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The ‘discovery’ of Victoria Falls

The ‘discovery’ of Victoria Falls

The ‘discovery’ of Victoria Falls

On 17 November 1855, David Livingstone arrived at the Falls the locals called ‘Mosi O Tunya’ and was presented with the sight that has taken many-a-breath away. There has been much conjecture if he was, indeed, the first European to visit the Falls, but one thing is certain, he cannot have ‘discovered’ them since there is ample evidence of human habitation of the area, in form of stone tools dating back over a million years.

The upper reaches of the Zambezi were explored in the late 1840s by László Magyar, a Hungarian cartographer, but there is no record of him visiting the Falls. The distinction of  ‘putting the Falls on the map’ for the first time belongs to W D Cooley who placed them there thanks to information provided by Livingstone after their first trip to Linyanti in 1851 and printed in 1852, three years before Livingstone first saw them.

Other contenders for the title include Chapman, the trader who first introduced Livingstone to the Makololo people in 1848. Chapman had travelled to Linyanti several times to trade for ivory, but he was a busy man and had no time for sightseeing trips to distant waterfalls, a fact he bitterly regretted to the end of his days.

The only other creditable claimant was a colourful rogue named Serpa Pinto, a slave trader of Portuguese extraction who viewed the area of western Zambia as his personal fiefdom, so much so that when the border was agreed and this area fell under British domain, he decided to kill himself in protest.

Presumably under the influence of some fairly strong liquor, he strapped himself to a keg of gun powder and lit it, intending to blow himself up in spectacular fashion. Since black powder burns but does not explode, he ended up with third degree burns over most of his body and died two days later in hospital.

None of these claims that other Europeans might have seen the Falls before Livingstone are credible for one simple reason - anyone who viewed this waterfall for the first time would have had to tell the world of their beauty and magnificence, the only possible reaction to actually seeing them, and that’s exactly what David Livingstone did.

Read more articles from this issue:
Zambezi Traveller (Issue 11, Dec 2012)

Read more about the region in our destination guide:

Read more on David Livingstone from the Zambezi Traveller:
The Life of David Livingstone - Part VI: David Livingstone – the final journey (ZT14, Sept 2013)
The Life of David Livingstone - Part V: Dr Livingstone, I presume? (ZT13, July 2013)
The Life of David Livingstone - Part IV: The dream to open up Africa (ZT12, March 2013)
Slavery – the scourge of Africa (ZT12, March 2013)
The Life of David Livingstone - Part III: David Livingstone’s early missionary years and first expedition (ZT11, Dec 2012)
The ‘discovery’ of Victoria Falls (ZT11, Dec 2012)
The Life of David Livingstone - Part II: David Livingstone – the training (ZT10, Sept 2012)
The life and times of David Livingstone – the Sunday schoolboy (ZT10, Sept 2012)
The Life of David Livingstone - Part I: The ‘Scramble for Africa’ (ZT09, July 2012)
The story of quinine (ZT09, July 2012)