David Livingstone and the ‘discovery’ of the Victoria Falls

by Pete Roberts

Dr David Livingstone (etching, from Missionary Travels)

Dr David Livingstone (etching, from Missionary Travels)

Dr David Livingstone (etching, from Missionary Travels)
Dr David Livingstone
The Victoria Falls of the Zambesi River (from Livingstone's Missionary Travels)

Livingstone's Anniversary



November marks the anniversary of the ‘discovery’ of the Victoria Falls by Dr David Livingstone. Travelling downstream by dugout canoe paddled by skilled local paddlers and guided by Chief Sekelutu, chief of the Makalolo, Livingstone first arrived at the island on the lip of the Falls which now bears his name, Livingstone Island on the 16th November 1855.

For an event of such apparent simplicity there is much debate over Livingstone’s ‘discovery’ of the Falls.

Victorian concepts of ‘discovery’

Victorian explorers such as Livingstone saw their endeavours in scientific terms, and upheld the widely accepted convention that the title of ‘discoverer’ is given to the first to observe and describe, and most essentially, to publish in print, the details of their new discovery. Explorers and geographers had mapped most of the world, however the heart of central Africa remained a mystery.

Being the ‘discoverer’ of something new to science came with huge kudos, and with it the right to name your new discovery. This applies equally to new species in biology, part of the body in anatomy or geographical features in the landscape. Thus, when Livingstone published his ‘Missionary Travels’ in 1857, describing in detail his observations of the waterfall, he was describing a geographical feature previously unknown to not only his contemporary Victorian explorers and scientists, but indeed the wider world. He acknowledged their local name, Mosi-oa-Tunya, but renamed them, as we all know, the Victoria Falls after his British Queen, Victoria.

The contrary argument asks how Livingstone can be the ‘discoverer’ of the Victoria Falls when local African people had been living alongside them for hundreds, if not thousands of years. It is argued that to dismiss the local knowledge of these people in favour of a foreigner is an inherently racist perspective. Certainly the Victorian perspective is biased, not only by Imperial delusions of superiority, but also by relegating all other forms of knowledge and communication in favour of one - the printing press.

The issue here probably lies more within the changing perspectives and fashions of cultures and language, and the use and meaning of specific words, such as ‘discover’ but for this writer to dismiss Livingstone’s role in the ‘discovery’ of the Victoria Falls is to do a disservice to a man who dedicated his life to the cause of exposing the horrors slavery and campaigning for its abolition.

A parallel example here is Livingstone’s discovery of the upper Zambezi. Although other traders had perhaps reached as far as Linyanti, and even the further upper reaches of the Zambezi, it was Livingstone, when he first visited the Makalolo at Linyanti on the banks of the Zambezi with the hunter, William Oswell, who first concluded that this must be the same river known as the Zambezi and which flowed to the east coast and into the Indian Ocean. Livingstone’s conclusions were disputed by many, and it was not until he later explored the length of the Zambezi to the coast and published his account in 1857 that the matter was clarified once and for all.

Livingstone’s claim

Livingstone had heard of the Falls on this first visit in 1851, being told of a great waterfall downstream, but did not visit it on this occasion. Oswell marked the position of the Falls on a map, recording "Waterfall, spray seen 10 miles off" and also refers to them by their local name of ‘Mosi-oa-Tunya’ (it is unlikely they saw the spray but that he was recording information given to him, and his map was not published until 1900). As a result of this information, London mapmaker W D Cooley first marked the position of the Falls on a map published in 1852, three years before Livingstone actually first set sight on them.

Over the years there has also been much debate over Livingstone’s claim to have been the first European, or white man, to see them - although probably not helping perceptions of such claims being based on racial superiority, and which were undoubtedly prevalent at the time.

Other European’s, including the Portuguese, had been travelling in the African interior for some time. One, Silva Pinto, was exploring the region at the same time as Livingstone, and when the two met in 1853 Livingstone satisfied himself that Pinto’s knowledge of the Zambezi did not precede his. Neither man had at this stage seen the Falls for themselves.

Another hunter and explorer, James Chapman, had also visited the Makalolo at Linyanti, and was also told of the Falls, but had no time for local sightseeing, a fact he regretted:

“I could not avoid the reflection that, could I but have known of the magnificent sight I lost in August, 1853, after being very near it, and how nearly I had forestalled Dr Livingstone's discovery, I should certainly have made another effort at that time to accomplish the object."

Several other Boer hunters have also been named as candidates for visiting the Falls before Livingstone, however on inspection all their claims have proved unsubstantiated.

It was not until late in 1855 when Livingstone returned to the Zambezi, that he travelled downstream and witnessed the natural wonder of the Falls for the first time. Even then he had taken the time to first explore the river upstream and across to the west coast before returning to Linyanti and then setting off again on an epic mission to reach the east coast and prove the course of his Zambezi river. Along the way he claimed another explorers landmark, the first to walk the width of the continent. Whether any individual achieved this before is again unknown, but as the first to achieve, describe and publish the accounts of this undertaking he was rightly heralded for his achievement.

The debate on the date

The final debate relating to Livingstone’s discovery of the Victoria Falls relates to the date of discovery. Livingstone records in his ‘Missionary Travels’ leaving the Victoria Falls on the 20th November, having spent two days exploring the Falls and making the date of his arrival the 18th. However, on arrival at the east coast he found he was four days out in his calculations, drawing doubt on the dates of his journey. Some sources record the 17th as the date of discovery, but it was not until research carried out in the build up to the 100th anniversary of the event that later documents by Livingstone were discovered which recorded that he was certain that the date he first set eyes upon the Falls was in fact the 16th November 1855.

Click here to read more about David Livingstone

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