Explorers’ Sketchbooks: David Livingstone David Livingstone records a devastating episode of African history: The Nyangwe Massacre

In an age before Google Maps, GPS and satellite phones, the unexplored landscapes discovered by pioneering explorers could only be recorded by pen and paper. In this short series, Avaunt will be featuring five excerpts from the sketchbooks of people who shaped – through word and image – our concept of the world over the past six centuries.

David Livingstone was born in 1813 to a poor Scottish family, and working in a cotton mill as a child, but by the time of his death, 60 years later, he was a national hero. In one of the archetypal rags-to-riches stories, Livingstone had qualified as a doctor and been ordained as a minister by the age of 27, before setting off for Africa and lasting fame.

Of the time Livingstone spent in Africa, his 5,000-mile expedition,  between 1854 and 1856, is perhaps the most remarkable of his exploits. Departing from the Atlantic coast, he crossed the continent over two years before meeting the Indian Ocean at the mouth of the Zambezi, and his account of the journey was hugely popular in Britain and America. While today Livingstone is remembered for having been one of the first people to shine a light on the so-called ‘Dark Continent’, his time there was characterised by both a place of unimagined hospitality and horrific scenes of cruelty.

In 1871, nearing the age of 60, Livingstone recorded a devastating episode of African history: The Nyangwe Massacre. On the morning of 15th July, Livingstone watched as Arab slave-owners opened fire on local inhabitants in Nyangwe, a Congolese town and one of the primary slave-trading ports of the region. Livingstone recorded the events with the only tools at his disposal – a torn page of newspaper from the London Standard, and the juice of berries which he used for ink.

With the advent of new spectral imaging technology, Livingstone’s remarkable eyewitness account on these organic and highly perishable materials has now become decipherable. At the time, Livingstone’s written testimony was instrumental in the dismantling of the Zanzibar slave market, a hub that Arab slave traffickers had relied on heavily.

David Livingstone testimony
David Livingstone testimony

©Livingstone, D., The Last Journals of David Livingstone in Central Africa (London: John Murray, 1874)

Explorers’ Sketchbooks: Abel Tasman – 1603-1659
Explorers’ Sketchbooks: Meriwether Lewis – 1774-1809


Explorers’ Sketchbooks: The Art of Discovery and Adventure by Huw Lewis-Jones and Kari Herbert is published by Thames & Hudson, £29.95.

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