Wisnicki Finds Livingstone

By Chauncey Ross
April 12, 2012

Appeared in the Spring 2012 issue of IUP Magazine

Professor Adrian Wisnicki’s high-tech restoration of the legendary explorer David Livingstone’s missing diary has historians buzzing. It’s Livingstone unedited, they can presume.

Livingstone's Lost Diaries

Adrian Wisnicki with an 1874 edition of The Last Journals of David Livingstone in IUP’s Special Collections and University Archives

Adrian Wisnicki with an 1874 edition of The Last Journals of David Livingstone in IUP’s Special Collections and University Archives

Historians have been buzzing for months about British explorer David Livingstone’s freshly published personal diaries.

Livingstone chronicled almost 30 years of his travels in Africa, penning letters and journals from the rough notes he kept and relying on Arab traders and others to help relay his manuscripts back to his publishers. It’s what made Livingstone, a documentarian and prominent abolitionist, a legendary figure worldwide and a hero in his homeland.

Students of Livingstone have long been able to look behind his published works, researching his notes in Scottish archives. But there was a gap in his work in mid-1871.

Missing was Livingstone’s personal diary detailing a pivotal time in his final mission: a massacre of hundreds of Africans by Arab slave traders in the village of Nyangwe, in present-day Zambia.

But now Livingstone’s unedited, firsthand account of those months has been unveiled in a project headed by an IUP professor who relied on more than international detective work to find the papers.

Adrian Wisnicki’s challenge was compounded because Livingstone’s diary, handwritten in a crude homemade ink over an 1869 edition of the London Standard newspaper, had faded to near invisibility over the last 140 years.

Livingstone’s lost personal reflections have now come to light, quite literally, with the help of some sophisticated technology. Wisnicki and fellow researchers have completed a grant-funded project to put the long-missing Livingstone diary through a process called spectral imaging and rediscover Livingstone’s observations from a key period of African history. The result has been presented in a meticulously created website.

“Ultimately we recovered about 99 percent of the text from what had been about 15 percent visibility,” Wisnicki said. “It’s a huge, huge difference and a huge success rate.”

And, in those scientifically restored words, he found the thoughts and feelings that had been edited from the published journals.

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Finding the Livingstone Diaries

Wisnicki, an assistant professor of 19th-century British literature, had many reasons driving him to explore Livingstone’s personal side. His affinity for Victorian literature grew while getting his doctorate at City University of New York. He became fascinated with contemporary African culture and literature in 2003-2004 while he and his wife lived in Botswana in southern Africa.

“The question was how could I combine those two interests? One answer was to work on literature of the British colonial era, so I developed a specialization in British travel in Africa,” he explained.

Wisnicki focused on Livingstone as he wrote a book on the influence of local African peoples and cultures on the writings of the British travelers. He studied many writers’ original unpublished works but hit a dead end while researching Livingstone’s version of the 1871 Nyangwe massacre.

“For the past 140 years, we’ve been able to read accounts from a letter and a revised journal, which are one step removed from the original diary,” Wisnicki said. “I wanted to look at the original diary and see his experiences as he originally recorded them while everything was happening.”

Portrait of Dr. Livingstone

Portrait of Dr. Livingstone

His primary resource was David Livingstone: A Catalogue of Documents, an inventory of more than 2,000 letters and dozens of journals. An exhaustive work, it is listed on Amazon.com for $109—used—in paperback.

The catalog pointed to the National Library of Scotland, but the diary wasn’t there. So Wisnicki took his search to the David Livingstone Centre, “an underfunded public institution centered on his childhood home just outside Glasgow, in Blantyre, Scotland,” Wisnicki said. “There’s a vast array of Livingstone material there, but the holdings of the archives are not fully documented. Not everything that was there was cataloged or known to be there.

“I just had a hunch the diary would be there.”

A retired, part-time archivist helped Wisnicki pore through the boxes, and, in July 2009, about half the 1871 diaries surfaced. They found the rest in the next few months.

“Part of it was just luck, part of it was intuition, and part of it was creative thinking,” Wisnicki explained. “We knew Livingstone wrote part of the diary on the backs of map pages, so I had the idea they might be there with cataloged maps.”

Wisnicki calls it the most important and iconic diary of Livingstone’s career.

“The diary documents his firsthand impression of the Nyangwe massacre. The revised versions gained wide circulation in Britain and eventually led to the British enforcing the closure of the Zanzibar slave trade,” he said.

Second, it covers a time that coincided with the sensational search mission by New York Herald reporter Henry Stanley, who set out to verify rumors that Livingstone had died in Africa—a journey that culminated with Stanley’s celebrated greeting, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” around November 1, 1871.

“That meeting effectively re-established [Livingstone’s] reputation as an abolitionist crusader, as a certain kind of saint, and has led to his continued reverence in the public imagination,” Wisnicki said.

“And third, that meeting helped establish Stanley’s career as an explorer, and Stanley went on to become one of the great explorers of 19th-century Africa.”

Stanley’s journey was one of several missions to verify Livingstone’s fate, but it was the only one that succeeded.

And, as far as Stanley’s astute presumption? It involved very little guesswork, as they were the only Europeans on hand. Livingstone had not seen another white person for almost five years, and Stanley had arrived alone after the deaths of his two traveling partners.

With those factors cementing the importance of the now-recovered Livingstone papers, Wisnicki sought a way to recover the lost text.

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Deciphering the Diaries through Spectral Imaging

His search led him to Michael Toth, of Oakton, Va., the leader of a team of technicians and scientists who successfully used spectral imaging to recover the treatises of ancient Greek mathematician Archimedes. In the imaging work, each page was illuminated with various wavelengths of light across the spectrum from ultraviolet to infrared and was photographed under each kind of light.

The process held hope because Livingstone’s homemade berry ink was still on the paper. Although it was faded and invisible when viewed in sunlight or ordinary room light, it could be seen when viewed under different colors of light, Toth said.

Ultimately, the set of exposures showed which light frequency ranges enhanced or suppressed each kind of ink. The scientists digitally combined different spectral exposures to bring out the Livingstone text and lighten the newspaper text.

Before going on with the imaging project, Wisnicki planned for digitally cataloging and preserving the Livingstone diaries, following the model of the Livingstone Online website established by Christopher Lawrence in 2005 at the UCL Centre for the History of Medicine in London.

Then, with the faded Livingstone papers located, the support of the Livingstone Centre, Toth’s technological team on board, and Lawrence as a web organizer, Wisnicki’s group was awarded grants for the project from the U.S. National Endowment for the Humanities and the British Academy.

Wisnicki’s group headed to Scotland in the summer of 2010 with specialized lighting equipment and a powerful 39-megapixel camera to image the Livingstone diaries on site and returned with thousands of images and massive amounts of data.

Adrian Wisnicki examines a page of David Livingstone’s 1871 field diary in blue light.

Adrian Wisnicki examines a page of David Livingstone’s 1871 field diary in blue light.

The rest of the year was spent studying the digital images and compiling corresponding data files with details about how each photo was made and what each shows. Toth said that component of the work alone makes the project stand out.

“One of the big advances—it’s not sexy, but it is critical—is the data management,” he said. That meant cataloging the images by the same standards and generating metadata in a file format that allows the database to be read and searched on the Internet.

In February 2011, Wisnicki set up a demonstration version of the Livingstone Spectral Imaging Project website to house the 1871 field diary project. The UCLA Digital Library hosts the site. The diary analysis and web design continued through the year, and, when Wisnicki joined the faculty at IUP last summer, he recruited a graduate assistant, A.J. Schmitz, to help with transcribing and cataloging the texts.

Last fall, the team launched the site for the public. It features more than 3,000 images, articles about the project, and side-by-side readouts of text of the transcribed diaries, letters, and journals that allow readers to compare the different versions of the events on the same screen.

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Click any image to view a larger version and start a slideshow.

This is the page in the original 1871 field diary, handwritten on newspaper, in which David Livingstone described the July 15 massacre of hundreds of Africans by Arab slave traders in Nyangwe, in present-day Zambia. (David Livingstone Spectral Imaging Project)
The same page from Livingstone's 1871 field diary is made clearer with spectral imaging. (David Livingstone Spectral Imaging Project)
David Livingstone's original 1871 field diary, handwritten with a crude, homemade ink over an 1869 edition of the London Standard newspaper, had faded to near invisibility over the last 140 years.  (David Livingstone Spectral Imaging Project)
The same London Standard page is shown after spectral imaging was used to bring out the Livingstone handwriting and lighten the newspaper text. (David Livingstone Spectral Imaging Project)

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Edited vs. Unedited Entries

In Livingstone’s Last Journals, published in 1874, he gave this account of the massacre of July 15, 1871: “Shot after shot continued to be fired on the helpless and perishing. Some of the long line of heads disappeared quietly; whilst other poor creatures threw their arms high, as if appealing to the great Father above, and sank. One canoe took in as many as it could hold, and all paddled with hands and arms: three canoes, got out in haste, picked up sinking friends, till all went down together, and disappeared.”

But in his 1871 field diary, Livingstone’s notes for July 15 included this passage: “… firing on the helpless canoes took place = a long line of heads in the water shewed the numbers that would perish for they could not swim two miles shot after shot followed on the terrified fugitives = great numbers died - and a worthless Moslem asserted that all was done by the people of the English - This will spread though the murderers are on the other side plundering and shooting - It is awful - terrible a dreadful world this = as I write shot after shot falls on the fugitives on the other side who are wailing loudly over those they know are already slain = Oh let thy kindom come.”

This account stamped Livingstone’s personality on the public account of what happened.

“In those [the Last Journals] versions, he is writing from a temporal distance, several months after the event. He has organized how everything happened and developed a narrative,” Wisnicki said.

“When you read the original diary, everything is extremely chaotic. He doesn’t always know what’s happening, he’s writing all over the place. It’s very bleak; you get this very intimate sense of his despair at witnessing this event.”

The entire diary yields more than Livingstone’s thoughts and opinions about his experiences; it shows how he was influenced by his surroundings.

Other researchers involved in the Livingstone Spectral Imaging Project—Michael Toth, left, and Roger Easton Jr., center

Other researchers involved in the Livingstone Spectral Imaging Project—Michael Toth, left, and Roger Easton Jr., center—joined Adrian Wisnicki for a panel presentation about the project in Stapleton Library in February.

“He actually can be quite ill, and the way the diary is written, not only the way it looks but some of what he says, reflects that,” Wisnicki said.

For another thing, Livingstone had likely lost track of time while writing the diary, because of illness or misinterpreting the Arab calendar dates used by traders he met. He dated his passages March 23 to November 3, 1871, but Wisnicki and other scholars have long known that the dates aren’t correct.

“The date that Livingstone gives for the Stanley meeting and the date Stanley gives are both very different, so nobody knows when that meeting actually happened. The same thing happened to Stanley, he became sick and lost track of time.”

The researchers came up with five possible dates for the meeting of Stanley and Livingstone but chose November 1, 1871, and used the 140th anniversary of that date, November 1, 2011, to publicly launch the publication of Livingstone’s 1871 field diary in a Multispectral Critical Edition.

Wisnicki has studied more of Livingstone’s diaries than the passages featured in the 1871 field diary research project and found some frank reflections in Livingstone’s accounts of his illnesses.

“Livingstone was feverish for long periods of time and had certain chronic conditions,” Wisnicki said. “And near the end of his life, in this one passage, he writes, ‘It’s not all pleasure, this exploration.’

“It’s the ultimate understatement.”

Read Intertwining Technology and Scholarship: A GA’s Perspective »

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Intertwining Technology and Scholarship: A GA’s Perspective

Getting immersed in the recovery of the lost David Livingstone diary wasn’t on the radar when A.J. Schmitz applied for a graduate assistantship at IUP.

Adrian Wisnicki and graduate assistant A.J. Schmitz, right

Adrian Wisnicki and graduate assistant A.J. Schmitz, right

“I was expecting to be grading papers and fetching coffee!” Schmitz confided.

Sure, he was familiar with the “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” line, but Schmitz was ready to learn more. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in literature at California State University, Long Beach, and was accepted at IUP after his girlfriend enrolled here for doctoral studies in criminology.

Schmitz’s program is in literature and criticism, focusing on 18th-century British literature. After he accepted an assignment into the Livingstone Spectral Imaging Project from Adrian Wisnicki, English professor and co-director of the Center for Digital Humanities and Culture, he gained a new view of doctoral studies.

“I thought that doing scholarship was publishing articles and getting them put into print. But text recovery and digitizing it and publishing it, putting it out there so everyone could get it, was not something that I had really thought about,” Schmitz said.

To Schmitz, the online presentation opens the door to interaction with scholars in a variety of fields around the world. And the way he has been incorporated into the work can stand as a model for others.

“What this project helped me do is understand how to utilize technology in literary scholarship,” he said.

“This is something that, when I hit the job market, is going to look good on my résumé because it’s cutting edge; it isn’t the old publish-or-perish thing. This is something that’s multidisciplinary, it’s tech savvy, and it’s kind of sexy in a way because it’s something that will appeal to a mass audience.”

Schmitz believes IUP has a lot to gain by being seen at the forefront of the intertwining of technology and scholarship.

“As a student, to know that this university is linked to a project that is transnational, interdisciplinary, and has been written up, it’s proving to me that this is a place that fosters a creative and intellectual program,” he said. “It allows us to do things that go beyond the ivory tower of higher education.”

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