Digitalization Project Turns a Page in African History

Dr. Livingstone, may not be such the hero we once presumed.
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New digital imaging technology and a team of scholars have recovered David Livingstone’s faded journal entries from the period when the colonial era explorer had lost contact with his European benefactors 140 years ago.

As the introduction of Livingstone’s 1871 Field Diary: A Multispectral Critical Edition states, the digital project “reveals for the first time the original record of a remarkable and traumatic period in the life of David Livingstone, the celebrated British abolitionist, missionary, and explorer of Africa.”

While on an expedition to find the source of the Nile River, Livingstone encountered illness and other types of hardships. He had lost contact with his European suppliers and required the benevolence of traders and locals to survive. His experiences would be later immortalized by Henry Morton Stanley’s dispatches to the New York Herald. The journal materials cover his most challenging crisis, the one that helped encourage the Crown’s crackdown on the slave trade in East Africa and thus, cementing Britain’s dominance in the region.

The journal was written on an old newspaper using ink made from berries and other natural pigments. Until Spectral Imaging Project used ultra-violet and infrared light to dim the newsprint and bring out the faded ink, scholars have settled for the account as it was reported in the international press of the time and as reproduced in its various cultural manifestations. Now, the materials, available online, are making it possible for researchers to revise what has been a nearly unchallengeable history.

From a BBC report:

Livingstone’s diary records him gazing with “wonder” as three Arab slavers with guns entered the market in Nyangwe, a Congolese village where 1,500 people were gathered – most of them women… “As I write, shot after shot falls on the fugitives on the other side (of the river) who are wailing loudly over those they know are already slain – Oh let thy kingdom come.”

However, Dr Adrian Wisnicki, who led the project, said there was evidence in the diary that suggested members of Livingstone’s party might have been involved in the massacre.

“Livingstone seems to have considered this possibility and this, together with his failure to intervene, appears to have left him with a profound sense of remorse,” said Dr Wisnicki, assistant professor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and honorary research fellow at Birkbeck College, London.

“In copying over the 1871 diary into his journal, Livingstone decided to rewrite or remove a series of problematic passages.

“It’s taken 140 years to discover Livingstone’s original words and reveal the many secrets of the original diary.”

“Livingstone would never have published this private diary in his own lifetime,” says Dr Wisnicki. “In particular his attitude to the liberated slaves in his entourage is one of disgust – an attitude greatly at odds with his public persona as a dedicated abolitionist.”

Devin Griffiths, Assistant Professor of English at Northwestern University who specializes in  nineteenth-century literature, digital humanities, scientific literature, has an interesting discussion of what this project means for the international collaboration in the Digital Humanities.

On the one hand, it’s a case of an extraordinary archival find (Adrian Wisnicki and Anne Martin’s recovery and reassembly of the often uncatalogued portions of the journal across several distinct accessions at the David Livingstone Center) combined with an ideal technology (the ArchimedesPalimpsest team brought their expertise to bear). But when you look at the extensive documentation provided, it’s also a window into the extraordinary challenge of producing collaborative, trans-Atlantic research in the digital humanities.

For more information on the project, please click here.

What are some other problems, challenges, and opportunities this project present those of us with an eye towards texts of historical interest? What other texts are simply waiting in the archives for a beam of light to offer up their hidden knowledge?

Photos courtesy of: Livingstone’s 1871 Field Diary


7Wendell Hassan Marsh is a graduate student in African Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. He is interested in the political economy of cultures in Africa, the Middle East and their diasporas. He has written for Reuters, AllAfrica.comViewpoint, and The Harvard Journal of African American Policy. Follow him on twitter @theafrabian.

About Wendell Marsh

Wendell Hassan Marsh is a doctoral student in the Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies and the Institute of Comparative Literature and Society. His work lies at the intersection of the study of Islam in Africa, Arabic written culture, and intellectual history. Specifically, his research interrogates the African Islamic library as a locus of knowledge production and circulation

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