Livingstone Sees the Victoria Falls Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

During the first documented transcontinental African journey by a European, the Scottish missionary explorer David Livingstone became the first European to see the magnificent Victoria Falls on the upper Zambezi River. After he returned to Great Britain, he was honored as a hero, and his fame inspired an entire generation to travel to Africa as missionaries and explorers.

Summary of Event

Between May, 1853, and May, 1856, the Scottish missionary David Livingstone became the first European to make a documented journey across Africa, from its Atlantic to Indian Ocean coasts. During this expedition he also became the first European to see the great waterfalls on the Zambezi River that he named Victoria Falls in honor of the British queen Victoria. Motivated by a desire to spread Christianity, civilization, and commerce in the interior of Africa, Livingstone made his trip to find a healthy area that would be suitable for Europeans to set up a permanent mission station. Livingstone, David [p]Livingstone, David;and Victoria Falls[Victoria Falls] Victoria Falls Africa;exploration of Exploration;Central Africa Zimbabwe;Victoria Falls Zambezi River;exploration of Missionaries;in East Africa[East Africa] British Empire;and East Africa[East Africa] [kw]Livingstone Sees the Victoria Falls (Nov. 17, 1853) [kw]Sees the Victoria Falls, Livingstone (Nov. 17, 1853) [kw]Victoria Falls, Livingstone Sees the (Nov. 17, 1853) [kw]Falls, Livingstone Sees the Victoria (Nov. 17, 1853) Livingstone, David [p]Livingstone, David;and Victoria Falls[Victoria Falls] Victoria Falls Africa;exploration of Exploration;Central Africa Zimbabwe;Victoria Falls Zambezi River;exploration of Missionaries;in East Africa[East Africa] British Empire;and East Africa[East Africa] [g]Africa;Nov. 17, 1853: Livingstone Sees the Victoria Falls[2950] [g]Zimbabwe;Nov. 17, 1853: Livingstone Sees the Victoria Falls[2950] [g]Zambia;Nov. 17, 1853: Livingstone Sees the Victoria Falls[2950] [g]British Empire;Nov. 17, 1853: Livingstone Sees the Victoria Falls[2950] [c]Exploration and discovery;Nov. 17, 1853: Livingstone Sees the Victoria Falls[2950] [c]Geography;Nov. 17, 1853: Livingstone Sees the Victoria Falls[2950] Sekeletu Murchison, Sir Roderick Impey

Livingstone began his transcontinental journey at Linyanti, in what is now northeastern Namibia, Namibia in May, 1853. King Sekeletu Sekeletu of the Kololo Kololo (Makololo) people supplied porters for the journey, which was to start westward in search of the source of the Zambezi River and continue on to the Portuguese town of Luanda on the Atlantic coast of Angola. Angola Livingstone had become disconcerted by the existence of the slave trade and malaria Malaria;in Africa[Africa] in western Zambia. Zambia;exploration of Along the way, he wrote descriptions of the wildlife, plants, places that he observed, being careful to record their altitudes and longitudes and latitudes.

The Victoria Falls around the turn of the twentieth century. The falls now straddle the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia.

(Library of Congress)

Among the adventures that Livingstone experienced were a diversion from his route at the behest of a female chief, threats from a hostile chief, and serious health problems before he reached Luanda on May 2, 1854. There he spent several months recovering before starting the return journey to Linyanti in September. That leg of his expedition made extremely slow progress because of his health problems, and Livingstone did not reach Linyanti until September, 1855.

Sekeletu was greatly impressed with the clothing and guns that his men brought back from the coast and the descriptions of British warships they had seen on the coast. He gave Livingstone ivory Ivory and other items to trade on his journey eastward to the Indian Ocean coast. Sekeletu Sekeletu hoped that Livingstone would bring guns and ammunition that would allow his people to stand up to their enemies to the south, the Ndebele Ndebele , and relocate to a healthier region. On November 3, 1855, Livingstone left Linyanti with more than one hundred porters for the one-thousand-mile trek down the Zambezi River to the coast. He hoped to demonstrate that the river itself could serve as a highway to bring trade into Africa’s interior.

On November 17, Livingstone reached the magnificent waterfall that Africans called Mosi-oa-Tunya (smoke that thunders), and which he named Victoria Falls. Mist rising from the falls could be seen from as far as five or six miles away. Although Livingstone was almost overwhelmed by the size of the falls, he initially underestimated their dimensions. He first estimated their height to be only 100 feet (30.5 meters). A later measurement found that the falls were actually closer to 360 feet high (109.7 meters).

During his first visit to the falls, Livingstone and several men paddled a canoe to an island in the middle of the river where he carved the date and his initials into a tree and planted coffee, peaches, and apricots. The local people called the place Garden Island and planted a hedge around Livingstone’s plantings to protect them. During his Zambezi expedition of 1858-1864, Livingstone revisited the falls on August 9, 1860. When he returned to Garden Island, he made an accurate measurement of the height of the falls by lowering a rope weighted with bullets over a precipice.

After visiting the falls, Livingstone continued eastward and left the river behind him when he entered Zambia’s Zambia;exploration of Batoka Plateau, a site that is higher in elevation, cooler, and less subject to the diseases Diseases;tropical of the swampy areas along the river. Livingstone felt confident that that area could support European missionaries and merchants despite the proximity of apparently hostile tribes to the south. In January, 1856, he returned to the river near the old Portuguese settlement of Zumbo in what is now Mozambique Mozambique .

As Livingstone traveled farther along the river, he took the advice of the local chief and left the river to take a more direct route to the next settlement. By following that route, he missed the Kebrabasa Rapids (Cabora Bassa), a series of cataracts thirty miles long with a drop of about six hundred feet (about 183 meters) that posed a serious obstacle to river navigation. He consequently underestimated the difficulty of navigating the river, as he would realized during his later Zambezi expedition. Meanwhile, he told the directors of the London Missionary Society, London Missionary Society;and David Livingstone[Livingstone] which was sponsoring his travels, that the stretch of the river that he had bypassed had only a few minor rapids.

In March, 1856, Livingstone reached Tete, the deepest Portuguese settlement in the interior. He described its decadence and dependence on the slave trade. After leaving his Kololo Kololo porters in Tete, he continued downriver with eight men in a canoe to the sea—a distance of some 270 miles—during which he suffered from fever. He finally reached the coast, at Quelimane, on May 25, 1856. There he learned that the crews of British warships had been enquiring about him and that a boat that had been sent over the sandbar at the mouth of the Zambezi had foundered in the surf and all of the crew of eight drowned.

Livingstone and one of his African companions were put on a British warship to return to England, but the African became unnerved by his unfamiliar surroundings and jumped overboard. While on his way to England, Livingstone received word from the directors of the London Missionary Society London Missionary Society;and David Livingstone[Livingstone] that they did not believe that the areas Livingstone had explored were suitable for missionary activity and henceforth they would not support any future expeditions. Upon his arrival in England on December 9, 1856, he received a hero’s welcome.


David Livingstone’s journey of several thousand miles and his determination against daunting physical obstacles to enter the interior of Africa in an attempt to spread Christianity and to bring civilization and commerce seemed to indicate the primacy of European, specifically British, civilization and turned him into a national figure. His journeys brought a great deal of botanical, zoological, topographical, geographic, and ethnographic knowledge to the attention of the outside world, which regarded his findings as “discoveries,” although he found nothing not already well known to Africans among whom he traveled.

Sir Roderick Impey Murchison, Murchison, Sir Roderick Impey the president of the Royal Geographical Society, Royal Geographical Society presented Livingstone with a gold medal from the society and hailed Livingstone’s discoveries as being significant. He hoped to use Livingstone’s exploits to promote the goals of the society by creating interest in additional expeditions in Africa to discover more geographical information. The London Missionary Society London Missionary Society;and Africa[Africa] also used his adventures to raise funds for mission programs in Africa, although they did not believe that the areas Livingstone had identified as promising sites for missionary activity held any promise.

In November, 1857, Livingstone published an account of his journey in Missionary Travels in South Africa, Missionary Travels in South Africa (Livingstone) which earned him a considerable sum. He was also reunited with his long-suffering wife, Mary, and his children, from whom he had been separated for more than four years. Shortly afterward, he left the London Missionary Society and entered the employ of the British government to lead a government-financed expedition of the Zambezi River. That expedition started with high expectations but ended in disaster.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dugard, Martin. Into Africa: The Epic Adventures of Stanley and Livingstone. New York: Broadway Books, 2004. Lively, though at times uncritical, account of David Livingstone’s expeditions with particular attention to Henry Morton Stanley’s famous expedition to find Livingstone during the early 1870’s.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jeal, Tim. Livingstone. 1973. Reprint. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2001. The most comprehensive analytical biography of Livingstone yet published; draws on letters and manuscripts unavailable to previous biographers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Livingstone, David. The Life and African Explorations of David Livingstone. New York: Cooper Square Press, 2002. Reprint of a book originally published in St. Louis in 1874 that collected extracts from Livingstone’s journals and books published after his death. Allows readers to follow Livingstone’s journeys through his own accounts.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Martelli, George. Livingstone’s River: A History of the Zambezi Expedition, 1858-1864. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1969. Well-researched and analytical treatment of Livingstone’s second major expedition along the Zambezi that contains the account of Livingstone accurately measuring Victoria Falls.

Exploration of West Africa

Exploration of North Africa

Exploration of East Africa

Exploration of Africa’s Congo Basin

Berlin Conference Lays Groundwork for the Partition of Africa

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Nineteenth Century, 1801-1900</i>

Sir Richard Francis Burton; David Livingstone; John Hanning Speke; Henry Morton Stanley. Livingstone, David [p]Livingstone, David;and Victoria Falls[Victoria Falls] Victoria Falls Africa;exploration of Exploration;Central Africa Zimbabwe;Victoria Falls Zambezi River;exploration of Missionaries;in East Africa[East Africa] British Empire;and East Africa[East Africa]

Categories: History