He needs no epitaph to guard a name,
Which men shall praise while worthy work is done.
He lived and died for good – be that his fame;
Let marble crumble: this is LIVINGSTONE.
There never was his like in the whole history of Africa. This was the greatest African explorer of all time, perhaps the greatest explorer the world has known, and a Christian man who sought to preach to African tribes as he travelled. How true the words of the verse quoted above: although his heart was buried under a tree in the African interior and although his body was buried in a tomb in the great Westminster Abbey in London, in truth this man needs no epitaph, no marble commemoration. Long after all marble edifices have disappeared, the life of this man will always be his greatest monument. “He, being dead, yet speaketh” (Heb. 11:4).
As an African by birth, whose ancestors came from both England and Scotland and settled in South Africa and Rhodesia, I grew up hearing the story of David Livingstone, and it thrilled my young heart just as it did the hearts of countless youngsters before me. His life story is one of high adventure and derring-do, and any boy with a sense of adventure in his soul finds it stirs his blood and makes him dream of jungles and swamps and wildlife and heat and rain and travel. But Livingstone’s life story is much more than the adventure and the escapades, the close calls and the brave deeds. It is a story of God’s mighty work in and through the life and labours of the great missionary-explorer who opened up the Dark Continent to the missionaries who followed him, helped to abolish the terrible African slave trade, and pioneered the coming of Europeans to the African interior, bringing with them all the great benefits of European civilisation and thrusting Africa into the modern world.
Out of necessity, so much has had to be left out of this very brief examination of David Livingstone’s life and labours. This is merely a short tribute, paid by an English South African minister, to a man who loved Africa and its people, and wanted nothing but the best for them. His life has been covered in many biographies, and it is my purpose to give just a brief outline of the man, his remarkable achievements, and the legacy he left.
Birth and Childhood
David Livingstone was born in Blantyre, Scotland, on the 19th March 1813. His parents’ home was a humble cottage, and poverty was such that at the tender age of ten, David went to work at the local cotton mill. There he laboured six days a week, fourteen hours a day – from six in the morning till eight at night! But he was no ordinary boy. He wanted an education! He loved reading, read all he could borrow, and used his first salary to purchase a Latin grammar, which he set up on his spinning jenny at the mill and glanced at it whenever he could. In this way he painstakingly educated himself as he worked, and over time he taught himself Latin, Greek, medicine and Christian doctrine. Not content with this, after those long hours in the mill he then went to night school, and when he got home he continued studying by candlelight well into the night!
Young David was fascinated by the natural world around him, and would roam the countryside around Blantyre, his keen eye observing the river, the flowers, and the animals. Little did he know it at the time, but the Lord was preparing him for his life’s work.
Of his conversion as a youngster this is what he wrote: “Great pains had been taken by my parents to instil the doctrines of Christianity into my mind, and I had no difficulty in understanding the theory of our free salvation by the atonement of our Saviour, but it was only about this time that I really began to feel the necessity and value of a personal application of the provisions of that atonement to my own case. The change was like what may be supposed would take place were it possible to cure a case of ‘colour blindness.’ The perfect freeness with which the pardon of all our guilt is offered in God’s book drew forth feelings of affectionate love to Him who bought us with His blood, and a sense of deep obligation to Him for His mercy has influenced, in some small measure, my conduct ever since.”