Stories Worth Rereading: Livingstone’s Body-Guard

The work of David Livingstone in Africa was so far that of a missionary-explorer and general that the field of his labor is too broad to permit us to trace individual harvests. No one man can quickly scatter seed over so wide an area. But there is one marvelous story connected with his death, the like of which has never been written on the scroll of human history. All the ages may safely be challenged to furnish its parallel.

On the night of his death he called for Susi, his faithful servant, and, after some tender ministries had been rendered to the dying man, Livingstone said: “All right; you may go out now,” and Susi reluctantly left him alone. At four o’clock the next morning, May 1, Susi and Chuma, with four other devoted attendants, anxiously entered that grass hut at Ilala. The candle was still burning, but the greater light of life had gone out. Their great master, as they called him, was on his knees, his body stretched forward, his head buried in his hands upon the pillow. With silent awe, they stood apart and watched him, lest they should invade the privacy of prayer. But he did not stir; there was not even the motion of breathing, but a suspicious rigidity of inaction. Then one of them, Matthew, softly came near and gently laid his hands upon Livingstone’s cheeks. It was enough; the chill of death was there. The great father of Africa’s dark children was dead, and they were orphans. The most refined and cultured Englishmen would have been perplexed as to what course to take. They were surrounded by superstitious and unsympathetic savages, to whom the unburied remains of the dead man would be an object of dread. His native land was six thousand miles away, and even the coast was fifteen hundred. A grave responsibility rested upon these simple-minded sons of the Dark Continent, to which few of the wisest would have been equal. Those remains, with his valuable journals, instruments, and personal effects, must be carried to Zanzibar. But the body must first be preserved from decay, and they had no skill nor facilities for embalming; and if preserved, there were no means of transportation—no roads nor carts. No beasts of burden being available, the body must be borne on the shoulders of human beings; and, as no strangers could be trusted, they must themselves undertake the journey and the sacred charge.

These humble children of the forest were grandly equal to the occasion, and they resolved among themselves to carry the body to the seashore, and not give it into other hands until they could surrender it to his countrymen. Moreover, to insure safety to the remains and security to the bearers, it must be done with secrecy. They would gladly have kept secret even their master’s death, but the fact could not be concealed. God, however, disposed Chitambo and his subjects to permit these servants of the great missionary to prepare his emaciated body for its last journey, in a hut built for the purpose, on the outskirts of the village.

Now watch these black men as they rudely embalm the body of him who had been to them a savior. They tenderly open the chest and take out the heart and viscera. These they, with a poetic and pathetic sense of fitness, reserve for his beloved Africa. The heart that for thirty-three years had beat for her welfare must be buried in her bosom. And so one of the Nassik boys, Jacob Wainright, read the simple service of burial, and under the moula-tree at Ilala that heart was deposited, and that tree, carved with a simple inscription, became his monument. Then the body was prepared for its long journey; the cavity was filled with salt, brandy poured into the mouth, and the corpse laid out in the sun for fourteen days, and so was reduced to the condition of a mummy, Afterward it was thrust into a hollow cylinder of bark. Over this was sewed a covering of canvas. The whole package was securely lashed to a pole, and so at last was ready to be borne between two men upon their shoulders.

As yet the enterprise was scarcely begun, and the most difficult part of their task was before them. The sea was far away, and the path lay through a territory where nearly every fifty miles would bring them to a new tribe, to face new difficulties.

Nevertheless, Susi and Chuma took up their precious burden, and, looking to Livingstone’s God for help, began the most remarkable funeral march on record. They followed the track their master had marked with his footsteps when he penetrated to Lake Bangweolo, passing to the south of Lake Lumbi, which is a continuation of Tanganyika, then crossing to Unyanyembe, where it was found out that they were carrying a dead body. Shelter was hard to get, or even food; and at Kasekera they could get nothing for which they asked, except on condition that they would bury the remains they were carrying.

Now indeed their love and generalship were put to a new test. But again they were equal to the emergency. They made up another package like the precious burden, only it contained branches instead of human bones; and this, with mock solemnity, they bore on their shoulders to a safe distance, scattered the contents far and wide in the brushwood, and came back without the bundle. Meanwhile others of their party had repacked the remains, doubling them up into the semblance of a bale of cotton cloth, and so they once more managed to procure what they needed and go on with their charge.

The true story of that nine months’ march has never been written, and it never will be, for the full data cannot be supplied. But here is material waiting for some coming English Homer or Milton to crystallize into one of the world’s noblest epics; and it deserves the master hand of a great poet artist to do it justice.

See these black men, whom some scientific philosophers would place at one remove from the gorilla, run all manner of risks, by day and night, for forty weeks; now going around by circuitous route to resort to strategem to get their precious burden through the country; sometimes forced to fight their foes in order to carry out their holy mission. Follow them as they ford the rivers and travel trackless deserts; facing torrid heat and drenching tropical storms; daring perils from wild beasts and relentless wild men; exposing themselves to the fatal fever, and burying several of their little band on the way. Yet on they went, patient and persevering, never fainting nor halting, until love and gratitude had done all that could be done, and they laid down at the feet of the British consul, on the twelfth of March, 1874, all that was left of Scotland’s great hero.

When, a little more than a month later, the coffin of Livingstone was landed in England, April 15, it was felt that no less a shrine than Britain’s greatest burial-place could fitly hold such precious dust. But so improbable and incredible did it seem that a few rude Africans could actually have done this splendid deed, at such a cost of time and such risk, that not until the fractured bones of the arm, which the lion crushed at Jabotsa thirty years before, identified the body, was certain that this was Livingstone’s corpse. And then, on the eighteenth of April, 1874, such a funeral cortege entered the great abbey of Britain’s illustrious dead as few warriors or heroes or princes ever drew to that mausoleum.

The faithful body-servants who had religiously brought home every relic of the person or property of the great missionary explorer were accorded places of honor. And well they might be. No triumphal procession of earth’s mightiest conqueror ever equaled for sublimity that lonely journey through Africa’s forests. An example of tenderness, gratitude, devotion, heroism, equal to this, the world had never seen. The exquisite inventiveness of a love that lavished tears as water on the feet of Jesus, and made tresses of hair a towel, and broke the alabaster flask for his anointing; the feminine tenderness that lifted his mangled body from the cross and wrapped it in new linen, with costly spices, and laid it in a virgin tomb, have at length been surpassed by the ingenious devotion of the cursed sons of Canaan.

The grandeur and pathos of that burial scene, amid the stately columns and arches of England’s famous Abbey, pale in luster when contrasted with that simpler scene near Ilala, when, in God’s greater cathedral of nature, whose columns and arches are the trees, whose surpliced choir are the singing birds, whose organ is the moaning wind, the grassy carpet was lifted, and dark hands laid Livingstone’s heart to rest, In that great cortege that moved up the nave no truer nobleman was found than that black man, Susi, who in illness had nursed the Blantyre hero, had laid his heart in Africa’s bosom, and whose hand was now upon his pall.

Let those who doubt and deride Christian missions to the degraded children of Africa, who tell us that it is not worth while to sacrifice precious lives for the sake of these doubly lost millions of the Dark Continent,—let such tell us whether it is not worth while, at any cost, to seek out and save men with whom such Christian heroism is possible.

Burn on, thou humble candle, burn within thy hut of grass,
Though few may be the pilgrim feet that through Ilala pass;
God’s hand hath lit thee, long to shine, and shed thy holy light
Till the new day-dawn pour its beams o’er Afric’s long midnight.

Arthur T. Pierson, in “The Miracles of Missions,” second series.