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Queen Victoria's Empire : The Changing Empire : Wilson



David Livingstone Wilson
David Livingstone Wilson
The following is from an interview conducted for the filming of "Queen Victoria's Empire." It is an actual transcript of the interviewee speaking; hence, much of the text may seem informally constructed.

Q: Tell us about David Livingstone's early life.

A: Well, David Livingstone was born in a single family room of his parents' house in Blantyre. [It] was in a tenement block for the people working in the mill, the cotton mill. And at the age of 10, he was started work as a piecer -- that was joining together broken threads, and he'd to run around and get the threads and join them together, but with a kind of 12-hour working day up until eight o'clock at night. But the mill was kind of enlightened, and they provided a school for some of the young children, the children who were working there. And so after work, he would have a couple of hours lessons in the school. And then he would go home and would have homework to do. So it was a long, long day that he grew up with.

Q: What made him choose medicine?

A: Well as a boy, he was very interested in the world around him, and there's stories about him looking for fossils in quarries and interested in the plants and so on. So he had an interest in this natural world, and science, of course, was developing at that time. I suppose that that's why he sort of began to feel that medicine was something of interest...He also felt that he could do something through medicine to relieve suffering and so on. And I feel that he was interested in all this development at the time. And although, although medicine couldn't achieve then what it can now, it was still accepted as being as helping illness and suffering to a great extent.

Q: What do you think [his] motivations were for going to Africa?

A: Well, having in his, when he went into medicine he, at that time was intending to become a missionary. He came from a religious family and an independent church, one of the kind of congregational churches in Hamilton. And he was fired with enthusiasm to take the gospel further. But he had, had heard, you see, that you could be a medical missionary, and that's, that's what he said, that's for me. And his father was a bit against this. He said, oh doctors, they, they just look for their fees and so on. But when he realized why his son wanted to do this, he agreed. So he then trained in, in Glasgow, and went to classes there for a year or two, and then went on to London and furthered his medical training. But by this time, he had actually got involved with the London Missionary Society. So they gave him a theological training. And this of course is one of the boys -- perhaps the only one -- in his group, or in many groups, who had achieved that kind of level from these workers in the mill.

Q: What drove him to eradicate ignorance?

A: Working as a doctor and a missionary I think he would have said that first he was going to be missionary. He was there to preach the gospel to those who hadn't heard. But he wasn't just going to deal with their spiritual side -- he'd deal with the bodily side as well. And so this is how medicine came in. He would heal and so on. And in fact, of course, they would, they would teach and bring in some education and so on. And this was the kind of missionary ethos at the time. You looked at the whole, at the whole people, and said, they need the gospel and they need other things to go. Without education, you won't read the bible.

Q: What kind of problems did he experience in terms of trying to convert African natives?

A: Well, I think his first, his first need of course was to learn the language. And so, he'd learn the language, and learn about the people. Now in this, in, he was extremely interested in both of these. In fact, in due course he was, he kind of wrote a grammar of the local language, which was published. But he was also very interested in their customs and beliefs. And so in these little journeys to, to see further afield and to look at where he might establish them, he was travelling with African people and was learning and meeting the tribes...And so he was learning about their culture...That was something [that] other missionaries had been less interested in. They had said, well this, this culture is worthless, it's degraded, and so on. He was interested, although he appreciated it had, it had its problems and all the rest of it, but he was very interested in that. And so he developed quite a good knowledge of the peoples and what they believed, and how they behaved and why they behaved.

Q: What do you think was more important to him -- exploring or converting?

A: I think Livingstone was always a missionary, although he's seen later as being the explorer. But he was exploring usually with an idea that there would be, that there was a purpose in this. He of course had developed the view that Christianity and commerce and civilization would go together. And this would be the way of bringing to an end the slave trade, and bringing in legitimate commerce and trade. He saw possibly colonists coming in to work with the African people. He had, he didn't see the country being taken over as a colony, but he saw people coming who could help in various ways and would work to produce crops. He was very interested in cotton, of course. He worked with cotton in the mill, and there was cotton in the Zambezi valley and he thought this is, this would be a future. So his attention was not so much converting individuals but setting, sowing the seeds for Christian country, trading, developing and you know, in all these ways.

Q: What was Dr Livingstone's point of view regarding the expansion of the British Empire?

A: Some people have suggested that Livingstone was very much an empire builder. He was interested in colonists coming in. He could see that these African countries [had] peoples who were not totally different from the European peoples. You know, he could see that in the different peoples had got the same potentialities, the same emotional feelings. They might live in a culture that was debased, as he might have thought. But they had the same potential as everyone else. He was clearly somebody who accepted that the races of man were one humanity, and that's important. But he felt that these primitive, uneducated peoples, you know, you would need to bring in colonists. He came from Scotland, and he came from a background of people who had worked on the land. And although he had come from a mill, he could see that these working people there could work with the African people. They could bring in skills and pass these skills over.
So he saw the need for them to come in. I don't think he envisaged that these countries would then become dependencies of in the British Empire or whatever. That, that I think he, he had actually travelled you see with, and visited tribes where the tribal structure was good...Again, he would say, he would feel that bring in civilizing influences and Christianity, then that should improve [Africa]. Now I don't think that he, he was positively feeling that the time would come when the countries he was travelling to would become colonies and part of the British Empire.

Dr. David Livingstone Wilson was born in Zambia (Northern Rhodesia) at Chitambo Mission, 50 miles from where his great grandfather died. Brought up in Scotland and trained in Glasgow University Medical School, he returned to Zambia with wife Ada to medical missionary work at Lubwa Hospital from1951-59. In 1993, he spent three months with New Century Conservation Trust Expedition following Dr. Livingstone's last journey in Tanzania, Burundi and Zambia, walking some 300 miles closely following the explorer's route.

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