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Dr Livingstone, I presume? The Zambesi Expedition 1858-1864

Michele Losse
30 July 2010
Read about documents from the Zambesi Expedition in Kew's Archives.

As promised in my last blog posting, I’m going to tell you about our archives relating to the Zambesi Expedition. This post is to give you a taste of what we hold – we hold many more collections relating to Africa.

The Zambesi Expedition (1858-1864) was headed by David Livingstone (1813-1873) with John Kirk (1832-1922), the expedition’s naturalist, and Thomas Baines (1820-1875), the store keeper and artist. The main purpose of the expedition was to extend the knowledge gained on previous expeditions into mineral and agricultural resources of Eastern and Central Africa and also to improve knowledge of the local inhabitants and establish trade links with them. The expedition concentrated on the Zambesi itself as well as its mouths and tributaries, the Shire and the interior.

A page from Kirk's 20 page letter, AEX/2/1 f.7

Kirk was a prolific letter writer and over the expedition wrote regularly to both William Hooker  and Joseph Hooker, Kew’s Directors, with some letters being 20 pages long! The botanical collections that Kirk gathered during the expedition were sent to Kew and the British Museum.

The letters contain invaluable information on the expedition such as logistical problems, encounters with Portuguese slave traders, the geology of the Zambesi valley and surrounding mountains, as well as descriptions of tribes encountered. This was a perilous venture, the Shire was not an easy river to navigate, and Kirk lost some of his specimens when his boat overturned! The local tribes were not always friendly:

We were robbed at night and lost thus both our supply of beads and wearing apparel being reduced to the clothes we happened to be sleeping in. The thieves took all my specimens and undid them but finding that they were nothing of value threw them away but they were almost destroyed by being trodden with the sand.” (AEX/2/1 f 21).

Livingstone and his men found it hard to leave their Victorian values behind and could not help being rather shocked by some of the indigenous people’s behaviour:

We came across a Batoka people quite devoid of the sense of shame going about possibly with a few beads or a fine pipe and a spear but without anything as a covering and when some of them were given a piece of cloth they might tie it round the neck or the head but laughed at the idea of using it as others do, yet they were a kind hospitable race.” (AEX/2/1 f 7).

Map of Lake Nyassa, drawn by Kirk, DC69 f.160c

Although the expedition failed to follow the Zambesi to its source, it did lead to the European discovery of Lake Nyassa (Lake Malawi). Also of major significance were the mapping and surveying of a region previously unknown to most Europeans.

- Michele -


Further Information

If you would like to read more about Livingstone and the Zambesi Expedition, please have a look at the Livingstone on-line project website. We contributed digital copies of our letters to this project.

We don’t yet have an online catalogue of our Archives, but details of many of our catalogued collections are available through the National Archives Catalogues

To find out more about the Archives or details on how to visit us please see our webpages, or e-mail us.


3 August 2010
Thanks for your comment Luigi. I am glad you found the post interesting. At the time of the expedition, Kirk was writing to William Hooker but I'm afraid we don't have any surviving correspondence from William Hooker to John Kirk. We have, however, lots of other letters from Kirk and Livingstone in the Zambesi Expedition volume as well as in our Directors' Correspondence collection; you can view many of these through the Jstor website Hope this helps.
1 August 2010
I have a grreat interest in this time and area of Africa. I have a great book on Thomas Baines and found the article interesting Thank you
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30 July 2010
Fascinating, thanks! Would you happen to know whether J Hooker's side of the correspondence with either Kirk or Livingstone is also archived somewhere online? I found a great letter from Livingstone in that site you linked to and I'd love to read Hooker's reply.
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