By Julie Davidson


‘Poor Mary lies on Shupanga Brae, and beeks fornent the sun.” And basks before the sun. Of the passionate tributes and heart-felt emotions expressed by David Livingstone on the death of his wife, his lapse into archaic Scots is an odd remark; almost as if he envied the last resting place of a woman born and raised in the bushlands of southern Africa and – after 10 years of miserable exile in Britain – never wanted to leave her homeland again.

On a benign blue day in September, 2007, with the Zambezi quiescent in the dry season, I reach “Shupanga Brae” after a long trail of emails and dusty roads lead me to Mary Livingstone’s grave in an obscure corner of Mozambique. The brae is more of a slope near the river, where women wash their clothes in the shallows, but it’s high enough to lift Chupanga, as the village is now called, above the waters when the Zambezi floods. Three years earlier and 6000 miles away I had stared at a gloomy, black and white photograph of Mary’s grave in the Shuttle Row museum and resolved to tell her story by starting at its end. But decades after this picture was taken Mozambique had been convulsed by 16 years of civil war. The province of Sofala and Chupanga were at the heart of it. The war ended in 1992, leaving much of rural Sofala seeded with land mines.

What had happened to Shupanga House, where Mary died after she was carried from Livingstone’s expeditionary vessel in the acute stages of what was probably cerebral malaria? What had happened to the substantial monument which her husband commissioned to replace the wooden cross on the original site? Or the Jesuit mission later established at Chupanga, which had maintained and honoured her grave?

The bush is a tenacious colonist; all I knew is that during the years of war it had consumed the graveyard of Chupanga Mission, while the church and much of the village were destroyed. But then came a serendipity. On a trip to the Lower Zambezi valley in Zambia, sitting on a sand island some 70 miles upriver from the Mozambique border, I heard fresh news.

After years in mainstream journalism I had turned to travel writing, specialising in wildlife tourism and conservation. The African bush had snared me with its seraphic dawns and celestial sunsets and simple imperatives of survival for all who live there. It also gave me a network of contacts and opportunities to aim for justice for Mary Livingstone, whose neglect in the Livingstone literature had incensed me. She is little more than a note in the margin of an iconic life.

She left no journal, few letters and as a shadow in the blaze of her husband’s sun was either patronised or ignored and sometimes traduced by many of his chroniclers. But although he effectively abandoned her as he tramped across Africa – they were married 18 years, and half that time was spent apart – no one appreciated her worth more than he did.

Theirs was both an unconventional love story and a working partnership. He was taken by surprise by her death on April 27, 1962, only three months after her return to Africa to join him on an expedition which would end disastrously, and cost him his reputation for some time.

She was well used to the rigours of adventurous travel, thrilled to be back in Africa, and he seemed to believe her invincible. The letters written to members of her family are charged with emotion, some of it guilt.

To Mary Moffat of Kuruman mission, his mother-in-law, with whom he had long had a prickly relationship, he opens his heart with the humility of a penitent: “If you knew how I loved and trusted her you may realise my loss…There are regrets which will follow me to my dying day.” To his brother-in-law John he admits, “I had got so into the habit of feeling her to be part of myself I did not fear but she would hold out.”

And to Lady Murchison, wife of his friend Sir Roderick Murchison of the Royal Geographic Society, he gave Mary the eulogy denied by the nature of her funeral – and largely denied by history: “At Kolobeng she managed all the household affairs by native servants of her own training, made bread, butter and all the clothes of the family; taught her children most carefully; kept also an infant and sewing school – by far the most popular and best attended we had.

It was a fine sight to see her day by day walking quarter of a mile to the town, no matter how broiling the sun, to impart instructions to the heathen Bakwains. Ma-Robert’s name is known throughout the country and 1800 miles beyond…A brave, good woman was she.” She was more than that; more than a domestic prop, like other missionary wives, and a dutiful teacher who spoke fluent Tswana “like a native,” as her husband remarked without irony.

She was the daughter of Robert Moffat of Kuruman, the most illustrious missionary of his day, a Scot from Ormiston, in East Lothian, who with his redoubtable wife, presided over the London Missionary Society’s most remote African station. It was the influential Moffat name, trusted by the tribes of the region, which was Livingstone’s greatest asset in his marriage, and which became a passport on his push north across the Kalahari, taking with him his heavily pregnant wife and three young children, who came close to dying of thirst.

At Linyanti, on the Chobe River, Sebetwane, the paramount chief of the Makololo, whom he planned to convert, was more interested in greeting and honouring the daughter of Moffat than her husband. Kolobeng, the mission station on the edge of the Kalahari which was the family’s only settled home, lay in my future. (Her baby daughter, a casualty of an earlier Kalahari crossing, is buried there.)

So does Kuruman, where Mary met and married a gauche young Scottish recruit, and Griquatown, 800 miles north of Cape Town, where she was born in a reed-and-mud hut. I would follow in Mary’s footsteps to them, but first I had my sights set on her forgotten grave. On a moonlit night in 2004, as the staff of Chiawa Camp stoked the fire and prepared dinner to the noises of splashing hippo and whooping hyena, my Zambian host Grant Cumings, told me that Chupanga Church had been re-built.

The mission was up and running, and the grave had been rescued from the bush. Nothing like a little local knowledge. But how to get there? From then on, every commission for an African wildlife feature had on its agenda the parallel mission of contacting people who could help.

There remains a wealth of interest in Livingstone in southern Africa, and equally in his wife’s family, the Moffats of Kuruman. As the Zimbabwean writer Petina Gappah has demonstrated in her latest novel, Out of Darkness, Shining Light, his story is now being re-written for and through its overlooked figures – the Africans he came to convert.

When I finally arrive at Shupanga Brae I’m escorted by two interested parties, both key to my purpose: Michael Muyafula, a driver-guide and committed Christian from Malawi, and Gaia Allison, who speaks Portuguese, the lingua franca of Mozambique.

Mike has driven me down the Shire Valley from Blantyre, the commercial capital named for Livingstone’s birthplace, crossing into Mozambique at a back-of-beyond border post and, more precariously, crossing the Zambezi at Mutarara, where the bridge blown up in the civil war is under repair: a journey of some 500 miles, many of them bone-shaking. Gaia is British, and is working in international development in the provincial capital of Beira, on the coast. She has taken an interest in Mary’s grave, which she believes could generate a little tourist income as a “visitor attraction” in the battered village of Chupanga.

She has organised our meeting with the mission priest, who also likes the idea. But before we meet we pass through the broken wall of the graveyard and cross the scorched elephant grass to lay flowers we have plucked from the wayside on the grave. It is an impressive tomb, surrounded by the wooden crosses of makeshift local graves, some recent.

It has indeed the stature of a historic monument, even if its base is cracked and its tall iron headstone disfigured with smoke : “Here repose the mortal remains of Mary Moffat the beloved wife of Dr Livingstone in humble hope of a joyful resurrection by our saviour Jesus Christ she died in Shupanga House 27th April 1862 aged 41 years” No punctuation, no further comment. A solemn moment, interrupted only by a cheerful “Bom Día!” It is Padre Medard, an athletic figure in white T-shirt, baseball cap and sunglasses. (I suppose I was expecting someone grave and grizzled in cassock and beretta).

He has placed chairs under a cashew tree near the pristine new church and here we are joined by Antonio Loli John: frail and courteous, his eyes milky behind thick glasses, his meagre body propped by a walking stick. In a land where 100,000 people died in the civil war and average life expectancy is 38, he is not just a survivor, he is an ancient. He is 81, the oldest man in the village. And he has something startling to tell us about Shupanga House.

It seems that Mary Livingstone breathed her last in a slave holding pen. As the old man leads us through dense undergrowth to the ruins of the house, a stone-built colonial staging post on the Zambezi which the expedition made its base, Gaia translates his Portuguese commentary. “

La casa di spirito. No one would live in it and everyone knew it had a cruel past, and was haunted by the unquiet souls of the dead. He was afraid to go near it when he was a child.” I asked if it was haunted by the ghost of Mary Livingstone. “No. The ghosts of slaves. They were held in the house in the old days until they were fetched by boats to take them to the coast.” Antonio Loli John’s testimony is a sobering, but somehow fitting, end to our visit.

As Livingstone fought to save his wife’s life with every remedy in his repertoire his fellow churchmen, James Stewart and John Kirk (neither with friendly opinions of Mary) were moved by his grief. There has been a lazy assumption that his marriage was one of convenience, but no one who has read the Livingstone letters can doubt its nature.

“ I never show all my feelings,” he wrote during her exile in the UK, “but I can truly say, my dearest, that I loved you when I married you, and the longer I lived with you, I loved you the better…”

He became a gentler, humbler man after her death. Nothing, however, would divert him from his new ambition to find the source of the Nile – the expedition which brought about the famous meeting with Henry Morton Stanley and ended in his death at Chitambo, in what is now northern Zambia; not his motherless children in the UK, the little girl who could remember Mary only by the gift of red shoes when she said goodbye, or his three growing teenagers; not even his absent son Robert, who had disappeared into the mayhem of the American Civil War before dying, aged 19, in a prison hospital.

History, spun by the American journalist Stanley and re-inforced by the Royal Geographic Society, was in the making, and an icon was born. Meanwhile, Mary continues to bask before the sun on Shupanga Brae as Mozambique enters another troubled chapter in its history. “Ma-Robert’s name is known throughout the country and 18,00 miles beyond,” Livingstone said of her. With her new presence in his birthplace it may get known even farther. Not before time.


David Livingstone Birthplace

In 1929 Anna Mary, the only surviving child of David and Mary Livingstone, attended the opening of Scotland’s National Memorial to its Lanarkshire celebrity: the boy bookworm of Blantyre’s cotton mills, saviour of the heathen, champion of the slave. The Shuttle Row tenement where his parents raised five children in a single room was now a museum, bought and restored by public subscription, much of it from the “saved pennies” of Sunday school children

 The Royal Geographical Society and Livingstone’s Victorian hagiographers had successfully consolidated, even mythologised, his reputation as the missionary-explorer who brought moral purpose to epic journeys through southern and central Africa. In an age when the ethics of colonialism and empire were rarely challenged, the National Memorial put little effort into honouring him in anything other than heroic terms, while little was said of the family members who were casualties of his vision and ambition, or the Africans who became key figures in his travels.

Times change. While the David Livingstone Centre evolved into a modern visitor attraction with tearoom, gift shop and children’s play area in its parkland beside the Clyde, the Shuttle Row museum ran into hard times; not only for the gaps in its narrative but from lack of funds to rescue it from its time warp. To the rescue came the National Lottery Heritage Fund, Scottish Government and Historic Environment Scotland, who have financed a £9.1 million regeneration package for the museum and its policies, which have been closed for three years.

The centre has also been re-christened. Opening on July 28, the David Livingstone Birthplace now presents a story better fitted for the cultural climate of today. The deployment of additional exhibits and new programmes will reflect multiple perspectives of his adventures and legacy. The most eccentric original feature, the eight colourful sculptures of the Pilkington Jackson Tableaux (much loved by children) has been re-interpreted by Zimbabwean scholar and writer Petina Gappah, using animation to illustrate the contributions made by Livingstone’s African companions; among them the men and women who escorted his body 1500 miles to the coast at great risk – the theme of her recent novel, Out of Darkness, Shining Light.

Anna Mary, the youngest Livingstone child, was born in 1858 as her father sailed up the Zambezi on the steamship Ma-Robert. She didn’t meet him until she was five. She had no memories of her mother, and was barely two, living in Hamilton with her aunts, when Mary Livingstone died at Shupanga, on the same river. But the new Ma-Robert Playground with its adventurous steamboat centrepiece signals a fresh emphasis on her mother’s history. Livingstone named his vessel after his wife, whose Tswana honorific was Ma-Robert, “mother of Robert”, her first-born.

And In the exhibition space Mary’s significant role in her husband’s achievements – her command of local languages, her experience of bush life and travel, and her status as the daughter of the trusted and influential Robert Moffat of Kuruman mission – has finally been given its place.


Julie Davidson is the author of Looking for Mrs Livingstone, published by Saint Andrew Press in 2012 and adapted for BBC Radio 4’s Book of the Week. The David Livingstone Birthplace opens on Wednesday, tickets are available at