Decoding the Lost Diary of David Livingstone

Modern technology allowed researchers to reveal that the good doctor was not all that the public presumed

Livingstone meeting
An illustration based on Livingstone's materials depicts the famous meeting of Livingston and Stanley at Ujiji, Lake Tanganyika in Africa. Bettmann/CORBIS

The last decade of David Livingstone’s life did not go well for the famed Scottish missionary and explorer. In 1862, his long-neglected wife, Mary, came to join him in Mozambique, but she quickly contracted malaria and died. Nevertheless, he continued on his mission to find a navigable route through the River Zambezi. But in 1864, seven years before his famous run-in with Henry Morgan Stanley, Livingstone was forced to give up and return to Britain after most of his men abandoned him or succumbed to disease. He quickly fell from public grace as word got out about his failure to navigate the river. Eager to redeem his reputation, he returned to Africa two years later, this time in search of the source of the Nile River. But yet again, his assistants soon began deserting him, and added insult to injury by taking all of his food and medicine with them.

Starving and crippled by pneumonia, cholera and cutaneous leishmaniasis, Livingstone had no other choice but to turn to Arab traders for help. But this posed a moral dilemma for the staunch abolitionist: his saviors were the types of men he had been criticizing throughout his professional career for their involvement in the lucrative slave trade in India and the Arab peninsula.

From here, the account of what happens next differs depending on whether you read the official version issued by Livingstone’s publisher in 1874, or whether you consult Livingstone’s diary, whose brief entries detailing the period from 1871 to 1873 are, scholars think, a much more honest representation of Livingstone’s true thoughts and experiences. But until very recently, the diary was completely illegible. Having run out of paper and ink, Livingstone used the juice from a local berry to write on an 1869 edition of The Standard newspaper that a friend had sent him (he didn’t receive it until 1871). In 1873, Livingstone died in a small village in Zambia, having succumbed to malaria and dysentery. His diary was shipped back to England along with Livingstone’s body, but as early as 1874, the juice had faded to the point of near-invisibility, and the newspaper’s dark type further obscured efforts to decipher it. So for nearly150 years, Livingstone’s secrets remained firmly locked away on those faded sheets.

Adrian Wisnicki, an English professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and a faculty fellow in the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities, first heard about the diary in 2000. Wisnicki trained in the humanities, but his quest to find and decode the diary eventually led him to his true calling, a relatively new field called digital humanities.

Digital humanities scholars use computers, technology and social media to address questions in disciplines ranging from literature to history to art. One of the earliest projects to demonstrate the usefulness of this approach was the attempt to decipher the Archimedes Palimpsest, a 10th-century parchment that contained an unknown work by Archimedes. In the 13th century, however, a Christian monk erased the original Archimedes text and reused the paper for transcribing religious text.

As the project progressed, however, Archimedes’ lost words were slowly revealed. A team of imaging scientists, information technology consultants and library managers began working on separating the two layers of writing using advanced spectral imaging, a technique that uses separate wavelengths of light to enhance or tone down different chemical signatures—in this case, the ink the original Byzantine scribe used versus that of the monk. This teases those tangled words apart, allowing scholars to read or see what is otherwise invisible to the human eye. The project was a success, revealing not only Archimedes’ “The Method of Mechanical Theorems”—a work originally thought to be lost—but also a formerly lost commentary on Aristotle’s Categories by Alexander of Aphrodisias, and the only known existing manuscript by Hyperides, a 4th century Athenian politician. “Spectral imaging technology is a real game-changer,” says Mike Toth, president of R.B. Toth Associates, the technology company that decoded the Archimedes Palimpsest, along with many other historic documents. “Without it, it’s like trying to read what’s been erased on a white board and then written over. All of that heritage would be lost.”

In the years following the Archimedes Palimpset, other methodologies joined the digital humanities’ tool kit, and projects ranged from investigating Thomas Jefferson’s edits on the rough draft of the Declaration of Independence to creating multi-spectral images of the papyrus-based Gospel of Jesus’ Wife.

Wisnicki, however, had not yet caught the digital humanities bug. When he went in search of the diary, he was a traditional scholar, trained in the art of research and critical thought, not spectral imaging and metadata collection. In the early 2000s, he was pursuing an interest in 19th century British incursions into Africa, especially the way that British explorers’ rough, honest field diaries were later converted into polished tales of adventure, heroism, danger and discovery that became best-selling books. “The books that came to represent 19th century Africa were often very detached from the actual experiences of individuals in the field,” Wisnicki says. “To some degree, they were as much fiction as they were nonfiction.”

For this reason, Wisnicki explains, scholars consider the “original, unbridled, uncensored, written-in-the-heat-of-the-moment notes” as much more trustworthy documentations of what actually took place.

The hunt for 19th-century British explorers led him to Livingstone, one of the most famous of that cohort of men—and to rumors about Livingstone’s lost diary. But when Wisnicki finally managed to track down its scattered pages, which were tucked away in several forgotten boxes in the David Livingstone Centre just outside of Glasgow, he found that they were completely unreadable.

On a whim, several years after beginning his search, he contacted a friend involved in digital humanities, who directed him to a listserv. Within a day, he had received 30 responses, half of which advised him to reach out to the team behind the Archimedes Palimpsest. On the second day, however, Roger Easton, an imaging scientist from the Institute of Technology who worked on that famous project, contacted Wisnicki himself. “He said, ‘You have a manuscript that might interest us,’” Wisnicki recalls.

As it turned out, digital humanities was indeed the solution for transcribing the diary. And more importantly for Wisnicki, his own scholarship would never be the same. Once he embarked down that technologically enriched path, he was hooked. “I started out as a very traditional humanities scholar, looking at archives and books and forming arguments and writing, mostly on my own,” he says.

Toth soon got involved, too, and began scanning the pages of the diary, looking for the precise wavelengths that would reveal the writing underneath, and several other experts based in locations ranging from Baltimore to Scotland helped with the post-imaging processing and metadata cataloguing. The project, Toth says, was unique. “We always think in terms of undertext, or that which has been erased or scraped off, but this was a case overtext,” he explains. “Plus, there was this unknown berry ink that posed an interesting challenge.”

After subjecting the diary to spectral imaging, the team was left with more than 3,000 raw images, totaling 750 gigabytes of data. All of this needed to be processed by imaging scientists so that the text could actually be read. Easton handled the first phase of processing, which involved a technique called principal component analysis. PCA uses statistics to find the greatest variances between an original text and the spectral images of it. When those images are combined—from most to least variance—they can reveal details lost to the human eye.

Easton then handed off nine different PCA images to Keith Knox, an imaging consultant in Hawaii. With those images in hand, Knox was able to crack the legibility puzzle by adding a false color to the pages—light blue, the color that turned out to best mute the printed newspaper text—so that the darker written text stood out. Wisnicki opened up his email one morning to find those pages, an experience that he describes as extraordinary. “It was like history was being made on the screen while I’m sitting there in my pajamas,” he says.

Livingstone Diary
At top, the original Livingstone diary written on an old newspaper. Below, the blue-tinted copy that allowed researchers to finally read the text. David Livingstone Centre. CC BY-NC 3.0.

In the end, Wisnicki and his colleagues were able to transcribe about 99 percent of Livingstone’s diary. Those words reveal a much more nuanced story than Livingstone’s publisher ever put forth.  “The nice thing about Livingstone is that, compared to some other 19th century writers, his writing is fairly easy to read,” Wisnicki says.

The diary begins on March 23, 1871. Forced to team up with the Arab slave traders due to his deteriorating health, Livingstone found—to his dismay—that he was actually beginning to like these men. “The Arabs are very kind to me, sending cooked food every day,” he wrote in April. He told them about the Bible, taught them how to make mosquito nets and drank fermented banana juice with them, which he swore off in the next day’s entry.  

“They nurse him into health, they become friends,” Wisnicki says. “It’s a very complex relationship.”

On the other hand, he soon began to look down on and resent the local people he encountered. Whereas Livingstone had generally had good experiences interacting with locals in the past, this time, he was lumped in with the traders and treated with distrust. He found it impossible to get the help and cooperation he needed to set out on a separate expedition to find the source of the Nile.  “The Manyema are not trustworthy and they bring evil on themselves often,” he complained of the local Bantu tribe.

Days turned into the weeks. By June—still lacking a canoe and having declared himself a “victim of falsehood”— Livingstone went so far as to follow the Arabs’ advice and use force to either get his money back from a local chief or to finally get the canoe he was promised. “He’s been out in the field for a long time, and he’s losing contact with reality and becoming more and more desperate to travel,” Wisnicki says. “He starts to take on some of the methods the slave traders use to control the local population.”

So Livingstone sent some men to the nearby village with the instructions to “bind and give him a flogging” if the chief still did not cooperate. “On the scale of existing violence in that region at that time, it’s not that significant,” Wisnicki says. “But the fact that Livingstone has taken a step down that path is a big deal.”

On July 15, however, Livingstone was abruptly woken from his stupor. The traders—his friends—went into a busy nearby market and began randomly firing guns into the crowd and burning down surrounding villages, killing at least 300 people, many of them women and children. Livingstone had never witnessed such an atrocity before, and he was “crushed, devastated and spiritually broken,” Wisnicki says. In Livingstone’s own words: “I was so ashamed of the bloody Moslem company in which I found myself that I was unable to look at the Manyema. . . This massacre was the most terrible scene I ever saw.”

“It’s a wakeup call,” Wisnicki says. “He realizes that he’s started to go the wrong way himself.”

Livingstone immediately left the traders and decided to retrace his steps east, bringing him to a village called Ujiji. “He might have been flawed and human, but he was guided by big ideal,” Wisnicki says. “He had a vision.”

There, he heard rumors of an Englishman spotted nearby. The diary ends there.

Since 1869, no one had received any sort of communication from Livingstone. So James Gordon Bennet, Jr., who published the New York Herald, decided his paper would “find” Livingstone. The story, he knew, would be a hit among readers. So he hired Stanley, a Welsh journalist and explorer, to track down Livingstone. The mission wound up taking two years, but it was a success. A week or two after Livingstone’s diary ends, history tells us that Stanley famously greeted the elusive doctor with the line “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”

“From there, everything changes,” Wisnicki says. Livingstone again becomes the steadfast abolitionist and hero, his flirtation with moral corruption recorded only in the fading pages of his patchwork diary. Additionally, Stanley supplied Livingstone with new notebooks, so he gave up the newspaper and wrote several more diaries before he died two years later. Though none of those diaries pose the same legibility challenges as the newspaper one, Wisnicki is currently transcribing them so that those interested can have a complete picture of Livingstone’s last journey to Africa

As for Livingstone, some critics wonder what he would have thought about having his deepest secrets and feelings exposed for all to read, years after his death. “Part of his vision was informing the world about what was happening in Africa with the slave trade,” Wisnicki says. “So I think he would have approved.”

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