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Exploration Of The Zambezi


The Zambezi delta and lower reaches of the river was part of the scattering of established geographical features which early cartographers could confidently feature on their maps of the African continent. The interior, including the secrets of the Zambezi, were unknown to the wider world, a blank expanse on early maps, often filled with mythical and imagined features – the dark heart of Africa.

The lower sections of the Zambezi had been known to Arab traders for centuries before the Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama navigated the Cape of Good Hope in 1498 and became the first Europeans to sail up the east coast of Africa. Arab traders had established a network of commercial ports, including Kilwa and Sofala, which traded slaves, gold and ivory to the Asian continent.

De Gama named the Zambezi ‘the river of good omens’ - the presence of Arab dhows in the delta proved he was nearing the Indo-African trade routes which he sought. Subsequent Portuguese expeditions landed at Sofala, on the Buzi River (south of the mouth of the Zambezi), intent on exploring the interior, and in 1505 they seized the harbour from Arab traders. Legends of gold inspired these early explorations, although the gold mines of the interior had already been exhausted.

In 1531 the Portuguese occupied the Arab river ports of Sena and Tete on the Zambezi itself. Despite all the evidence pointing to the exhaustion of the goldfields and the decline of the old trade routes and ports, the Portuguese still persisted with their dreams of gold. On 16 May 1570, an expedition of seven hundred men, under the command of Francisco Barreto arrived on the coast, determined to explore the interior via the Zambezi.

Barreto arrived at Sena on 18 December 1571, at the height of the rains, and many of his party died of fever. Eventually, on 19 July 1572 those that remained set out from Sena and travelled 120 miles up the banks of the Lower Zambezi. Their subsequent exploits marked the first large scale European incursion into sub-Saharan Africa and the crushing of several local chiefdoms. Eventually weakened by their losses, including Barreto himself, the expedition returned to the coast. Sena and Tete developed as early Portuguese trading posts, with Tete the end of regular navigation up the river, the escarpment and Cabora Bassa rapids blocking the river to boat transport. The majority of the Zambezi, and the Victoria Falls themselves, were secrets that the heart of Africa was still unwilling to reveal.

Exploration of the Upper Zambezi

Portuguese traders and explorers gradually increased their influence in the region and were the first to encounter and document the upper reaches of the Zambezi, although they had no knowledge that these two rivers were part of the same great river system. António da Silva Porto reached the Upper Zambezi in 1848, having travelled from the Angolan coast in an effort to cross the continent.

It was not until David Livingstone arrived at Linyanti (in modern Botswana) in 1851 that the connection was made. Staying with the Makalolo people Livingstone discovered the wide floodplains of the Chobe and its confluence with the Zambezi, and rightly concluded that this was the same river which discharged into the Indian Ocean, linking for the first time the Upper Zambezi with the coast.

Although Livingstone quickly realised the identity of his newly discovered river his claims were disputed by geographers at the time. A map published in 1852 even shows two rivers, the upper Zambezi and Livingstone's ‘new’ river, the two being separated by a continuous mountain chain.

It was whilst here that Livingstone was told of a great waterfall which lay some distance downstream. However they made no attempt to reach it, and after a brief stay, retraced their steps southwards. An interesting result of their expedition is that the Falls are marked, in nearly their correct position relative to the Upper Zambezi, on another map published in 1852 - three years before Livingstone actually saw them for the first time.

Livingstone returned to the Zambezi in May 1853, determined to explore the possibility of opening up trade routes from either the east or west coasts, whilst also preparing the way for a mission among the Makololo by the London Missionary Society under whose auspices he was travelling. Livingstone believed that Christianity and free trade would liberate Africa from slavery, and saw the river as ‘God’s highway’, a ready made transport route into the heart of the dark continent.

In November of the same year Livingstone set off on his ambitious quest. Leaving Linyanti he travelled upstream into the heart of Barotseland before branching off to the west and finally reaching the Atlantic coast at Luanda (in Angola) in May 1854. Accompanied by Makalolo porters, the journey was arduous and malaria and hardship took their toll on Livingstone.

At Luanda Livingstone recuperated and recovered his health, before returning to Linyanti in September 1855. Realising the impracticability of the western route he had explored, Livingstone set out again in a courageous attempt to cross the African continent to the Indian Ocean. As previously, he heard tales of the great waterfall, and in November 1855 he finally set out downstream to visit it, accompanied by Chief Sekeletu.

About one kilometre upstream of the falls Livingstone transferred to a smaller, lighter canoe and proceeded in this to the island between Main and Rainbow Falls which is today known as Livingstone Island. Landing on the island, he obtained his first view of the Falls, which he named after Queen Victoria, from what must be one of the most impressive viewpoints.

Leaving the Falls, Livingstone headed north-eastwards to the Kafue following it downstream to its confluence with the Zambezi, which he then followed, with only a detour near the Cabora Bassa rapids, to reach the Indian Ocean at Quelimane, north of the Zambezi delta, in May 1856, from where he returned to England. He had traversed the African continent from east to west, an epic journey which would win him fame and fortune, and along the way mapped much of the length of the great river.

Read more on David Livingstone from the Zambezi Traveller:
The Life of David Livingstone - Part VI: David Livingstone – the final journey (ZT14, Sept 2013)
The Life of David Livingstone - Part V: Dr Livingstone, I presume? (ZT13, July 2013)
The Life of David Livingstone - Part IV: The dream to open up Africa (ZT12, March 2013)
Slavery – the scourge of Africa (ZT12, March 2013)
The Life of David Livingstone - Part III: David Livingstone’s early missionary years and first expedition (ZT11, Dec 2012)
The ‘discovery’ of Victoria Falls (ZT11, Dec 2012)
The Life of David Livingstone - Part II: David Livingstone – the training (ZT10, Sept 2012)
The life and times of David Livingstone – the Sunday schoolboy (ZT10, Sept 2012)
The Life of David Livingstone - Part I: The ‘Scramble for Africa’ (ZT09, July 2012)
The story of quinine (ZT09, July 2012)

Read about the Zambezi Region on the following pages:

The Zambezi Basin

The Zambezi River

Formation of the Zambezi