It would be misguided to pin Europe’s imperialist ‘Scramble for Africa’ on just one man, but that hasn’t stopped a certain type of historian from trying.
That man – Dr David Livingstone – was the prototypical explorer and missionary whose adventures in Africa won the hearts of a nation and begat the famous phrase ‘Dr Livingstone, I presume?’ uttered by journalist HM Stanley, who had been sent to Africa to find him. In life, Livingstone found himself caricatured as a bumbling fool, prone to making costly strategic and geographical errors. In death, having succumbed to malaria in present-day Zambia, he became one of Victorian Britain’s greatest heroes, a martyr who sacrificed himself to spread the word of God. But Livingstone’s mission to spread ‘commerce, Christianity and civilisation’ to Africa has since put him squarely on the wrong side of history. Spoiler alert: it didn’t go so well.
As part of the global ‘Livingstone 200’ series held to mark the bicentenary of his birth, SOAS’s Brunei Gallery is presenting this exhibition of rarely seen photographs, letters, maps and artefacts – including a set of surgical instruments thought to have been his. But the gallery doesn’t stop there. By examining the wider historical context as well as Livingstone’s personal relationships with key African figures, ‘The Life and Afterlife’ asks: Can one man be responsible for so much? Highly unlikely, I presume. Nick Aveling