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David Livingstone – the final journey

David Livingstone – the final journey

Sussi (right) and Chuma (left)
Sussi (right) and Chuma (left)
Images researched and supplied by Russell Gammon

Part 6 of a 6 part series marking the bicentennial of the birth of David Livingstone

By April 1873, Livingstone and his porters were lost in the Bangweulu Swamps, marching by day through driving rain and at night sleeping out on windswept, sodden islands. It was bitterly cold and Livingstone had an internal haemorrhage - not even this extraordinary man could survive this treatment.

He eventually collapsed and his companions built a litter in order to forge on, desperate to escape the swamp. Carrying him on their shoulders, they continued their march and on 29 April 1873 entered the village of Chitambo. That night they made their leader as comfortable as they could, cutting for him a bed of rushes. When they came to find him in the morning they discovered his still body, kneeling beside his bed, his grey head buried in his hands.

At some point in the night, all alone, the greatest of the Victorian explorers had reached the end of his final journey. His companions would preserve his body by salting and sun drying his remains and would carry him back to the coast, where his body was placed aboard a British warship and sent back to England. He was buried in Westminster Abbey in Explorers’ Corner.

He was survived by three children, none of whom followed in his footsteps. If there was someone who inherited his mantle that person was H M Stanley, who went on to a career as an explorer that rivalled even Livingstone’s.

As a direct result of Livingstone’s efforts to end the slave trade in those final lonely years, the British parliament would pass laws that would close the slave markets of east Africa forever, but he did not live to see that he had achieved his goal. The legislation was signed into law just ten days after he died.

In remembrance of his unflinching sacrifice those last terrible years, the British would build a church on the foundations of the old slave market on Zanzibar. Years later when they received word that the tree in Chitambo’s village where they had buried his heart had died, they collected the wood from that tree and used it to make a cross. That cross hangs today in the church, just next to the altar that was built on the site of the old whipping post of the slave market.

If you wish to spend some time with the spirit of David Livingstone, that is the place to go. He may have been born in Scotland and buried in Westminster Abbey, but I believe that his heart has always been here in Africa, the continent whose people he came to love so dearly.

Sussi and Chuma

The true heroes of the final chapter of Livingstone’s story were two young men who have belatedly achieved some fame - their names were Sussi and Chuma. They had been recruited by Livingstone on the Zambezi Expedition and so had been travelling together with him for over ten years. The decision to carry his body to the coast would largely have been theirs.

It may seem an extraordinary decision, but in their culture they believed that the spirit’s purpose in the afterlife was to watch over the family, and you can not do this if you have been buried on the other side of the world! If that is your fate then your spirit will wander the earth for eternity trying to find its way home, a fate worse than death. Their decision was to preserve his body and carry it over 1,000 miles back to the coast.

That journey would cost the lives of another six men, but they never faltered once and when they were asked why they had done this their answer was simple. “He is a great man and must be buried among great men.”

They had no doubt of his worth in their minds and I would put it to you that they knew him better than anyone. So next time you recall the name of David Livingstone, remember also the names of Sussi and Chuma - brave men who also deserve to be remembered.

Read more about the region in our destination guide:

Read more articles from this issue:
Zambezi Traveller (Issue 14, Sept 2013)

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)