Victoria Falls

How Livingstone discovered the Falls.


HOW was it that David Livingstone, the boy who started life with none of the normal material advantages of this world but rather with many of the disadvantages, was able to achieve world-wide acclamation as the greatest African explorer and the man who did more than any other to open the eyes of the civilised world to the inhumanities of the slave trade, and the need to open up the interior of the continent to legitimate trade and the civilizing influence of Christian missions?


David Livingstone from an engraving by JW Whymper


We may well ask ourselves why David Livingstone should have achieved success in the face of so much open opposition?  The answer can be found in his own writings.  Our early years are those which are by far the most impressionable and go a long way to mould the pattern of our later lives.  “It was my privilege to enjoy the instruction, example and prayer of pious parents,” he said, and to such an early training he brought a quick and active mind and a wonderfully retentive memory governed by an almost superhuman faith and an indomitable courage that never left him to the end of his life.  The feats of sheer physical endurance that he accomplished for thirty years during his travels would have been a complete impossibility to most other me, and his unwavering belief in the vital importance of his work in Africa gave him courage to carry on to the very end.

Professor Sedgwick said of him: “Spite all difficulties and spite of attacks of fever which almost bent him to the ground, Dr. Livingstone moved onwards – kept alive by the spirit of enterprise, by hope and good courage which never left him – and above all by a trust in Providence and a firm belief that he was engaged in a task of solemn duty, which, under God’s blessing, might bring good to his fellow men.”

On the statue at the Victoria Falls, Dr. Livingstone is described as “Missionary, Explorer, Liberator”. He was each and all of these.  At first a missionary working among the Bechuana people in the Kalahari, to the end of his life he was tireless in his efforts to promote the spread of Christianity in Africa.  Later an explorer who gave us the first accurate information about much of the interior of the continent, and thirdly, a liberator, the champion of the move to abolish the trade in slaves, that “open sore of the world” as he himself described it.


David Livingstone’s statue, which was erected in 1934, looks out along the mile wide Victoria Falls as shown below.


THE story of this remarkable man’s life is well known from the writings of his biographers.  His early missionary work exploits, trials and achievements; his early travels to discover Lake Nyasa and the upper Zambezi; the great trans-Africa journey on which he discovered the Falls; the return to England and the welcome that awaited him there; the Zambezi Expedition to explore that river and Lake Nyasa with a view to finding an easy means of entering into the interior; his second return to England and the last journey when he announced more and more discoveries, was lost and found again by H.M. Stanley; and the final journey which ended in his death near the southern end of the Bangweulu Swamps  on May 1, 1873; the way in which his followers carried his body all the way to the coast some 2,000 miles away, and the final burial service in Westminster Abbey – all this is well known and needs no repetition.  His was a remarkable life and his name will never be forgotten in Rhodesia for, as Sir Reginald Coupland has said, “though the heart of David Livingstone may be buried under the mpundu tree near Chitambo’s village and his bones may rest in Westminster Abbey, yet the spirit of Livingstone still lives on in Central Africa to-day in the fruition of the work for which he gave his life.”

On the 16th and 17th  November 1855 – David Livingstone discovered the Victoria Falls on the Zambezi River and so far as is known was the first European to gaze on this amazing Central African waterfall.


Victoria Falls as viewed from the Livingstone Memorial Statue.
Livingstone wrote: “scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight”

HE first saw them from the most spectacular, and the most unusual vantage point, that of the small island in the middle of the Falls. He had been paddled there in a dugout canoe from the island of a friendly chief a few miles up the Zambezi, where he was staying on his return journey across the continent from Angola in the west to Mozambique in the east. The experience of a journey in a small dugout canoe would be quite sufficient to satisfy even a hardened traveller in Africa today. The craft is a hollowed-out tree trunk and is normally so narrow that there is rarely sufficient room to sit down properly. There are never more than about three inches of free board and nothing to prevent the whole thing from rolling over should any of the passengers make an unwary movement.

You can imagine, therefore, what a journey in such a boat must have been like through the rapids and channels of the swift flowing river immediately above the Falls, with every possibility of being thrown into the water, carried over the edge and drowned or eaten by a crocodile. No wonder the old boatman who acted as his guide had learned the name of Tuba Mokoro (The Breaker of Canoes!).

For David Livingstone this exciting, but for him very ordinary canoe trip, was only the prelude to the final supreme moment when he walked through the undergrowth on the island, and came out upon a small grassy plateau and was able to see the Falls stretching away on either side of him. This must surely have been one of the most enduring experiences of all his travels. No wonder he felt, as he wrote in his diary, “tremous” at the sight. At the Victoria Falls the whole of the water of the Upper Zambezi River plunges in a single fall a mile and a quarter wide into a gorge stretching from bank to bank and roughly 350 feet deep and 150 feet across. Livingstone’s own description runs:- “At one time we seemed to be going right to the gulph, but though I felt a little tremous I said nothing, believing I could face a difficulty as well as my guides. The falls are singularly formed. They are simply the whole mass of the Zambezi waters rushing into a fissure or rent made right across the bed of the river … here the river, flowing rapidly among numerous islands and from 800 to 1,000 yards wide with a rent in the bed at least 100 feet deep and at right angles with its course, or nearly due east and west, leaps into it and becomes a boiling white mass at the bottom ten or twelve yards broad.”

Livingstone was rather out in his calculations of width and height, and, in fact, on his second visit in 1860 he revised his first figures. He was wrong, too, though it was a very justifiable mistake under the circumstances, in thinking that the Falls were the result of an earthquake and that the Zambezi had simply fallen into a ready made cleft. Since his time geologists have shown that the gorge, which twists and winds for sixty miles downstream of the Falls has been eroded by the Zambezi River itself along lines of weakness in the basalt lava rocks.


A section of the Main Falls at Victoria Falls.


ALTHOUGH Livingstone was the first European to see the Victoria Falls, he was soon followed by other almost equally intrepid travellers: Baldwin, who in 1860 reached them by the aid only of a pocket compass; Baines, who first painted them; and Chapman, hunter and trader, in 1862, and many others – travellers, traders, missionaries – were not long in following. It was not however, until the closing years of the century that Europeans began to settle north of the Zambezi, and not until the end of the century that this part of Africa came under British protection. Since then, indeed, a remarkable change has come over these parts of the continent. At the beginning of the twentieth century the central plateau of this part of Africa was peopled by numbers of independent tribes of Bantu who practised simple forms of hoe agriculture, cattle raising and fishing and who usually lived in continual fear of being raided by their neighbours, or being sold as slaves to the Arabs and Portuguese slave traders who had spread into the interior during the nineteenth century in search of ivory and slaves.

It must make us pause and reflect when we look at the progressive towns and mining centres, and the modern communications of to-day, and realise that little more than fifty years ago the first officials of the British South Africa Company, which then administered the country under a Royal Charter, were still chasing slavers on foot and releasing slave caravans on their way to the coast. For the average African villager in those days life was indeed precarious – tribal fights, disease, witchcraft and the slave trade combined to ensure that longevity was certainly not the rule, and, indeed, it has been estimated that during the slave raiding days of the nineteenth century the native population of Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland was reduced to one sixth of what it had been. In so short a time as fifty years all this has been changed, but there are still alive to-day some whose memory will retain as long as they live the imprint of the experiences of those “bad old days”, and though it is now the fashion in some circles to criticise British administration in the African colonies and to urge that the pace of development should speed ever faster, we should not forget how much has been achieved in so short a space of time in a country such as Rhodesia, where in less than a century people have been pitch-forked from the Early Iron Age to the Atomic Age, an advance which it has taken Europe nearly 3,000 years to achieve.

Such advancement we owe primarily to David Livingstone and to the explorers, missionaries, traders and administrators who came after him, so that the discovery of the Victoria Falls is but one of many spectacular discoveries, and in commemorating this we are also commemorating the discovery and development of much of the central part of the continent north of the Zambezi, about which Livingstone was the first to give us accurate and scientific descriptions and maps.

by J. Desmond Clark M.A. PH.D. F.S.A. Curator of the Rhodes-Livingstone Museum. 1955


The Livingstone Memorial was unveiled on 5th August 1934 before a throng of over 1000 people. After a brief address, the former Prime Minister the Hon. H.U. Moffatt C.M.G. had the honour of unveiling the memorial to his uncle who, by marrying Mary Moffatt, added lustre to the traditions of a family that is honoured in Rhodesia. The presence of some 200 natives was significant; some having travelled long distances to pay sincere tribute to the memory of one whom they recognised as a good man. The ceremony was broadcast throughout the Empire.

There was a feeling, at the time, that the lay-out of stone kerbing and gravel introduced an unwelcome note of artificiality to the Falls and in due course these were removed so that a more natural environment, as seen in the 1976 colour photo, was restored.


The Victoria Falls comprises the largest curtain of falling water in the world.

They are about one mile wide (1708m) and have a drop of 360ft (108m).

For comparison: this is more than twice as high and one and a half times as wide as Niagara Falls.


Click here for an interesting recent account of the seasonal flow of the Zambezi River at Victoria Falls