British Empire
Living in the British empire - Africa
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Extract from a report written by Dr Livingstone commenting on disease, 1872
(Catalogue ref: FO 881/2060)
  • This source is an extract from a series of reports written by David Livingstone for the British government between 1852 and 1872.
  • This extract describes an expedition in which he was trying to find the source of the River Nile. Livingstone was writing to the government minister Lord Stanley.
  • In this extract he describes the terrible death toll as a result of the deadly smallpox virus.
  • Smallpox was not a major problem in Britain by the late 1800s because a vaccine (a medicine which stopped people catching the disease) had been developed 100 years earlier. However, the vaccine was not easy to keep fresh in the hot African climate. Livingstone describes the method of putting the vaccine in capillary tubes. These were thin, sealed glass bottles, which kept the vaccine pure.
  • Livingstone shows how long he has been away from Britain because he does not know who might be able to supply vaccine. Any doctor in Britain would have known.
  • Like many missionaries, Livingstone tried to bring Western medicine to African peoples. This is generally seen as one of the real benefits brought by the British empire to Africa and to other parts of the empire.
  • On the other hand, many of the diseases that Livingstone helped to fight were actually brought to Africa by European travellers in the first place.
  • Livingstone refers to Arabs in this source. Arabs traded constantly with the East African coast. Most were honest traders, but many were also slave traders. As you can see from the source, Livingstone did not have a high opinion of them.
  • You can find out more about Livingstone in source 3 of this case study and in source 5 of gallery 1 case study 2.
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