Richard Thornton, was the second-youngest of twelve children and born at Cottingley, Yorkshire, in 1838 and he demonstrated early ability at school and deep interest in the natural world.
A prizewinning graduate of the London School of Mines, he was about to take up a position as geologist with an Australian government survey when he was presented with the opportunity to join the Zambezi Expedition and he sailed on the Pearl together with several of the other participants including Baines, Bedingfield, Sir John Kirk and Livingstone’s brother Charles.
As has been described earlier in this series of posts, the seeds for future personality conflicts were sown on that voyage. Thornton clearly upset Charles Livingstone for some reason. Possibly his keen intelligence, youthful enthusiasm and a mind open to the exciting opportunities ahead had all or something to do with it.
As it turned out, Thornton’s youth (barely twenty) and life inexperience were no match for a hardened, stressed and morose David Livingstone, who accused him and Thomas Baines (see earlier post) of laziness, “skylarking”, drinking too much brandy and colluding with the Portuguese:
“Thornton evidently disinclined to geologize and has done next to nothing for the last three months. Gorges himself with the best of everything he can lay hands on. …” and “Thornton doing nothing: is inveterately lazy and wants good sense.”
George Martelli in his book Livingstone’s River details that Livingstone’s fault was to leave this willing and able, but totally inexperienced, young man: “ ... to his own devices in a savage country, without proper instructions, supervision or any provision for medical care.”
When the majority of the expedition was away up-country, Thornton was left behind at Tete (Mozambique) and told to find any coal seams in the area. Although he was equipped with guides, he did not understand any of the languages and the workers soon took advantage of his youth, indulged in pilfering and refused to obey his orders. Thornton did find a coal seam, but was already suffering from serious bouts of malaria, prickly heat and badly festering mosquito bites. There were days when he could barely stand upright, he was so ill.
From Thornton’s many letters to family members and his diaries which were crammed full of geological and topographical information, it was clear he wasn’t lazy, but he was sacked by Livingstone anyway without even being paid his due salary.
Following his dismissal and partial recovery from the fever, Thornton travelled with Portuguese traders up along the Zambezi and through what is now Zambia to East Africa where he joined up with the German explorer, Baron Karl Klaus von der Decken and accompanied him on an attempt to reach the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro. Thornton thus became the first Englishman to view the mountain and also to confirm that the summit did indeed have snow and ice.
|Mt Kilimanjaro c 1869|
David Livingstone clearly regretted his hasty dismissal of the young man, partly because he needed Thornton’s maps and geological surveys for his own reports on the Expedition.
Thornton was invited to rejoin the Zambezi Expedition, but by now the young man’s days were numbered and he died on 21 April, 1863, after an heroic journey in bringing food to his companions. Livingstone must have realised that his treatment of Thornton had been harsh and approved the payment of arrears of his salary - albeit less expenses - to Thornton’s estate. Livingstone never gave any public acknowledgement of his culpability in sending the young man to an early grave. As with the case with Baines, he never forgave Thornton being friendly with the dreaded Portuguese.
Martelli sums up this able young man as follows:
“Thornton had all the qualities necessary to success in the career he had chosen; guts, intelligence, industry, independence of spirit and but for his tragic death he might well have achieved eminence in the geological exploration of Africa. It was a defect of Livingstone’s leadership that he failed to bring out these qualities, although Thornton had already shown them in his excellent survey of the River Zambezi, and that they only emerged after he had escaped from the Expedition and the baneful influence of Livingstone’s brother.”
Thornton is buried at Maganga village, Malawi, and his grave is still cared for today.
|The grave today. See Blogging from Blantyre|
|Thornton is also recorded on this family tombstone in Shipley, Yorkshire. Find-a-Grave|
Links to other webpages that give details of the short life of Richard Thornton, the talented young geologist for the Zambezi Expedition: