Great African Travellers: Attenborough on Livingstone

In celebration of David Attenborough’s 60 years in broadcasting, the BBC have been showcasing some of Attenborough’s early works. This wouldn’t ordinarily have been my go-to subject for TV watching, but it caught my eye because of this 1965 documentary retracing the journey of David Livingstone along the Zambezi river. It’s an intriguing watch for thinking about the afterlives of Livingstone’s legacy into the twentieth century, and for considering the shift from travel writing to travel film documentary.

Livingstone’s African travels began with his Missionary work in the 1840s, which this film briefly details before focusing in on his expeditions of the 1850s onwards in which Livingstone set out to explore the inner regions of Africa. Travelling in the company of local guides, Livingstone travelled from Sesheke up the Zambezi river, striking out to the West, and back again towards the Indian Ocean; following a visit back to Britain in the late 50s, he travelled back heading a larger group expedition and later continued to explore central Africa for his final years.

Map of Livingstone's travels
Map of Livingstone’s travels

Although undertaken some 100 years later, Attenborough’s expedition was still quite  a feat to accomplish – as the BBC website records,

“It took us four months to trace the 2,000-mile length of the Zambezi. Sometimes, we walked along its banks; sometimes we sailed down it. Twice we flew. Most of the way we went by truck will all our stores and equipment on board. But all the time, our actions and our thoughts were governed by the great river beside us, and it is the river which dominates the three films we made about the journey.”

Yet in this documentary, it isn’t so much the river which dominates but rather the ghost of Livingstone that looms large over Attenborough’s journey, resonant both in action and in thought. As we might expect, the young Attenborough’s adoration and reverence for his “astonishingly bold” predecessor shines throughout this documentary, especially in the seriousness and sobriety with which Attenborough often reflects on Livingstone’s greatest of feats or most testing of trials. Yet as a result of this the problematic elements of Livingstone’s narrative, imbued as it is with late-nineteenth century colonial discourse, go largely unchallenged in Attenborough’s retelling. As he treads in the footsteps of his great hero we find Attenborough repeatedly attempt to construct a literal re-treading of the same space, casting the Africa of 1965 as a space unchanged and untouched in the 100-odd years since Livingstone’s journey.

This is most obvious in the landscapes which indeed seem little changed from Livingstone’s accounts: the 1965 film is set against textual descriptions and illustrations that form a coherent picture between then and now, and the Victoria Falls, the unpassable Zambezi rapids, and the Piri hills standing as impressive monuments in a vast landscape. Interesting in the narration of this landscape, though, is the unquestioning use of language familiar to nineteenth-century travel narratives to describe these sights: Attenborough talks of Livingstone “penetrating inland”, filling in “huge spaces of the map”, and later “returning to civilization”, reiterating the idea of Africa as the empty, feminised wilderness to be claimed and conquered by the explorer.

Illustration of Livingstone's adventures
Illustration of Livingstone’s adventures

More problematic, though, is Attenborough’s handling of Livingstone’s encounters with African people, for here again we find a narrative at pains to draw on the similarities between Livingstone’s visit and his own. Visiting some of the same tribes that Livingstone describes, Attenborough reflects on Livingstone’s depictions of their behaviours and customs: “their people to this day pay homage in the way just that Livingstone described” we are told; reading out Livingstone’s horrified description of the  “barbarians” and their “inconceivably vile” customs Attenborough follows with the words, “the practices that so appalled [Livingstone] are still carried on today.”

In doing so, Attenborough reiterates a nineteenth-century imperial discourse which sought to temporalise other lands as unchanging spaces off the axis of modernity, representative of older form of civilization; Attenborough’s point of comparison is 100 years or so and works specifically to reclaim the space through which he moves as specifically Livingstone’s Africa, but in doing so his narrative reiterates and intersects with an older, much more prolonged and deep-set discourse of temporalisation, within which Livingstone was writing and which is more widely found throughout nineteenth-century travel narratives.

Illustration of Livingstone's adventures
Illustration of Livingstone’s adventures

If Attenborough’s narrative reiterates this, however, visual images tell another story: in one instance, just as Attenborough is detailing the unchanged customs of the tribe, the film shows men dressed in modern-looking clothing – crisp-cut suits and shirts – quite clearly not untouched by the “civilized” world; Attenborough’s reiteration of “then as now” continues regardless without a hint of irony at the competing narrative that the film presents.

In many ways, then, this film is reminiscent of much earlier hero-narratives of great explorers – such as W.H.G. Kingston’s Great African Travellers of 1874 (from which the above illustrations are taken). Watching this today, what comes through most clearly is not, as Attenborough hopes, the unchanging nature of Livingstone’s Africa, but rather the unchanging discourse of the white British male imperial explorer as the most stagnant legacy of the late-nineteenth century. So too is it clear that many unspoken stories around the great Livingstone are deserving of further attention – the stories of his wife and children, for example, of whom we find a tantalizingly small amount of information tucked in here. For these criticisms, though, it is all the more intriguing to watch and disentangle the intersecting narratives of Livingstone and Attenborough.

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