My recent travels around Africa took me to the bustling town of Livingstone and the mighty Mosi-ai-tunya – perhaps better known as Victoria Falls. On the long journey home, with my mind on my imminent return to work, I started pondering the role the Society played in African exploration and I decided to delve into the archives on my return and see what I could find. Although I knew the Society and its Fellows had always been interested in foreign exploration and actively sought information from far-flung corners of the world, I wasn’t aware of any major series of documents relating to sub-Saharan Africa. So I was thrilled to discover a handful of letters and documents relating to David Livingstone FRS’s 1858 Zambezi expedition, including a number of letters from the man himself.

Statue of Livingstone in Victoria Falls National Park

Statue of Livingstone in Victoria Falls National Park

In 1856, Livingstone returned to Britain a hero, having ventured further into Africa than any other European and ‘discovering’ and naming Victoria Falls for his monarch. Seeking to further explore the Zambezi in the hope of advancing ‘Christianity, Commerce and Civilisation’ into the African interior, Livingstone proposed a new expedition; the British Government offered its support and, in December 1857, the Society received a letter from the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, requesting ‘suggestions… in respect to the scientific portion of the labours of [Dr Livingstone’s] Expedition’.

The Society immediately formed a Committee to consider the Under-Secretary’s request. This Committee – which included Richard Owen, Edward Sabine and Joseph Hooker – liaised with Livingstone and ascertained the make up and aims of the expedition. The party already included an ‘economic botanist’ and ‘mining geologist’ so the Committee set about suggesting suitable and practical investigations, with Owen and Hooker drawing up ‘instructions’ for zoological and botanical investigations; these were submitted by Sabine to the Under-Secretary in January 1858. Interestingly, both Owen’s and Hooker’s ‘instructions’ concerned aspects of the Zambezi’s natural history which should be investigated both for science’s sake, and in order to enhance the region’s economic prospects.

Top of Owen’s list was to compile ‘as complete a natural history of [the tsetse fly] as the time and opportunities for observation and experiment may allow to be carried out’, believing that its presence would prove a formidable barrier to the success of any proposed colony or trading post. Owen also stated that the expedition should render as complete an account as possible of ‘the food, haunts and habits’ of the elephants which lived in the Zambezi district, due to ‘the alleged large proportional size of the tusks and fine quality of the ivory’ they supplied. Owen had further suggestions, but unfortunately only part of his list has survived.

Hooker suggested that the botanist should ‘ascertain exactly the species and varieties of plants in cultivation amongst the natives and colonists… exactly the indigenous plants yielding food, clothing, medicinal products, timber, ornamental wood, gums, resins, oils, dye-stuffs etc [and] thoroughly investigate scientifically the climate and vegetation, ascertaining the laws that regulate the presence and exuberance of the latter, and the reasonable chances there may be of replacing it by introduced plants’; he should also collect and preserve as many specimens of species as possible.

A third aspect to the expedition considered important by all the Committee members was magnetic observations, which Sabine considered were ‘greatly needed to supply the almost entire deficiency of such data in the interior of Africa’, and ‘a hydrographical survey of the entrance to the river and of its ascent to the Tete’ (MM/17/326). While the Society’s archives do not contain the results of any investigations into the region’s flora and fauna, Livingstone wrote several letters to Sabine which contain references to the observations undertaken during the expedition.

To be continued …

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