By JASON REYNOLDS
Tennessee Christian News
William Wilberforce was one of the best known British abolitionists to modern audiences. After many years of futile effort, he successfully lobbied Parliament in 1807 to pass the Slave Trade Act. His work was important in leading to the end of slavery in the British Empire (although that still took a number of years). However, it did not end the butchering and enslaving of Africans in the eastern portion of the continent, particularly on the part of the Portugese. That’s where David Livingstone, a Scotsman, comes into history.
Livingstone played a key role in hammering the final nail in the slave trade’s coffin, according to a new biography titled, “The Daring Heart of David Livingstone: Exile, African Slavery, and the Publicity Stunt that Saved Millions.”
The book, by human trafficking expert Jay Milbrandt, hits bookstore shelves Tuesday. It is a must-read for anyone who loves the topics of African expeditions, Christian missionaries, British colonialism, and especially, abolition.
Fame and hype
“Livingstone is a name that people vaguely recognize,” Milbrandt told the Tennessee Christian News. “But they don’t know why they know it.”
Modern biographies have mentioned Livingstone’s treks around East Africa in the name of geographical exploration but have largely ignored his Christian faith and his tireless work to end the slave trade, Milbrandt said. In contrast to his modern anonymity, Livingstone was considered a larger-than-life figure in his lifetime. Before the days of elevating musicians or athletes to the status of hero worship, Livingstone reluctantly filled that role in British society to further the cause
of abolition. And just as modern celebrities carry their share of baggage, Livingstone had plenty of his own issues. His popularity rose and fell throughout his explorations from the 1840s to the early 1870s, but he went out of this world making headlines in newspapers around the globe.
(On a side note, modern audiences may have heard the name Livingstone from 60s-era British music. “Dr. Livingstone, I Presume” is a 1968 song by the rock band The Moody Blues. Band member Ray Thomas wrote the song in reference to the same Livingstone.)
Delving into research
Like most people today, Milbrandt said he was only vaguely familiar with the explorer. His inspiration for researching Livingstone came about while he was in East Africa to work as a lawyer to help children who were arrested illegally. He took a side trip to climb Mount Kilimanjaro.
“I had porters carrying my stuff. It made me think about the first African explorers from Europe and how things had not changed in 200 years. I knew something of Livingstone, and when I returned home I tried to find a book about him.”
The only books that Milbrandt found dealt with Livingstone’s explorations. Through additional research, Milbrandt discovered of Livingstone’s role in ending the East African slave trade and became fascinated with the topic, given Milbrandt’s work in social justice issues. One of his greatest challenges, he said, was connecting Livingstone’s death to the timeline of the end of the slave trade. The two were very close, but Livingstone had died before realizing his goal of ending the trade.
“Modern books forgot the idea he was interested in justice,” Milbrandt said. “They removed mention of his faith. These were central to Livingstone.”
Milbrandt was able to pore through Livingstone’s journals for details (those journals had become the basis for best-selling books). However, he had to take a critical look at the journals because Livingstone had edited the materials.
The real Livingstone
Milbrandt said he tried to take a central approach to portraying the explorer. Biographers of Livingstone’s day painted him as a perfect hero while modern writers cast him the opposite way. He did not think he would like Livingstone because of the way modern writers had cast him. From reading the book, it’s obvious that Milbrandt’s mind changed as he did his research.
“He had failings, but you can see yourself in that,” Milbrandt said. “He did remarkable things and yet he made lots of mistakes. In the larger story he was made perfect.
“In some ways he became larger than life. The idea of Livingstone was him off in the jungle, passionate, trying to end slavery. That was more powerful than what he actually did. He became the cause.”
Through his passionate treks through the wilds of exotic Africa, Livingstone influenced the people who performed the diplomatic work to end the East African slave trade.
“I think it would have lasted another 10 to 20 years without him,” Milbrandt said. “No one was speaking up before him.”
In case you were wondering about the book’s subtitle and a publicity stunt that saved millions, that refers to Livingstone’s pursuit of the source of the Nile River. I am a fan of history, and was pleasantly surprised to read about the world’s pursuit of the source of the Nile. In Livingstone’s day, people were hugely interested in finding that source. Livingstone, Milbrandt believes, used that interest as a stunt to shed light on the slave trade.
“On the trek he lost that purpose but refound himself. That makes him an interesting character.”
Modern day justice
Speaking of interesting characters, I feel that Milbrandt is one. He has worked for years to advocate for justice in far-off locales like Africa, Thailand and Burma. Modern-day slavery — human trafficking — frequently originates in Thailand and Burma, he said. In Livingstone’s day there were laws in place to prevent slavery, just as there are now.
“Africa had laws that no one enforced. We have laws, but they are not effectively enforced. We have attention on the issue, but I’m not sure it’s directed to how it affects the source nations. Do we spend the money in the right places?”
In addition to trotting the globe to combat injustice, Milbrandt takes the fight to his native Minnesota. That state is one of the largest destinations for people being trafficked from the Congo and Burma, he said.
Milbrandt is a professor at Bethel University (Minnesota) in the Department of Business & Economics. Prior to joining the faculty, he was the director of the Global Justice Program and associate director of the Nootbaar Institute for Law, Religion, and Ethics at Pepperdine University School of Law.
For more information about Milbrandt, go to JayMilbrandt.com. For more information about the book, go to ThomasNelson.com/the-daring-heart-of-david-livingstone.