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The dream to open up Africa

The dream to open up Africa

Lady Nyasa, Livingstone’s Steamer
Lady Nyasa, Livingstone’s Steamer
Mary Evans

Part IV of a six part series marking the bicentennial of the birth of David Livingstone.

The British Government agreed to back Livingstone's dream to return to Africa and use the Zambezi River to open up the interior to trade. He arrived at the mouth of the Zambezi in 1858, at the head of the most ambitious undertaking in the annals of African exploration - The Zambezi Expedition.

This endeavour would run for five years but in spite of having spent over 100,000 pounds of the British tax payers’ money, the expedition never got further than 300 miles up the river. Its progress was blocked by Cahora Bassa gorge, a section Livingstone had bypassed on his earlier journey. Had he known what lay in store for them there, he would never have undertaken this adventure.

Entering the gorge for the first time on foot, the men found an awe-inspiring place, hemmed in by towering rock walls that constricted the river into a seemingly endless series of wild cataracts, some of them over 30 feet high. The men were equipped with a paddle steamer that on a good day, with a following wind, had a top speed of 8 knots - there was simply no way this vessel was going to go up that river!

Livingstone's companions figured this out in about five minutes, which begs the question, why did it take him five years to arrive at the same conclusion? The answer is that he was so determined to succeed that he had decided if the Zambezi would not suit his purpose, they would simply have to search for a body of water that did!

So the expedition explored the Shiri, Rovuma and Rufiji Rivers and eventually ended up on Lake Nyasa itself, desperately searching for a navigable waterway that would serve as a highway to the interior - but there was none. Eventually the British Government also figured this out and recalled the expedition, but not before the press back home had turned on Livingstone, heaping blame on him for the failure and accusing him of intentionally misleading the public.

By the time he arrived back in England in 1864, his reputation was severely compromised and his future looked bleak, but the truth is the expedition had not been a complete failure. The expedition had failed in its primary objective, but it had done much useful geographical work and also discovered that the slave trade in East Africa was not dying out as it was in most parts of the continent, but was in fact virulent and growing like a cancer.  Livingstone was mortified by what he uncovered and returned to Britain on a one-man crusade to put an end to the genocide that was unfolding in Africa. The stage was set for a titanic clash between the missionary explorer and the Arab slavers for the soul of Africa!

Read more articles from this issue:
Zambezi Traveller (Issue 12, March 2013)

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)