Reviewed by Richard Laribee
By Andrew C. Ross
Hambledon and London, London, 288 pages
Stanley, emerging unexpectedly from the jungle, doffing his pith helmet and intoning, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” is so familiar that it is oft parodied in skits and cartoons without need of further explanation. Yet in spite of such familiarity and numerous accounts of his journeys, including those written by Livingstone himself, most of us will find Andrew Ross’ biography both enlightening and astonishing.
Ross creates a vivid image of Livingstone, his journeys and accomplishments that he hopes is more balanced and accurate than many attempts of the past. To do this, he first provides a wealth of historical and cultural background for understanding Livingstone in both Britain and Africa. More important, he provides Livingstone’s own words, referring liberally to letters, journals and books from Livingstone’s own hand.
Ross enjoys contrasting various views and assessments of Livingstone’s intentions with Livingstone’s own disclosure of his dreams, passions and plans. His familiarity with these writings allows him to reveal contrasts between Livingstone’s private feelings, confessed in his journals, and public statements moderated for acceptance by his British audience. Although obviously sympathetic to Livingstone’s character and passions, this fascinating portrait aims at accuracy, revealing strengths and weaknesses, genius and blunders.
Of particular interest is the breadth and complexity of this account. We gain insight into culture, politics, geography, cartography, racism, transportation, religions, missiology, people groups, medical understanding and practices, societies and the personal psychology of Livingstone and the other players. The reader understands why Livingstone’s contributions to medicine and geography were celebrated. Yet through it all runs the relentless passion of the man’s unrealized dream: his intention to free Africa from the horrors of slave raiding and trading. That this passion arises naturally from his personal faith and theology is clear.
Although he intentionally rejected the strategies and practices of missionary enterprises of his day, there is no doubt that Livingstone saw his adventures and explorations as a specific and intentional missionary endeavor. As he wrote: “No one can estimate the amount of God pleasing good that will be done, if by Divine favour, this awful slave trade, into the midst of which I have come, be abolished. This will be something to have lived for….”
There are a few annoying editorial errors, especially repetition, missing words and a couple of paragraphs that force one to guess at their meaning. Nonetheless, one is drawn into the adventure and tragedy of Livingstone’s life and passions. The issues are compelling, the information is fascinating, and one finds oneself gaining insight about current events by understanding their background. This is a biography well worth reading, not only by those interested in Livingstone, British history, Christian missions or Africa, but by any who are interested in people, the current world or human life.