History of Cartography

Historic Maps of Africa

4511.2 - David Livingstone’s mapping of south-central Africa, 1849-1873

Tuesday, July 4
1:50 PM - 2:10 PM
Location: Hoover

This paper deals with David Livingstone’s mapping of south-central Africa during the period 1849 to 1873. The topic will be discussed by referring to the various exploratory journeys Livingstone undertook during this period; the problems he encountered making astronomical observations; the instruments he used; the accuracy of his observations given the circumstances he was subjected to; the maps he compiled; the problems he encountered with their publication, and the public exposure he hence enjoyed. In conclusion, attention will be given to the spectral imaging project which is currently being undertaken with regard to Livingstone’s written legacy.

David Livingstone remains one of the best known British explorers of the 19th century and in his time he became a national hero for his achievements to “open up” south-central Africa at a time when little was known about the interior of the continent. Numerous books have been written on him, many uncritically praising his abilities as an explorer, a missionary and a humanitarian campaigner against the slave trade. Given all these adulations it is quite remarkable that very little has been written on his astronomical observations and the maps he compiled. That this aspect of his life has been neglected is probably due its scientific nature which has made it less accessible to many of his admirers.

Livingstone had no formal schooling regarding the rudiments of geography and never took any formal courses in surveying or mapping. He was, however, a product of the nineteenth century when the ideas and challenges of exploration captured the imagination of the reading public. He was a keen observer of the natural environment and possessed an innate ability to meticulously record what he observed. During his three-month journey from Britain to the Cape in 1841 he learned from the captain of the ship how to determine geographical position and in 1852, before leaving for inner Africa, he subjected himself to an instructional course in astronomical surveying conducted by HM Royal Astronomer at the Cape, Sir Thomas Maclear. Maclear, who became a staunch friend and supporter of Livingstone, undertook to examine and correct the observations Livingstone would send him during his travels. Keen that his work should be at all times scientifically above board, Livingstone religiously kept to this agreement throughout his life.

Livingstone’s mapping endeavours will be discussed with regard to the following:

• His discovery of Lake Ngami in 1849;
• His mapping of the Zambesi drainage area in 1859;
• His reconnaissance survey of the Zambesi in preparation for his planned trip from Sesheke to Loanda in Angola;
• His journey from Sesheke to Loanda, November 1853 until May 1854;
• His trans-Africa journey from Loanda to Quelimane in Moçambique from September 1854 until May 1856;
• His Zambesi Expedition, 1858-1864;
• His exploration and mapping of the Shire River and Lake Nyassa, 1862-1864;
• His last journey to discover the source of the Nile, 1866-1873.

Of Livingstone’s astronomical observations, Sir Thomas Maclear said: “I never knew a man who, knowing scarcely anything of the method of making geographical observations, or laying down positions, became so soon an adept that he could take complete lunar observations, and altitude for time, within fifteen minutes. His observations of the course of the Zambesi….are the finest specimens of geographical observation I have ever met with”.

Elri C. Liebenberg

University of South Africa

Elri Liebenberg was Professor and Head of the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies of the University of South Africa. She has published widely on the history of cartography of Southern Africa, is the Regional Editor of the Cartographic Journal for Africa and an Assistant-Editor for the ICA International Journal of Cartography . She has been a member of the South African National Committee for the ICA since 1987, was a Vice-President of the ICA from 1999 to 2003, and was Chairperson of the ICA Commission on the History of Cartography from 2007 until 2015.


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László Zentai

Head of department
Department of Cartography and Geoinformatics, Eotvos University

László Zentai is a Full Professor and Head of the Department of Cartography and Geoinformatics at Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest, Hungary. He is the Vice-Rector (also between 2007 and 2010) of the university and he was also the Vice-dean of the Faculty of Informatics two times previosuly. Prof. Zentai is the Secretary-General of the International Cartographic Association (2011–2019) and he is also serving as the Chairman of the Hungarian National ICA Group. He is a Council member of the International Orienteering Federation. His papers are dealing with computer cartography, cartographic education, topographic mapping, relief representation, orienteering maps, environmental protection and webcartography.


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4511.2 - David Livingstone’s mapping of south-central Africa, 1849-1873

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