David Livingstone (1813-1873)
On this day (10th November) in 1871 Henry Morton Stanley walked into a small African town, found an elderly white man and uttered the famous words “Dr Livingstone, I presume?” Or at least he may have done – there is some suggestion that his story of the encounter was subsequently embellished.
200 years after his birth, the Scottish missionary doctor David Livingstone remains an icon to many despite much recent criticism of him as an ineffective evangelist or a lackey of colonialism. It is true, that during his lifetime he did not make many converts, but neither do most mission workers, so that accusation does not really hold much water. He did through his exploration pave the way for later colonialism, but that does not take account of the full picture. In fact, Livingstone was missiologically 150 years ahead of his time in that he engaged with the socio-cultural environment rather than simply preaching the gospel.
Livingstone’s travels in Africa
As a mission worker wanting to take the gospel to the African interior, Livingstone became aware that the greatest challenge to the gospel was the slave trade, which broke up families, caused conflict between tribes, and impoverished many of the survivors. But simply abolishing it would also cause poverty – as many of the African chiefs benefitted from it. He concluded that trade with Europe would bring prosperity and stability in the aftermath of abolition, and create a more positive environment for the gospel to flourish. This inspired him to take up exploration in a search for suitable sites for European settlers.
While Livingstone may be seen in the west as a precursor to colonialism, many Africans see him differently. They love him for treating Africans with respect and courtesy, for not forcing his way into their territory with soldiers, for playing a huge role in the abolition of the slave trade and for bringing them Christianity. Many millions of Africans owe their salvation directly to his pioneering ministry which contributed to the demise of the slave trade and gave significant impetus to Christian mission to the continent’s interior.
The most eloquent testimony to the respect that Africans have for him is that in the immediate post-colonial era, when names like Leopold, Victoria, Speke and Rhodes were being systematically obliterated from the map of Africa, the name of Livingstone still remains commemorated by cities, mountains, waterfalls, parks, streets, schools and colleges.
Slavery is still widespread today.
Yet the quest to abolish slavery still continues. It is frequently cited that there are more slaves today than at any time in history. They include:
- child domestic workers
- forced labourers on construction sites
- people trafficked into the sex trade
- agricultural workers growing cash crops like cotton, coffee or cocoa for western consumption
- miners of jewels and precious metals
- waste reprocessors
- manufacturers of beauty products
- sweat shop workers
Many are kept in debt or in physical custody to prevent their escape. Others choose not to escape because of threats made to their families. Millions more may not technically be ‘slaves’ but are held in bondage and deprived of basic human rights by poor wages and lack of opportunity.
What can we do about it? We can campaign or protest through organisations like Abolish Slavery, Anti-Slavery International, Save the Children, Stop the Traffik, and the Fairtrade Foundation, but the simplest thing most of us can do is vote with our money. Author and educator Anna Lappé commented:
Every time you spend money, you are casting a vote for the kind of world you want.
A child in DRC sifts through broken rocks to find copper.
While ethical trading still has its issues, it has demonstrated the power of consumer choice. As little as ten years ago, many of us had to search around for fairly-traded products or buy them from specialist retailers. Now ethically-traded tea, coffee, sugar, chocolate and bananas are available in every supermarket. This is now extending to clothing, staple foodstuffs, gold and even mobile phones. We now need to be asking our suppliers ‘Where did this come from? Who made it? Why isn’t it Fairtrade certified?’
Many of us Western consumers may find it hard to afford the premium on such products, but despite our financial challenges we are probably still significantly wealthier than the people who produced them. It is now 200 years since David Livingstone was born, and 80 years since the UK officially abolished slavery, but every time we shop we still need to be asking ourselves
How might I be enslaving someone today?
You can find out by clicking this link how many slaves work for you.