Half Eaten by a Lion!



The Scotsman David Livingstone doesn’t neatly fit into the category of ‘missionary’.

Instead he tends to live in the memories of the British as an heroic Explorer. When speaking in Cambridge he confidently asserted, ‘I go back to Africa to try to make an open path for commerce and Christianity.’[i]

Whether he was just naive or cynically working for colonial domination remains a subject of debate. But Livingstone passionately believed that an increase in commerce, instead of slavery, and an increase of Christianity instead of other religions would be beneficial to Africa, and he became more vitally involved with the mapping the land itself and learning about its people than any other missionary of his time.

Once bitten!
There is one famous incident in Livingstone’s life which is famous and fascinating: the lion attack.

Tim Jeal, describing the incident writes,

‘As early as 1842 [Livingstone] had seen ‘a woman actually devoured in her garden’ by a lion, and had noticed that there was a plague of these animals at Mabotsa.

Nevertheless he had always remained unworried by the thought of personal danger from them, and had assured friends in England that ‘the sense of danger vanishes when you are in a country of lions.’

On 16 February 1844 Livingstone was working on the ditches of the watercourse when some natives were screaming to him to help them kill a lion that had just dragged off some sheep.

As Livingstone put it later: ‘I very imprudently ventured across the valley in order to encourage them to destroy him.’

It was not Livingstone’s only mistake; he went with only one gun and with no [support] at his side. He fired both barrels at the lion but only wounded him.

As he vainly tried to reload, the lion leapt on him and, catching him by the arm, shook him ‘as a terrier dog does a rat’. Livingstone’s upper arm was splintered at once; the lion’s teeth made a series of gashes like ‘gun-shot wounds’.

Livingstone and the Lion – Gareth Knowles’ wonderful sculpture

Livingstone was only saved by the sudden appearance of Mebalwe, an elderly convert whom Livingstone had brought from Kuruman as a teacher.

Mebalwe, seeing that his master would be dead within minutes unless he acted, snatched a gun … loaded and fired both barrels.

The gun misfired but the lion was diverted at this crucial moment and bounded off to attack his new assailant.

The luckless Mebalwe was badly bitten on the thigh and another who tried to help him was in turn bitten on the shoulder.

At this stage, however, the lion suddenly dropped dead, killed at last by the wounds initially inflicted by Livingstone.

An earlier depiction of the Lion Attack

Livingstone was extremely ill for weeks…It is hard to imagine the agony he must have suffered without anaesthetic and without the help of another doctor. He had to supervise the setting of the badly splintered arm himself.

Nevertheless he made an astoundingly fast recovery and within months was working cautiously on the lighter tasks involved in building his house.’ [ii]  Thankfully, Mebalwe, the man who heroically saved Livingstone’s life and nearly lost his own, made a full recovery and continued to work alongside Livingstone.

The incredible sculpture featured above is by Gareth Knowles

For the first part of the Livingstone Story click here

For the next part of the Livingstone Story, and to hear how Africa still honours his legacy, click here

© 2011 Church History Blog / Lex Loizides

[i] The Planting of Christianity in Africa, CP Groves, Vol 1, p.185 Lutterworth Press

[ii] Livingstone, Tim Jeal, p.58-59, Yale University Press


5 thoughts on “Half Eaten by a Lion!

  1. wisdomoftheearth1 December 23, 2012 / 10:31 am

    i read that he will have commented after the lion attack , that he had the most blissfull experience of his life when the lion shook him. is there any truth to that ?

  2. Josh Yeh May 2, 2013 / 2:23 am

    I personally admire Dr. David Livingstone and his willingness to explore Africa and bring the gospel to foreign lands of Africa. His initial intentions to help abolish slavery and replace it with Christianity is a very brave and risky feat in unmarked and unexplored territory. I find the lion story somewhat amusing and look at Dr. David Livingstone as the Indiana Jones of missionaries as he proceeds to spread Christianity during his exploration of Africa.

  3. Joanna Sormunen January 7, 2014 / 8:59 pm

    I think Dr. Livingstone was correct about commerce as a substitute for slavery. It would have been infinitely better for Africa. But he sure showed some immortal-whiteman complex with that lion. It’s easy to think nothing will happen to you because you’re not originally from there, you’re not the same as the people around you. Well, the lion didn’t see the diference.

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