Saturday, March 28, 2015

A soothing aperient (laxative) needed ... The Zambezi Expedition (2)

The Zambezi Expedition was fraught with much more than problems with equipment and badly-built vessels or serious errors in navigation and exploration. There were all the other dangers of mid-19th Century Africa by way of diseases, accidents, wild animals, slave traders, unfriendly or warring locals and competing colonisers (in this case, mostly the Portuguese). 

Add to the mix personality clashes and big egos and trouble was inevitable. What began as a petty argument could often blow up into a blazing row within minutes. There were outbursts of temper followed by sulks, accusations, slander, lies and even bouts of hysteria among the participants. Highly-educated and normally reasonable British men [more about the women later], to use modern parlance, totally "lost it" or behaved irrationally. As a result most of them ended up being sacked by Livingstone or resigning under the pressure.

One of the first to go was Livingstone's second-in-command, Commander Norman Bernard Bedingfield of the Royal Navy (1824-1894).

Livingstone had met him at the conclusion of his famous crossing of Africa in 1854 in Luanda, Angola, where Bedingfield was in command of HMS Pluto, a steam gunvessel of the West Africa Squadron and Livingstone had been much taken with him at the time [see note below], also his impressive career in the navy. While based on the west coast of Africa, Bedingfield was much lauded for his skills in river navigation and in negotiation with warring chiefs. He seemed the ideal man to help Livingstone explore the Zambezi.

What was not known to Livingstone then was that although he'd had many recommendations to the Admiralty for promotion, Bedingfield had a short fuse in that he had twice been court martialled, once for being contemptuous and quarrelsome towards a senior officer.

This did not augur well. Bedingfield was used to be in charge. So was Livingstone. There was a class and cultural divide between the men as well - the haughty English naval man vs. the blunt Glasgow Scot. 

Their clashes came quick and fast and although none of the biographies suggest they actually gave each other bloody noses, they took their vitriol to print rather than facing off in person. The final straw for Bedingfield was being told by Livingstone that his tantrums were due to constipation: 
"There is often a peculiar condition of the bowels which makes the individual imagine all manner of things of others. Now I earnestly and most respectfully recommend you to try a little aperitent medicine occasionally and you will find it more soothing than writing official letters".

Nothing like a good old "Livingstone Rouser" to cure your ills!
From the Livingstone Centre, Blantyre.

Bedingfield replied that his letter was "the most insulting I have ever received" and quit.

Livingstone was later to say "I never before met such a bare-faced dirty hypocrite as he [Bedingfield]. He suffered from a venereal bladder.

To prove the destructiveness of his experience with Bedingfield, Livingstone deliberately wrote him out of his own Narrative on the expedition and so he doesn't rate a single mention in that official account.

Bedingfield returned to his Royal Naval career and retired as a Captain in 1877, but he still received periodic promotions to Rear Admiral and then Vice Admiral, possibly as a means of helping to boost his pension. He was married but does not appear to have had children or lived in a grand house. In both the 1881 and 1891 census returns, the couple were shown as lodgers in fairly modest surroundings in Dulwich. Bedingfield died in February 1894 and left an estate of just under £3,900 to his wife, Catherine Caledonia. 

The autocratic stance in the portrait gives a good indication of Bedingfield's character. Apart from his unfortunate association with David Livingstone, he is also remembered for his actions in Nigeria with the Lagos Treaty of Cession.

Copyright Illustrated London News (3 April 1858)


Note: When ill health forced Bedingfield away from West Africa in 1854, the steam-packet in which he was travelling, Forerunner, was wrecked at Madeira and he is credited with saving several lives including that of the Governor of Western Australia, Arthur Kennedy.  The vessel was also carrying Livingstone's original journals, maps and other papers from his famed earlier crossing of the continent and that meant he had to re-write everything from memory (with some resulting errors). Given his later experience with Bedingfield, no doubt Livingstone might have wished he'd gone to the bottom as well!

All information in this series of blogs is taken from my extensive personal collection of books, journals and documents relating to David Livingstone in addition to general history publications, archive newspapers and genealogy sites. If more specific detail is required, please contact me.