David Livingstone: Africa’s Trailblazer

Chapter 1
Still Alive

Something moved in the undergrowth. David Livingstone stopped in his tracks. Suddenly he saw the flick of a tail, a tan-colored tail with a tuft at the end. As he looked closer he could make out the shape of a lion hidden among the bushes. Not a small lion, but one that must have weighed at least four hundred pounds, and now it was no more than ten feet away.

Without taking his eyes off the huge animal for one second, David reached over his shoulder for his rifle. He put the stock of the gun to his shoulder and lined up the sights with the lion’s eyes. Smoothly he squeezed the trigger. Boom! The mouth of the rifle exploded in a flash of burning gunpowder. The lead bullet found its mark, slamming into the lion’s neck. But instead of falling over dead, the lion stood roaring in agony. David watched in amazement as it crouched back on its haunches and then leapt forward.

The rifle flew from David Livingstone’s hand. Pain raced through David’s body as the lion’s jaws clamped down hard on his left arm, each of the lion’s razor-sharp teeth cutting into his flesh. Before David knew what was happening, the beast had lifted him into the air and was shaking him like a cat shaking a mouse. Then it dropped him and pounced again, tightening its vicelike grip on his arm. David felt the lion’s hot breath against his body and its saliva seeping through his torn jacket. The animal rested its paw on David’s head, and David could feel the point of each claw poised to rip his skull open. Through the searing pain in his body, David could feel his heart thumping wildly in his chest. He was dimly aware of shouting in the background, but his world had narrowed to just him and the lion, and the lion was winning. Again the lion raised David effortlessly into the air and shook him. This time, David felt his skin ripping and bones breaking.

Boom! Another gunshot rang out, and the lion dropped David Livingstone like a sack of corn. David lay on the ground stunned and in numbing pain for a second and then rolled over. “God help us,” he cried when he saw the lion crouching yet again. Would nothing kill it? The lion lunged at David’s helper, Mebalwe. The African fell to the ground as the lion locked its huge mouth around Mebalwe’s thigh.

The men from the village, who had been standing stunned and motionless as the attack took place around them, suddenly sprang into action. Five, ten, fifteen spears were hurled at the lion. The lion made a final leap at yet another man, but the combined effect of the gunshots and the spears finally took their toll, and the lion fell over dead. That was the last thing David Livingstone remembered before he slipped into unconsciousness.

When David came around fifteen minutes later, he found himself lying on the veranda of the mission house at Mabotsa. Fellow missionary Roger Edwards was anxiously bending over him, dabbing his wound gingerly with a damp cloth.

Dazed, David tried to sit up. Searing pain shot up his left arm and through his body. He remembered the cracking of bone and the lion’s teeth buried deep in his arm. Then all the other details of the attack came flooding back to him. Shocked, he realized he’d survived. But what about Mebalwe? Had he survived? David grasped Roger Edwards’s arm with his right hand and asked about his helper.

“Yes, he’s alive,” Edwards assured him. “He has deep wounds on his leg from the teeth, but I don’t think anything is broken.”

Relieved, David slumped back down onto his back. At least no one had died trying to save him. And although most people attacked by lions in the wild were killed, somehow he had survived. It was all such a long way from Scotland, where the wildest animals he had encountered were the sheep that grazed on the hillside around the town of Blantyre where he had grown up. If the people back there could see him now….

Chapter 2
Different from Everyone Else

Twelve-year-old David Livingstone held his breath as he waited for his father to answer.

“So, you want to go out into the hills?” asked Mr. Livingstone, stroking his beard. “Let me see now. What was your memory verse from Sunday school this morning, David?”

“Matthew chapter four, verse four. ‘It is written, man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God,’” replied David confidently.

“Very good, son,” said his father, patting David’s light brown hair. Then turning to Grandpa Livingstone, who was propped in a straight-backed, wooden chair in the corner of the dimly lit room, he added, “Of course, that’s an easy verse for David. He could recite the whole of Psalm 119 when he was nine. He won a new Bible for his effort.”

David felt himself blushing. His father never complimented him directly or told him he was proud of his son, but he did like to tell other people about David’s accomplishments.

“Can we go, Dad? Please…?” begged Charles, David’s younger brother.

“A little fresh air can’t hurt the boys on the Lord’s day,” interjected Grandpa Livingstone, who lived in a room two floors below. “After all, the lads are cooped up from dawn to dusk every day. A laddie needs to get out in the open and smell the heather. When I was a lad, I lived my whole life in the open air. I can still shut my eyes and see the black rocks of the Isle of Ulva and smell the peat fires we lit to keep us warm on those nights when we had the sheep up in the high pastures to graze.”

David looked urgently at his father. If his grandfather got started on stories from his childhood in the Scottish highlands, there was no telling how long David and his two brothers would be stuck inside.

Thankfully, David’s father seemed to understand the predicament. “I’ll put on a pot of the new tea that just arrived from China, and we’ll sit and talk a spell while the boys run out to play,” he said. Then turning to John, David’s older brother by two years, he added, “Be back before dark, and mind your manners if you meet anyone along the way.”

“We will, Father,” the three boys chorused as they rushed out the door.

As David ran along the cobblestone road that led from the town of Blantyre into the surrounding countryside, he could feel the book bumping against the side of his leg. The reminder of what lay ahead made him run faster.

Finally, completely out of breath, the three brothers flopped down in their favorite spot, a lush, grassy plateau located on the side of a hill about three hundred feet above the town. Below, the boys could see Blantyre and its rows of crumbling brick apartment houses. They could also see the Clyde River as it snaked its way through the town, and since it was such a clear day, the city of Glasgow was visible eight miles off in the distance.

“Look, I can see Shuttle Row. Which one is our room?” asked Charles, plonking himself down beside David.

“Our room is on the other side of the mill,” replied David, looking at the gloomy row of brick tenements that flanked the huge cotton mill.

The three boys sat side by side for a few minutes taking in the view. It always fascinated David to be up high looking down at the world.

“Let’s run some more,” said Charles, interrupting David’s thoughts.

“Not right now,” replied David, untying the string he had wound around the bottom of his trouser leg and carefully extracting the book from inside his pants.

Charles gasped. “You’re not supposed to read that,” he said. “Dad told you not to.”

“There’s no harm in it, and if you know what’s good for you, you’ll keep your mouth shut,” David replied.

“Come on, Charles, let’s leave David to his book. I’ll give you a head start, and then I’ll chase you,” said John.

The two boys ran off farther up the hill while David rolled onto his belly in the soft grass and opened Culpepper’s Herbal. The book contained row after row of drawings of plants. The stalk, leaves, flower, and seed of each plant were rendered in meticulous detail, and underneath each drawing was the plant’s scientific name. David studied the pictures closely and was soon lost in the pages of the book. He recognized many of the plants from his walks in the hills. One or two of them even grew around the tenement building where his family rented a single-room apartment, but many of the plants were foreign to him. He wished he could see them and pick their leaves and press them for his collection, although he knew that would not be likely. Indeed, it was unlikely he’d ever go farther afield than a mile or two from the place where he had been born and raised. Few people ever did. In fact, David had never even been to Glasgow. Once when David asked to be taken there for a visit, his father had simply asked why he would want to go to a smoky, miserable city like that. His father didn’t seem to share David’s urge to see things for the sake of seeing them. But then, neither could his father understand why reading a botany book was so important. So important to David that he was willing to risk being punished for disobeying his father’s express instruction not to read such a book.

David found it hard to accept that his father did not want him to learn anything about science. Like many people in the early nineteenth century, his father thought science and religion were incompatible. Mr. Livingstone argued that it went against the laws of God to be asking why things were the way they were or seeking to discover the inner workings of plants or animals. He told David many times that people should be happy with things the way the good Lord made them and not concern themselves with the hows and whys.

But David was not happy accepting things the way they were, and that made him different from everyone else he knew. At the Monteith & Co. cotton mill, where he and his brother John worked fourteen hours a day six days a week, he was an oddity whom the other children made fun of. His job was commonplace enough. David was a piecer, and there were three piecers for every weaver. A piecer was a young person, boy or girl, who ran or crawled between the great clanking looms watching for threads that had broken. The piecer’s job was to quickly tie the broken threads together before they made a run in the fabric. If the piecer was not quick enough at this, the fabric would have a blemish in it. When this happened, the weaver would swat the piecer across the back with a leather strap. It was grim work, and the noise of the looms, the hissing of steam, and the grinding of machines made talking impossible. So David passed the time with a book. He would prop it open on a cotton bale, and whenever he had a few seconds to spare, he would glance at it and read a sentence. This gave him something to think about while he worked and until he could read another sentence.

The other piecers would throw empty cotton reels at David’s book, laughing and slapping each other on the back when they hit the cover and sent the book flying. When David was younger, he had yelled insults at them. Now that he was twelve, he just smiled and kept working.

Thankfully, David’s mother’s father, Grandpa Hunter, lived nearby. David had inherited his love of reading from him, and although he was not a rich man, Grandpa Hunter owned a large collection of books. He lent books to David and did not tell Mr. Livingstone when David borrowed a science book to read. David read other books, too. In fact he was just beginning to learn to read Latin.

About the time that David’s Grandpa Livingstone had migrated from the countryside to Blantyre, the British government had passed a law making it compulsory for factories and mills to offer schooling to any child under twelve years of age whom they employed. The owners of the mill where David and his brother John worked obeyed the law. However, the law didn’t state at what time the classes should be offered, so the classes were held from eight until ten each night, after the children had worked their fourteen-hour shift. Of course, most of the children were far too tired to take advantage of the classes. As a result, only about one in ten of them ever learned to read.

David Livingstone, who had been taught to read by his father when he was only six, was more determined than the average student. He forced himself to stay awake, not only for the classes but also to read his schoolbooks late into the night. More often than not, his mother would have to take the books from him and blow out his candle. Even then, David would lie awake for hours thinking about what he’d read, trying to recall it word for word.