Livingstone in a New Light

Long indecipherable letters, written in ink made from crushed seeds, are now readable through spectral imaging.

HUMANITIES, September/October 2010, Volume 31, Number 5

Scholars place great emphasis on gaining access to original historical documents such as personal letters and diaries, yet access alone is sometimes not enough. A host of analytical tools may be needed to expose what modesty, pride, or ambition left concealed. And then there are cases where interpretation must wait because the document’s physical condition has made the text indecipherable. What to do then?

The heroic story of David Livingstone’s life has long been examined with the aid of the usual scholarly tools, and the basic outline has never been in doubt. Born in a Scottish mill town, he grew to become one of the great explorers and humanitarians of his era. In Africa, he served as a missionary, fought slavery, and fearlessly traversed the continent, observing, noting, and mapping the land, but ultimately missing what he most wanted to find: the source of the Nile.

When he was buried at Westminster Abbey in 1874, Livingstone was lauded in the press and mourned by Britain’s great and good. That same year, Horace Waller, his friend and biographer, cemented the image of the saintly doctor, explorer, and abolitionist in The Last Journals of David Livingstone, which Waller put together from notes, field diaries, and journals, helped in this effort by Livingstone’s faithful servants Chuma and Susi. “May that which he has said in his journals suffer neither the loss of interest nor depth of meaning at the compiler’s hands,” wrote Waller in his introduction.

Explorers, scientists, ethnographers, and many others still look to Livingstone’s writings, particularly Waller’s edition, says Adrian S. Wisnicki, but there is a problem: Everyone is working with a flawed document. Waller heavily edited Livingstone’s papers, leaving out anything that might put the explorer in a bad light. In addition, Livingstone himself made many changes to his field diaries, which were only his first draft notes, raw material he polished before recording it in his journals.

Wisnicki is project director for a U.S.-British effort to digitize and create an online critical edition of one of the explorer’s field diaries, now brittle, faded, fragile, and mostly illegible. Called the Nyangwe Field Diary, it has never been published—but not for lack of significance.

In its pages, Livingstone bears witness to an 1871 massacre so awful that it rallied British abolitionists to push for closing the notorious Zanzibar slave market. It “offers a raw, firsthand account of an event that both directly and indirectly played a pivotal role in shaping the subsequent history of European exploration and colonialism in nineteenth-century Africa,” says Wisnicki.

But before a critical edition can be completed, Livingstone’s long-faded words have to be made visible. To perform this feat, Wisnicki and his collaborators—the David Livingstone Centre in Blantyre, Scotland, the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh, and medical historian Debbie Harrison of Birkbeck College at the University of London—have turned to an American imaging team that includes Mike Toth and Doug Emery and scientists Roger Easton, Bill Christens-Barry, and Keith Knox.

They were part of the celebrated team that a decade ago deciphered the hidden medieval manuscript now known as the Archimedes Palimpsest. With multispectral imaging, a technology that has its roots in NASA’s efforts to produce satellite images from space, they showed that the manuscript had originally contained seven treatises by Archimedes, an ancient Greek mathematician. The treatises had been copied in the tenth century in Constantinople, but monks seeking to reuse the manuscript—palimpsests are recycled manuscripts—scraped it, and wrote over the erasures, replacing mathematics with prayers in the thirteenth century.

More recently, the imaging team has used the technology to evaluate other palimpsests, the Library of Congress’s Waldseemüller 1507 World Map (the first to use the term “America”) and an early draft of the Declaration of Independence by Thomas Jefferson, says Toth.

To evaluate an 1871 letter Livingstone wrote to Waller, Wisnicki and the imaging team traveled last winter to the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, where the study of the Archimedes text had been done. This past summer they hauled their large-format camera, lighting panels, and computers to Edinburgh—a challenge in airports, says Toth—to gather data on the field diary.

In some ways, it has been easier to work on Livingstone’s writings than medieval palimpsests because Livingstone’s handwriting is the overtext, even though faded, explains Toth. Rubbed off and written over, the Archimedes text “was truly hidden.”

The process of multispectral imaging is similar for paper and vellum, but paper and parchment respond differently to spectral illumination. Typically, a text is taken into a completely dark room and illuminated in sequence by wavelengths of light from the ultraviolet through the visible to the infrared end of the light spectrum. A monochrome digital camera records what is reflected back for each wavelength band. Each band has particular advantages—longer wavelengths, for example, reflect printer inks well—and collectively the data they generate provide details about a manuscript not visible to the naked eye. Sometimes, as in the case of the Livingstone diary, the imagers also use raking lights, which strike the manuscript at an oblique angle and provide information about the topography of a page—things like bumps, indentations, and folds.

Once all the digital images are generated, they are stacked in a virtual cube so that they are perfectly registered: Any point on one image lines up with the same point on all the other images. The better the registration, the crisper the letters will be. When all the data points are then combined, “we can get an accurate color of a manuscript as it is now,” says Toth. “It serves as a baseline image.”

What makes the technology so useful is that researchers can take an image stack and write mathematical algorithms to highlight and analyze specific components of an original document, enhancing or suppressing features to make the multiple layers of a document readable. Each category of text is assigned a pseudocolor that can be changed. For instance, words that are being studied might be made a bolder color, and other sections of text could be deemphasized by showing them in a lighter color.

In July, when the contents of the letter were released, they showed a man both vulnerable and opinionated. Like the field diary, it was written during Livingstone’s last expedition when he “was at a personal and professional nadir,” says Wisnicki. Fame had come with his transcontinental journey in the 1850s, a feat that Sir Roderick Murchison of the Royal Geographical Society called “the greatest triumph of geographical research which has been effected in our times.” But that glowing period was followed by a disastrous expedition to the Zambesi and the deaths of missionaries who succumbed to malaria—Livingstone was blamed for not passing on what he knew about fighting the disease—events for which Livingstone received considerable criticism.

When he wrote the Letter from Bambarre in 1871, Livingstone was stuck in a village in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Hungry and sickened by dysentery, pneumonia, bleeding hemorrhoids, and skin-eating ulcers, he could not know that help was on the way: The New York Herald had already dispatched its correspondent, Henry Morton Stanley, with orders to find Livingstone alive or dead.

After running out of paper and ink, Livingstone improvised: “Made ink from the seeds of a plant called by the Arabs Zingifure—It is a fine brick red colour and used by the natives to ornament their faces [and] heads and to dye grass cloths.” The letter to Waller was written on pages torn from a proof of the Proceedings of the Royal Geographic Society. To make his field diary, Livingstone carefully folded broadsheets from a November 1869 copy of The Standard into a booklet. In both documents, Livingstone filled margins and overwrote the printed text in a chaotic hand now largely obscured by the underlying print.

To Waller, he speaks frankly of his health and loneliness, and he criticizes explorers Richard Burton, Samuel White Baker, and John Hanning Speke, and the British government’s policies in Africa and the Middle East. His words highlight “his anxious and depressed state of mind,” says Harrison.

Writing “for your own eye only,” Livingstone said, “Doubtful if I live to see you again.” He reported on a cholera epidemic that had killed 70,000 in Zanzibar. In his small camp, thirty had died and “if it had continued three instead of two months the camp would have been desolate—Fowls & goats fell first then cattle shivered and died & then men.”

He described slavery as “congenial only to the Devil and his angels” and reported “the sights I have in this journey seen of slaving make my blood run cold and I am not easily moved or very Sentimental—I cannot call the Arabs cruel—it is the trade that is cruel and certainly is vile.”

Despite his circumstances, Livingstone was determined to continue his search for the Nile, telling Waller, “I am off in a few days to finish with the help of the Almighty new explorations.”

Eventually, Livingstone stops in Nyangwe, where, on 15 July 1871, “he sees three hundred people killed by Arab slave traders in the market,” says Wisnicki. Horrified by the Zanzibari slave traders’ actions, Livingstone manages to leave the village and return to Ujiji, where he meets Stanley the following October when, as he wrote, “my spirits were at their lowest ebb.” In this meeting Stanley asks the famous question, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” According to Stanley, Livingstone simply answered, “Yes,” and did so “with a kind smile, lifting his cap slightly.”

Stanley carries Livingstone’s dispatches back to England, and the uproar is so great, it eventually “helps close the Zanzibar slave market,” says Wisnicki. If Waller had the Nyangwe diary, why did he not make greater use of it in The Last Journals? “Waller claims that the diary is, in fact, what is being published,” says Wisnicki. But after studying the Unyanyembe Journal, which covers the period from 1866 to 1872, Wisnicki has come to the conclusion that, while Waller may have consulted the Nyangwe diary, “he preferred the Unyanyembe Journal for the amount of considered detail it provided.”

Livingstone’s practice was to keep field diaries and transcribe them into journals. In going from the Nyangwe diary to the journal, the entry about the massacre is highly revised. The latter, for instance, gives an estimated death toll of three hundred to four hundred and provides more general reporting, but, says Wisnicki, “there is an immediacy to the original field diary that is lost in all subsequent revised versions. One gets the sense of living events along with Livingstone.”

If spectral imaging has a downside, it’s that it yields too much information. In Scotland alone, the team used twelve spectral bands and four raking lights on most of the diary pages, gathering about a terabyte of data, which Toth estimates is the amount of information in a small academic library. To be useful, “each piece of data has to be attributed to the right spot on the right page and in the right place within the stack,” says Toth. Doug Emery, who is described by his colleagues as the Lord of Minutiae, had to develop a system to manage metadata, or data about the data. The whole system has to remain usable by future scholars.

After the team finishes analyzing the spectral images from the diary and completes the critical edition, it will become available through Livingstone Online, a project of the Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine.

Wisnicki hopes that the work on the Nyangwe diary will be followed by a program to image and create critical editions for all of Livingstone’s diaries from his last journey and thus provide scholars with a more complete picture of Africa in the years prior to Europe’s great scramble for the continent.

While technology makes it possible to restore Livingstone’s texts, what will it do for Livingstone? It will allow scholars to paint a more nuanced portrait of one of the nineteenth century’s great figures, one that is ultimately “more human, more complex,” says Wisnicki.