Written by Jo Woolf, RSGS Writer-in-Residence and Author of The Great Horizon.
David Livingstone’s name is immortalised in the annals of glorious exploration, but comparatively little is known about his wife, Mary Moffat. Yet Mary, with her quiet determination and practicality, was by his side during many of his adventures, looking after their children, helping in their engagements with African people, and making the best of life-threatening situations. She has been called ‘Livingstone’s greatest asset’, and with good reason…
On 9th January 1845, in the church at Kuruman in Bechuanaland*, Mary Moffat and David Livingstone were married. Aged 23, she was the African-born daughter of missionaries Robert and Mary Moffat; he was the 31-year-old son of a Sunday school teacher from Blantyre in South Lanarkshire.
As a medical missionary, Livingstone had been in Africa for four years. Inspired by a meeting with Mary’s father, who had founded the Kuruman mission station, he was passionate about his chosen task, which was to convert African people to Christianity. A few months earlier he had travelled north, seeking a suitable site for a new mission station, and he had attempted to shoot and kill a lion which had been terrorising villagers. Before dying of its wounds, the lion had savaged Livingstone’s upper arm, and he had gone back to Kuruman to recover. During his convalescence, he became better acquainted with the Moffats’ daughter, and asked her to marry him.
Few of Mary’s journals and letters have survived, but by most accounts she was considered kind, gentle and self-effacing. She had been educated in Cape Town, and trained to be a teacher in the mission school. She also knew how to run a home: she could bake bread and prepare meat, and she could make clothes, candles and soap. To be useful to people seemed to be her personal goal, and she had won the respect of Africans with whom she lived and worked. Marriage to a man who shared her faith and her love of Africa seemed the most natural thing in the world.
When Livingstone wrote to an acquaintance that his bride was “a matter-of-fact lady, a little thick, black-haired girl, sturdy and all I want,” he unwittingly laid himself open to decades of fierce criticism. It is hard for us now, with our modern-day meanings and preconceptions, to judge whether he was being condescending or enthusiastic. In view of his austere background and upbringing, Livingstone was never going to gush with romance, and with her own strict principles Mary probably didn’t expect it. She submitted happily to married life, and with a courageous heart she prepared to accompany her husband into unknown and possibly hostile territory. Did she realise that she would be risking not only her own life, but the lives of her children? Did she foresee that, while Livingstone would receive the accolades and the glory, she would be assigned a minor role in the history books? Would she have changed her mind, if she had?
Initially at least, Mary’s parents were supportive of the match. Robert Moffat admired Livingstone’s energy, and his wife was glad to see the couple happy, although she harboured secret doubts that would soon grow into full-blown anxiety about her daughter’s welfare. After a few weeks at Kuruman, the newlyweds set out on a 12-day trek by ox-drawn wagon to their first home, a mission station at Mabotsa. Livingstone had started building this house before he was married; it was located within a fertile valley with its own water supply, and here Mary was able to grow vegetables. In January 1846, their first child, Robert, was born. There were only two threats to Mary’s domestic bliss: the ever-present menace of lions, and her husband’s increasing restlessness.
At Chonuane, 40 miles to the north, Livingstone had struck up a relationship with Sechele, the chief of the Bakwena. He felt that in this untapped land there were souls to be saved, and needed no further reason to uproot his young family and move them into a new home. But Robert was a sickly baby, and Mary was soon pregnant again with her second child. Despite her efforts to establish herself in Chonuane as a teacher, her health began to suffer. When drought destroyed their crops, they were forced to return to Mary’s family home at Kuruman, where Mary’s gaunt, half-starved appearance shocked the village women to the core. Shortly afterwards, she gave birth to a baby girl, whom they named Agnes.
Undeterred by these setbacks, Livingstone decided to abandon Chonuane and pushed forward with plans for another mission station at Kolobeng, on the edge of the Kalahari. In 1848 he installed his young family into a house which resembled a crofter’s cottage with whitewashed walls and a thatched roof. Mary contented herself with furnishing the simple rooms and equipping her lean-to kitchen. Tartan shawls and bonnets arrived, gifts from Livingstone’s sisters back in Hamilton. Livingstone, meanwhile, was haunted by the vision of a “remote and shining lake” which he had heard about, on the other side of the Kalahari. Lured, as ever, by the prospect of opening up Africa to trade and Christianity, he started to plan an expedition.
Several factors spurred him on, the most obvious being the drying up of the Kolobeng river, a disaster which led to crop failure and the eventual malnutrition of his family. Despite the worsening conditions, Mary gave birth to a third child, Tom, in March 1849. But there were other reasons for anxiety: the Christian conversion of the Bakwena people was proving difficult, and meanwhile militant Boer farmers were threatening to evict the missionaries. Livingstone’s solution was simple: he would set off in search of the undiscovered lake, and he would send Mary and the children back to Kuruman.
Livingstone was away for six months. He succeeded in finding Lake Ngami, which lies at 3,057 feet above sea level on the south-west corner of the Okavango swamp. But when he was reunited with his family, his urge for exploration had not diminished: instead, it had grown stronger. He imagined new opportunities and new converts among the Makololo people who lived in that region, and he believed that better relations would ensue if he appeared among them not as a lone traveller but as a family man with a wife and young children. He proposed, therefore, that Mary and the children should accompany him on his second trip. For her part, Mary was desperate to avoid being separated from her husband, and readily agreed to a journey of around 1,500 miles across the Kalahari. She knew that she was pregnant with her fourth child; and she knew that she would probably give birth somewhere in the desert.
Mary had a lifelong distrust of ox-drawn wagons because she was afraid of being overturned, and her fears came true on at least one occasion. For the rest of the time, she must have been fully occupied in keeping the children amused, and kept her worries to herself as they drank muddy water and tried to eke out their food rations as best they could. She baked bread when it was possible to do so, and for three months they lived on stewed meat, corn and milk. Tsetse flies and mosquitoes plagued them; although the connection with malaria was not fully understood, Livingstone experimented with quinine tablets, known as ‘rousers’, with limited success.
At Lake Ngami, there was a brief respite as they enjoyed the scenery and the children played in the water, but soon both Tom and Agnes were suffering from malaria. Livingstone was forced to abandon his plans to push north, and the emaciated and exhausted party struggled back to Kolobeng, where their former home was already being consumed by wind-blown dust. Here, Mary gave birth to a baby daughter, Elizabeth; dangerously under-weight, she survived only six weeks. Mary herself was seriously ill, suffering from partial paralysis, possibly caused by a stroke, for a while after the birth. Livingstone grieved for his daughter, but reasoned that sorrow was the burden of a man who put his love of God above everything else.
With her health still frail and her grief fresh, Mary could have been forgiven for waving her husband off into the blue yonder and beating a hasty retreat to the comfort of her parents’ home. But in April 1851 the Livingstone family set off again across the Kalahari.
When it came to decisions about her fate, historians and biographers have debated whether Mary had any choice at all. She had resolved to be the pillar of support that Livingstone wanted her to be, and she was also determined that no one but her husband would attend the birth of her children. Once again, she was pregnant, and the fear of being apart from him outweighed the challenges that lay in store. And this time she was not just a passenger: her status as Robert Moffat’s daughter was significant, because her father’s reputation was widely respected among the people whom Livingstone hoped to meet.
When she learned of the decision, Mary’s mother was not quite so sanguine. Unable to contain her outrage, she sent a strongly worded letter to her son-in-law, demanding to know what on earth he was doing. Was it not enough, she asked, that he had lost one lovely baby? Must he now risk their lives all over again? Several weeks later, in the middle of the Mababe Depression, with his children crying from thirst, Livingstone might have agreed with her. Mary, on the other hand, refused to complain. They had sent their guides out to look for water, and eventually the men returned with a bottle of foul liquid which they had little choice but to drink. Livingstone, who had been pushing away nightmares of his family dying before his eyes, offered a heartfelt prayer of thanks.
Mary was seven months pregnant by the time they reached Linyanti, where they were the guests of Sebetwane, the chief of the Makololo. Soon, however, their host died of an illness, and Livingstone realised that widespread fever made this an unsuitable place for a mission station. Leaving his family on the bank of the Chobe river, he rode north for 100 miles and reached the Zambezi, a sight which ignited more fires in his restless mind. Here, he was told about Mosi-oa-Tunya – a spectacular cataract which, in a few years’ time, he would visit in person and re-name Victoria Falls.
On their return journey, quietly and without complaint, Mary gave birth to a son. He was named Oswell, after Livingstone’s long-suffering friend and fellow explorer, William Cotton Oswell. They all limped back to Kolobeng under a scorching sun. The journey had proved to Livingstone that the Zambezi held untold potential, but he also knew that he would need several years to fully explore it. With a rather belated sense of practicality, he admitted that he could not take his family on that trip, so it was agreed that Mary and the children would travel to Britain. In view of her devotion, Mary’s sorrow at parting can only be imagined.
That is by no means the end of Mary’s story, although she was increasingly lost in her husband’s shadow. Livingstone would become the first European to cross the continent of Africa, blazing a trail west to Loanda in Angola, and then turning around to trace the course of the Zambezi to the Indian Ocean; as a celebrated explorer, he would return to Britain to be received by Queen Victoria, and then he would throw himself back into Africa in search of a trade route up the Zambezi, while attempting to halt the slave trade. His ambitions were so vast that his family life had to take second place. There was no other option. Mary understood this better than anyone, but the reality of it was still the same.
When Livingstone embarked on his ill-fated quest on the Zambezi, Mary went with him but then had to divert to her parents’ home at Kuruman when she found that she was, once again, pregnant. The Livingstones’ sixth and last child, named Anna Mary, was born in 1858. Just four years later, aged 41, Mary died of malaria. Perhaps the only consolation is that she was in the arms of her beloved husband, which was all she had ever asked of life. Livingstone was beside himself with grief, and confided in a friend: “I loved her when I married her, and the longer I lived with her the more I loved her.” Mary was buried at Chupanga, on the bank of the Zambezi; then, with grim determination, Livingstone summoned the courage to continue his quest.
* Bechuanaland was a protectorate in southern Africa which became the Republic of Botswana in 1966.
The Livingstones’ first daughter, Agnes (nicknamed ‘Nannee’) was said to be the closer than her siblings to both parents, and twice visited her mother’s grave. She married Alexander Low Bruce, and their family home was in North Berwick, East Lothian. Together with cartographer John George Bartholomew, Agnes Livingstone Bruce was a co-founder of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society in 1884.
Reference and further reading:
‘Looking for Mrs Livingstone’ by Julie Davidson; ‘Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa’ by David Livingstone; ‘Livingstone’ by Tim Jeal; Livingstone Online: http://www.livingstoneonline.org/