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 He studied many writers’ original unpublished works but hit a dead end while researching Livingstone’s version of the 1871 Nyangwe massacre.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.”
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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