Diary of explorer David Livingstone's African attendant published

David Batty


The diary of an African attendant on the Scottish explorer David Livingstone’s final journey into the continent has been published online, containing the only handwritten witness account of the the Victorian missionary’s death in 1873.

The manuscript was written by Jacob Wainwright, a member of the Yao ethnic group from east Africa and the only African pallbearer at the explorer’s funeral in Westminster Abbey in 1874.

The diary contains a rare insight into the role of Africans involved in British colonial exploration and Livingstone’s death aged 60 in the village of Chitambo, present-day Chipundu, Zambia, after suffering from fever and excruciating back pain that prevented him from walking.

Livingstone was one of the most famous 19th-century European explorers of Africa. In 1855, he became the first European to see Victoria Falls – and gave the landmark its European name. In 1871 Henry Morton Stanley, another explorer, famously greeted him with the phrase: “Dr Livingstone, I presume?”

Prof Adrian S Wisnicki, the director of Livingstone Online, a digital archive of documents about the explorer, said: “This diary shows us how Wainwright, through travelling with someone like Livingstone, is starting to see different African cultures and African people he meets through the eyes of a [European] explorer. There are elements in the diary where he’s trying to write in a Livingstonian mode.”

For example, Wainwright describes the Wabisa tribe as “defficient [sic] in courage, cleanliness, and honest[y]”, adding “the people are so ignorant that they take the tins’ pieces for lead”. In another extract, he writes: “When we were crossing [the Chambezy] river we nearly came upon a fighting, and the natives would hardly give their canoes.”

After Livingstone’s death, Wainwright and some of the explorer’s other African attendants transported the body and his final manuscripts back to Zanzibar, on the east coast of Africa. In one diary extract, Wainwright describes preparing the body for embalming, writing: “We had no other remedy than salting his body to preserve it from corruption and when his belly was examined nothing was found except black blood and also his lungs were found wasted up.”

Historical records of Wainwright’s life were scant, said Wisnicki, which reflected the lack of value placed on records of non-Europeans’ lives in the 19th century. Scholars believe he was born in what is now Malawi, although there is no record of his original name. Some time before he was 20, he was captured by Arab slave traders but was later freed by a British anti-slavery ship.

He was given a new name and educated at a Church Missionary Society school near Bombay (now Mumbai) in India. He became part of the expedition that Stanley organised to find Livingstone, and later joined Livingstone’s party as an attendant.

Prof Olivette Otele, an expert on the history of people of African descent, said: “Jacob Wainwright’s views were those of a grateful man. Europeans had saved his life and given him an education. He certainly believed that they had been sent by God to spread the gospel. Internalised colonialism was not rare among ‘African Europeans’ who had been moulded by Eurocentric views and religion in the 18th and 19th century.”

The original diary manuscripts are held at the David Livingstone Birthplace Museum in Blantyre, Scotland.

Wisnicki, of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, added: “Although original diaries by British explorers survive in relatively large numbers, those by the individuals from the non-European cultures who accompanied British explorers are exceedingly rare.

“The diary excerpts are of exceptional importance as they offer Wainwright’s account of Livingstone’s death in 1873, the only handwritten eyewitness account of the incident.”