Chapter 3: The Martyrdom of David Livingstone, by Philip George

Martyrs in the History of Christianity
by Franklyn J. Balasundaram (ed.)

Chapter 3: The Martyrdom of David Livingstone, by Philip George

The whole world is indebted, grateful and obliged to missionaries, who having left their families, prestigious positions, wealth and status, went overseas in spite of the hostile environment that prevailed there, determined to labor for the sake of the Gospel and for the upliftment of human condition. It is in this remarkable heritage comes David Livingstone who was not only a great missionary of Africa but also an outstanding explorer, geographer, doctor, anthropologist and scientist. "He was a man of an extraordinarily firm, already wholesome temperament, a marvel of saintliness, but equally a marvel of efficiency and common sense," (D.C. Somerwell, Livingstone [London: 1936], p. 10.) He, through his tireless and utterly dedicated labor opened up the interior of the then concealed African continent to the world, paving way for the progress of the gospel and commercial track. His remarkable contribution was his endeavor to abolish slave trade, which had kept the African people under bondage. His entire mission was centered on the wholistic well being of the people - physical, social and spiritual and the humanization of people who were not considered human beings. The contribution that Livingstone has made not only to Christianity but to the whole world is immense and his life speaks more than his words.

Early Life

Livingstone had a very humble origin of being born to poor but religious parents in Blantyre, Scotland, on March 19, 1813. At a time when he had to go to school and play with his friends, his family’s financial condition forced him to work as a ‘piecer boy’ in a cotton factory, where he worked from six in the morning to eight in the night. He made the best use of time whole working in the factory, by learning Latin. After coming back from the factory he used to attend night school from eight to twelve where he learnt Greek, Botany and Geology.

His parents played a vital role in his childhood by nurturing him in Christian faith. Livingstone himself recapitulated, the factor that motivated him to lead a life of commitment: ‘In the glow of love which Christianity inspires, I was resolved to devote my life to the alleviation of human misery’. (David Livingstone, Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa, [London: 1987], p. 2.)

At the age of 19, having been challenged by a missionary, Robert Moffat, he resolved to become a medical missionary in China. With this life objective in mind and preparing himself for what he was to be, he studied medicine at Glasgow University during winter with the money he earned by working during summer. He also studied theology, classics and science with hardly any money for his own subsistence. Looking back at his own early life, Livingstone remarks, "Looking back now on that life of toil I cannot but feel thankful that it formed such a material part of my early education and were it possible. I should like to begin life over again in the same lowly style and to pass through the same hard training." (Ibid., p. 6.)

Missionary Life

With the zeal of becoming a missionary burning within him, he joined the London Missionary Society in 1838. He also took his degree in medicine from the Faculty of Physicians and Surgeons and was made Licentiate of the Faculty. To him, his profession as a doctor was one which was "‘permanently’ devoted to practical benevolence." (Ibid., p. 7)

His desire to go to China went unfulfilled because of the opium war that was raging but instead sailed to Africa. He set out to the African coast on December 8, 1840 and arrived at Kuruman, the station of Moffat and Hamilton on July 31, 1841. He traveled extensively in the Bechuana country and visited the Bakawains. In 1843, he went in further north to the interior and established a mission station at Mabatsa, among the Bakhatala tribe. It was here that he had an encounter with a lion, in which he miraculously escaped but had his left arm permanently damaged.

In May 1844, Livingstone married Mary, daughter of Robert Moffat. Mary had been brought up in the mission field at Kuruman and she did realize beforehand the risk of marrying a missionary and the hardships she had to encounter in the mission field. Yet she was whole-heartedly willing to marry Livingstone and she proved herself to be a worthy companion, a fine wife and a gentle mother in the years to come.

At the close of 1845 he moved back again to Bakwains where he witnessed the conversion of Sechele, chief of the Bakwains. But severe drought forced him to move to Kolenberg, within two years.

At Kolenberg he met the much feared Boers who were slave trading the natives. They used to capture men and women in large numbers and sell them mostly to be domestic slaves. This inhuman practice pained Livingstone and he determined to put an end to this barbarous degrading custom. He held a number of talks with the Boers persuading them to stop slave trading. The Boers retaliated by stopping all trade by expelling missionaries from that region. After much persuasion a treaty was made with the Boers to permit English treaty also. Livingstone’s primary concern was to open up this great land in promotion of commercial trade and missionary endeavors, thereby putting an end both to the cultural isolation and alienation and making civilization and the gospel accessible to the people of Africa. A major step towards this end was abolishing slave trade which presumed the natives of Africa to be lower than beasts.

"Livingstone intended to be no ordinary missionary, a pioneer a filler in of the empty and mythical map of interior Africa." (Ibid., p. 6.) One of the major contributions of Livingstone made as an explorer and navigator was the discovery of Lake Ngami.

Setting out on June 1894 along with Oswell and Murray they crossed over the once-dreaded Kahori desert in their attempt to discover Lake Ngami. On Aug. 1, 1849 they spotted Ngami’s marvelous spread of water but could not proceed further to meet the chief Sebituane because some of the local chiefs declined to offer assistance so they had to return to Kolenberg. However, in 1850 he made a second attempt along with his family to meet Sebituane and also establish a mission station further north, but this too failed because of the server illness of children.

In June, Livingstone along with Oswell discovered river Zambesi in the heart of the African continent, a river thus far unknown to the outside world. Livingstone did not want to expose his already tired family to the hostility of the Boers at Kolenberg and hence returned to Cape Town. When they came back to Cape in June, 1852, he was having ‘a black coat eleven years out of fashion and without a penny and salary to draw, half naked children’. (David Livingstone, op.cit., p. 76.) He also heard that his mission station at Kolenberg was utterly devastated by the Boers. But none of these could deter him in his mission. He was resolute to face these challenges all alone.

Having sent his family back to England, he embarked on his fourth great journey of exploration through Linyanti and Zambesi to Loanda. At Linyanti, he met Sekeletu, the son and successor of Sebituane. However he had to endure tremendous hardships. During this hazardous expedition he traced Lake Dilola but ‘suffered extreme hunger and thirst, fever, dysentery, attacks of wild beasts, robbers and hostile tribes.’ (Henry, Orbis, Dwight, [eds.], The encyclopedia Missions, New York and London, 1904, p. 339.). He arrived at St. Paul de Loanda, the capital of Angola on the west coast of Africa on May 31, 1854. From Loanda, he traversed right across the continent to the eastern coasts, making yet another magnificent discovery on the way -- the Victoria Falls. He finally reached Quillmone on May 20, 1856. It was during this perilous journey that he was conferred upon the degree of L.L.D. by the University of Glorious and was awarded the Queen’s Gold medal, the highest honor of the Royal Geographical society.

In December 1856, he went to England for the first time after a period of sixteen long years in Africa. Though he had gone through mental agony, depression, sickness and poverty during this long period, he never once thought of going back to England. Even this visit was a short one and he was determined to come back as early as possible. When he went to England, he was received with great honor by the London Missionary Society, Royal Geographical Society, universities of Oxford and Cambridge, and by all classes of society. (Ibid., p. 400) He addressed various distinguished audiences at prestigious universities during his stay in England. Moreover, it was during this time that he published his remarkable masterpiece, the first of its kind to portray his adventurous exploration in Africa and the richness of the continent. The world knew hardly anything about Africa prior to Livingstone’s book Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa where he exposed the slave trade and impairments to missionary activity.

Before returning to Africa in 1858, with great pain he resigned from the London Missionary Society. It was because the L.M.S. and his narrow minded critics had felt that Livingstone was doing more as a geographic than as a pioneer missionary. Perhaps in their opinion, Livingstone’s mission in Africa was only to be a missionary, converting the ‘heathens’ and not to travel around exploring the country. But the British government appointed Livingstone as the British consul for East Africa, ‘for the promotion of commerce and civilization with a view to the extinction of the slave trade’. (George Shepperson, David Livingstone and Ravumem, Edinburgh, 1965, p. 10.) He, along with his team, explored Lake Nyopsa and was personally pained to see the extent of slave trafficking widespread in the regions around the lake. "This by all counts was Livingstone’s most dismal and frustrating period. He failed in his main objects, and he also failed personally as the leader of expedition of white men" (187 Cecil Northecott, Livingstone in Africa. London, 1857, p.20.) It was during this time that a tragic incident occurred in his life. His wife, who put up with him all adverse situations, toiling with him tirelessly, died on April 27, 1862 at Shapunga in the Zambia region. Though he was shattered because of the terrible loss, even this could not restrain him in his mission.

Even after returning to Africa he was getting a number of letters and criticism because many felt that Livingstone’s book contained more information on geography, flora and fauna rather than his works, as a missionary. But Livingstone regarded himself as but a pioneer in missionary enterprise. During the sixteen years he had done much to bring the knowledge of Christ to the tribes that had never heard of him -- "probably no missionary in Africa had ever preached to so many blacks".

His team members unable to withstand the severe physical conditions were forced to return home but Livingstone was determined to carry on his mission alone. (William Garden Blaikie, The Personal Life of David Livingstone, New York, 1980, p.231.) In 1864, he proceeded to Zanzibar. But his financial...condition forced him to sell the ship in which he sailed and buy a smaller craft. With this he traveled extensively in water-ways exploring possibilities and opening up motorways, for exploration. Sir Roderic Murchison urged Livingstone to become a full-time explorer abandoning his vocation as a missionary. But Livingstone’s remarkable reply was "I would not consent to go simply as a geographer, but as a missionary, and to do geography by the way". (William Garden Blaikie, The Personal Life of David Livingstone, New York, 1980, p.231.) In spite of being honored for his magnificent and unequalled achievements in the field of explorations, Livingstone did not forget his call and commitment to be a missionary. Though he traveled to unexplored region, he never lacked the zeal of preaching the good news to the people of those distant regions. Had he opted to be a professional geographer, he could have obtained financial aid from his government, comfort and sophistication. But he made a professional option to suffer and to endure affliction in this land which he published in his book The Sambeis and its Tributaries: A Real Eye Opener for the Western World.

After returning to England, he resolved to trace the source of the Nile. Though this was to be a tedious risky journey, Livingstone undertook it as a challenge. But his spirit was quenched often by the treacherousness of his own assistants and the continuous threats from the slave hunters. The slave hunters viewed Livingstone as a threat to their profession so they were posing constant intimidations and were continuing their aggressive atrocities on the natives in a massive scale. Livingstone was also deceived by his own attendants. Once when he was in Tanganika, two of his assistants ran away with his medicine chest, which served ‘the primary purpose of treating fever and dysentery’. Now without the medicine, it was impossible to treat himself or others. Another time, the person who was in-charge of Livingstone’s store used up everything when Livingstone was not there. In spite of all these disappointments he pressed on toward his goal, but his mobility was curtailed because of severe illness. The person who had once shown tremendous potential to walk any distance had to be carried for the first time in thirty years. Such was his physical condition because he could not treat his fever, dysentery and ulcer in the feet. Undeterred, he moved forward and finally located what he believed to be was the cause of source of the river Nile.

The news of his ailment reached the outside world but his whereabouts were unknown. In order to find Livingstone and urge him to return to his home country the traveling correspondent of the New York Herald M. Stanley was sent to Africa. After initial failure, and disappointments, he finally managed to reach the place where Livingstone was. He, along with Livingstone, made some further explorations and discoveries but could not succeed in persuading Livingstone to return to England. Livingstone’s firm conviction was:

I am a missionary, heart and soul. God had a only son and He was a missionary and physician. A poor, poor imitation I am or which to be. In this service I hope to live, in it I wish to die. (George Seaver, David Livingstone: His Life and Letters, London, 1957, p. 631.)

So Stanley bade a sad and painful farewell to Livingstone on March 15, 1892 and returned to New York. But he carried with him a wealth of information about countries and people hitherto unexplored and unknown. (Ibid., p. 632.)

After Stanley had left, Livingstone continued his explorations with revitalized strength and increased vigor and on August 25, 1872, he proceeded to explore the Chambeze region. He moved on with unwavering zeal and no physical hardship or illness could hinder his determination. But soon he came to a point where he could not proceed any further. "Dysentery in aggravated form renewed it’s exhausting attacks and his constitution could no longer withstand it. He had to be carried in a litter by turns suffering excruciating pain and for hours insensible or fainting from loss of blood. (192 Henry Orbis Dwight, op.cit,. p. 193 )

As death spares no human, good or bad, the life of this great noble character had to come to an end. While he was in Ilala, in the early hours of May 1, 1874, his attendants Susi Chuna found him dead by his bed in the kneeling position. The world had lost an outstanding missionary, a determined and dedicated explorer and a fine, noble man. He had lived a life of self-sacrifice in the continent which was so dear to him and now he had laid his life for the people whom he loved so much. His heart was buried in the land where his heart was, before embalming his body and taking it to England. The mortal remains of Livingstone, accompanied by his attendant, reached England on April 15, 1874 and was laid to rest in the Westminster abbey.

Livingstone made remarkable contribution to both missionary activity and to the field of astronomy and geography. His objective was the upliftment of the people of Africa - spiritually and socially. He writes "As far as I am myself concerned, the opening of the new central country is a matter for congratulations, only in so far as it opens, up to prospect for the elevation of the inhabitants". (David Livingstone, op.cit., p. 673.) He through his astronomical observation, made the task of other explorers and missionaries much easier as the astronomers Royal once remarked:

What that man had done is unprecedented ... You could not go to any point across the entire continent along with Livingstone’s track and feel certain of your position ... His are the finest specimens of sound geographical observation that I have ever met with. (Somerwell, op.cit., p. 27)

Blaikie, in his preface to the first edition of his splendid Bibliography of Livingstone, observes:

As a man, a Christian, a missionary, a philanthropist, and a scientist, Livingstone ranks with the greatest of our race, and shows the minimum of infirmity in connection with the maximum of goodness. Nothing can be more telling than his life as an evidence of the truth and power of Christianity. (William Gorden Blaikie, op.cit., p. 111.)

Livingstone exercised such a great influence on people around him that they marveled at his extraordinary life and character. What more can a man ask for than the testimony given by his companion and friend as well:

He was pre-eminently a Man, patient, attending under hardships, content to win his way by inches, but never swerving from it; gentle, kindly, brotherly, to the children of the land; absolutely unruffled amidst danger and difficulty and well satisfied to see but the one step in advance. (T. Banks Maclachian, David Livingstone, Edinburgh and London, year of publication not given, p. 187.)


The Christian world will remember David Livingstone forever as a pioneer missionary, who risked his life and family to go and serve the dark continent of Africa to places where none had dared to set their feet and as one who opened up the continent of Africa. For, missionary enterprise and missionary activity in Africa would not have been possible if this man had not taken the risk, to enter central Africa. Before his first journey to England, he writes," I view the end of the geographical feat as the beginning of missionary enterprise". (David Livingstone, op. cit., p.673.) Livingstone showed the way for many more humanists and missionaries to step into Africa and serve the people of Africa. The entire world will remember him for much more than just his missionary work. He labored for the advancement of trade and commerce into the inland of Africa, elevation and humanization of the natives and the abolition of slave trafficking. He paved the way for the permanent abolition of slave trade in Africa in the years ahead. He traveled extensively and filled up the blank spaces in the globe. The fruits of Livingstone’s hard labor is seen now when so many of the people in Africa are Christians through the toil of subsequent missions to this great land.

In today’s context, there are so many oppressive and suppressive elements in our society. The Apartheid system in Africa; the African liberation leader Nelson Mandela is trying to liberate the black people who are greatly repressed by the white people.

Today the so called Christian countries like America are oppressing other poor countries. The recent Gulf war with Iraq is a clear indication of claiming American supremacy over against weaker countries.

Though slavery is abolished by law, in India many kinds of slavery are continuing in different parts.

Women are greatly discriminated against in our society The Church has the duty to create awareness among women to come out from their oppression.

In the Church as well as in society, men are decision-makers. Women are aloof in society. The Church of South India has given ordination to some women. But these women are also discriminated against. In Bangalore city itself, in one church, a woman pastor is working. But very less number of men are going for Church service. So, the men are not concerned about women.

The patriarchal society oppresses women. High caste people oppress lower caste people. For example, in Andhra Pradesh the high caste people killed the Dalits.

Sankar Guha Nyagi died because he stood for the laborers and workers. So we have to construct a new ethics for the Church. But we have to work for these people who are living in utter poverty and are oppressed by other people. Jesus Christ, David Livingstone and Nyagi all worked for others. Bonhoeffer said when Christ calls a person because he has to die for others. We have to rededicate ourselves for the cause of oppressed people and participate in their struggles so that the marginalized feel that the Church is in solidarity with them. Only by doing so the Church may become relevant to them.



Blaikie, William Gorden, The Personal Life of David Livingstone, New York: Fleming H. Revell Company. 1880.

Campbell, R. J., Livingstone, London: Ernest Benn Limited, 1929.

Dwight, Henry, A. Allen, Encyclopedia of Missions, 2nd ed., Tapper and Edwin Munsell New York and London: Frank and Bliss (eds.) Wagolls Company. 1904.

Livingstone, David, Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa,London: John Murray. 1987.

Maclachian, T. Banks, David Livingstone, Edinburgh Oliphant Anderson and Ferrier, Year of Publication not mentioned.

Northecott, Cecil, Livingstone in Africa, London: Lutterworth Press, 1857.

Seaver; George, David Livingstone: His Life and Letters, London:Lutterworth Press, 1957.

Shepperson, George (ed.) David Livingstone and Rovuma, Edinburgh:University Press, 1965.

Somerwell, D. C., Livingstone, London: Duckworth. 1936.