It’s February 16th, 1844, in Botswana, Africa.
A thirty-year-old Scottish missionary makes his way through the African brush. Dr. David Livingstone came here to Botswana with the intention of spreading Christianity through Africa. But so far, the work is proving difficult. The local villagers don’t seem interested in listening to what David has to say about the Bible.
On a hillside up ahead, some shepherds are tending their flock. David raises a hand in greeting, but the shepherds ignore him. The young missionary sighs sadly. He’s been in Botswana several months now, and still, the locals treat him with suspicion. If he can’t earn their trust, how can he expect to convert them to his church?
As he gets closer… David notices that the shepherds seem agitated. They’re looking anxiously toward the crest of the hill, and brandishing their spears. David follows their line of sight. And then he sees it… A lion, slinking from the tall grass, its unblinking eyes trained on the grazing flock…
David’s instincts tell him to run. But then, an idea strikes him. He might be able to make a good impression on the villagers, and maybe get them to listen to his lessons. So With trembling hands, he unslings his rifle from his shoulder and takes aim at the lion.
David squints one eye, draws a steadying breath, and then… squeezes the trigger.
The force of the blast knocks David to the ground. He’s never fired a gun before, and he wasn't expecting such a powerful recoil. Dazed, the missionary sits up and looks around.
David's shot has not only missed its target but attracted the lion's attention. Now it's turned away from the sheep and approaching David with its teeth bared. Before he can reload the rifle... the lion pounces, pinning him to the ground. David feels a surge of pain as the lion’s claws rip through the flesh below his shoulder. He shuts his eyes and braces for the inevitable.
But then... the lion slumps onto its side, dead from a bullet wound to the head.
David looks around to find one of the villagers gripping a smoking rifle. The villager helps David up, with a look of admiration on his face. Despite the pain in his shoulder, David smiles. And to his immense relief, the villager smiles back.
Over the course of his career, Dr. David Livingstone will become the most famous missionary and explorer of the Victorian Age. He will lead several expeditions into the heart of Africa, setting up mission stations, establishing trade links, and advocating for the abolition of the slave trade. But when he embarks on his most ambitious expedition yet – to find the elusive source of the River Nile – Dr. Livingstone will go missing. Most will assume he is dead. Until a young journalist embarks on a journey to find Dr. Livingstone, a mission that ends in success when the missing explorer is found on November 10th, 1871.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is November 10th, 1871: Dr. Livingstone Is Found Alive in Africa.
Act One: Christianity and Commerce
It’s January 1840, inside a dingy boarding house in London.
27-year-old Dr. David Livingstone pushes his way through a crowded dining hall. Like the other young men in this boardinghouse, David is training to become a missionary. He believes Christianity is the cornerstone of civilization, and that it’s his God-given duty to spread the gospel through the farthest-flung corners of the globe.
But it’s not just religious zeal that motivates David. He is also thrilled by the prospect of adventure. He’s heard other missionaries speak about their travels to the Americas and the Far East; about voyaging deep into the mountains of China, or the jungles of Brazil, and David’s eyes light up whenever he hears their enthralling tales.
Today, the trainees in the boardinghouse have come to listen to an older missionary deliver a sermon. Robert Moffatt has just returned from South Africa, where he has established a mission station in the remote village of Kuruman. David elbows his way to the front of the crowd and listens with rapt attention as Robert describes the rewarding nature of missionary work and the awe-inspiring beauty of the African landscape.
David leans in close when Robert starts speaking about the sprawling savannah to the north of the village, where no missionary has ever stepped foot. A shiver of excitement shoots down David’s spine when he pictures himself blazing a trail through this uncharted territory, bringing Christianity to the remotest parts of Africa.
And not long after he finishes his training, David enthusiastically signs up to the London Missionary Society’s next expedition to South Africa. In December 1840, he and two other missionaries board a passenger ship bound for Cape Town. It’s a long grueling voyage. But David makes good use of it, spending his time teaching himself Setswana - the native South African language.
Finally, in the summer of 1841, David arrives at his destination.
After a trek through the mountains, the missionaries reach the village of Kuruman, where the London Missionary Society’s outpost is located. David pauses to take in the sight. Trails of smoke drift from the chimneys of the mud-brick houses. Springboks and impalas drink from a watering hole, while multicolored birds of paradise watch from the branches of the surrounding baobab trees. It couldn’t be further from David’s drab upbringing in a working-class corner of Scotland.
Soon, David is throwing himself into missionary work. But as the weeks pass, he finds himself obsessing over the unexplored lands to the north, where no European has set foot. Eventually, David plucks up the courage to request permission to establish a mission station in this uncharted territory. After receiving the go-ahead from the senior missionaries, David leads a small expedition north. Along the way, he overcomes animal attacks and suspicious locals to establish a thriving mission in Botswana.
But David’s ambition is not satisfied. He has already helped Christianity establish roots in Africa. Now he wants to promote what he believes is the next logical stage of civilization: commerce. He wants to establish trading routes into the African interior, bringing the flow of goods to the remote reaches of the continent. And by offering merchants other commercial opportunities in Africa, David hopes to undercut the Atlantic slave trade: a practice he finds morally reprehensible.
In 1853, 12 years after setting foot in Africa, David and his small team of guides set off from Botswana up the Zambezi River. After an arduous six-month journey, they reach the Atlantic Ocean, thus opening up a trading route into the African interior. But this discovery only motivates David to explore further. He doubles back and follows the Zambezi River all the way to the Indian Ocean on the opposite coast.
One afternoon, David encounters a spectacular waterfall, a place where the river cascades into a gorge in thunderous explosions of smoke-like spray. He names the place Victoria Falls, in honor of Britain’s queen. The following year, David returns to England where fame awaits him.
By now, news of the missionary’s exploits has captured the imagination of the British public. As the first Briton to venture into the heart of Africa, David has become a national hero and a celebrity. He is elected to the prestigious Royal Society, and a written account of his expeditions quickly becomes a bestseller. He embarks on a nationwide speaking tour, using his newfound platform to promote commercial opportunities in Africa and to publicly criticize the slave trade.
In 1857, the British government commissions David to return to Africa to lead another expedition up the Zambezi, to establish trading bases along the river’s banks. With a budget of £5,000, a team of British experts, and a cutting-edge steamship, this is by far the most sophisticated voyage David has ever undertaken. But almost immediately, things start going wrong.
The steamship proves too large to navigate the Zambezi’s shallow waters, delaying the expedition while they send for a new vessel. And even when the new ship arrives, they constantly encounter waterfalls and rapids, forcing them to turn around and search for other routes. As provisions run low, arguments break out between the men, resulting in several individuals being sent home. In 1862, David’s wife Mary joins the expedition. But shortly after her arrival on the mosquito-plagued river, Mary dies from malaria.
One year later, the British government recalls the expedition, and David returns to England with his reputation in tatters, and his heart hardened by grief. Many expect the aging explorer to retire, but David has no intention of calling it quits…
Soon, he will announce his plan to return to Africa, embarking on his boldest expedition yet; a mission to discover something long thought beyond the reach of even the most intrepid adventurer: the elusive source of the river Nile. It’s a high-stakes risk. If David succeeds, his reputation will be restored. But if he fails, he could lose everything.
Act Two: The Source of the Nile
It’s February 1869, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo; three years after Dr. David Livingstone set off to find the source of the river Nile.
David opens his eyes to the sound of the jungle all around him. The 56-year-old explorer winces in pain as he heaves himself upright and peers around. He’s drifting down a river in a rickety old boat. A dense rainforest canopy overhangs the river, trailing vines in the muddy brown water. It takes David a moment to register the silence on board. And then he realizes: all of his men are gone.
By now, David is unrecognizable from the man who embarked on this expedition three years prior. His bloodshot eyes stare out from a tangled mane of gray hair. Illness has yellowed his skin, and his usual imposing stature has been reduced to a hunched stoop. The once great explorer has become a frail old man.
Before embarking on this expedition with a crew of local guides, David had pinpointed the source of the Nile to somewhere south of the mountains of Burundi. But after years of searching in vain, David was forced to reconsider his calculations. For the last few months, he’s been scouring the meandering waterways of the Congo River basin, theorizing that the Nile might bubble up from somewhere within this vast swampland. But again, the search is proving fruitless. And now his crew has abandoned him, very far from any civilization.
Wracked with feverish chills, David staggers over to check the stocks of food and medicine. Just as he feared, his supply chest is empty. Before running off, the crew must have ransacked his provisions. David doesn’t have the energy to feel angry. Instead, a sense of despair washes over him. He curls up on deck and closes his eyes, resigned to whatever fate God, this river, and this jungle, have in store for him…
But David’s disappearance has not gone unnoticed back in Europe. Rumors about his whereabouts swirl in the press, and soon, one intrepid journalist will make it his mission to track down the missing explorer and bring him home.
It's eight months later, on October 16th, 1869, in Madrid, Spain.
Journalist Henry Morton Stanley grips the brim of his hat as he bounds up the steps of Madrid central station and skids into the departures hall. He races towards the 10:15 train to Paris, hurling his suitcase through the door only seconds before the conductor blows his whistle and the train pulls away from the platform in a cloud of billowing steam.
Henry is a foreign correspondent for the New York Herald. His reporting has taken him all over the world - from Cairo to Bombay to Abyssinia. Most recently, Henry has been based in Madrid, covering the political turmoil here in Spain.
The fast-paced life of a foreign correspondent suits Henry. The thirty-year-old gets bored easily, and he doesn’t like staying in the same place too long. This morning, when he received a telegram from his editor, James Gordon Bennett, telling him to catch the next train to Paris for a mysterious assignment, Henry didn’t hesitate. He packed a suitcase and headed for the station.
When Henry arrives in Paris, he goes straight to the Grand Hotel and inquires with concierge where he can find Mr. James Gordon Bennett, editor-in-chief of the New York Herald. A few moments later, Henry knocks on the door of Mr. Bennett’s suite and a booming voice calls out: “Come in!”
Henry finds Mr. Bennett sitting up in bed, reading a newspaper. The editor-in-chief frowns and asks: “Who the devil are you?” Henry explains that he received a telegram requesting he come to Paris immediately. Mr. Bennett nods in faint recollection. Then he fixes Henry with a serious look and asks: “Stanley, where do you think Dr. David Livingstone is?”
The question surprises Henry. The famous explorer hasn’t been seen for three years. Henry assumes Dr. Livingstone is dead, but he doesn’t know for sure.
Mr. Bennett thinks differently. He tells Henry that he thinks Dr. Livingstone is alive, and he wants Henry to try and find him. The young journalist hesitates. It’s a colossal assignment – the biggest of his career so far. If he were to succeed, it would be the scoop of the decade. But there are considerable risks. Who knows what dangers lurk in the jungles of Africa? And even if Dr. Livingstone is alive, finding him would be next to impossible. But like Dr. Livingstone himself, Henry never turns down the chance for an adventure. So despite the risks, he accepts Mr. Bennett’s assignment.
Soon, Henry sails for Zanzibar, an island off the East African coast. There, he spends several months preparing for his expedition, studying maps, gathering supplies, and assembling a team of local guides and soldiers. Then in March 1871, Henry leads his fleet of boats into the mouth of a river on the mainland. They sail upstream until the waterway becomes impassable. Then they unload their pack mules and begin a grueling seven-hundred-mile trek through the jungle. Along the way, many of Henry’s men either desert or perish from disease.
And after eight months of fruitless searching, Henry will come to believe that the expedition is doomed. But soon, however, a group of passing tribesmen will speak of an elderly white man sheltering in a nearby town, giving Henry a glimmer of hope that Dr. Livingstone is alive.
Act Three: “Dr. Livingstone, I Presume?”
It’s November 10th, 1871.
Henry Morton Stanley leads his bedraggled expedition toward the village of Ujuji, in modern-day Tanzania. The men are exhausted after eight months of hard travel. But today, they have a spring in their step.
Just last week, some passing tribesmen brought news of an elderly white man living in a nearby village. Henry felt it must be Dr. Livingstone, so he urged his weary crew to summon their strength for one final push.
Henry and his men stumble through a thick forest. Eventually, they emerge on a hillside overlooking a majestic lake, with a collection of mud-brick dwellings nestled around its western shore.
As the expedition approaches, a group of villagers rush out to meet them, shaking their hands and welcoming the strangers warmly. One of the villagers addresses Henry in perfect English, saying: “Good morning, Sir!”
Henry is taken aback. He hasn’t heard English spoken in months. He asks the villager who he is, and the man explains that he is Dr. Livingstone’s servant. Henry’s heart pounds with excitement.
Henry follows the servant to the center of the village. And there, sitting outside one of the huts is a frail old man with a long, white beard. Seeing him, Henry feels like he might weep. He approaches the elderly fellow, takes off his hat, and says: “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” Dr. Livingstone looks up, smiles kindly, and nods.
Henry will provide Dr. Livingstone with food and medicine. And after the elderly adventurer recuperates, the two men will explore the surrounding region together. But when Henry tries to convince Dr. Livingstone to return home to Europe, the old man refuses. He has become used to the way of life here in the heart of Africa, and he doesn’t want to leave.
Two years later, Dr. Livingstone will die from malaria and be laid to rest in the village of Chipundu in modern-day Zambia. Today, the precise details of Dr. Livingstone’s encounter with Henry Morton Stanley are uncertain. Henry documented the moment in his memoirs. But it was prone to embellishments, historians cannot say with any degree of certainty that the meeting played out as Henry described. What iscertain, is that the effort to find the missing explorer was an epic feat of pluck and endurance, one that came to an end with a famous encounter on November 10th, 1871.
Next onHistory Daily.November 11th, 1880. After years on the run from the police, the famous Australian outlaw Ned Kelly is executed.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Mollie Baack.
Sound design by Derek Behrens.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by Joe Viner.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.