Researchers reveal Dr Livingstone's darkest hour through lost letters

Livingstone wrote over existing text, filling all available space

For 140 years rare manuscripts that record the private thoughts and opinions of David Livingstone, the Victorian explorer and missionary, were hidden from the public eye due to their fragile condition and frequently indecipherable text. Today a trans-Atlantic academic and scientific team, comprising researchers from Birkbeck, University of London and US spectral imaging scientists, launches a major project with the publication of Livingstone's Letter from Bambarre – a spectrally-imaged 'lost' letter from Livingstone's final African expedition, written to his friend and future biographer Horace Waller.

In February 1871, while searching for the source of the Nile, Livingstone was living in extreme environmental conditions and as a virtual prisoner at Bambarre, a village in what is now the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He had run out of paper and would shortly run out of ink; so he improvised. He tore pages out of books and newspapers, writing around the margins and crosswise over the text; for ink he used pigment taken from the seeds of a local berry. While the printed text of the books and newspapers remain clear, Livingstone's text has faded, rendering virtually illegible the explorer's unique observations on the slave trade, on the prospects for commerce and Christianity in the African interior, and on the lake and rivers of Central Africa.

The paper used for Livingstone's Letter from Bambarre – pages torn from a proof copy of the Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society – is yellowed and brittle. Livingstone's iron gall ink has bled through the page, in effect creating two layers of text superimposed on one another. This problem is compounded by Livingstone's method of writing, which weaves an unsteady course around the margins of the page before it meanders vertically across the horizontal print of the journal. With unintended irony, the disorientating text of the letter captures visually Livingstone's frail mental and physical state at this dark period in his life.

The publication of Livingstone's letter to Waller – from the private collection of the distinguished American photographer Peter Beard – marks the beginning of a major 18-month project, funded by the U.S. National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the British Academy, to publish a critical edition and spectral image database of the diary and letters Livingstone wrote in 1870-71. Most of the fragmented pages of the diary have been carefully preserved at the David Livingstone Centre in Blantyre, which is managed by the conservation charity National Trust for Scotland, and the National Library of Scotland. The two organisations are collaborating with the Livingstone team of academics and scientists in order to bring the historical secrets these pages contain to the light of day. The Early Manuscripts Electronic Library in California is coordinating the spectral-imaging team.

The project will reveal, among other details, the full extent of Livingstone's ill health, his controversial and ever-evolving views on the source of the Nile, and the politics of African slavery and ivory trading – details suppressed by Waller, who edited the posthumously published Livingstone's Last Journals (1874). In this Victorian classic Livingstone emerges as a hero, an anti-slavery crusader, and a martyr. Through careful editing, therefore, Waller secured Livingstone's place in British iconography as a saint and champion of the oppressed but he was economical with the truth when it came to the man himself. 

The four-page letter to Waller, dated 5 February 1871 and published for the first time today, reveals Livingstone state of mind in the months leading up to his famous encounter with Henry Morton Stanley, the correspondent from the New York Herald who claims he greeted Livingstone with the famous phrase "Dr. Livingstone, I presume?" Livingstone writes to Waller about his loneliness, his fears about the rapid spread of the cholera epidemic, and the prospects for the abolition of slavery. Fiercely competitive, he is openly critical of the achievements of his fellow explorers Samuel White Baker, Richard Burton, and John Hanning Speke. He also expresses disgust and disillusionment with the British government’s policy of laissez-faire in Africa and the Middle East. Moreover, as a doctor experienced in tropical and western medicine, he expresses complete bewilderment about two fatal local conditions: the sudden death of slaves from 'Brokenheartedness', and the pernicious practice of clay- or earth-eating. The letter closes with a prescient farewell to Waller, which ends with the line 'Doubtful if I live to see you again'.

Dr Adrian Wisnicki, project leader, Birkbeck, University of London says "Livingstone made his name as an explorer with his sighting of Victoria Falls and his transcontinental African journey of 1852-1856, but logistical problems and conflict with fellow travellers marred subsequent African expeditions. In 1871 Livingstone was at a personal and professional nadir and this is reflected in the letter."

Dr Debbie Harrison from Birkbeck, the project's contributing editor and medical historian, adds, "He was also a very sick man. Livingstone was suffering the aftermath of dysentery, fever, pneumonia, and horrific tropical eating ulcers on his feet and legs, which ate through muscle, tendons and bone. His old complaint – severe blood loss from chronic prolapsed haemorrhoids – exacerbated his weak condition. His closing line to Waller indicates his anxious and depressed state of mind. He did not know that in just a few months Stanley would arrive, bringing desperately needed food, medicines and the longed for news from an outside world he thought had forgotten him."

Wisnicki explains the significance of the letter: "Livingstone's Letter from Bambarre is the first nineteenth-century British literary work to be captured and enhanced using the multispectral-imaging process. It sets a new standard for the analysis of nineteenth-century manuscripts and is made available as a free resource on Livingstone Online, the leading, open-access internet resource for Livingstone's writings. The letter – and the technical process by which it has been digitized – will fascinate the public and be of keen interest to researchers of British Empire, African history, the history of medicine, Victorian literature, and the digital humanities."

Members of the scientific team have worked on previous imaging projects, most notably the Archimedes Palimpsest, palimpsests at St. Catherine's Monastery, and manuscripts at the US Library of Congress, including drafts of the US Declaration of Independence and President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Mike Toth of R.B. Toth Associates, an expert in technical studies of cultural objects for museums and libraries, says, "Livingstone's Letter from Bambarre demonstrates the breadth and depth of detail we expect to emerge from the diaries. The multispectral imaging process involves illuminating the page with successive wavelengths of light – starting with ultraviolet, working through the visible spectrum, and concluding with infrared. We capture these images digitally and then process them to enhance and suppress selected features of the object. With the letter our team was able to enhance the explorer's faded handwriting and suppress the underlying printed text to enhance Livingstone's previously obscured words. We are now applying the same process to the diaries and other letters from the same period."

Property Manager at the David Livingstone Centre, Karen Carruthers says: "Having taken care of Livingstone's final diaries for 10 years, it is hugely exciting to uncover what Livingstone wrote on these extracts for the first time.  I hope this move inspires a whole new generation of people to discover this fascinating man and his influence on millions of people the throughout the world."

Click here to visit Livingstone Online