In 1858, Dr. David Livingstone, the British explorer, embarked on a journey up the Zambezi River in East Africa. The botanist John Kirk joined him to catalog new plant specimens.

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About

Livingstone’s Zambezi Expedition is a beta site built by JSTOR Labs in collaboration with JSTOR’s Content Development team based on David Livingstone’s African expedition along the Zambezi and Shire Rivers from 1858-1864. The site provides students, teachers, and scholars with a greater understanding of the scientific, historical, and cultural contexts of the expedition, offering users both a high-level overview of the expedition and the ability to perform a detailed analysis of the materials.

The resource brings together content from JSTOR Global Plants with journals and pamphlets from other relevant JSTOR collections. This includes

  • more than 550 plant specimens collected on the expedition; and
  • more than 150 personal letters, reports, maps and related materials.

Learn more about Livingstone’s Zambezi Expedition in the FAQs, below, or explore it yourself.

Livingston'e Zambezi Expedition FAQ

Who can use Livingstone’s Zambezi Expedition?

Livingstone’s Zambezi Expedition is a free resource that is open to the public. Many of the pins on the map link to their corresponding item records on JSTOR Global Plants or the full-text articles on the main JSTOR website, which are available to people at participating institutions. Detailed information for the items from JSTOR Global Plants – including data on collector, collection date, locality, and identification – is freely available to everyone. Many of the articles are also freely available through JSTOR’s Early Journal Content program or through a Register and Read account. Other articles are available through JPASS if your institution does not participate in the relevant JSTOR collection.

The site is expected to be useful to a wide audience, including people with an interest in botany, history (of science, Africa, Europe, and religion – just to name a few), and geography … as well as those who enjoy a good adventure story filled with discovery, drama, and intrigue!

How did you choose this expedition?

The project grew out of an effort to feature the rich content that has been contributed to JSTOR Global Plants by the Global Plants Initiative partners and explore some of the varied ways researchers can utilize these materials in their work. The Zambezi Expedition is important both historically and scientifically, and we are fortunate to include a wealth of primary and secondary sources about the Expedition from our partners, including the Botanic Garden and Botanical Museum Berlin-Dahlem, Freie Universität Berlin; Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew; Royal Geographic Society; Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle; and Swedish Museum of Natural History Department of Botany.

Do you have an idea for other expeditions or historic events we could feature? We’d love to hear from you at labs@ithaka.org.

How precise is the locality and date information used to plot the items on the map/timeline?

It depends on the quality of the objects’ metadata and availability of contextual information. For instance, we can be fairly certain of the accuracy of a dated letter that contains the name of the place from which it was written. However, many of the objects include only vague information regarding dates (listing month and year or only year) and locations (for example, giving the location as “The Zambezi River,” which is nearly 1,600 miles in length). The items’ metadata also may refer to place names that have since changed or, in the case of geographical features, completely disappeared. It also is important to note that the maps created and used during the expedition are not as accurate as our current maps, so that locations and geographic features do not always match up (you can see this for yourself by examining the historical maps overlaid in the resource). We have made our best efforts to approximate date and location information when necessary based on contextual information and our existing knowledge of the expedition. The underlying metadata is available to you when you click on the various items so you can examine this for yourself if you are interested. Did we get something wrong? Do you have better data for any of these objects? Please let us know at labs@ithaka.org and we’ll work to improve the resource!

Can I give feedback on Livingstone’s Zambezi Expedition?

We’d love to hear from you! Please contact us at labs@ithaka.org.

References

In addition to the materials from JSTOR Global Plants we used a number of resources to learn more about the expedition and help create this resource. We list these below so you can check them out for yourself.

Title: The Farewell Livingstone Festival
Source: Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society of London, Vol. 2, No. 2 (1857 - 1858), pp. 116-142
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1799336

Title: Livingstone Online: Explore the manuscripts of David Livingstone
Source: Livingstone Online
Accessed: March 23, 2015
URL: http://www.livingstoneonline.ucl.ac.uk/

Title: Recent African Explorations: Proceedings of (A) Speke, (B) Petherick, (C) Lejean, (D) Peney, and (E) Livingstone
Source: Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society of London, Vol. 6, No. 1 (1861 - 1862), pp. 17-22
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1799373

Title: Notes on the Zambesi Expedition
Author(s): Thomas Baines
Source: Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society of London, Vol. 3, No. 3 (1858 - 1859), pp. 99-106
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1799036

Title: On Lake Tanganyika, Ptolemy's Western Lake-Reservoir of the Nile
Author(s): Richard F. Burton
Source: Journal of the Royal Geographical Society of London, Vol. 35 (1865), pp. 1-15
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3698075

Title: Zambesi: David Livingstone and Expeditionary Science in Africa
Author(s): Lawrence Dritsas
Source: New York: I.B. Taurus (2010)

Title: Livingstone: Revised and Expanded Edition
Author(s): Tim Jeal
Source: New Haven: Yale University Press (2013)
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt32bm79

Title: Ascent of the Rovuma, East Africa
Author(s): John Kirk
Source: Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society of London, Vol. 9, No. 6 (1864 - 1865), pp. 284-288
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1798902

Title: On a Few Fossil Bones from the Alluvial Strata of the Zambesi Delta
Author(s): John Kirk
Source: Journal of the Royal Geographical Society of London, Vol. 34 (1864), pp. 199-201
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1798473

Title: Report on the Natural Products and Capabilities of the Shiré and Lower Zambesi Valleys
Author(s): John Kirk
Source: Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society of London, Vol. 6, No. 1 (1861 - 1862), pp. 25-32
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1799376

Title: Portuguese African territories: reply to Dr. Livingstone's accusations and misrepresentations
Author(s): José Maria Almeida e Araújo de Portugal Correia de Lacerda
Source: Foreign and Commonwealth Office Collection
Contributor(s): The University of Manchester, The John Rylands University Library
Date: 1865
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/60235014

Title: On the Batoka Country
Author(s): Charles Livingstone
Source: Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society of London, Vol. 6, No. 1 (1861 - 1862), pp. 32-36
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1799377

Title: Dr. Livingstone’s Expedition to Lake Nyassa in 1861-63
Author(s): Charles Livingstone, David Livingstone and H. de Wint Burrup
Source: Journal of the Royal Geographical Society of London, Vol. 33 (1863), pp. 251-276
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1798452

Title: Explorations to the West of Lake Nyassa in 1863
Author(s): David Livingstone
Source: Journal of the Royal Geographical Society of London, Vol. 34 (1864), pp. 245-251
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1798477

Title: Latest Accounts from Dr. Livingstone, F. R. G. S., of the Central African Expedition
Author(s): David Livingstone
Source: Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society of London, Vol. 4, No. 1 (1859 - 1860), pp. 19-29
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1798822

Title: Narrative of an Expedition to the Zambesi and Its Tributaries: And of the Discovery of the Lakes Shirwa and Nyassa. 1858-1864
Author(s): David Livingstone and Charles Livingstone
Source: New York: Harper & Brothers (1866)
URL: https://archive.org/details/narrativeanexpe03livigoog

Title: The River Rovuma
Author(s): D. J. May
Source: Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society of London, Vol. 6, No. 1 (1861 - 1862), pp. 36-37
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1799378

Title: Address to the Royal Geographical Society of London
Author(s): Roderick Impey Murchison
Source: Journal of the Royal Geographical Society of London, Vol. 28 (1858), pp. cxxiii-ccxviii
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1798316

Title: Address to the Royal Geographical Society of London: delivered at the anniversary meeting on the 25th May, 1863.
Author(s): Roderick Impey Murchison
Source: LSE Selected Pamphlets
Contributor(s): LSE Library
Date: 1863
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/60215509

Title: Address to the Royal Geographical Society
Author(s): Roderick Impey Murchison
Source: Journal of the Royal Geographical Society of London, Vol. 34 (1864), pp. cix-cxciii
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1798461

Title: Notes on the Zambesi and the Shiré
Author(s): Richard Thornton
Source: Journal of the Royal Geographical Society of London, Vol. 34 (1864), pp. 196-199
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1798472

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Introductory Essay

On March 10, 1858, David Livingstone set sail on the HMS Pearl from Liverpool, for the mouth of the Zambezi River in Southeast Africa, in what is now Mozambique. Included with him on the expedition were Thomas Baines (artist), John Kirk (botanist), Charles Livingston (David’s brother), and Richard Thornton (geologist). The expedition reached the Zambezi River delta in May of the same year, and would not completely withdraw until January 1864. Over the course of five and a half years the expedition encountered many difficulties and was largely considered a failure upon its completion, though today the expedition provides a way to understand the scientific and cultural discoveries of the time.

Baobab near the bank of the Lue
Baobab near the bank of the Lue, by Thomas Baines (oil on canvas, 1859).

Source: Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. View on JSTOR Global Plants

David Livingstone was a Scottish explorer born in 1813. As part of the British and European colonial interests in Africa, he undertook several expeditions throughout the continent during his lifetime. While on an expedition in Africa in 1855, Livingstone discovered a waterfall on the Zambezi River, which he named Victoria Falls, and in 1856 he discovered the mouth of the Zambezi on the Indian Ocean. Based on this experience, Livingstone was interested in further exploring the Zambezi River as he thought it would provide ideal conditions to set up cotton plantations, a base for missionary and anti-slavery efforts, and access to the continent’s interior. Building off the public fame he developed through the publication of his book Missionary travels and researches in South Africa in 1857, Livingstone successfully secured funding from the British government for an expedition to the Zambezi River.

By June 1858 the expedition had made its way to the main channel of the Zambezi River and begun the process of bringing people and supplies up river aboard the steamer Ma Robert. They set up base in the village of Tete, from where they could explore the surrounding area and determine plans for continuing their travels along the Zambezi. By December, however, they determined the Zambezi River was not passable in their steamer at the Cahora Bassa gorge just beyond Tete, and they were forced to reevaluate their plans.

Pycnostachys urticifolia
Illustration of Pycnostachys urticifolia from Curtis's Botanical Magazine (watercolor and pencil on paper, 1863). Livingstone gathered seeds of this species in September 1859 and Kirk and Meller also gathered seeds and dried specimens from the Manganja Hills in October 1861.

Source: Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. View on JSTOR Global Plants

In early 1859 the expedition broke into groups to explore the surrounding areas. Thornton and Baines remained near Tete to explore the region’s geology and keep watch over the supplies. Livingstone and Kirk traveled up the Shire River, which traveled from the Zambezi up into the Shire Highlands near Lake Nyassa (now called Lake Malawi), in what is modern-day Malawi. Livingstone and Kirk returned to Tete in February to write up notes from their trip and determined the Shire River and Highlands would be the expedition’s new area of focus. Kirk and Livingstone departed again in March, this time to travel to the coast to meet a supply ship. It had not come by June, and they made their way back to Tete. Upon returning to the camp Livingstone accused Baines of stealing, and dismissed Thornton on grounds of poor performance. Thornton remained in Tete and continued his research independent of the party, and Livingstone decided to keep Baines on the expedition.

The expedition received word in early 1860 that they have been granted permission to continue their work. At this time Livingstone finally did dismiss Baines from the expedition. Baines always denied the accusations, and held out hope that he could rejoin the expedition, though he never did.

While traveling to the coast in January 1861 to meet a ship with supplies, the Ma Robert sank. The expedition finally reached the coast in February, where they picked up the Ma Robert’s replacement, the HMS Pioneer; Charles Meller, the expedition’s second botanist; and the first missionaries of the Universities’ Mission to Central Africa (UMCA), led by Bishop MacKenzie, who intended to travel to the Shire Highlands to establish a base for their missionary work. Although the UMCA was not officially party of the expedition, Livingstone would take charge of them and in many ways the fates of the two groups were intertwined for the remainder of their time in Africa. Livingstone and Kirk spent much of the rest of the year exploring the area around Lake Nyassa to determine how far north the lake extended. They faced many difficulties and never did reach the northern end of the lake, failing at their mission to end controversies over whether the lake was the source of the Nile River.

Seeds of the Ricinus communis L.
Seeds of the Ricinus communis L., collected by Meller in 1861. An example of plant materials collected for potential economic purposes.

Source: Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. View on JSTOR Global Plants

The expedition received another shipment in January 1862, which brought more missionaries for the UMCA settlement; Livingstone’s wife, Mary; and another steamer to use in their explorations, the Lady Nyassa. Unfortunately, the early months of 1862 proved to be a very difficult time, as many members of the expedition and UMCA suffered and died from fever. This included Mary Livingstone, who died in Shupanga only three months after arriving in Africa. These difficulties brought further hardship and criticism to the expedition.

In February 1863 a dispatch was sent from London announcing the expedition’s withdrawal from Africa, though Livingstone would not receive this until July. In May, Kirk, Charles Livingstone, and other members of the expedition departed for England, and the UMCA began to wind down its mission. Remaining members of the expedition departed in July, though Livingstone was forced to remain through the end of the year to wait for suitable conditions on the river to travel with the steamers. Livingstone used much of this time to further explore the areas west of Lake Nyassa. In December the UMCA left the area to travel to Zanzibar, and in January 1864 Livingstone was finally able to travel down the river and to Zanzibar with the Pioneer and Lady Nyassa. From there Livingstone set sail for Bombay to sell the Lady Nyassa, and finally returned to London in July 1864.

Despite the expedition’s perception as a failure when Livingstone returned, it has proven to be a historically important event. Throughout their travels members of the expedition sent letters to England reporting on their progress and discoveries. Of particular importance were letters sent by Livingstone to the Royal Geographical Society of London, and from Kirk to the directors of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew – many of which are still in existence and which are included in this resource. As a result, we have a detailed understanding not only of the expedition’s travels, but of what they thought as they encountered the people who inhabited the areas they were traveling through and we can see many of the scientific discoveries that were made while on the expedition. As the expedition’s botanists, Kirk and Meller preserved and sent back to London hundreds of plant specimens, which we still have today; over 130 of which serve as type specimens. These plant specimens have been plotted on the map on this website, so you can see when and where the plants were discovered, and through that track the progress of the expedition itself. These various scientific, historic, and cultural threads can be followed throughout the expedition, and touch on areas of study as diverse as botany; anthropology and ethnography; economics; history of science; and African, British, and colonial history.

This is a brief overview of the Zambezi Expedition and its import to science, history, and culture. In addition to the letters, plant materials, and other items highlighted here, there are several other very helpful resources we used during our work and that we recommend you check out if you want to learn more:

  • Title: Livingstone Online: Explore the manuscripts of David Livingstone
    Source: Livingstone Online
    Accessed: March 23, 2015
    URL: http://www.livingstoneonline.ucl.ac.uk/
  • Title: Zambesi: David Livingstone and Expeditionary Science in Africa
    Author(s): Lawrence Dritsas
    Source: New York: I.B. Taurus (2010)
  • Title: Livingstone: Revised and Expanded Edition
    Author(s): Tim Jeal
    Source: New Haven: Yale University Press (2013)
    Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt32bm79

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JAN 1857

DEC 1864






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