BY the time he reached home on December 12, 1856, Dr David Livingstone had been away from his family for four-and-a-half-years. He was greeted by an adoring press and public and spoke of his travels at length to enraptured crowds across the UK.

He also spoke increasingly vexed words to the London Missionary Society with whom he was falling out – they wanted him to concentrate on missionary work, but Livingstone now saw himself as a missionary explorer. The Society wrote to him to say they were “restricted in their power of aiding plans connected only remotely with the spread of the Gospel.” Livingstone had seen this coming and was already working on a plan to continue his work in Africa – Missionary Society or no Missionary Society. It is important to realise what was driving Livingstone at this point in his life. Fame may have been going to his head, but he realised that he could use his celebrity to tackle the issue that most preoccupied him: the continuing slave trade in Africa which appalled him all of his life.

Britain had abolished the slave trade in 1807 and Livingstone considered it as his duty to express British values – particularly the rule of law - and have as many Africans as possible adopt them as their path to civilisation as he saw it, even though he never forced any tribe that he encountered to speak English and actually converted only a precious few to Christianity. He saw no clash between being a missionary and an explorer, explaining: “The end of the geographical feat is the beginning of the missionary enterprise.”

He also believed firmly that turning Africans into good Protestant Christians would lead them to engage in trade with the outside world which in turn would also end slavery. “We ought to encourage the Africans," he wrote, "to cultivate for our markets, as the most effectual means, next to the Gospel, of their elevation.”

Christianity, commerce and civilisation – in varying degrees in various places, this trinity were the three bastions of British imperialism.

And in that Victorian expansionist era, was it any wonder why Livingstone became a hero, not just of the UK but large parts of the Western world?

He got lucky, too, as two Scots promptly played a huge part in bringing Livingstone to public adulation. One was the geologist Sir Roderick Murchison, president of the influential Royal Geographical Society, who encouraged Livingstone and persuaded the Society to back him. The other was John Murray, a Scottish publisher who convinced Livingstone to write ‘Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa’ which sold out as soon as it was published in 1857. Murray was a hard taskmaster and Livingstone wrote that he would rather cross Africa than write another book.

With sales in the tens of thousands, Livingstone was now independently wealthy and parted company with the London Missionary Society. He went on a speaking tour but all the time, thanks to Murchison, he was in touch with the Government which agreed to fully fund a new expedition in which Livingstone promised to open up the heart of Africa by proving that there could be a trade route up the Zambezi river.

It is often forgotten that Livingstone made colossal mistakes. His conviction that the Zambezi was navigable right into the African interior was simply wrong and later he would theorise that the River Nile flowed much further south than it did. He made several similar mistakes about the geography of the continent, though his actual mapping and descriptions were accurate to a fault. He was appointed as a roving consul with his citation stating: “for the Eastern Coast and independent districts of the interior, and commander of an expedition for exploring eastern and central Africa, for the promotion of Commerce and Civilization with a view to the extinction of the slave-trade.”

Starting in 1858, he led his well-equipped expedition up the Zambezi only to encounter the impassable Cahora Bassa rapids.

Suffering regular bouts of ill-health and what we may now term as manic depression, his judgement as a leader of a large scale expedition came under question. It seemed the doctor could lead entire platoons of Africans, but dealing with his British underlings troubled him greatly, with even his own doctor questioning Livingstone’s sanity.

He pressed on nevertheless and did find Lake Malawi, completing a partial tour around it – another discovery hailed back in Britain as a miracle. It was clear that the Lake was vast and the expedition went back to the coastal settlement of Chupanga early in 1862.

Mary Livingstone came to join her husband and almost immediately contracted malaria and possibly dysentery. The expedition had run low on medicines, Mary’s condition deteriorated quickly and she died on April 27, 1862.

Despite this blow, Livingstone decided to press on, but the expedition up the Ruvuma River proved a failure and in 1863 he suffered another family blow when his son Robert declined to join him. Instead Robert adopted a false name, Rupert Vincent, and went to America to fight for the North against the Confederates. He was captured and killed in an escape attempt in December the following year.

Livingstone famously said: “I am prepared to go anywhere, provided it be forward,” but late in 1863, the Government decided to recall Livingstone and his expedition. The press made hay with this disgrace, only for the public to back their hero Livingstone, who continued to talk of his adventures and cleverly gained support on the back of the expedition’s donations of samples of African materials such as plants and minerals to various societies and museums.

He also wrote "Narrative of an Expedition to the Zambesi and Its Tributaries" which was published in 1865 and which helped restore his battered reputation.

LIVINGSTON then conceived of a grand plan which he hoped would make him even more famous and thus, he assessed, give him the clout to end the slave trade once and for all. If he could only find the source of the River Nile, the Holy Grail of African exploration, then surely he could preach an end to slavery which by then was the preserve of Arab traders from the north of the continent.

He set out on what proved to be his last expedition in January, 1866, paid for by private individuals and public donations and again given the rank of consul by the Government. Along with the three native men who had become his faithful retainers, Jacob Wainwright, Chuma and Susi, significantly he took only Africans and Asians, and soon some of them abandoned him, fabricating the story that he had been killed by the Ngoni tribe.

Still Livingstone pressed on, despite a servant stealing his vital medicine chest and deserting and in November, 1867, he was the first European to reach Lake Mweru. He achieved a similar feat by being the first European to find Lake Bangweulu the following July. The world rejoiced that he was apparently still alive, but then Livingstone disappeared from view entirely. He reached Lake Tanganyika in February, 1869, and then suffered long periods of debilitating illness which he survived only with the help of the Arab traders he so despised.

Recovering, he headed west and became the first European to see the Lualaba river that drained into the mighty Congo. It was while he was resting at Nyangwe on the banks of the Lualaba in July 1871 that he witnessed the massacre of more than 400 Africans by Arab slavers that he called ‘alien bloodhounds’.

In his Field Diary that was published posthumously, Livingstone wrote: “They began to fire into the dense crowd around them, another party down at the canoes rained their balls on the panic-struck multitude that rushed into these vessels – all threw away their goods, the men forgot their paddles. The canoes were jammed in the creek and could not be got out quick enough – so many men & women sprang into the water.”

Those that didn’t drown were shot, and Livingstone was utterly shattered by the experience of witnessing such cold-blooded mass murder.

He wrote: “This massacre was the most terrible scene I ever saw – I cannot describe my feelings but am thankful I did not give way to them.” But he did give way and indeed, he was literally unnerved by it, appearing to suffer a nervous breakdown.

He returned to Lake Tanganyika to the Arab-dominated settlement at Ujiji where he arrived, gravely ill, in October 1871. The following month on November 10, there occurred the most famous encounter in the history of African exploration.

The journalist Henry Morton Stanley, originally John Rowlands from Wales, was an adventurer who had the probably unique distinction of serving in the Confederate and Union armies and Union Navy during the American Civil War.

He became a foreign correspondent for the New York Herald and in 1869, with the world’s press fascinated by the fate of Livingstone, he was sent on an expedition to find the doctor, one of several that took place between 1868 and 1871. Against considerable odds, Stanley made it to Ujiji.

According to the first account of the historic meeting published in the New York Herald on July 1, 1872, Stanley was not lost for words. “Preserving a calmness of exterior before the Arabs which was hard to simulate as he reached the group, Mr. Stanley said: – "Doctor Livingstone, I presume?"

A smile lit up the features of the pale white man as he answered: ‘Yes, and I feel thankful that I am here to welcome you.’”

Whether the exchange happened exactly like that is debated to this day, but nevertheless Stanley undoubtedly saved Livingstone’s life and reputation. The Scotsman recovered quickly thanks to the food and medicine brought by the journalist. He and Stanley, who would later coin the term Dark Continent, explored north of Lake Tanganyika together before the journalist had to go home in March, 1872, though he would return to Africa and explore it almost as much as Livingstone did.

Livingstone defiantly refused to go home and carried on with his vain search for the Nile’s source. Stanley’s despatches had by now made Livingstone a hero across the globe. The doctor was in very bad shape, however, and after a fruitless exploration south of Lake Tanganyika he arrived at the village of Chief Chitambo at Illala in present-day Zambia.

It was here on May 1, 1873 – the exact date is disputed – that he was found dead, kneeling in an attitude of prayer. The great explorer’s journeys had come to an end at the age of 60. Chuma and Susi removed his heart and viscera and buried them nearby where the Livingstone Memorial now stands. The duo then carried Livingstone’s embalmed body for nine months almost 1,000 miles to Bagamoyo on the coast from where it was returned to Britain with Jacob Wainwright accompanying the coffin in a show of love and loyalty,

His funeral, held at Westminster Abbey on April 18, 1874, was one of the largest ever seen in Victorian times. Many memorials were erected to him, but the best is the David Livingstone Centre at Blantyre.