The account of David Livingstone’s death written by his African servant in 1874 finally published

Jacob Wainwright was the only African pallbearer at the explorer’s funeral in Westminster Abbey in 1874. Pic credit: Facebook/Historia Kenya

When Scottish explorer David Livingstone died in the village of Chitambo, present-day Chipundu, Zambia, in 1873 after a long illness in his final journey to the continent, his three African servants had to decide what to do with his body.

Historical accounts state that the nearest British outpost at the time was on the island of Zanzibar, over 1000 miles away from Zambia. Undertaking such a journey to move Livingstone’s body there was an exhausting task as it involved journeying across some of the most dangerous terrains in Africa.

Yet, Livingstone’s attendants, led by natives who were in their 40s – Susi and Chuma – were determined to go ahead with the journey on foot to carry their master’s body to Zanzibar.

Jacob Wainwright was the youngest among the African attendants – believed to be in his teens – and the only one who could speak and write English. He kept a journal in which he recorded most of Livingstone’s activities when he was still alive.

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Wainwright was the only African pallbearer at the explorer’s funeral in Westminster Abbey in 1874. Pic credit: Facebook/Historia Kenya

Wainwright would eventually record the only handwritten eyewitness account of the famous explorer’s death. According to History Scotland, Wainwright’s full diary has been known of since 1874, but only in the form of the German translation; any version of the original had been thought lost.

Last week, Wainwright’s rare diary of what transpired in 1873 when his master died was published online by Livingstone Online, a digital resource dedicated to the famous explorer.

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 Falls its European name.

Livingstone came back once again to Africa in 1866, with a mission to find the source of the Nile River. During this gruelling expedition, his supplies ran out as most were stolen.

By June 1871, he found himself in a village called Ujiji, where he met Henry Morton Stanley who had tracked him down for an interview for the New York Herald. Stanley greeted him with the now famous line, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”

Stanley would later help Livingstone with fresh supplies and a new team of porters and attendants. Among them was Jacob Wainwright, of the Yao ethnic group from East Africa, who became Livingstone’s chief attendant and would later be the only African pallbearer at the explorer’s funeral in Westminster Abbey in 1874.

Wainwright’s early life is not well known, though varying accounts state that he was born in Malawi. Before the age of 20, he was captured by Arab slave traders, but was later rescued by a British anti-slaving ship. He was sent to the Church Missionary School near present-day Mumbai, India where he received his education and his name was changed to Jacob Wainwright.

Wainwright’s diary, which is held by the David Livingstone Birthplace Museum in Blantyre, Scotland, “shows how his colonial education and conversion to Christianity impacted his world view.”

“His writing reflects internalized racism toward African people, describing individuals he met on his travels as “ignorant,” and “deficient in courage, cleanliness and honesty,” reports Smithsonian.

But Wainwright’s writing was not surprising, said Olivette Otele, an expert on the history of people of African descent.

“Internalized colonialism was not rare among ‘African Europeans’ who had been moulded by Eurocentric views and religion in the 18th and 19th century,” Otele explained to The Guardian.

Wainwright would travel with the Scottish missionary and explorer searching for the source of the Nile. By 1873, after reaching the village of Chitambo in present-day Zambia, Livingstone fell ill, suffering from dysentery and malaria. He passed away by the end of April.

Wainwright recorded what happened next in his diary. He writes that the team performed a Christian burial service over Livingstone’s entrails, which they buried at the base of a Myula tree. The site has since become a memorial site to Livingstone. A two-day local traditional funeral was held after the service.

During the funeral service, Wainwright writes that the attendants worked to prepare Livingstone’s corpse for transport back to Britain.

“His remains were packed with salt then dried under the sun. His face was doused with brandy to help preserve his features. His legs were bent back at the knee to reduce the size of his body. All of that accomplished, they wrapped the remains in calico and a layer of bark, securing them in a piece of sailcloth. Finally, they covered that in tar to waterproof the remains,” writes

Wainwright and colleagues – Chuma and Susi – then began the arduous 1,000-mile journey on foot to carry Livingstone’s body from Zambia to the island of Zanzibar, which, as already indicated, was the nearest British outpost.

Wainwright writes that along the way, one tribe prohibited them from crossing their land while bearing human remains. The team also came across another explorer who was looking for Livingstone – Verney Lovett Cameron. The Royal Geographical Society explorer tried to force them to bury the body, but they refused and continued their journey.

Five months later, they reached the seaside village of Bagamayoport, where they transferred Livingstone’s remains to British custody. The Church Missionary Society paid for Wainwright to travel with the casket to England, however, Chuma and Susi were left behind. In April 1874, Livingstone was interred in Westminster Abbey, where Wainwright was the only African pallbearer at the service.

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Wainwright with the coffin holding Livingstone’s body. Pic credit: The Missing Chapter

Wainwright eventually returned to Africa and died in Tanzania in 1892.
His contributions and assistance to Livingstone during his travels in Africa are not well recorded in Western books, however, his handwritten manuscripts would help establish the legend of David Livingstone.

“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 David Livingstone’s death in 1873, the only handwritten eyewitness account of the incident,” said Prof Adrian S Wisnicki, the director of Livingstone Online, a digital archive of documents about the explorer.

Last Edited by:Victor Ativie Updated: May 21, 2020


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