Diary of Livingstone’s Intrepid African Attendant Jacob Wainwright Digitized

He traveled with the Scottish missionary and explorer searching for the source of the Nile, and he’s responsible for bringing his remains to Britain

Wainright Next to Body
Wainright watches over Livingstone's body on the trip back to Britain. Wellcombe Collection

In 1866, David Livingstone returned once more to Africa, with a mission to find the source of the Nile River. The Scottish missionary’s expedition was grueling and inconclusive, and by June, 1871, he found himself in a village called Ujiji almost destitute, most of his supplies having been pilfered. That’s where Henry Morton Stanley found him after tracking him down for an exclusive interview for the New York Herald. Upon seeing him, Stanley uttered the now famous line, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”

While Stanley could not convince Livingstone to return home, he could connect him with fresh supplies and new cadre of porters and attendants. Among them was Jacob Wainwright, of the Yao ethnic group from East Africa, who became Livingstone’s chief attendant. Now, David Batty at The Guardian reports, his handwritten diaries have been digitized on the archive Livingstone Online.

Details on Wainwright’s early life are scarce, but before the age of 20, he was captured by Arab slave traders. He was later freed by a British anti-slaving ship and was sent to the Church Missionary School near present-day Mumbai, India. It was there that his name was changed to Jacob Wainwright, and he was recruited by Stanley to join in the search for Livingstone.

Wainwright’s diary, which is held by the David Livingstone Birthplace Museum in Blantyre, Scotland, shows how his colonial education and conversion to Christianity impacted his world view. His writing reflects internalized racism toward African people, describing individuals he met on his travels as “ignorant,” and “deficient in courage, cleanliness and honesty.”

Olivette Otele, a historian who studies colonialism in Africa, tells Batty that Wainwright’s writing isn’t surprising. “Internalized colonialism was not rare among ‘African Europeans’ who had been molded by Eurocentric views and religion in the 18th and 19th century,” Otele says.

Now with Livingstone, Wainwright aided in the search for the source of the Nile. By 1873, after reaching the village of Chitambo in present-day Zambia, the expedition took a turn when Livingstone fell gravely ill, suffering from dysentery and malaria. By the end of April, Livingstone was dead. Wainwright produced the only eye-witness account of what happened next.

In his diary, he writes about how they performed a Christian burial service over his entrails, which they buried at the base of a Myula tree, which has since become a memorial site to Livingstone. A two-day funeral adhering to local traditions followed the service.

Wainwright describes how, as that was taking place, the attendants worked to prepare Livingstone’s corpse for transport back to Britain. His remains were packed with salt then dried under the sun. His face was doused with brandy to help preserve his features. His legs were bent back at the knee to reduce the size of his body. All of that accomplished, they wrapped the remains in calico and a layer of bark, securing them in a piece of sailcloth. Finally, they covered that in tar to waterproof the remians.

Then, Wainwright and fellow servants Chuma and Susi undertook the grueling, 1,000-mile journey on foot to carry the body from Zambia to the nearest British outpost on the island of Zanzibar. Wainwright did not record much about that journey except to say one tribe forbade them from crossing their land while bearing human remains, The Scotsman reports. Along the way, they encountered Royal Geographical Society explorer Verney Lovett Cameron, who was looking for Livingstone. He tried to force the them to bury the body, but they refused and continued on their mission.

When they reached the seaside village of Bagamayoport five months later, they transferred Livingstone’s remains to British custody. The Church Missionary Society paid for Wainwright to accompany the casket to England, but Chuma and Susi were left behind. In April, 1874, Livingstone was interred in Westminister Abbey. Wainwright and Stanley were both pallbearers at the service.

It's not known how long Wainwright stayed in the U.K., but eventually he returned to Africa, dying in Tanzania in 1892. Even though the contributions and aid of Wainwright and others who helped Livingstone travel in Africa remain little recorded or overlooked in Western history books today, a reference to Wainwright is immortalized on Livingstone's tomb, which reads: "Brought by faithful hands over land and sea, here rests David Livingstone."

Editor's note, April 26, 2019: The spelling of Jacob Wainwright's name has been corrected

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