Early Years of Dr Livingstone
DAVID LIVINGSTONE was born at Blantyre, near Glasgow, in 1813. He was the son of respectable parents, whose
simple piety and worth were noticeable even in a community, which, in those days, ranked above tho average for all
those manly and self-denying virtues which were, a few generations ago, so characteristic of the lower classes of
Scotland. Humble and even trying circumstances did not make them discontented with their, lot, nor tend to make
them forget the stainless name which had descended to them from a line of predecessors whose worldly circumstances
were hardly better own their own.
In the introduction to his " Missionary Travels and Researches" in South Africa, published in 1857, Dr
Livingstone gave a brief and modest sketch of his early years, together with some account of the humble, although
notable family from which he sprang. " One great-grand father," he tells us, " fell at the battle of Culloden,
fighting for the old line of kings ; and one grandfather was a small farmer in Ulva, where my father was born. It
is one of that cluster of the Hebrides thus spoken of by Sir Walter Scott : —
'And Ulva dark, and Colonsay, And all the group of islets gay That guard famed Staffa round.'
Dr Livingstone's Grandfather
" Our grandfather was intimately acquainted with all the traditionary legends which that great writer has
since made use of in The Tales of a Grandfather,' and other works. As a boy, I remember listening with delight, for
his memory was stored with a never-ending stock of stories ; many of which were wonderfully like those I have since
heard while sitting by the African evening fires. Our grandmother, too, used to sing Gaelic songs, some of which,
as she believed, had been composed by captive Highlanders languishing among the Turks."
The reverence of your true Highlander for his ancestors, and his knowledge of them and their doings for many
generations, have been frequently the subject of mirth to the Lowlanders, or Sassenachs as they are termed by the
Celts ; but, in such instances as that of the family of which we are treating, such feelings are not only virtues,
but are the incentives to bold and manly effort in the most trying circumstances.
Livingstone tells us that his grandfather could rehearse traditions of the families for six generations before
him. One of these was of a nature to make a strong impression on the imaginative and independent mind of the boy,
even when almost borne down with toil too severe for his years. He says, " One of these poor, hardy- islanders was
renowned in the district for great wisdom and prudence ; and it is related, that, when he was on his death-bed, he
called all his children around him, and said, Now, in my lifetime I have searched most carefully through all the
traditions I could find of our family ; and I never could discover that there was a dishonest man among our
forefathers. If, therefore, any of you, or any of your children, should take to dishonest ways, it will not be
because it runs in our blood : it does not belong to you. I leave this precept with you : Be honest."
With pardonable pride, and some covert sarcasm, Livingstone points out that at the period in question, according
to Macaulay, the Highlanders " were much like Cape Caffres ; and any one, it was said, could escape punishment for
cattle-stealing by presenting a share of the plunder to his chieftain." Macaulay's assertion was true of the clans
and bands of broken men who dwelt near the Highland line. But, even in their case, these cattle-lifting raids
hardly deserved the designation of pure theft ; as, even up to the middle of the last century, they looked upon the
Lowlanders as an alien race, and consequently enemies, whom it was lawful to despoil ; the conduct of the needy and
ambitious nobles who drove them from their native haunts, where their fathers had lived and hunted for centuries,
with a view to possessing themselves of their inheritance, too often furnishing a sufficient excuse for the deeds
of violence and plunder which figure so prominently in the annals of the country, down even to the days of George
Like most of the Highlanders, his ancestors were Roman Catholics ; but, when Protestantism got fairly
established in Scotland, the apostacy of the chief was followed by that of the entire clan. Livingstone says, "
They were made Protestants by the laird (the squire) coming round, with a man having a yellow staff, which would
seem to have attracted more attention than his teaching ; for the new religion went long afterwards, perhaps it
does so still, by the name of ' the religion of the staff."
In the olden time, religion to them was only secondary to their devotion and attachment to their chief, and
never seems to have taken any firm hold of their imaginations The country was poor in money, and the priests they
were familiar with were poor and ignorant ; and, within the Highland line, there were no splendid edifices, or
pomps of worship, to rouse their enthusiasm : so that the abandonment of their old mode of worship was no
With the breaking-up of the clans, and the introduction of industrial occupation, and the teaching and preaching
of devoted adherents of the new religion, the minds of the Highlanders were moved ; and for many generations, and
even at the present day, the Presbyterian form of worship has no more zealous adherents than the people of the
Highlands of Scotland. The man with the yellow staff was, in all likelihood, one of the commissioners sent out by
the General Assembly to advocate the cause of the new religion among those who were either indifferent, or were too
remote from Edinburgh to be affected by the deadly struggle for supremacy which was going on between the old creed
and the new religion.
Towards the end of the last century, finding the small farm in Ulva insufficient for the maintenance of his
family, Livingstone's grandfather removed to Blantyre ; where he, for a number of years, occupied a position of
trust in the employment of Messrs. Monteith & Co., of Blantyre Cotton Works, his sons being employed as clerks.
It formed part of the old man's duty to convey large sums of money to and from Glasgow ; and his unflinching
honety, in this and other ways, won him the respect and esteem of his employers, who settled a pension on him when
too old to continue his services.
Livingstone Becomes a Piecer at Ten Years of Age
Livingstone's uncles shared in the patriotic spirit which reused the country during the war with France, and
en-bored the service of the king; but his father, having recently got married, settled down as a small grocer, the
returns from which business were so small as to necessitate his children being sent to the factory as soon as they
could earn any thing to assist in the family support. David Livingstone was but ten years of age, in 1823, when he
entered the mill as a " piecer ; " where he was employed from six o'clock in the morning until eight oclock at
night,with intervals for breakfast and dinner.
In ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, this early introduclion to a life of toil would have been the
commencement of a lifetime, of obscure and daily toil. Let us see how david Livingstone bore and conquered the
cruel circumstances of his boyhood, and made for himself a name which is known and respected throughout the
civilized world and and is accepted by the savage inhabitants of Central Africa as conveying to their mind all that
is best in the character of "the white man"
Between the delicate "piecer" boy of ten and the mid-aged man who returned to England after an absence of
sixteen years, In December, 1856, with a world-wide reputation, there was a mighty hill of difficulty nobly
surmounted ; and we cannot attach too much importance to the mode in which he conquered those difficulties and
hinderances, which, but, that they are mastered every now and again In our sight by some bold and daring spirit, we
are almost inclined to think insurmountable.
It is a true saying, that every man who has earned distinction must have been blessed with a parent or parents
of no mean order, whatever their position in society. What his ancestors were like, we gather from his own brief
allusion to them ; and the few remarks he makes regarding his parents and their circumstances, supplemented by some
information procured from one who knew them, enables me to give a picture of his home surroundings, which will
assist materially in estimating the courageous spirit which carried the delicate and overworked boy safely through
all his early toils and trials.
To the mere observer, Livingstone's father appeared to be somewhat stern and taciturn, and an over-strict
disciplinarian, where the members of his family were concerned. But, under a cold and reserved exterior, he
sheltered a warm heart ; and his real kindliness, as well as his truth and uprightness, are cherished in the
memories of his family and his intimates. He was too truthful and conscientious to become rich as a small grocer in
a country village ; while his real goodness of heart induced him to trust people whose necessities were greater
than their ability or desire to pay, to the further embarrassment of a household his limited business made severe
He brought up his children in connection with the Church of Scotland ; which he left, and joined an independent
body worshipping in Hamilton, some miles distant, after they had all grown up. Speaking of the Christian example he
set before his family, his famous son says, " He deserved my lasting gratitude and homage for presenting me from
infancy with a continuously consistent pious example, such as that, the ideal of which is so beautifully and
truthfully portrayed in Burns's ' Cotter's Saturday Night.' " He was a strict disciplinarian, and looked with small
favor on his son's passion for reading scientific books, and works of travel ; but his son had much of his own
stubborn and independent temperament where he supposed himself to be in the right, and sturdily preferred his own
selection of books to " The Cloud of Witnesses," " Boston's Fourfold State," or " Wilber-force's Practical
Christianity." His refusal to read the latter work procured him a caning, which was the last occasion of his
father's application of the rod.
As is the case of many a young man in like circumstances, his father's importunity, and unfortunate selection of
authors, fostered a dislike for merely doctrinal reading, which continued until years afterwards ; when a perusal
of " The Philosophy of Religion," and the " Philosophy of a Future State," by Thomas Dick, widened his
understanding, and gratified him by confirming him in what he had all along believed, " that religion and science
are not hostile, but friendly to each other." Both his parents had taken much pains to instil the principles of
Christianity into his mind ; but it was only after becoming acquainted with the writings of Dr. Dick and others
that their efforts bore fruit. The depth of his religious convictions may be conceived from the sacrifices he has
made in his evangelistic labors ; but his strong understanding has saved him from becoming a sectary or a bigot.
While there is no more earnest-minded or devoted servant of Christ living, there is none so liberal and so
large-hearted in his acceptance of all honest and God-fearing men who strive to do good, whatever their creed may
His father died in February, 1866, at the time when his son was making his way from the interior of Africa to
the coast, on his return to England, " expecting no greater pleasure, in this country, than sitting by our cottage
fire, and telling him my travels. I revere his memory." The applause of the best and the highest in the land, in
the social circle or in the crowded assembly, with hundreds hanging on his every word, was as nothing compared to
the long talks he had looked forward to with the kindly though stern father he had not seen for so many years. But
it was not to be. He has small notions of the strength of filial affection in the heart of such a man, who cannot
sympathize with him in his sorrow and disappointment.
Dr Livingstone's Mother
His mother, a kindly and gentle woman, whose whole thoughts were given up to the care of her children, and the
anxieties consequent upon narrow means, was the constant instructor of her children in religious matters. Her
distinguished son tells us that his earliest recollection of her recalls a picture so often seen among the Scottish
poor, — " that of the anxious housewife striving to make both ends meet." Her loving and kindly nature acted as a
-valuable counterpoise to the strict and austere rule of the father, and kept alive, in the hearts of her children,
a love and respect for all things sacred, which an enforced study of dry theological books might have endangered or
Study of Latin
The little education which the " piecer " boy of ten had received had aroused within him the desire for more ;
and the genuineness of the desire was proved by the purchase of a copy of " Ruddiman's Rudiments of Latin" with
a portion of his first week's earnings. For many years he pursued the study of Latin with enthusiastic ardor ;
receiving much assistance in this and other studies at an evening-school, the teacher of which was partly supported
by the intelligent members of the firm at Blantyre works, for the benefit of the people in their employment.
Livingstone's work-hours were from six, A.M., to eight, P.M. ; school-hours from eight to ten ; and private reading
and study occupied from ten to twelve, when it was often necessary for his mother to take possession of his books
in order to get the youthful student to bed. Eighteen hours out of the twenty-four were given up to toil and
self-improvement ; a remarkable instance, truly, of determined effort, on the part of a mere boy, to acquire
knowledge which his hard lot would almost have seemed to place beyond his reach.
Even when at work, the book he was reading was fixed upon the spinning-jenny, so that he could catch sentence
after sentence as he passed in his work. At sixteen years of age, he tells us that he knew Horace and Virgil better
than he did in 1857. Notwithstanding the limited leisure at his disposal, he made himself thoroughly acquainted
with the scenery, botany; and geology of his district. In these excursions he was accompanied by his elder and
younger brothers, John and Charles. `The former of these afterwards settled in Canada, and became successful in
business : the latter was educated for the ministry, and labored for several years in the United States. In 1858 he
joined the expedition headed by his brother, and with him explored the Zambesi and its tributaries ; a considerable
portion of the narrative of that expedition being written by him.
At nineteen years of age Livingstone was promoted to the laborious work of a cotton-spinner ; and, while the
heavy toil pressed hard upon the young and growing lad, he was cheered by the reflection that the high wages he now
earned would enable him, from his summer's labor, to support himself in Glasgow during the winter months while
attending medical and other classes at the University ; to attend which he walked to and from his father's house
daily, a distance of nine miles. He never received a particle of aid from any one, nor did the resolute youth seek
or expect such ; well knowing that his difficulties and trials were no greater than those of dozens of his fellows
who sat on the same benches with him in the classrooms.
Interest In Medicine
The religious awakening which we have already alluded to, which occurred when he was about sixteen years of age,
inspired him with a fervent ambition to be a pioneer of Christianity in China ; and his practical instincts taught
him that a knowledge of medicine would be of great service in securing him the confidence of the people he was so
desirous of benefiting, besides insuring his appointment as a medical missionary in connection with a society of
that name recently formed in his' native land.
At the conclusion of his medical curriculum, he had to present a thesis to the examining body of the University,
on which his claim to be admitted a member of the faculty of physicians and surgeons would be judged. The subject
was one, which, in ordinary practice, required the use of the stethoscope for its diagnosis ; and it was
characteristic of the independence and originality of the man, that an awkward difference arose between him and the
examiners, as to whether the instrument could do what was claimed for it.
This unfortunate boldness procured him a more than ordinarily severe examination, through which he passed
triumphantly. Alluding to this in after years, he dryly remarks that " the wiser plan would have been to have had
no opinions of my own." Looking back over the years of toil and hardship which had led up to this important stage
in his career, and looking forward to the possibilities of the future, he might well say that " it was with
unfeigned delight I became a member of a profession which is pre-eminently devoted to practical benevolence, and
which with unwearied energy pursues, from age to age, its endeavors to lessen human woe."
Writing in 1857, he tells us, that on reviewing his life, of toil before his missionary career began, he could
feel thankful that it was of such a nature as to prove a hardy training for the great enterprises he was destined
afterwards to engage in ; and he speaks with warm and affectionate respect of the sterling character of the bulk of
the humble villagers among whom he spent his early years.
Opium Wars Change His Course
The outbreak of the opium war with China compelled him reluctantly to abandon his cherished intention of
proceeding to that country ; but he was happily led to turn his thoughts to South Africa, where the successful
labors of Mr. Robert Moffat were attracting the attention of the Christian public in this country.
In September, 1838, he was summoned to London to undergo an examination by the directors of " The London
Missionary Society ; " after which he was sent, on probation, to a missionary training establishment, conducted by
the Rev. Mr. Cecil, at Chipping Ongar, in Essex. There he remained until the early part of 1840, applying
himself with his wonted diligence to his studies, and testifying his disregard for hard labor by taking his full
share of the work of the establishment, such as grinding the corn to make the household bread, chopping wood,
gardeding operations, &c. ; Part of the training at Chipping Ongar being a wise endeavor to make the future
missionaries able to shift for themselves in the uncivilized regions in which they might be called upon to
At Chipping Ongar he indulged his habit of making long excursions in the country round ; and on one occasion he
walked to and from London, a distance of fifty miles, in one day, arriving late at night completely exhausted, as
he had hardly partaken of any food during the entire journey. From his earliest years up to his attaining manhood,
his training, both mental and physical, had been of the best possible kind to fit him for the great career which
lay before him ; which may be said to have had its commencement when he landed at Cape Town in 1840.