Tuesday, 6 July 2010

David Livingstone's last letters

The contents of a letter written by David Livingstone in which he condemns slavery and talks about his loneliness and ill-health have been revealed for the first time. The Letter from Bambarre addressed to friend and future biographer Horace Waller was written six years into the explorer's final, ill-fated mission to discover the source of the Nile and shortly before his famous encounter with Henry Morton Stanley.

Livingstone had run out of paper and ink, so he improvised by writing on torn-up pages of an old newspaper, using 'ink' squeezed from berries. Over the decades his handwriting had all but faded but researchers using spectral imaging, a technique that involves illuminating an object with successive wavelengths of light, were able to separate the explorer's handwriting from the newspaper type, thus revealing the contents of the document.

The publication of the letter by the Livingstone Online project is the prelude to a much larger project over the next 18 months, that will utilise spectral imaging to recover the diaries and remaining letters written by Livingstone 1870-71. Works by him can be found on the Missionary Etexts archive.

There was plenty of Livingstone coverage in the Guardian and Observer, but the following letter from the Guardian, September 24 1872, provides a revealing snapshot of the Scottish explorer's "useless tramp" around the Lake Tanganyika region of Africa.

1 comment:

  1. I have read with great interest about this process, and recently corresponded with the head of the project team. It has been a remarkable success, and there are implications for all manner of documents hitherto considered unrecoverable, from ancient times to the present. Still, it is very fitting that Livingstone's late letters, so long a cipher, have been the first documents upon which such a system has been employed.