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The harsh conditions which David Livingstone endured during his childhood wore down and destroyed all but a handful of those who experienced similar early hardships. Survivors won through by dint of a determination so forceful that it marked their characters for life. With Livingstone the legacy was to be a lasting sense of personal isolation and an inability to live with or tolerate less exceptional people.
Scotland, at the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth centuries, was going through a period of intense and drastic social change. At a time when landowners discovered that they could make more money from their estates by expelling their tenants and devoting the land to sheep-grazing, the dispossessed crofters poured in thousands into the already crowded and insanitary industrial cities. David Livingstone's grandfather, Neil, was one of these men. Formerly a tenant farmer on the small island of Ulva, off the west coast of Mull, he was evicted in 1792. Coming to Glasgow, he found work in a newly established cotton mill at Blantyre, eight miles south-east of the city. He was lucky; for the many thousands who did not find work, starvation or emigration were the only other choices.
Livingstone's father, also called Neil, was four when the family came to Blantyre. One of five sons in a poor family, he was put to work in the mills as a child, but his father, after several promotions, felt secure enough to apprentice him to a local tailor. Young Neil was not grateful for this new opportunity and disliked tailoring from the beginning, but he stuck to the job long enough to meet and subsequently marry the tailor's daughter, Mary Hunter. The couple moved to Glasgow itself for a while and Neil gave tailoring a last chance, but the wages were low, the rents in the city high, and he grew disgusted with the language and behaviour of his workmates. So the Livingstones returned to Blantyre where Neil became a travelling tea-salesman, a job which paid little but gave his religious interests greater scope, enabling him to distribute tracts to his customers. It was in Blantyre on 19 March 1813 that David Livingstone was born, the second of seven children, two of whom died in infancy.
The tenement in which Livingstone was born and spent his childhood was owned by the company which ran Blantyre Mills. Built in 1775, it housed twenty-four families, eight on each of its three floors. Every family had a 'single kitchen apartment house' which consisted of a single room fourteen feet by ten, with two bed recesses: one for the parents and one for the children. Truckle beds were pulled out at night to cover the whole floorspace. Cooking, eating, reading, washing and mending all went on in the one room. There was no piped water, and slops and garbage were sloshed down crude sluice-holes cut into the sides of the communal circular staircases. The earth closets at the back of the building stank, and while regulations for refuse collection and a tenants' rota for cleaning stairs and passages were observed, recently dispossessed crofters found it hard to break rural habits and ignored the company's orders forbidding the keeping of poultry and other animals in their rooms. Shuttle Row, Blantyre, was not as bad as many tenement blocks in Glasgow, but that did not make it any more adequate for satisfactorily housing over a hundred people. Having suffered fourteen years of overcrowding, David and his brother John were eventually boarded out with their grandparents, who lived in a neighbouring cottage. The only wonder is how five children and two adults penned into a single room could have endured each other so long.
Although Neil Livingstone had a great admiration for learning and had devoted considerable energy to his own self-education, the size of his family and the small financial rewards of tea-selling forced him to put his three sons to work in the mills while still children. David started at the age of ten. Previous biographers have glossed over the conditions in which he worked and represented them as a suitably rigorous upbringing for a future explorer. The reality was very different. All employees at Blantyre Mills, both adults and children, worked from six in the morning till eight at night, with half an hour for breakfast and an hour for lunch: a working day of twelve and a half hours, six days a week. The management claimed that times were too hard to shorten working hours, and constantly referred to cotton shortages to back up their case; but James Monteith, the owner of the mills, in five bad years made a personal fortune of £80,000, and his employees only had to gaze across the park adjoining the works and see the manager's large house to know just how hard times were.
Three-quarters of the work force at Blantyre were children, and most of these, like Livingstone, were employed as 'piecers', their job being to piece together threads on the spinning frames if they looked like breaking. Contemporary manuals on cotton-spinning stress how important this job was, for unless flaws were detected early on they were incorporated into the finished yarn. Piecers needed sharp eyes and an ability to concentrate for hours at a time if they were to avoid frequent beatings. They also had to be unusually agile since their work often involved climbing under the machinery or balancing over it. Piecers walked anything up to twenty miles a day in the mills and much of this distance was covered crawling or stooping. Long hours on their feet often resulted in bow legs and varicose veins.
Each adult spinner had three piecers attending to his machines and, since he was paid in proportion to what he produced, it was in his interests to force the children on. Often towards evening they started to fall asleep on their feet, but a beating with a leather strap or a dousing with a bucket of water generally renewed their energies. Evidence given to contemporary government commissions inquiring into factory conditions confirmed that many of these children ended up with 'limbs deformed and growth stunted'. The mills were steam-heated to temperatures of between 80° and 90° Fahrenheit since this was thought ideal for the production of fine thread. So the workers inevitably caught colds on leaving work. Also these conditions encouraged promiscuity, for to make the heat and humidity endurable, most employees, male and female, would shed their clothes.
By the end of the working day most piecers were too tired to play, and certainly in no frame of mind to learn. David Livingstone and a handful of other children were made of sterner stuff. Defying aching limbs and tired minds, they made their way to the company school to spend two hours, from 8 to 10 p.m., learning to read and write. Less than 10 per cent of the child workers ever achieved any degree of literacy. Against this background, Livingstone's scholastic perseverance and success astounded his schoolmaster. Already taught to read and write by his father, Livingstone started Latin during his first year of evening school. During the next few years he spent what little money he did not give to his mother on classical textbooks. At night he often read till midnight, his mother frequently having to take his book away before he would go to sleep. Six hours later he would be in the mills again. There was no time for playing. David Livingstone had no childhood in any normally accepted sense of the word.
It would be surprising if the events of Livingstone's boyhood and adolescence had been minutely chronicled either by himself or by any other member of his family. They were busy enough trying to survive, and none of them had the slightest reason to feel that their daily lives might be of interest to their contemporaries or to posterity. There was small reason to expect anything except continued drudgery in the mills. Many of the stories about Livingstone's boyhood were therefore related after he became famous, and tend to be apocryphal rather than authentic, intended to illustrate the early development of saintliness and honesty. The picture that emerges from the few existing letters written by his father, and from his sister Janet's reminiscences, is of an over-earnest boy, exceptional not for his intelligence but for his obsessive determination to learn. This got him a reputation for unsociability and remoteness, and did not gain him any sympathy or admiration. A man who had worked with him as a child, when interviewed in old age in the late 1880s, said that Livingstone 'was no thocht to be a by-ordinar [out of the ordinary] laddie; just a sulky, quiet, feckless sort o' boy'. The charge of fecklessness was solely due to his constant reading; it got him into trouble with a local farmer who complained that he paid him to watch his cattle on Sundays and not to be 'aye lyin' on his belly readin' a book', and at work it made him a laughing stock. When he tried to balance textbooks on the frame of the spinning-jenny, the other children pitched bobbins to knock them off. His relationship with his fellow-workers was never easy, as he told his brother-in-law, J. S. Moffat, many years later. 'When I was a piecer,' he wrote, 'the fellows used to try to turn me off from the path I had chosen, and always began with "I think you ought etc.", till I snapped them up with a mild: "You think! I can think and act for myself; don't need anybody to think for me."'
And nothing did turn him from his chosen path. From the age of thirteen he attended an extra class in Latin given by the village schoolmaster; when all the others gave up, he was the only one to stay on. Only the abandonment of the class by the master forced him to stop.
On Sundays, in the time that was left to him after lengthy religious observance and occasional extra tasks like cattle-watching, he rarely indulged in ordinary childhood playing; Livingstone's recreations were usually more practical. In his early teens he would leave Blantyre when he could and roam the neighbouring countryside, studying rocks and trees, and bringing home plants and herbs to identify with the help of William Patrick's The Indigenous Plants of Lanarkshire and Culpeper's Herbal. He was an unusually hardy boy, and his sister Janet recalled only one instance when she had seen him in tears. That was when as a child of nine he had dropped his piece of oatcake into the burn at Hamilton Muir. Janet's only light-hearted story was of the occasion when he and his brother Charles had poached a salmon; to disguise it, David stuck it down Charles's trouser leg and got the boy to limp painfully to persuade anybody they might meet that the concealed fish was a monstrous swelling. Later Livingstone enthusiasts, unable to accept that their hero could have been a poacher, insisted that the fish was dead when he found it.
At home Mrs Livingstone had a hard job making ends meet, even with the children's earnings; but in spite of this she was a fastidious woman—as fastidious as was possible with seven people living in one small room. On Sunday all her boys were dressed with frills and ribbons round their necks, which must have caused them considerable embarrassment with other local children. The wife of the manager of the works was most put out by their smart appearance and considered it altogether above their station. Mrs Livingstone could not afford to be generous with luxuries, but on special occasions she treated the children to barley sugar and indulged her own pleasure in tobacco by smoking a clay 'cutty' pipe.
The dominant figure in David's early life was his father Neil, a man who rarely did things by halves. His disapproval of alcohol was expressed by total abstinence, while he labelled all literature not of a religious nature as 'trashy novels'. About the use of bad language he was fanatical. No word could be spoken if there was any chance that it might have a religious connotation that could be sullied by casual use. David preferred reading travel books and scientific manuals to the religious tracts which his father pushed at him, and once he was thrashed for refusing to read Wilberforce's Practical Christianity, an experience that increased his dislike of what he was to call 'dry doctrinal reading'. But while he was ready to laugh at his sister for being afraid of divine punishment, he too was terrified by the possibility of his personal damnation. A child could have few defences to pit against a determined father's reiteration of impending doom. Worse still, all Calvinists believed that deeds and conscious effort were irrelevant and could not guarantee a man's salvation or place him with the Elect. Salvation or damnation lay in God's hands and his only. The Elect generally knew their good fortune for they felt that the Holy Spirit had touched them; Livingstone, however, had no such conviction, and from the age of twelve this began to distress him. He reproached himself for his sinfulness and prayed for peace of mind, but this was useless since the Holy Spirit could not be cajoled. Eventually he acknowledged that his only resort was 'to wait for the good pleasure of God'. During this time, as he later admitted: 'I found neither peace nor happiness, which caused me (never having revealed my state of mind to anyone) often to bewail my sad estate with tears in secret.'
This religious fear was to last throughout Livingstone's boyhood and was only to be resolved when he was almost twenty. His distress increased with his father's frequent denunciations of his interest in science as ungodly. Relief from this worry only came in his nineteenth year when by chance he purchased a book by a Scottish nonconformist minister and amateur astronomer, Dr Thomas Dick. Dick's style is maddeningly profuse and his sentences often a page long, but they did not stop Livingstone reading The Philosophy of a Future State with avid enjoyment. Science, the elderly astronomer assured his readers, was in no way opposed to Christian beliefs and did not in any sense render God obsolete. Far from it; a greater awareness of the complexity and variety of creation only confirmed Christians in the necessity of there being a Maker. At last convinced that his botanical excursions had been innocent, Livingstone wrote to Dr Dick expressing his gratitude. Some months later he went to see Dick at his home in Broughty Ferry, near Dundee, eighty miles from Glasgow. Dick was an eccentric old man who had built his house on an enormous mound which was the result of eight thousand barrowfuls of earth that had taken him the best part of a year to heap up. The idea was to provide him with a suitable site for an observatory. Whatever Livingstone made of him, it did nothing to weaken his new sense of well-being.
Once influenced away from orthodox Calvinism, he became ever more aware of the religious revival which was taking place in Scotland during these crucial years of his life. After 1830 there was increasing agitation for reform of abuses within the Scottish Church. The Established Kirk was felt by growing numbers to be conservative, restrictive and moribund. The link between Church and State was attacked as unscriptural, and the central authority of the Presbytery was challenged by local churches wanting more autonomy in matters of church government. There was indignation about the system of church patronage, whereby a minister could be foisted on a congregation whether they wanted him or not. A significant cause for dissatisfaction was the feeling that insufficient attention was given to foreign missions. Although most of the protests were about the autocratic discipline that the central Presbytery continued to enforce on distant churches, complaints about the form of church government also led to attacks on orthodox theology.
It may seem superfluous to record Livingstone's religious influences in detail, but since strong Christian beliefs dominated his life and much of his thinking, it is vital to understand the nature of his religious ideas at the time they crystallized in his mind; otherwise his later attitudes and behaviour may often seem incomprehensible. In 1832, the same year that Livingstone read Dick for the first time, his father was unexpectedly persuaded by some friends to go and listen to Henry Wilkes, a young Canadian preacher well known for his liberal theological views. Wilkes's withering attack on the Established Kirk and on orthodox Calvinist theology proved a turning-point in Neil Livingstone's life. He had heard this sermon in the independent church at Hamilton, near Blantyre, and shortly afterwards he applied for membership of that church. The independent churches had no unified approach to theology but reserved the right to govern their own affairs on the Congregational principle—the congregation electing their own elders and making their own decisions about church discipline. At this date the Congregational Union was only a voluntary fellowship of churches sharing the same autonomous form of church government; it implied no common theology although, in practice, beliefs were usually less rigid than orthodox Calvinism.
Excerpted from LIVINGSTONE by TIM JEAL Copyright © 2013 by Tim Jeal. Excerpted by permission of YALE UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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