Diary of Tam Turnip – Part 2

Blantyre man “Tam Turnip” writes in 1913, just after the centenary of David Livingstone’s birth.

“Mr Editor, — When writing testimonials, making presentations, or speaking of heroes, people naturally present the best side. It is not, therefore, surprising that there should be a sameness of appreciation in the thousands of speeches made about Dr Livingstone last week.

   “A notable exception, however, is that of Sir Harry Johnston, C.C.M.G., K.C.B., himself a great traveller, and a man who knows more about Africa than any person living. In his lecture to the Royal Geographical Society in London Sir Harry held that :—

   Livingstone’s was not a perfect character, or he would have been as cloying to study and to read about as one or two of his contemporise in Africa, lay and clerical, whose biographies ought to edify, but somehow exasperate where they do not bore.

“From them one turns almost with a relief to Livingstone, who, without the keen intelligence animating his face, might with truth have been called — especially in early middle age — an ugly little man, who, through brave and resolute was intelligent enough to know fear and anxiety, and to avoid needless perils. “

“Indeed, according to such descriptions of him as were available and such portraits illustrated his appearance, he was not unlike a Spaniard, especially in youth and early middle age. His height scarcely reached to 5 ft. 7 in., his hair and moustache, until they were whitened with premature old age, were black, his eyes hazel, his complexion much tanned by the African sun, but at all times inclining to sallow.

He possessed a natural dignity of aspect, however, which never failed to make the requisite impression on Africans and Europeans alike. Bubbling over with sly humour, with world-wide sympathies, and entirely free from any narrowness of outlook, he possessed a very strong measure of self-respect, coupled with a quiet, intense obstinacy of purpose.

In earlier life he was so eager to advance the bounds of knowledge and so certain that he was a predestined and appointed agent to accomplish great purposes that he may have been slightly arrogant, contemptuous towards fools and palterers. Once or twice during the absolute martyrdom of the six years which comprised the second Zambesi expedition he may have given way occasionally to temper, and in one instance have been somewhat unjust.

Sir Harry Johnston said that he mentioned these trivial points of disparagement because unmitigated praise generally defeated its object and provoked a reaction of criticism. But, as a matter of fact, a research into the life and work of Dr Livingstone, which he (Sir Harry Johnston) had carried on for a period of 30 years, beginning with his association with Stanley, with Sir John Kirk, and with some of Livingstone’s old Swahili followers on the Congo, left him unable to quote anything of importance which could be regarded as serious dispraise of the remarkable man who formed the subject of his paper that evening.

On the contrary, a frequently-repeated reading of Dr Livingstone’s works left him increasingly astonished at his achievements with the means that he possessed, and more than ever convinced that Dr Livingstone was by far the greatest of African explorers, judged not only by his actual achievements but by his character, disposition, and mental capacity.

He wrote things, he expressed ideas in the forties, fifties, and sixties of last century which seemed to those who read them to-day singularly modern as conceptions, conclusions, and lines of profitable study. It required very little accentuation of the opinions expressed by Dr Livingstone in private letters in 1841 to formulate the phrase since so potent, “Cape to Cairo.”

Livingstone never lost sight this ideal, and during his last years speculated on its ultimate achievement through the work of Sir Samuel Baker. It was only when Stanley chilled these anticipations by informing him that Great Britain had lost her interest in African problems and that it was perhaps the United States which was going to reorganise Egypt that Livingstone’s ideals transcended the limitation of national politics. His great obstinacy prevented him on several occasions from taking the right course, either in the direction of laying a basis for a British-protected Zambesia (a thing he had set his heart on), or in solving the true secrets of the Lualaba. 

   Obstinacy and the fear that he might be forestalled in this great discovery by someone else sent him to his death on the swamps of Bangweolo; whereas it is just possible that, had he returned to Europe under Stanley’s protecting care, he might have lived another ten years and have greatly hastened by his influence the evolution of Central Africa towards freedom and happiness. “

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