Mrs Livingstone, I presume? Museum to feature role of explorer’s wife

Revamped gallery to reveal the importance – and presence – of Mary Moffat in missionary’s life and travels

Dr Livingstone, the Scottish explorer and Christian missionary in Africa, was a hero for Victorian schoolboys, his reputation enhanced by exuberant biographies. But next month the reopening of a museum on the banks of the River Clyde, following a £9.1m investment, is to set his famous story in a broader context.

The cliche runs that behind every great man stands a great woman. In Livingstone’s case, the reputation of his fearless wife, Mary Moffat, actually went before him, smoothing his path through remote regions.

“It has taken until now for people to look at Livingstone’s life and see his wife’s significance,” said Dr Kate Simpson, a lecturer at Glasgow University and a trustee of the museum. “Her own remarkable story did not fit in with the idea of her husband that was constructed later.”

The importance of Mrs Livingstone, who knew several African languages and was an experienced traveller, is one of several crucial sides of this piece of global history to be given a new emphasis when the David Livingstone Birthplace museum welcomes visitors again on 28 July.

Mary Livingstone, a linguist and experienced traveller, who accompanied her husband on his missions.
Mary Livingstone, a linguist and experienced traveller, who accompanied her husband on his missions. Photograph: Courtesy of David Livingstone Birthplace

“Mary’s language skills were particularly useful,” said Simpson. “It was astute of him to travel with her, but he was also very fond of her.”

Livingstone explained how he had found the woman he needed in a blunt letter to a friend in 1845. “Mine is a matter of fact lady. A little thick black haired girl sturdy and all I want,” the Congregationalist missionary wrote.

Down the decades, Boy’s Own adventure annuals have portrayed Livingstone as a lone expeditionist, one man missing in the African bush, until he was supposedly rediscovered in 1871 by the Welsh cartographer and explorer Henry Stanley with the fabled words, “Dr Livingstone, I presume”.

Happily, it seems the missing doctor was indeed a man of principle, a dedicated physician and an anti-slavery campaigner. But it turns out Livingstone never was quite alone.

“There was a popular Victorian image of the explorer doing everything by himself,” said Simpson. “This was a fallacy put out there by the first biography of Livingstone. Actually, he had a big team, including Africans.”

Popular image of ‘lone’ explorer David Livingstone meeting Henry Stanley in 1871.
Popular image of ‘lone’ explorer David Livingstone meeting Henry Stanley in 1871. Photograph: Alamy

And the truth of Stanley’s legendary greeting has also been doubted since a 2007 study by Tim Jeal suggested it was just a symptom of the genteel mythologising of the moment they finally met up in the village of Ujiji in what is now Tanzania.

“The whole totemic image of that moment and of Livingstone’s travels was the result of the long tradition of men reifying each other,” agreed Simpson.

“It was the Royal Geographic Society that put him on a pedestal, this skinny guy from South Lanarkshire.”

The museum, on the site of the former Blantyre Works Mill, has been updated and improved with funding from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, the Scottish government and Historic Environment Scotland, and includes a new exhibition space inside the Shuttle Row tenements where Livingstone was born in 1813.

Following the renovation project, the number of items on display drawn from the museum’s international collection has gone up by a third, and they will focus not just on Livingstone’s religious work for the London Missionary Society but also on his contribution to science, to world geography and to the abolitionist movement.

David Livingstone seated
Journals reveal the close and unconventional relationship David Livingstone had with his wife, Mary. Photograph: Science History Images/Alamy

Old favourites, such as the red shirt the doctor is thought to have worn for his encounter with Stanley, will still be on show, however, as will the Pilkington Jackson Tableaux that was commissioned for the original opening of the museum in 1929. This time, though, it is accompanied by a reinterpretation of the exhibit by the celebrated Zimbabwean author and lawyer, Petina Gappah, a scholar of Livingstone.

“I hope people don’t have the simple snap reaction that we are trying to rewrite history,” said Simpson. “We are just contextualising the whole story. We can see Mary Moffat now in 3D, not just as the ‘wee wifey’.”

In fact, Livingstone was often introduced as “the husband of Mary”.

Especially misleading, Simpson argues, is the idea that Mary’s hopes of settling in one place were thwarted by her husband’s travels. If anything, she was more of a natural nomad than him. “She set up schools and crossed the Kalahari twice, and was the daughter of the renowned translator of the Bechuana Bible, Robert Moffat. She really didn’t care what people thought and used to turn up to formal events in her normal clothes.”

Mary’s death from malaria at the age of 41 was a painful blow for Livingstone. Journals held at the museum reveal the tone of their close and unconventional relationship.

“The loss of my ever dear Mary lies like a heavy weight on my heart,” Livingstone writes. “In our intercourse in private there was often more than what would be thought by some a decorous amount of merriment and play.

“I said to her a few days before her fatal illness: ‘We old bodies ought now to be more sober, and not play so much.’ ‘Oh no,’ said she, ‘you must always be as playful as you have always been. I would not like you to be as grave as some folks’.”


Vanessa Thorpe

The GuardianTramp

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