Petina Gappah: David Livingstone (1871)

In this invigorating episode of Travels Through Time, the award-winning Zimbabwean novelist Petina Gappah takes us in pursuit of the Scottish missionary and explorer David Livingstone in the year 1871.


David Livingstone was one of the towering figures of Victorian Britain. He was a missionary who became an explorer, who believed that he was divinely appointed to solve the puzzle of the geography of Africa.

Livingstone made his name in the 1850s when he became the first recorded Briton to set eyes on Victoria Falls. In 1855 he was awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Geographical Society, and the next year he published his huge bestseller, Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa.

Victorian Britons grew used to consuming stories of Livingstone’s travels as heroic adventure narratives. He was portrayed as a dynamo of energy and an oracle of vision who chased after the loftiest prizes: mysterious lakes or hidden rivers in a vast continent.

But what of the African people who travelled with Livingstone? What did they think of this peculiar wandering mzungu? What kind of lives were living at that time? What did Livingstone’s intervention in their societies mean for them?

The Zimbabwean novelist Petina Gappah raises these questions during the course of this episode as she takes us back to the year 1871. She tells us how glamorous Livingstone’s adventures were for his contemporaries. She shows us the magic and peril of strangers encountering one another for a first time. She explains how Livingstone’s expeditions worked as logistical enterprises. Then she depicts some of the more disturbing aspects of the period: the east African slave trade, and the massacres it generated.

The scenes and subjects described in this episode feature in Petina Gappah’s new novel, Out of Darkness, Shining Light, which tells the story of Dr Livingstone’s final journey. The book is available in hardback from Faber.

Show notes:

Scene One: 21 March 1871, Bagamoio, a port on the east coast of what is now Tanzania. The American journalist Henry Morton Stanley sets out from Bagamoio for a daring mission into the African interior.

Scene Two: 15 July 1871, A day market in Nyangwe, a village in Manyema, on the right bank of the Lualaba River in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. Livingstone witnesses a massacre.

Scene Three: October 1871, Ujiji in present day Tanzania. Stanley finally meets Livingstone, having marched 700 miles to reach him.

Memento: The instruments that David Livingstone used, later ‘purloined’ by Lt Cameron


Presenter: Peter Moore

Guest; Petina Gappah

Producer: Maria Nolan

Reading: Makomborero Kasipo

Editorial: Artemis Irvine

Titles: Jon O


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