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Encounters: Images of Empire

Who were the explorers who explored all parts of the world in the nineteenth century? The Victorian explorers who went to Africa helped to create new ways of seeing the world for the British public beyond Britain and Europe and played an important part in the history of empire making. These Victorian travellers included men such as David Livingstone and women such as Mary Kingsley.

Many African people also travelled in Africa, and many travelled with the European explorers. Their local knowledge was an important contribution to the Victorian's geographical understanding of the continent. Amongst the African travellers were Samuel Crowther, an Anglican missionary who was involved in expeditions to the River Niger; James Chuma, Abdullah Susi, Matthew Wellington and Jacob Wainwright who all travelled with David Livingstone.
David Livingstone was one of the most famous Victorian explorers in his own lifetime. His beginnings from working in a factory as a child to famous explorer made him a national hero. His book was a bestseller, even though he failed as a missionary, converting only one African to Christianity and on his last journey, he believed that he had found the source of the River Nile, when in fact he was on the upper Congo.
Some historians have argued that it was not so much what he did but what he came to represent that made him so important to people in Victorian Britain and to the story of the British Empire.
So what was his story, how did he become so famous and how is he viewed today?

Key questions

  • What were David Livingstone's motives?
  • What is David Livingstone's story?
  • What was the Zambezi expedition and how do its stories get retold?
  • Who were the Africans who travelled with Livingstone and what do we know about them? 
  • What was exploration like in Victorian Britain? 


These factsheets provide background information to each of the key questions. They can be used together with the associated downloadable activities to investigate each area.


Find out more about the images in the gallery above PDF | MSWORD

Online activity

Want to test your knowledge on Dr Livingstone? Try our online activity.

Downloadable resources

The downloadable activities used with the associated factsheets can be used in the classroom to investigate each area.

An education pack exploring the stories of Africa's forgotten explorers and their contributions to mapping the continent has been developed. The pack called Stories from East Africa (PDF) contains activities for students from the ages of eight to 12.

RGS-IBG's exhibition Bombay Africans: 1850 to 1910 follows the stories of the Bombay Africans; a group of Africans that accompanied British explorers such as Burton, Speke and Livingstone on expeditions in Africa. The exhibition reveals their contributions and legacies, and the important role they played on expeditions. This exhibition is also available to hire.


This theme was written with support from Professor Felix Driver and Dr Carolyn Bressay.

Supported by:

Heritage Lottery Fund Esmee Fairbairn Foundation John Lyon's Charity

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