The Spatial Poetics of Artefacts

David Livingstone’s expeditionary collecting

Maguana – formerly David Livingstone’s servant. Lilly Frere, RGS Images Online, 21/01/1877. Source: Royal Geographical Society (with IBG)

European travellers in Africa in the nineteenth century often published their experiences upon returning to the imperial metropole. They wrote narratives that supported their socio-cultural beliefs and they often corroborated these stories with geographically and ethnically coded objects they had acquired on their travels. David Livingstone was one of the most well-known of these travellers. Livingstone’s three books Missionary Travels (1857), Narrative of the Zambezi Expedition (1865) and The Last Journals of David Livingstone (1874), had a profound impact on how people and cultures from southern and central Africa were seen by Anglophone nations. Livingstone also brought back a wealth of objects, items that had belonged to people, that he had purchased or acquired, things which reified imperial ideas around cultural alterity, strangeness and difference.

The project’s principal investigator, Dr Kate Simpson, argues for the reclaiming of belongings, not as ‘artefacts’ – geographically sited and which delineate and evidence written records of European travel – but to find in these objects something which reflects the original wearer, owner or creator. During this project she will explore how objects and texts used together can evidence the unarticulated narratives of African people who encountered the travel parties of Livingstone. This work will use papers held in the Royal Geographical Society’s archives which were digitised by Wiley to explore:

  • the narratives around objects acquired by Livingstone;
  • the reasons he gave for collecting objects;
  • and the stories and names of those whom he acquired the objects from.

Project team

  • Dr Kathryn Simpson (Principal investigator — Digital Humanities Institute, University of Sheffield)

Project partners

  • Royal Geographic Society
  • Wiley Digital Archives