How far was Livingstone’s reputation in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries linked to the advance of the British Empire?

Through his itinerant lifestyle, David Livingstone had established a legacy which was near mythical to observers and their respective levels of reverence of the Scotsman. He has been hailed as an iron-willed missionary, a campaigner for African civil rights, a rags-to-riches hero, and most importantly, an advocate for capital and territorial expansion of the British Empire. This is most important because Livingstone’s common representation may give a hagiographic interpretation to fulfil the empire’s self-interests at the time, rather than give a pathographic analysis of the man himself. Pursuing this interpretation allows one to see how far Livingstone’s actual reputation, in either interpretations, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was linked to the British Empire’s advancement. The position of the empire at the time of Livingstone’s activity will also be analysed to explore Livingstone’s alignment to it more easily.

Between the start of Livingstone’s missionary work in the 1840s and his death in 1873, “the empire on which the sun never sets” was undergoing an era of change where its methodology was evolving to adapt to the new circumstances appearing on the world stage.[1] Both Opium Wars against China had been waged, the first of which had prevented Livingstone’s originally intended mission in China to occur.[2] Another consequence was the Indian Mutiny of 1857, which Ferguson describes as the “evangelical movement’s annus horribilis”.[3] Britain was also facing the quagmire its balance of trade encountered in the form of a deficit with its colonies, exacerbated by the empire’s growing protectionism which weakened its market influence.[4] Sources of commodities outside the empire were also becoming increasingly unreliable. The Confederate States of America implemented trade embargos on cotton against Britain due to the latter’s reluctance to support the Confederate cause in the American Civil War. This was detrimental to Britain’s trade ports and industries, with cotton prices rising from 6 ¼d per pound to 27 ¼d and half of the cotton workforce in Lancashire becoming unemployed within two years.[5]

With this plethora of inconveniences, Britain had to look to other avenues of wealth and power where its empire could sustain from but without repeating its previous mistakes. This therefore required a change in approach, from gunboat diplomacy to a more subtle and peaceful rhetoric. The rhetoric of the gospel, with exploration as its companion, could not be any more appropriate, especially when conducted by an individual such as Livingstone.

While he was arguably unsuccessful as a preacher with only converting the chief of the Bakwena to Christianity for a few months, Livingstone was still nevertheless useful to the British with the position he situated.[6] As a missionary, he could explore the untouched depths of Africa without appearing as a threat to those he encountered who were unknown before. This was especially true when his new acquaintances were willing to cooperate in exchange for his medical knowledge, particularly for his ‘gun medicine’.[7] This, along with his “dogged refusal to give up” and “acceptance of agonizing pain” allowed him to travel the lands unexplored by Britons with ease.[8] While some of the lands he discovered had already been claimed by the Portuguese or Germans, the lands he found unclaimed would later be painted red on the map. By 1913, large portions of southern Africa including Bechuanaland, North and South Rhodesia, Nyasaland and more would be claimed by the British Crown.[9]

The acquisitions of these spoils could have been even greater had British officials heeded Livingstone’s recommendations for establishing settlements on the west coast of Africa for British trade and a navy for security, albeit with moral connotations for limiting slavery in the area.[10] The reasons as to why the officials at Whitehall lacked the same zeal as Livingstone for this form of expansion in 1865 was that their ‘informal empire’ as part of the ‘New Imperialism’ was inapplicable there. This was unlike the situation in Hong Kong and Rhodesia where British trade prospered through private firms such as Jardine Matheson and De Beers respectively.[11][12][13]This conflict of interest between Livingstone and Whitehall, especially with the latter condoning the brutal methods of these private firms, brings scepticism of how far Livingstone’s reputation had been linked to the British imperial advancement.

Livingstone’s mindset and aims differed with Whitehall’s especially when he undertook the Zambesi Expedition of 1858-1863.[14] The empire was only willing to pursue expeditions which would prove financially profitable to them. When Livingstone gave his lecture at Cambridge University, the government had bestowed him the title of consul and a grant of £5000 to charter the Zambesi for commercial use. This act of generosity had only occurred when Livingstone hailed “two pioneers of civilisation – Christianity and commerce” in his lecture, especially the latter.[15] For government, this was all in their raison d’état for commercial expansion which would become omnipresent in British foreign policy for the ‘Scramble for Africa’ in the years to come. To them, Christianity would serve as the fuel for this appetite of commerce, as Weber assumed where Protestantism, specifically Calvinism, would serve as the “development of the spirit of capitalism”.[16] Livingstone’s aims no doubt aligned with these, including commerce where he saw free trade as the best available system. This was unanimously agreed, with the Manchester school’s doctrines being, according to Schuyler, at the “height of their influence”.[17] But Livingstone’s enthusiasm for expanded commercial trade was not driven solely by capital gain like that of his patrons but rather for the development of black Africans and their liberation. This limited his association to the British Empire’s advancement in Africa.

Livingstone’s own personal vocation was, as stated on his gravestone, “to heal this open sore of the world”.[18] According to Ferguson, this ‘sore’ was the slave trade found in East Africa practiced by the Arabs, which Livingstone referred to as the ‘trade of hell’.[19] While he had disappointed Whitehall in his expedition in the Zambesi, Livingstone started to pursue the cause he would find most success in, both in results and in his moral obligations. He had witnessed several slave convoys sailing for Zanzibar during his expedition for the British, allowing him to grasp the extent of the problem he abhorred.[20] Having failed as an expansionist for imperialism, he now became a ‘one-man NGO’ fighting for a greater cause.[21] Even when it appeared he had wished to continue his reputation and relations with the imperialist cause by trying to locate the source of the Nile, this was only to further Livingstone’s own moral commitments. By making this discovery, Livingstone could establish a conduit with “power among men”, a power which could “remedy an immense evil” found in the slave trade.[22] This strongly gives the impression that Livingstone had little time for imperial expansion itself, and therefore his reputation’s links to it being limited further. It can even be said Livingstone was the antithesis of imperialism, with President Kaunda of Zambia hailing him as “the first freedom fighter” in Africa.[23] It is on this point that Livingstone’s legacy posthumously has indeed been interpreted on several levels, whether pro-imperialist or not.

Unlike the many British institutions and monuments established by the metropole across its colonies, Livingstone’s reputation amongst Africans and evangelicals remained strong after decolonisation. To them, he is not synonymous with imperialism’s evils that had inflicted the continent, especially with his abolitionist views. This is more significant when considering the rise of African nationalism in the mid-twentieth century when missionaries were being revaluated as “ideological shock troops for colonial invasion”, according to Andrews.[24] While Livingstone lacked merits in his actual missionary work, his reputation achieved long-term results for the evangelical movement that make up for his previous shortcomings in preaching. Between 1886 and 1895, the amount of active Protestant missions in Africa trebled, with the town of Livingstone in Zambia continuing to bear his memory.[25] Livingstone itself is home to no less than 150 churches, despite having only 90,000 inhabitants. Africa has become an evangelical haven compared to Europe with more Anglicans living in Nigeria than the metropole of England.[26] When considering this, Livingstone’s legacy in Africa had surpassed that of his homeland. However, this did not prevent imperialists from manipulating his legacy to further their own needs.

While failing to impress Whitehall having only left “steamers up cataracts” instead of finding trade for Palmerston, Livingstone would become more useful to them in death then he had been when alive.[27] His superiors were disappointed with him in his last years, but they had later revered him as equally when his body returned to Britain. The British press, who previously attacked Livingstone for promising “cotton, sugar and indigo, commodities which savages never produced”, had later hailed him for being “unselfish in his devotion to duty”.[28][29]This change of opinion was hardly from the goodness of their heart but rather to exploit the image of Livingstone for furthering the imperial cause for global expansion, especially as Livingstone was the “acceptable face of Empire and colonial rule”.[30] The naval blockade by the British at Zanzibar to force the island’s Sultan to outlaw the slave trade was not to fulfil Livingstone’s dying wish.[31] Instead, it was to use the convenient timing to stop a black-market Britain was not profiting from, just as they had done at Sierra Leone in 1808.[32]Nevertheless, Livingstone’s association to justify these actions associated him with Britain’s advance regardless.

This manipulation of Livingstone’s reputation was not only exclusively done by the British but by its European rivals as well to further their pursuit for their own imperial fruits. Henry Morton Stanley, who famously found Livingstone after years of disappearance, declared himself as “Livingstone’s successor” and bring the “Shining light of Christianity” to Africa.[33] Despite his self-declared title, Stanley would go on to assist the murderous actions of Leopold II’s Belgium Congo, using this ‘light’ of Christianity to justify the ‘white man’s burden’ to colonise Africa further.[34] Livingstone’s economic values were also manipulated just as much as his Christianity for the race for the ‘Scramble for Africa’. Despite the support for free markets by the British during Livingstone’s peak, such policy took a volte face by the 1880s. To Langer, the Manchester doctrine endorsed by Livingstone had become “an outworn theory to be thrown into the discard”.[35] Easterly argues that the British Empire had never represented this doctrine and instead had “actually promoted state-led development rather than free markets”.[36] This is contrary to Livingstone’s own version of the ‘Stages of Growth’ model which acted as the premise for his fellow missionary David Scott’s Blantyre Mission to create local development from a bottom-up approach.[37] This goes to show how distorted Livingstone’s reputation had become that it encompassed several believers who’s views contradicted one another, whether they represented Livingstone’s actual values or not.

No matter how intricate his reputation had become, Livingstone’s was one which had been fully utilised by imperialism, both British and European, to justify and garner support for their ‘moral obligation’ to advance in Africa and conquer it. Livingstone had proposed the three Cs to Africa; civilisation, Christianity, and commerce. The exploitation of him by the British Empire and its rivals, especially by Stanley, had may as well added ‘conquest’ to this list. But by the end of imperialism’s relevance in the mid-twentieth century, the usefulness of Livingstone’s legacy had become defunct to the British, except for their trips of imperial nostalgia with Livingstone’s grave at Westminster Abbey being a memento. But for Africa and its Christians, Livingstone’s heart buried there still beats strong, metaphorically, for them.

Featured image credit: National Galleries of Scotland on Flickr


[1] Ashley Jackson, The British Empire: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 5-6.

[2] Niall Ferguson, Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World (London: Penguin Books, 2004).

[3] Ferguson, Empire, 150.

[4] Kevin Shillington, History of Africa, Revised Second Edition (New York: Macmillan, 2005), 301.

[5] Niall Ferguson, The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World (London: Penguin Books, 2009).

[6] Ferguson, Empire, 126.

[7] Ibid., 125.

[8] Tim Jeal, eds., Livingstone (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), 383.

[9] Map of Africa, 1913.

[10] Report of the Select Committee on the State of British Establishments on the Western Coast of Africa, Parliamentary Papers, 1865, v. 249. Evidence of David Livingstone, 18 May 1865

[11] John Gallagher and Ronald Robinson, “The Imperialism of Free Trade”, The Economic History Review 6, no. 1 (1953): 1-15.

[12] Ferguson, The Ascent of Money, 290.

[13] Ferguson, Empire, 223.

[14] Ibid., 158-159.

[15] Ibid., 154-156.

[16] Max Weber, ed., The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (Guildford: Biddles Ltd, 1976), 44.

[17] Robert L. Schuyler, The Fall of the Old Colonial System: A Study in British Free Trade, 1770-1870 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1945), 45.

[18] Livingstone’s tombstone at Westminster Abbey.

[19] Ferguson, Empire, 159.

[20] Ibid., 158.

[21] Ibid., 128.

[22] Jeal, Livingstone, 289.

[23] Andrew Ross, David Livingstone: Mission and Empire (London: Hambledon and London, 2002), 239.

[24] Edward E. Andrews, “Christian Missions and Colonial Empires Reconsidered: A Black Evangelist in West Africa, 1766–1816”, Journal of Church and State 51, no. 4 (2009): 663-691

[25] Ferguson, Empire, 160.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid., 158.


[29] Jeal, Livingstone, 382-383.

[30] Martin Conboy, et al, “Livingstone and the legacy of Empire in the journalistic imagination,” Ecquid Novi: African Journalism Studies 35, no. 1 (2014): 3-8.

[31] Ferguson, Empire, 159.

[32] Ibid., 115.

[33] Ibid., 160-162.

[34] Ross, David Livingstone: Mission and Empire, 241

[35] William L. Langer, The Diplomacy of Imperialism, 1890–1902 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1935), 76.

[36] “The Imperial Origins of State-Led Development,” Aid Watch, accessed November 11, 2018,

[37] Ross, David Livingstone: Mission and Empire, 243.


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