• MySTV

Secrets of Livingstone’s last letter finally revealed

Scientists have used spectral imaging technology to recover the previously unreadable text of the explorer’s final correspondence.

National Library: Helped uncover the letter's 129-year-old secrets.

Scientists have used modern technology to uncover the secrets of the “indecipherable” last letter of African explorer and missionary Dr David Livingstone.

The four-page “Letter from Bambarre”, written in February 1871, was intended for his biographer Horace Waller.

Livingstone had to write the letter on an old newspaper using berry juice for ink, and its faded condition had meant it had been impossible to read until now.

Researchers and archivists from the National Library of Scotland, Birkbeck College, London, and the David Livingston Centre in Blantyre have used spectral imaging technology to recover the text, which provides valuable insights into Livingstone’s character and state of mind near to the end of his life.

He worries about his children at a "Do the boys Hall, in Scotland" (believed to be Gilbertfield in Hamilton), shares his fears about the spread of cholera in Africa, and looks forward to the complete abolition of slavery.

He also reveals himself to be highly competitive, openly criticising the achievements of his fellow explorers Samuel White Baker, Richard Burton, and John Hanning Speke.

At one point, he writes: "Either Baker is a liar or I am."

The letter includes some of his thoughts on the "awful traffic" of the slave trade, which he said could be "congenial only to the Devil and his angels".

He writes: "If our statesmen stop the frightful waste of human life in this region and mitigate the vast amount of human woe that accompanies it they will do good on the large scale and cause joy in Heaven."

As a doctor experienced in tropical and western medicine, Livingstone expresses complete bewilderment at two fatal local conditions - the sudden death of slaves from "Brokenheartedness", and the deadly practice of clay or earth-eating.

Dr Adrian Wisnicki of Birkbeck College was impressed by the findings in the letter.

He said: "When you look at his writings compared to others like Henry Morton Stanley or Samuel White Baker, Livingstone's remains one of the very few that you can read in the 21st century and feel you identify with him, his ideas and goals."

Some of the details of the letter were originally suppressed by Waller, who edited the posthumously published 'The Last Journals of David Livingstone in Central Africa', including the explorer's failing health.

Livingstone wrote to Waller: "I am terribly knocked up but this is for your eye only [-] in my second childhood (referring to his lack of teeth, several of which he extracted himself), a dreadful old fogie. Doubtful if I live to see you again."

Despite his ill-health in the midst of a cholera epidemic which devastated the local population, he wrote of his determination to complete his search for the source of the Nile.

He wrote: "Well I am off in a few days to finish with the help of the Almighty new explorations."

It is thought that, when he finally left Bambarre on February 16, 1871, Livingstone entrusted his letter to an Arab trader named Mohamad Bogharib, with whom he had previously travelled.

When he returned in September, Livingstone found that this letter was still with Bogharib in the same village.

The subsequent fate of the letter is unknown.

But it is likely that after his famous meeting with Livingstone in late 1871 - when he reputedly greeted the explorer with the famous words: "Dr Livingstone, I presume?" - Henry Morton Stanley carried the letter back to England in 1872, where it was finally delivered to Waller.

Livingstone was to die a year later in Zambia from malaria and internal bleeding caused by dysentery.

Dr Debbie Harrison, a researcher at Birkbeck College, said the letter was a huge contribution to Victorian studies.

She said: "It reflects Livingstone's state of mind, and it is obvious that his mental condition was as fragile as the paper he was writing on."

One account. All of STV.

This field is required. That doesn't look like a valid e-mail format, please check. That e-mail's already in our system. Please try again.
Forgot password?
This field is required. This must be at least 6 characters long. Did you enter your details correctly?
If you've forgotten your details then use the 'Forgot password?' link.
Need to reset your password?

We'll send a link to reset your password to

We've sent you details on how to reset your password

Please check your email and follow the instructions.

Forgotten your email address?

Have you forgotten the email address that you previously joined with? Don't worry, by emailing enquiries@stv.tv we can help.

One account. All of STV.

This field is required. Please enter at least 2 characters
This field is required. Please enter at least 2 characters
This must be at least 6 characters long.
This field is required. This must be at least 6 characters long.
You must be over 16 to join STV.
This field is required. This doesn't appear to be a valid date
We need this to check that you live in an STV region.
This field is required. This doesn't appear to be a valid postcode
Would you like us to email you about our great shows and services from time to time?
We'll only send emails we think you'll like (see example) based on information you have supplied and shows you have watched on STV Player. For details on emails and advertising, see our STV & You page.
Would you like to receive emails from the Scottish Children's Lottery about draws, instant games and competitions?
We support the Scottish Children's Lottery (SCL), which is managed by our colleagues at STV ELM Ltd. You can find out more about the SCL on its website, including its Privacy Policy.

By continuing you agree to our Terms of Use, and understand our Privacy and Cookie Policies.

Upload Profile Picture

Please make sure your image is under 2mb in size and a valid JPG, PNG or GIF.

Are you sure?

Unfortunately, you'll be unable to access our premium content. We’ll be sorry to see you go, but if you change your mind you can rejoin us at any time.

Please verify your STV account

Please verify your STV account using the email we sent you. If you have lost the email, we can send you another one, just click the button below.


We've sent you a new verification email.
Please check your email and follow the instructions to verify your account.

Welcome to STV
Thanks for joining us.


Sorry, you must be at least 12 years old to place a vote for your Real Hero.

Please review our Voting Terms of Use for more information.


Sorry! It seems that you are using a browser that is incompatible with our voting service.

To register your vote please copy the below URL in to your regular mobile browser. We recommend Google Chrome, or Safari.



Sorry, you seem to have already voted in this category.

Thanks for voting

Now share your vote with friends on your social network

Share on twitter Share on facebook

Cast your vote

Please register or sign in to continue.

Cast your vote

This field is required. This doesn't appear to be a valid date

Cast your vote

Please fill out this form to cast your vote. As you are under 16 years old you will not create an STV account. Why do we need these details?

This field is required. Please enter at least 2 characters
This field is required. Please enter at least 2 characters
This field is required. That doesn't look like a valid e-mail format, please check.
Location This field is required.
Parental Consent This field is required.

That's you. All that's left is to click the 'Submit Vote' button below. By doing so, you confirm that you and your parent or guardian have read and accept our Voting Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Cookie policy, and that the details you have entered are correct. We'll look after them as carefully as if they were our own.