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David Livingstone Letter Deciphered After 140 Years

July 3, 2010

A letter written by famed 19th century explorer David Livingstone, which has been illegible for nearly 140 years, has finally been deciphered, a British university said Friday.

The letter was written by the explorer who told of his despair at ever leaving Africa alive. The deciphering of the letter, using state of the art imaging techniques, helped researchers paint a picture of a man traditionally labeled as a bold Victorian hero, revealing the self-doubt that plagued the explorer in one of his darkest hours.

“I am terribly knocked up but this is for your own eye only,” wrote Livingstone to his close friend Horace Waller. “Doubtful if I live to see you again.”

Livingstone was a national hero when he set out to find the source of the River Nile in 1866, but by the time he composed his four-page letter he was at the lowest point in his professional life, according to Debbie Harrison, researcher at Birkbeck University in London. The explorer was stranded in the village of Bambarre, in present-day Congo, in February of 1871. He was no where near his goal, as most of his expedition either died or deserted him, and he was suffering from the effects of pneumonia, fever, and tropical eating ulcers — a nasty condition that eats flesh.

Livingstone, a crusading abolitionist, also had to seek refuge from Arab slave traders while he waited for help from the outside world. He remained bedridden for weeks on end. He read the Bible several times and even began hallucinating.

Supporters of Livingstone were mad with worry as nobody had heard from him in years. As Livingstone recovered, search parties were sent out into the interior to discover his fate. He was eventually found near the eastern shore of the massive Lake Tanganyika by journalist Henry Morton Stanley.

Stanley’s memorable quip, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” was immortalized by their encounter.

But Livingstone refused to leave Africa. He wished to continue his obsessive quest to find the source of the Nile. Livingstone succumbed to illness in May 1873 at Chitambo, in what is now Zambia.

It is not really known how Livingstone’s letter made it out of Africa, although experts believe it may have been carried out by Stanley, who would have taken it back to Waller. The letter disappeared for nearly a century before surfacing again at an auction in 1966.

By then, the letter was indecipherable. Out of paper and low on ink, Livingstone took pages from books and newspapers and wrote on them using pigments improvised from the seeds of local berries. A century later, the pigment had nearly faded to the point of invisibility, making it much more difficult to decipher Livingstone’s disorganized handwriting.

A team of academics and scientists analyzed the fragile paper and carefully drew out the original text recorded almost a century-and-a-half earlier. The university said the newly revealed letter projects an image at odds with the fearless hero depicted by Waller, who heavily sanitized Livingstone’s writings before they were published posthumously.

“It’s an opportunity to rewrite history,” said Harrison. “It’s giving us a new way of looking at Livingstone. He got depressed, he did think he’d failed at times. But he never gave up … It makes him human.”

Harrison said that while Livingstone was “very politically incorrect in his writings and his ramblings,” his friend was “very concerned to maintain that image of Livingstone as a saintly martyr and to suppress anything that might have offended Victorians.”

The letter was published Friday and is part of an 18-month project to produce a new edition of the diary Livingstone kept between 1870 and 1871.