died in the night of April 30. The heart and innards were buried on the spot. A decision was made to embalm the rest and carry the body to the coast. It got there in February 1874, before being sent to London.

On April 18, 1874, Livingstone was buried in the nave of Westminster Abbey. The pallbearers included his son Oswell Livingstone, John Kirk and H.M. Stanley, heading a congregation of great and good scientists, missionaries and medical men. HM Treasury paid £500 for the ceremonies. W.E. Gladstone awarded a pension to Livingstone’s daughters. Benjamin Disraeli’s government gave the family £3000.

The dead hero’s theories about the course of the  Nile had already been disproved, but he could still be acclaimed once again as  the great abolitionist of slavery.  His many reports on the traffic from central Africa to the eastern coast had clearly been the crucial factor in getting a treaty forbidding the trade enforced on the Sultan  of Zanzibar in 1873.

Livingstone’s simple ideas about a range of different things were soon being taken seriously too. Others came to share his vision of remote rivers and lakes as highways for the spiritual and social regeneration of Africa. Practical men accepted his views on the commercial function of missions that might link up with his lifelong advocacy of “native agency” as the key to local economic progress. In 1875-6, two Scottish missions – Livingstonia and Blantyre – were set up as bases on Lake Nyasa and in the Shire Highlands. Without them, the subsequent British occupation  of Nyasaland or Malawi could  not have taken place.

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Stanley completed the geographical trailblazing when he reached the Lualaba and followed the Congo to the Atlantic Ocean. To canonise Livingstone was hardly necessary, but Stanley took the lead in organising a heroic cult round the great traveller as genial saint. Horace Waller fastidiously edited Livingstone’s Last Journals (1874), a poignant testimony to soul-searching, suffering, forbearance  and tenacity.

The books enriched a literature that had begun with Livingstone’s own Missionary Travels in 1854. There was a romance about the lone martyr always pressing forwards into new country, ready not so much to convert as to bear Christian witness in preaching the gospel, giving magic-lantern shows and decrying slavery. Livingstone became a symbol of British hopes about their motives  in black Africa. In effect he redeemed the colonial project. In 1929 a Scottish national memorial was opened in Lanarkshire, replicating the names of the  African missionary stations.

For half a century after his death Livingstone was the subject of hagiography rather than scholarship. More realistic assessments became possible with access to the papers of Kirk and other members of the tropical expeditions. The chief work of reappraisal was achieved in Isaac Schapera’s magisterial editions of Livingstone’s journals and letters  up to 1856.

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In the late 20th century, a complex character came into focus: intellectually curious, unusually charming, practically skilled, strikingly free from religious or racial prejudice and capable of inspiring his best companions to great loyalty. Yet he was also tactless, touchy, rancorous, devious, deficient in political sense, stingy with thanks or encouragement  and callous when other people’s interests seemed to conflict with  his duty to God, as he saw it.

For the millennium Livingstone’s own writings are winning new value as a rich source for the history of Africans. His pioneering cartography of Angola, Botswana, Zambia and Malawi formed just a facet of his skill as an amateur field-scientist in an age of growing specialisation. Secular knowledge and material mastery were part of the mission,  as they formed also the subject of  his keenest sermons on the gospel  of an industrial revolution with a place in the divine plan.