Most of us are familiar to a limited degree with the story of Dr. David Livingstone (1813-1873): his disappearance, his October, 1871 discovery in Ujiji, Tanzania, by Henry Stanley (1841-1904), and Stanley's greeting to Livingstone: "Dr. Livingstone, I believe?" Even if the latter phrase is a post-facto invention by Stanley, an inveterate publicizer whose personal demons drove him to continually reinvent his life, the facts of the story — Livingstone, missing for six years, Stanley trekking eight months across 7000 miles of African tropical forest to find him — are impressive enough to deserve the status of cultural touchstone that they have achieved.
However, some of the details of Dr. Livingstone's disappearance, and the reaction to it of his contemporaries, hint at how very different the cultural milieu of the 1870s were from the present era's.
The Promethean Evangelizer
Some background: by 1866, Livingstone was an experienced traveler in Africa, having already spent 26 years journeying across the central and southern sections of the continent. He was also wealthy, thanks to the publication of his Journeys in South Africa (1857). And he was a national hero to Great Britain because of his evangelizing. That Livingstone was a committed opponent of slavery–to call him a zealot abolitionist is neither an overstatement nor a slur against him–added to his reputation but was not the cause of it. Livingstone believed that "Christianity, commerce, and civilization" were what Africans needed. For his willingness to devote his life helping Africans achieve the Western version of all three, Britons venerated Livingstone–this was the era of "muscular Christianity"–and saw him as a Promethean figure bringing the light of Christianity to the African "savages." Charles Dickens called Livingstone one of those who "carry into desert places the water of life."
So when Livingstone left for Africa in December, 1865, to find the long-sought-for source of the Nile River, the best wishes of the entire country, if not the British Empire, went with him–which made his subsequent disappearance all the more troubling.
Six Years Without A Word
The interior of Africa in the 1860s was still almost entirely unknown to white Europeans, and the only way white travelers could communicate with the outside world was by trusting letters to native bearers, who would (in theory) take the letters to the nearest European colonial city. In Livingstone's case, this was Zanzibar, at the time the property of Great Britain. Unfortunately for Livingstone, of the 44 letters he dispatched to Zanzibar from 1866 to 1871, only 1 arrived. Worse, Livingstone's bearers and assistants began deserting him, leaving him with few men he could trust to carry his letters. (Depending on which story you believe, Livingstone's bearers and assistants were unreliable cowards and thieves, or Livingstone was a self-righteous prig and incompetent as the leader of an expedition).
So from 1866 to 1871 Great Britain, newly hungry for information thanks to the advent of the telegraph network and the development of modern journalism, had next to no word about Livingstone's whereabouts or fate. Inevitably, rumors began to spread about what had happened to him.
Rumors and the Media
What wasn't so inevitable about the rumors is the increasingly sensational tone that they took. In January, 1866, the rumor in London was that Livingstone had expired of an unnamed disease. By April, 1867, British newspapers were printing reports (from supposedly reliable sources) that he had been murdered by a "Mafite savage." (The Mafites were thought to be an unusually violent sub-group of the Zulus; decades later, they were described as a "cult").
In May, 1867, the British newspapers printed a long, detailed account of Livingstone's death in battle. His party had been attacked by Zulus, and he died fighting, a revolver in hand, having killed three Zulus by himself. In November, 1869, the newspapers were reporting that Livingstone was held prisoner by a "native king," though the newspapers do not say why. And in February, 1870, the newspapers report that Livingstone has been "burned as a wizard" by a native tribe whose king died of mysterious circumstances soon after Livingstone met him.
By the beginning of 1871 curiosity about Livingstone's true fate was reaching new heights, both in Great Britain and in the United States, and James Gordon Bennett, Jr., the editor of the New York Herald, saw the potential for a story which would sell great numbers of papers. So Bennett sent Henry Stanley, who at the time was working for the Herald as an overseas correspondent, to Africa to find Livingstone, and advertised the fact of Stanley's expedition enough to whip audience interest to its utmost.
Stanley found Livingstone in October, 1871, stayed with him for five months, and left in March, 1872, carrying with him Livingstone's journals. Stanley reached Zanzibar in late April and sent word to the Herald (and through them to the reading public of the world) that Livingstone was alive. On May 2nd, Stanley's cables were published or summarized in the newspapers of the world.
But Stanley was not forthcoming with details-he was saving those for his book, How I Found Livingstone which was published later in 1872. One detail he did mention: that among Livingstone's letters was an account of the discovery of an underground city. Livingstone had claimed this once before. In a letter published late in 1869, Livingstone referred to "Rua," in what is now Mozambique:
tribes live in underground houses in Rua. Some excavations are said to be thirty miles long, and have running rills in them-a whole district can stand a siege in them. The ' writings' therein, I have been told by some of the people, are drawings of animals, and not letters, otherwise I should have gone to see them. People very dark, well made, and outer angle of eyes slanting inwards.
there is a large tribe of Troglodytes in Rua, with excavations thirty miles in length, and a running rill passing along the entire street. They ascribe these rock-dwellings to the hand of the Deity. The writings in them are drawings of animals; if they had been letters, I must have gone to see them. People very black, strong, and outer angles of eyes upwards.
This letter attracted a lot of attention in the United States, and the 1872 mention of an underground city, arriving not long after the publication of Bulwer-Lytton's The Coming Race, excited the imagination of many writers.
Which is as much explanation as any for the following article, which appeared in the Cincinnati Commercial Tribune on June 15, 1872:
An Awful Prospect
It seems we are to have some wonderful revelations from the long-lost African traveler, Dr. Livingstone, who has at last been discovered, far in the interior of Africa, by the enterprising correspondent of the New York Herald. There is a report, for example, that the dispatches he has sent by the correspondent contain, among other strange things, an account of the discovery, somewhere in the African continent, of a giant underground city, inhabited by an extraordinary people, whose ways are not as our ways. We have as yet had no description of these people, or their modes of life, and we are consequently left to all sorts of conjectures. The ancients had marvelous stories about certain men who were found somewhere in Africa. They were of gigantic stature, had one eye in the middle of the head, like Polyphemus, and so monstrous in appearance as to terrify a whole army. Some of them had wings and tails, others had horns and hoofs; some walked on all fours, and others traveled hind side foremost. The ancients also told of the underground cities in Africa, of which we now hear again, and they related many marvelous things of the inhabitants and their way of life.
ARISTOTLE ridiculed some of these stories, but he believed others no less extravagant. They were at last taken up by the comedians and poets, and people began to look on them as incredible and foolish. The Romans who attempted to penetrate the African continent at different points, also brought back startling accounts of the people who dwelt in the interior. In the middle ages, again, several adventurous travelers and chroniclers gave still more marvelous descriptions of the men and beasts which existed in the heart of Africa, beyond the sky-piercing mountains and the impassable deserts. OTHELLO, who has himself an African, tells in the play which bears his name, of some of his experiences when he was sold into slavery. He says it was his "hint to speak of antres vast, and of the cannibals that each other eat, the Anthropophagi, and men whose heads do grow beneath their shoulders." Now OTHELLO could not have told of these things unless he knew something about them; and, as his account is in confirmation of the accounts which were current in ancient Greece and Rome, as well as in other parts of Europe during the middle ages, we can not very well help giving it such credit as it deserves.
Now, what if Dr. LIVINGSTONE should actually furnish proof of the verity of these strange African stories which have been current in what we call the civilized world for the last two or three thousand years, and which, though often derided or laughed at, have turned up again and again through the ages, and have been repeated by travelers who attempted to penetrate the African mystery? What if the subterranean city which Dr. LIVINGSTONE is said to have discovered, should stretch far into the bowels of the earth, like the city described in that curious volume entitled "The Coming Race"? What if the inhabitants of the vast city should be fashioned like the Troglodytes, or like the Anthropophagi, whose heads do grow beneath their shoulders; or should be of gigantic stature with one eye in the middle of the head, or in the back of the head; or should have wings like the singular creatures described in "The Coming Race"?
We must be prepared for wonders. We can not tell of what kind they may be; but perhaps they will be such as the imagination could not possibly conceive.
No man who has ever penetrated the heart of Africa has come back to tell us what he saw, unless we believe the ancient and medieval stories to which we have referred. Is not this fact calculated to strike us with mysterious awe when we hear that Dr. LIVINGSTONE is still alive, and is the possessor of extraordinary news for mankind?
Perhaps for the last ten years he has been held prisoner by the monstrous creatures who inhabit the vast underground city of Africa. Perhaps he has a tale to tell like that of the Brobdignagians and the Lilliputians. Perhaps he has one vastly more surprising. Who knows? Perhaps our earthquakes and volcanoes are but the result of the antics or struggles or these monsters. Perhaps the "central fires" of which we hear so much are but the fires by which they warm themselves or cook their tremendous victuals.
Dr. LIVINGSTONE may have been compelled to tell them all about the little beings called men who swarm on the surface of this world. He may have had to tell them about the little houses we build on the earth, the little ships we sail on the seas, the little wars in which we kill each other, the little newspapers we print and read, and all such things. We can imagine their tremendous laughter as they listen to the queer tales of the little man about his fellow man.
There is one dreadful thought comes to our mind as we consider this subject. What if these monstrous creatures should take it into their heads after hearing LIVINGSTONE'S stories, to stalk forth from their vast subterranean city for the purpose of observing the curious things that exist on the surface of the earth? We can imagine them striding round from place to place, and striking mankind dumb with fear. If we brought our guns and cannon to bear on them, they would merely smile at the puny shots. If we stuck our swords and bayonets into them, they would not know what had happened. If we attempted to blow them up with nitro-glycerine, they would sneer at the attempt. If we called out the regular army and militia, they would trample them under their foot. This leads us to the opinion that, if they make their appearance, they will come well armed. What horrid weapons they may wield, we can't imagine; but probably they will be such as to enable them to annihilate several thousand little men at every blow.
The prospect grows alarming. Who cares about GRANT or GREELEY in the presence of such perils? We may yet rue the day on which LIVINGSTONE set his foot on Africa, and blast the hour in which he entered the mysterious subterranean city.
Sadly, the underground city turned out to be only the Katanga mine complex of modern-day Zambia.
The printed rumors about Livingstone's fate and the newspaper article and its speculations may seem laughable to us now, but after our laughter dies down we should spare a moment to be jealous of the men and women who wrote and consumed them. They lived in a time when it was reasonable to believe that a subterranean city of technologically-advanced monsters might exist somewhere in Africa. Livingstone's contemporaries could expect to experience the much-ballyhooed Sense of Wonder just by reading the newspaper. That is a state of mind to be envied.
Jess Nevins is a librarian, pulp fiction historian, and comic book annotator. He also writes encyclopedias. You can find out more on his blog.