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David Livingstone, Slavery Abolitionist

Beginning on the very day of Livingstone’s death, the British naval patrol was instructed to prevent the export of slaves from the eastern coastal ports. Just five weeks after his death the great slave market at Zanzibar was permanently closed. Less than two years later “all conveyance of slaves by land under any conditions” was also outlawed, dealing a final death blow to the East Africa slave trade.

David Livingstone is best known as a renowned nineteenth century missionary and explorer in Africa. Another vital aspect of his ministry career was the crucial role he played in exposing and helping bring about the abolition of the slave trade in southcentral and southeastern Africa in the latter half of the 1800s. To follow is a summation of his important part in that epic accomplishment.

Throughout his first eleven years of missionary service in Africa (1841-1852) Livingstone heard of and witnessed instances of Boers oppressing and even enslaving Africans beyond the borders of Cape Colony in southern Africa. The Boers were Dutch farm families who had emigrated by the thousands in the 1830s and 1840s, resettling north of Cape Colony in order to avoid being under British rule there. Eventually a Boer militia attacked a group of tribes to whom Livingstone had been ministering and ransacked his residence at Kolobeng, destroying his personal property valued at more than 300 British pounds (then equaling over 1,500 American dollars, likely worth at least thirty or forty times that amount today).

In 1851 Livingstone came in contact with and began ministering to the Makololo, a powerful marauding tribe that had settled in the area between the Chobe River and the upper reaches of the Zambesi River. The Makololo had subjected a number of other tribes living in that same region, which was several hundred miles further north than Livingstone had previously ministered. Those tribal groups, including the Makololo, had a long history of attacking neighboring tribes and carrying off livestock and people as slaves. In addition, Portuguese traders from Angola to the west, assisted by African Mambari tribesmen, entered that region and carried away scores or hundreds of slaves each year.

Livingstone spent two and a half years seeking to determine if a river transportation route could be established from either the west or east coast of Africa, to effectively and affordably transport missionaries and supplies to the inner area of the continent. In doing so he became the first European ever to make a transcontinental journey across Africa. As he approached and stayed for a time at both coasts, Portuguese officials were uniformly supportive of and helpful to him. But he noted that a number of those officials were themselves involved in slave trading to help supplement their income.

While back in Britain during 1857-1858, Livingstone wrote his first book, Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa. In it he exposed and condemned the different types of slavery he had seen practiced by the Boers, various tribes and the Portugues. In his many well-attended speeches given throughout Britain he put forth a plan to bring Christianity and legitimate commerce to inner Africa, which would in time destroy the slave trade there. He accepted the British Government’s invitation to head the Zambesi Expedition in exploring the Zambesi and its tributaries. The expedition’s further objectives, which were clearly and repeatedly stated in official documents, correspondence and public speeches, were to promote commerce and Christianity to the tribes of that region, with the intention that doing so would help Africans in various ways—economically, spiritually and by putting a stop to the slave trade.

The Zambesi Expedition explored: the lower portion of the Zambesi; the Shire River region and Lake Nyassa (modern Lake Malawi) north and northeast of that part of the Zambesi; the Rovuma River east of Lake Nyassa. Portuguese slave traders, operating with the knowledge and approval of their regional Governors, were found to be active in the Zambesi and Shire regions while Arab slavers prosecuted their trade at Nyassa. Not a few tribes in those areas eagerly participated in the slave trade, selling into slavery people they had captured from other villages or sometimes even the undesirables of their own clans.

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