Saturday, March 28, 2015

A soothing aperient (laxative) needed ... The Zambezi Expedition (2)

The Zambezi Expedition was fraught with much more than problems with equipment and badly-built vessels or serious errors in navigation and exploration. There were all the other dangers of mid-19th Century Africa by way of diseases, accidents, wild animals, slave traders, unfriendly or warring locals and competing colonisers (in this case, mostly the Portuguese). 

Add to the mix personality clashes and big egos and trouble was inevitable. What began as a petty argument could often blow up into a blazing row within minutes. There were outbursts of temper followed by sulks, accusations, slander, lies and even bouts of hysteria among the participants. Highly-educated and normally reasonable British men [more about the women later], to use modern parlance, totally "lost it" or behaved irrationally. As a result most of them ended up being sacked by Livingstone or resigning under the pressure.

One of the first to go was Livingstone's second-in-command, Commander Norman Bernard Bedingfield of the Royal Navy (1824-1894).

Livingstone had met him at the conclusion of his famous crossing of Africa in 1854 in Luanda, Angola, where Bedingfield was in command of HMS Pluto, a steam gunvessel of the West Africa Squadron and Livingstone had been much taken with him at the time [see note below], also his impressive career in the navy. While based on the west coast of Africa, Bedingfield was much lauded for his skills in river navigation and in negotiation with warring chiefs. He seemed the ideal man to help Livingstone explore the Zambezi.

What was not known to Livingstone then was that although he'd had many recommendations to the Admiralty for promotion, Bedingfield had a short fuse in that he had twice been court martialled, once for being contemptuous and quarrelsome towards a senior officer.

This did not augur well. Bedingfield was used to be in charge. So was Livingstone. There was a class and cultural divide between the men as well - the haughty English naval man vs. the blunt Glasgow Scot. 

Their clashes came quick and fast and although none of the biographies suggest they actually gave each other bloody noses, they took their vitriol to print rather than facing off in person. The final straw for Bedingfield was being told by Livingstone that his tantrums were due to constipation: 
"There is often a peculiar condition of the bowels which makes the individual imagine all manner of things of others. Now I earnestly and most respectfully recommend you to try a little aperitent medicine occasionally and you will find it more soothing than writing official letters".

Nothing like a good old "Livingstone Rouser" to cure your ills!
From the Livingstone Centre, Blantyre.

Bedingfield replied that his letter was "the most insulting I have ever received" and quit.

Livingstone was later to say "I never before met such a bare-faced dirty hypocrite as he [Bedingfield]. He suffered from a venereal bladder.

To prove the destructiveness of his experience with Bedingfield, Livingstone deliberately wrote him out of his own Narrative on the expedition and so he doesn't rate a single mention in that official account.

Bedingfield returned to his Royal Naval career and retired as a Captain in 1877, but he still received periodic promotions to Rear Admiral and then Vice Admiral, possibly as a means of helping to boost his pension. He was married but does not appear to have had children or lived in a grand house. In both the 1881 and 1891 census returns, the couple were shown as lodgers in fairly modest surroundings in Dulwich. Bedingfield died in February 1894 and left an estate of just under £3,900 to his wife, Catherine Caledonia. 

The autocratic stance in the portrait gives a good indication of Bedingfield's character. Apart from his unfortunate association with David Livingstone, he is also remembered for his actions in Nigeria with the Lagos Treaty of Cession.

Copyright Illustrated London News (3 April 1858)

Note: When ill health forced Bedingfield away from West Africa in 1854, the steam-packet in which he was travelling, Forerunner, was wrecked at Madeira and he is credited with saving several lives including that of the Governor of Western Australia, Arthur Kennedy.  The vessel was also carrying Livingstone's original journals, maps and other papers from his famed earlier crossing of the continent and that meant he had to re-write everything from memory (with some resulting errors). Given his later experience with Bedingfield, no doubt Livingstone might have wished he'd gone to the bottom as well!

All information in this series of blogs is taken from my extensive personal collection of books, journals and documents relating to David Livingstone in addition to general history publications, archive newspapers and genealogy sites. If more specific detail is required, please contact me.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

The Rocks in God's Highway - The Zambezi Expedition (1)

David Livingstone is a name that needs no introduction. There are so many journals, letters and books written by the man himself, one wonders how he ever found the time to travel and explore as much of Africa as he did. Subsequent to his death in 1873, numerous biographies, articles and dissertations have been published about him, one of the best being Livingstone by Tim Jeal. This book is no hagiography and exposes his many flaws as well as his positive attributes.

The famous classic image. Photo Thomas Annan, National Galleries of Scotland

Many people associated with Livingstone are moderately famous in their own right, such as his missionary father-in-law, Robert Moffat, his early travelling companion William Cotton Oswell, his childhood friend James "Paraffin" Young and the philanthropic Baroness Angela Burdett-Coutts. Others have been overlooked altogether and don't even warrant Wikipedia entries, yet they all did some remarkable things in helping to imbue Livingstone with his legendary status.

Even in his own lifetime, Livingstone tarnished his own halo. The Zambezi Expedition of 1858-1864 showed him in the worst light possible and it might be argued quite a number of people were humiliated or traumatised and some even lost their lives due to the disastrous way in which the Expedition was handled by him. Gruff and dour, he was fine with Africans but was useless managing those of his own race. But his major fault was in assuring those in power in Britain that the river was navigable from the Indian Ocean up to the Victoria Falls. He had in fact not personally travelled its full length himself, choosing to cut a vital corner thereby missing the notorious Kebrabasa (Cahora Bassa) rapids which rendered the river useless for commercial purposes. The repercussions can be imagined when huge sums of money were invested in the Expedition.

Kebrabasa, Thomas Baines

Here is a selection (in no particular order) of some names associated with that Expedition which may mean little to anyone who is not a Livingstone aficionado or scholar, but deserve having their individual stories better-known and a few of them will be the subjects of upcoming posts.


Norman Bedingfield, Royal Navy commander
Thomas Baines, storekeeper and artist
Richard Thornton, geologist
Charles Hardesty, engineer
George Rae, engineer
Charles Livingstone, brother of David
John Kirk, botanist and explorer
Edward D Young, gunner
James Stewart, missionary
Charles Meller, doctor
Horace Waller, anti-slavery activist


Elizabeth M Burrup, wife of Reverend Henry de Wint Burrup
Anne Mackenzie, sister of Bishop Charles Mackenzie
Jessie Lennox, companion to Miss Mackenzie
Mary Livingstone, wife of David (see earlier blog here)

Plus ... there will be special mention of some of those unheralded and long-forgotten Africans without whom none of Livingstone's explorations or discoveries would have been possible. 

(A link to a special Pinterest board of images is being created and will be added to the blog entries.)