November 1871. David Livingstone has just discovered the river Lualaba. He limps back to the village Ujiji, to his headquarters and his bed. Ujiji is a small central African village near the shores of Lake Tanganyika, a pit stop on the Zanzibar slave road. Livingstone needs the rest. A fever has overtaken him. Central Africa is breeding ground to a thousand contagions; Livingstone has suffered almost every one of them in his twenty years' exploring. Today he has severe pneumonia, and is coughing blood. Resting there in Ujiji, he is attended by the Swahili traders who have befriended him. They nurse him with Arab medicine, treating his delirium. Livingstone has always depended on the kindness of the native Africans, a kindness he returns many times over. They're doing their best, but the old man is near death.
Here is an atypical explorer, a reproach to the modern imperialist stereotype. He has come seeking neither wealth nor conquest. On the contrary, Livingstone is a scientist and philanthropist, a lover of the African people and an unyielding foe to the new slave trade. Although devoutly Christian, and therefore devoutly determined to Christianize the natives he meets, he is never evangelical in his dealings with Africans. Others will come later to spread the gospel—he's here to learn. By 1871 His two immensely popular accounts, Missionary Travels and The Zambesi and its Tributaries, have already changed the world's view of Africa and made Livingstone a household name.
The modern reader must stretch his mind to appreciate the truly revolutionary character of Livingstone's African discoveries. As late as 1871, much of Africa is a blank space on the map. Centuries after the colonization of North and South America by Europeans, the world still knows nothing of Central African geography. This peculiar circumstance arises from the topography of the Dark Continent: a ring of natural fortification barring all visitors. The Sahara at the North has for thousands of years shunned European penetration. Though the Portuguese have been exploring the African coastline since the Fifteenth Century, the shores are so rugged and devoid of safe harbor as to repulse seafaring visitors. Even those whites who trade with the Central Africans seldom venture far inland. The only subSaharan settlements are in the remote south, and these have yielded no information about the great mass of land above.
Therefore when Livingstone first headed north from Boer South Africa in 1852, he had entered a terra incognita, as little known as the dark side of the moon. Incredibly, most experts then believed Central Africa was a desert, uninhabited and lifeless. Livingstone proved them wrong, discovering Victoria Falls, Lake Shirwa and Lake Nyasa, and dozens of indigenous tribes unknown to the outside world. Returning home in 1856, he found he had become a legend, a hero throughout Christendom. The Royal Geographic Society sent him south again in 1867, to continue exploring.
His return to Africa is a crusade. The old slave trade, which flooded the New World with African bondsmen, is dying out as slavery becomes illegal in the U.S. and in British and French colonies. But a new slave trade, run by Arabs, is flaring up like a disease. Livingstone's hatred of this slave trade, which he calls "an open sore," is fanatic. The way to stop it, he says, is to bring European influence to Africa. If the continent could be "opened up," Christianity and commerce would flow in, banishing slavery forever. With the coastlines impenetrable, the only way to open Africa is by river. Therefore he has come to discover the sources of the Nile, which might serve as a highway from the north. Failing to find the Nile source, Livingstone has found instead the Lualaba. What he can't know is that the Lauluba will prove the greater find. For the Lualaba river is in fact the Congo, and ultimately the Congo, not the unfordable Nile, will become the royal road from Europe to Central Africa. Oblivious to his discovery's true value, Livingstone now lies in his Ujiji bed, floating in and out of consciousness. He has been two years out of communication with Europe. Much of the world now assumes him dead. If not helped soon, he will prove them right.
A rustle is heard in the dense brush. A party of bearers and explorers pours suddenly into Ujiji. Leading the party is Henry Stanley, reporter for the New York Herald. Stanley has been hired by his paper to locate the missing Dr. Livingstone and resupply him. And on this day, in November of 1871, we see Stanley tremble with expectation as he strides through the village to Livingstone's camp. Here, at last, Stanley lays eyes on the man who will shape his destiny, the man whose life he will now save. It is the beginning of a friendship that will last just four months, but survive forever in the annals of discovery. Approaching the old man with hand outstretched, Stanley speaks the most famous words in the long history of exploration, words of comic understatement and undisguised joy. "Dr. Livingstone, I presume?"