Dr. Livingstone’s diary on 19th-century Africa, now uncensored

November 1, 2011

When the celebrated missionary, physician and explorer David Livingstone died in Africa in 1873, his body was shipped back to London along with some tattered pages from the London Standard, which he had cut and sewn together into a makeshift diary.

On those pages — over articles about corn prices, the archbishop of Canterbury, and the comings and goings of steamships — Livingstone’s neat script describes an 1871 massacre that dramatically shifted the track of his life and of the anti-slavery movement. And the explorer recounts his reaction in a depth of detail that was censored from published accounts.

At some point, the newspaper pages were misplaced. But in 2009, Adrian Wisnicki, a professor of British literature at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania, learned of their existence from a catalogue of Livingstone documents. He set out on a quest to find them — and then to decipher their almost illegible script, with the help of a technology team that has collaborated with such institutions as the Library of Congress to examine documents from Thomas Jefferson’s first draft of the Declaration of Independence to an original Beethoven score.

The result is the latest example of using science to fill in historical gaps. On Tuesday, 140 years after his fateful meeting with H.M. Stanley, Livingstone’s words are being released for the first time, prompting a reevaluation of a man seen in the Victorian era as a nearly flawless Christian hero. Livingstone, it turns out, was capable of succumbing to baser human emotions such as vengeance and self-doubt.

“This material shows much more clearly the internal conflicts and concerns and frustration and emotional reactions that Livingstone had,” says Dorothy Helly, an emerita historian at the City University of New York, who wrote a book on the historical censorship of Livingstone’s diaries. It “shows in great detail the way in with Livingstone was a real man, warts and all.”


Dr. David Livingstone, the 19th century missionary who was believed lost, is seen in an undated photograph. (Courtesy of the David Livingstone Centre, Blantyre, Scotland)
Stuck in an African village

The critical period was the summer of 1871. Livingstone had been stuck for months at a Central African village called Nyangwe, in what is now Congo. Foot ulcers and other health problems plagued him. Uncooperative locals and Arab slave and ivory traders had stymied his attempts to go farther west on his obsessive search for the source of the Nile, a key component in his plan to map the waterways of the region and then open it to commerce and Christianity.

To make matters worse, he was out of paper and almost out of ink. Livingstone regularly kept pocket diaries and then copied them later into a larger master journal. In this case, he improvised. He made ink from seeds that the locals used for clothing dye, and he used it to write on the London Standard. A map, a book of sermons, and other odds and ends wouldn’t escape his need for diary paper, either.

Despite his frustrations, Livingstone loved to attend village market days. But on July 15, 1871, he watched in horror as Arab traders and their servants opened fire on the locals, mostly women, in the market. They burned nearby villages and attacked those who tried to escape into the river.

Livingstone scribbled notes on the newspaper as he watched. Presumably recognizing the event’s importance, midway through he switched from the homemade ink to his last few drops of the real stuff. In all, Livingstone judged, about 400 people had been slaughtered.

Though he still longed to resume exploring, seeing the tragedy broke Livingstone’s spirits and inspired a quick departure for the trading center of Ujiji in Tanzania to regroup and resupply. It was there that he met Stanley — a journalist sent by the New York Herald to find him — who allegedly greeted him with: “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”

“If Livingstone had gone the other way, there’s a chance that Stanley never would have found him,” Wisnicki said. “Stanley would not have become Stanley, and Livingstone would not have become Livingstone.”

Based on Livingstone’s verbal account and his master journal, Stanley wrote articles about the massacre that helped fuel a successful movement to halt the East African slave trade.

Livingstone stored most of his field diaries in Ujiji. But, possibly because he viewed the London Standard field diary as especially important, he kept it with him as he resumed his explorations.

‘Some kind of mystery’

Wisnicki was immediately intrigued when he learned of the existence of what is now called the 1871 Field Diary. “I had this sense that there was some kind of mystery buried in this diary,” he said.

Some of the details of how the pages changed hands over the years between Livingstone’s family, his publisher and institutions are fuzzy.

On a hunch, Wisnicki went to the David Livingstone Center in Blantyre, Scotland, where he and a volunteer archivist eventually found the newspaper diary pages tucked away, unmarked, in a box. Further digging over the coming months uncovered other portions.

But barely a word was readable on the tattered pages. So Wisnicki went to an online group of book preservationists, who told him that his best and perhaps only hope was to contact a team that had rescued the words from the Archimedes Palimpsest, a 10th-century copy of the great Greek thinker’s writings.

Michael Toth, then policy director for the National Reconnaissance Office in Washington, was the project manager for that effort. In 1999, after reading in The Washington Post that an anonymous benefactor had purchased the Archimedes Palimpsest and was loaning it to the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore for study, Toth offered to help arrange for the high-tech imaging work needed to uncover the Archimedes text, a task not unlike working with surveillance imagery.

The effort marked the creation of the technology team. And after speaking with Wisnicki, Toth and his colleagues quickly decided to take on the task of deciphering Livingstone’s 1871 writings.

“It seemed like it could be a challenge,” he said, “and that’s why we’re in this.”

The team’s work involves illuminating pages with lights of different colors, each of which interacts with and reflects off of various inks in unique ways. Some colors, or wavelengths, make an ink more visible than normal, others less. If all goes well, computer processing will enhance the target words, even those invisible to the naked eye, to make them readable. (This is the basic scheme fictitiously used in the “National Treasure” movies. )

The team also collaborated with the Library of Congress, whose experts analyzed the homemade pigment and confirmed Livingstone’s ink switch.

‘Exactly in the moment’

Wisnicki’s initial goal was to scour the field diary for new details about 19th-century Central Africa, but Livingstone himself quickly grabbed the scholar’s attention.

“One of the really interesting things,” he said, “is that it gives the impression of being exactly in the moment.”

The original, Wisnicki discovered, contained a raw immediacy missing from the published work. When Livingstone transcribed the field diaries into his main journal, he expanded on initial thoughts with the benefit of hindsight, and he tried to remove potentially offensive pieces. Livingstone’s friend Horace Waller tamed the material further in “The Last Journals of David Livingstone,” produced after the explorer’s death.

Time and again Wisnicki found critical pieces in the first version that portrayed events or Livingstone very differently from those later iterations.

Just before the pivotal massacre, for instance, Livingstone was having trouble convincing anyone to sell him a boat so he could continue his explorations. A local, in Livingstone’s own words, “bamboozled” him into paying 1,000 cowrie shells, some goats and beads for a canoe that didn’t even belong to the supposed seller. That anecdote was included in the Waller version.

Then Livingstone sent some of the Africans in his party after the crooked salesman to “give him a flogging.” That part of the story was censored.

When the massacre broke out, Livingstone reflected on the newspaper pages his despair about the cruelty that humankind is capable of: “It is awful, terrible, a dreadful world this.”

On those pages, he also reveals his conflicted feelings about whether or how to get involved. He did at one point send help to some Africans from another region, whose trade deals with the locals were the initial source of the Arabs’ anger. But in the sanitized version, Livingstone claimed to have sent help to the embattled locals themselves.

And there is further detail on the newspaper pages: When the massacre was over, Livingstone said he considered “catching the bloodhounds” to “put their heads on poles.” And he feared that some of the Africans in his party — the same ones whose violent tendencies he exploited in retaliation for the crooked canoe deal — had taken part in the day’s brutalities. But all such thoughts he scrubbed away.

“He’s changing little bits and pieces here and there,” Wisnicki said. “One given fact is not that huge, but when you put it all together, it turns into something very different.”

Wisnicki also found examples in which the contempt that Livingstone felt for some of the Africans was cut from the later version, presumably to avoid detracting from his stature as an abolition icon. “His wrath could be quite colorful,” Helly said.

A text all can explore

On Tuesday, the team will hold a news conference at the National Library of Scotland to announce the release of the full diary text, which will be electronically hosted by the library at University of California at Los Angeles.

Wisnicki is still working his way through the text, and now other scholars will be able to do the same. Roy Bridges, a historian emeritus at the University of Aberdeen and a Livingstone expert, sees potential for better understanding subjects from 19th-century exploration and missionary work to African history. “Livingstone remains a very important figure because he inspired so many other people,” Bridges said.

Though the departures from Livingstone’s polished 19th-century persona might seem detractions, Neil Livingstone Wilson, the explorer’s great-great-grandson, isn’t concerned. “Throughout history, events and individuals get reexamined, and other details come to light,” he said. “I think that probably rounds them out.”

Wisnicki is of a similar mind. Glimpses of Livingstone’s humanity make what he was able to achieve all the more amazing, he thinks. “In the Victorian era they wanted to see a Victorian hero, a saintly abolitionist crusader,” Wisnicki said. “This makes him much more human in some ways — and so, much more likable.”

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