Sunday, 6 November 2016

Dead Man Walking, the Great Explorer's Last Journey; David Livingstone (1813-1873) Westminster Abbey

Livingstone's original gravestone in Westminster Abbey

Livingstone's last epic journey began in early May 1873 at Chief Chitambo's village at Ilala southeast of Lake Bangweulu in Zambia. He endured a trek of over 1400 miles on foot to the Tanzanian coast, arriving at Zanzibar on the 16th February 1874 and from there travelled onto England in relative comfort, his ship docking in London in early April. It had been a journey fraught with danger and difficulties, his African companions were often ill and only walked with difficulty. Within a few days of setting out two of the women died. There were more deaths to come. When the expedition crossed the Luapala river a lion appeared and seized one of the donkeys, dragging it off into the bush never to be seen again. A few days later one of the bearers carelessly picked up a gun after he had been smoking and accidentally discharged it, shooting another bearer in the leg. Later, the exhausted party approached the village of Chawendi where the chief's son was drunk and fired an arrow at them, setting off a pitched battle between Livingstone's men and the villagers which saw casualties on both sides and the village put to the torch. They passed lake Tanganyika and met up with a friendly Arab trading party who gave them news of a relief expedition looking for Livingstone, commanded by Lt Verney Lovett Cameron RN. The two parties finally met on the 20th October. Cameron wanted to carry on into the interior but Livingstone's party was determined to carry on to the coast. Cameron detailed two of his men, Dr Dillon and Lt Murphy to accompany  Livingstone and the two parties went their separate ways. On the 18th November Dr Dillon, ill and unable to deal with the rigours of the journey, shot himself. He was buried and the party moved on and eventually managed to reach the African coast close to Zanzibar.

A sick Livingstone being carried on a litter shortly before his death. After he died and his body had been dried and smoked after the removal of several pounds of internal organs, he would have been a considerably lighter burden for his men.
Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about this incredible journey was that Livingstone was dead at the time he made it, having passed away on the 1st May 1873, several days before the epic trek began. He had been ill for some time and when his expedition reached Ilala Livingstone had famously died whilst praying. The men responsible for Livingstone's last journey were Abdullah Susi and James Chuma. A young Susi had joined Livingstone's 1863 Zambezi expedition as a woodcutter and then accompanied his master to Bombay where he had been enrolled at school. As an 11 year old Chuma, along with many others from his village, had been captured by Portuguese slave traders and manacled for the journey to the coast to be sold. Luckily the convoy met Livingstone who negotiated with the Portuguese for the release of the slaves. Chuma became one of Livingstone's men, and like Susi was sent to Bombay to be educated. After the explorer's death the two men resolved to take Livingstone's body back to his people after his death. They constructed an open topped hut and removed the heart and internal organs from the corpse and buried them three feet beneath the floor of the hut. They then covered Livingstone's corpse in salt and left it to dry for two weeks in the sun before wrapping it in tar coated canvas and layers of bark. It was then carried during the journey detailed above and surrendered to the British authorities in Zanzibar. Susi and Chuma were paid off by the authorities and dismissed and Jacob Wainwright, Livingstone's rather angelic looking personal servant, chosen to accompany the missionary's corpse back to England.  Wainwright's  good looks and demure manner belied a histrionic streak in his nature and a fondness for alcohol and women that would eventually embarrass his sponsors in England. 


Jacob Wainwright with Livingstone's coffin on board ship, dreaming of his master perhaps, or of booze and loose women? 
Livingstone's body was received in state when it arrived at Southampton in April 1874, the reception included an artillery suite. A special train then transported his revered remains to London where they were received by representatives of the Royal Geographical Society. May God forgive them but the geographers clearly entertained some doubts about whether Susi and Chuma's home made mummy really was Livingstone. A committee was convened and an autopsy carried out by Sir William Fergusson in the presence of several senior members of the society and Livingstone's father-in-law. Opening the coffin they found Livingstone reduced to a four foot long parcel packed in sawdust and wrapped in a horse blanket. The legs had been removed and tucked inside the torso. The body was identified as Livingstone’s on the basis of an old and distinctive fracture visible in the bones of the arms; Livingstone had broken his upper arm when attacked by a lion and had been treated in London by Sir William. The relieved committee allowed the body to lie in state for two days in their Savile Row offices. The £500 bill for the funeral in Westminster Abbey was picked up by the Government though the simple memorial stone was paid for by a well wisher. At the funeral Jacob Wainwright laid a palm leaf on the coffin and had, it was rumoured, to be prevented from throwing himself into the open grave. He consoled himself after the ceremony with good, strong English ale. 


   

Abdullah Susi and James Chuma did not accompany Livingstone's corpse back to England but did follow on shortly afterwards. They stayed with the Reverend Horace Waller, who was editing Livingstone's 'Last Journals', at the Rectory in Leytonstone where Waller was the vicar. The photo below was taken at Newstead Abbey and shows Tom and Agnes Livingstone, son and daughter of the explorer, Susi on the left and Chuma on the right and Waller seated on the ground.  



The fact that Livingstone was able to make this journey dead raises serious questions about the role of his African companions during the journeys he made when he was alive. The image of the intrepid white explorer striking out into the heart of the dark continent at the head of a column of black bearers and servants is certainly completely inaccurate. The Africans on these expeditions protected their employees, looked after them during their frequent bouts of sickness, negotiated with local tribes, scouted out routes, arranged supplies and generally kept the nominal head of the expedition alive and well. A dead explorer was probably a lot less work for them to travel with than a living one and probably only marginally less useful. For anyone interested Donald Simpson's book “Dark Companions” is a fascinating introduction to the subject.