Presumed innocent

Michael Barrett on the contentious life and work of David Livingstone, "the first African freedom fighter".

A painting of Dr David Livingstone by Malcolm Stewart from 1876. Photograph: Getty Images.

David Livingstone: mission and empire
Andrew Ross
Hambledon and London, 304pp, £19.95

David Livingstone
Meriel Buxton
Palgrave, 232pp, £45

Some individuals capture the imagination to such an extent that they become the subject of serial biographies. It is always interesting to follow how judgements on a particular subject vacillate as social values change over time. Demonic acts can be forgiven; deeds interpreted as benevolent by one generation may be vilified by another. Impressions of the Victorian missionary explorer Dr David Livingstone have ebbed and flowed for more than a century.

Born into poverty in 1813 at Blantyre, near Glasgow, the young Livingstone worked 14 hours a day in a cotton mill and yet still devoted his evenings to study. Science, in particular, fired his imagination; he progressed to learn medicine and joined the London Missionary Society, in order to justify a scientific training as a means of carrying out God's work.

In 1841, Livingstone took up missionary life in southern Africa. He travelled northward from the Cape seeking people to convert. He was a poor preacher, and it remains debatable whether he converted a single African. He married Mary - daughter of Robert Moffat, the missionary who had originally persuaded Livingstone that Africa was where he was most needed - and settled for a while in modern-day Botswana.

But the sedentary life never appealed, and he found himself journeying through ever more remote and malarious domains. The death of a baby daughter prompted Livingstone to send his family back to Britain. After that, he set off on foot to the west coast, and then crossed Africa from west to east, miraculously surviving myriad near-fatal infections and discovering the Victoria Falls en route. His despatches were widely reported in Britain, where an expansionist public hailed him as an imperial hero. His book Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa was an immediate success, making Livingstone a comparatively wealthy and extremely famous man.

His second voyage to Africa used government money to navigate the Zambezi River, which he hoped would carry Europeans into a central African utopia. The river proved non-navigable and the expedition ended in failure. Many of his companions, including Mary, died of malaria, and Livingstone's credibility was damaged. However, his conviction grew that the introduction of legitimate trade through "Christianity, commerce and civilisation" would undermine the abhorrent slave trade.

Determined to restore his reputation and regain influence, he set out, in 1866, on a surreal quest to identify the holy grail of Victorian exploration - the source of the Nile. Tramping across Africa's central watershed for seven years stretched his health to its limits. His death was delayed when he met the British-born, naturalised American journalist Henry Morton Stanley on the shores of Lake Tanganyika. Stanley had been sent to Africa by the New York Herald with the specific aim of "finding Livingstone". Reports of Stanley's success became the journalistic scoop of the century.

Andrew Ross borrows from Oliver Ransford's earlier account of the life of Livingstone to describe how the missionary appeared to the Africans he met in those final months: "[They] became familiar with the haggard, bearded, benign, ageing man who was often hungry and sick, and yet for some incomprehensible reason wandered from one village to another, halting only to rest and ask innumerable questions or speak of a mysterious redeemer who was his master."

In 1873, Livingstone bled to death through his anus as the amoebic dysentery (and complicating piles) that had afflicted him for many years ran their course. His African companions carried his body back to the coast; from there, it was returned to Britain. He was buried in Westminster Abbey in 1874.

Livingstone's earliest biographers portrayed him as a kind of contemporary saint, a man of courage and vision. The British establishment, pursuing its own imperial agenda, shamelessly hid behind an image of Livingstone as an explorer who gave his own life in the hope of saving millions. Once the British empire had collapsed, and the quest for villains of the imperial shambles began, Livingstone's own "dark interior" became the popular subject of numerous revisionist biographies. Many held him culpable for colonial misadventure.

Now, in a new century, Meriel Buxton and Andrew Ross offer post-revisionist biographies of Livingstone. Neither author has much that is new to add - the primary sources were exhausted long ago. Buxton acknowledges Livingstone's faults, but sets them in the context of an imperfect man operating in times quite unlike today. Ross stresses that Livingstone was above all a missionary rooted deeply in the non-denominational, revivalist evangelical tradition. He refutes many of the allegations made by Livingstone's more trenchant critics - that he was, for instance, in Africa entirely for personal gain. His defence, however, is sometimes too robust. Livingstone was flawed. He was riddled with petty jealousies. His treatment of his wife, his family and many companions was intolerable (at least when judged by contemporary moral standards).

But against these flaws, we must set his great achievements. Livingstone travelled 30,000 miles, mainly on foot, through jungle, desert and swamp. He survived attacks by lions, spears and guns, and harboured a menagerie of tropical infections.

The very paragon of Victorian austerity, persevering against all odds with almost unthinkable self-sacrifice, he was driven by a near-messianic determination. He treated Africans with respect and learnt their languages. He imparted knowledge where he thought it would help, but never used violence to impose his will. Crucially, through his influence, the slave trade was abolished. Kenneth Kaunda, former president of Zambia, described Livingstone as the first African freedom fighter.

Having recently read much of what has been written by, and about, Livingstone, I would place him closer to Nelson Mandela than to Cecil Rhodes. And, with the post-colonial blame game now drawing to a close, Livingstone may at last be considered as neither saint nor sinner, but among the most remarkable and greatest of all men.

Michael Barrett is a lecturer in tropical medicine at Glasgow University. He is working on a study of Livingstone and tropical disease