Livingstone’s 1858 expedition was soon deemed a failure – prompting a fall from grace in Victorian society – and his letters to Sabine give some idea of the troubles Livingstone faced during the long expedition. A letter dated 19 December 1858 states how one of the spirit levels used for magnetic observations ‘was broken probably when a portion of the roof of our house was blown away & the servants removed our luggage from one end of the dwelling to the other’. Not that Livingstone especially mourns its loss, it having been ‘so badly constructed as to give us a world of trouble adjusting it’. Observations had been further hampered due to a ‘slight sunstroke’ suffered by Mr Baines – although Livingstone’s brother, Charles, carried out many magnetic observations.
A later letter dated 6 February 1860 opens with the complaint that, ‘in spite of the interest employed on our behalf by the Royal Society and the intentions of Government Mr Laird furnished us with a most wretched vessel, and I am sorry to inform you that our magnetic instruments have lately suffered severely in consequence’. Livingstone details the ‘chemical decomposition’ of the boat’s steel plates, citing this as the cause of damage to the instruments. Although he considers the crew have done ‘pretty well as far as discovery’s concerned’, he states that it will be difficult to compile accurate magnetic observations and signs off with the comment, ‘all our operations have been cramped by this wretched vessel, and it is a wonder we have escaped with our lives’. A further letter, dated 17 January 1861, finds Livingstone still waiting for a new vessel, with a further apologia for the ruined instruments: ‘you may be disposed to blame us but I can assure you that our utmost endeavours could not keep our own beds dry’.
Livingstone returned to Britain in 1864 and found himself out of favour. Nonetheless, he organised another expedition and returned to Africa in 1865, to find the source of the Nile. En route to Zanzibar, Livingstone wrote again to Sabine from Bombay in December 1865, to tell him how, ‘by some unaccountable mistake’, some of the magnetic instruments used on the Zambezi expedition ‘had been taken on board the Lady Agarra’, thus ending up, with him, in India. Livingstone took the liberty of ‘delivering them over to Mr Chambers of the observatory here who thinks that you may prefer them being used here to having them sent home’; he signs off, ‘I am in daily expectation of getting away from here to Africa’.
Livingstone left India in January 1866, for what would be his final expedition. It was this expedition that re-established him as a great explorer and British hero, partly thanks to the mystery that surrounded his whereabouts for many years. Livingstone died in Zambia of malaria and dysentery on 1 May 1873; two faithful manservants, Chuma and Susi, carried Livingstone’s body over 1,000 miles so that it could be repatriated to Britain. Interestingly, the Society’s archives contain 2 letters relating to Livingstone’s rumoured, then confirmed death, both sent by John Wilson FRS from his home in Bombay.
The first letter, dated 9 July 1867, strongly refutes ‘the accounts given of this murder, by Musa and his Hizuani companions’, and details the characters of the 11 ‘Christian Africans’ who accompanied Livingstone from Bombay; Wilson is certain Livingstone will be safe. Wilson’s sadness at Livingstone’s death is evident in the second letter, dated 9 May 1874 – in which he also praises Chuma:
So, our valued and honoured friend Dr. Livingstone has got to the end of his great
journeying. Judging from a long letter I received from him by Mr Stanley, his personal
suffering must have been very great in his last movements. I wrote to him… acquainting him
with what government was seeking to do for the suppression of the slave trade but I am
afraid that the joyful tidings never reached him. His reward, however, is on high.
So, a small collection of letters – but a valuable one, illustrating the travails and travels of one of Britain’s best-known characters, but perhaps lesser-known Fellows. Reading these letters certainly makes me grateful that my own travels were as comfortable as they were – no rotten beds, no leaking boat and no scientific observations to worry about!