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David Livingstone Bicentenary

Volume 739: debated on Monday 23 July 2012


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to celebrate in 2013 the bicentenary of the birth of David Livingstone.

My Lords, Scotland Office Ministers and officials have met representatives of the Scotland Malawi Partnership to discuss the best way for the United Kingdom Government to mark this bicentenary. The Scotland Office will host a commemorative event at Dover House. The department’s officials are working with other interested parties, including the Scotland Malawi Partnership and colleagues in Whitehall, to ensure that this anniversary is celebrated across the United Kingdom.

I thank the Minister for his Answer. On my first ever visit to Malawi I was reminded by the Malawians that Dr Livingstone did not discover Malawi, the Malawians discovered him. They still to this day celebrate his role in the abolition of the slave trade in east Africa. I am aware of the plans for celebrations in Scotland next year, but given that Dr Livingstone was buried at Westminster Abbey and his coffin was covered with a wreath provided by Queen Victoria, I believe that this should be a UK-wide celebration. I would ask the Government to think again about this being simply a Scottish celebration and to ensure that it is celebrated here in London as well.

My Lords, I sought in my original Answer to indicate that the Scotland Office has already taken one particular initiative. Scotland Office officials and Ministers, including my right honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, have been in contact with the Department for International Development. We are also engaged with other Whitehall departments, very much taking on board the point that the noble Lord made. He mentioned his visit to Malawi. It may well be appropriate to place on the record that the Scotland Malawi Partnership is very much the product of a concordat between the Government of Malawi and the Scottish Government of whom he was the First Minister. It is a reflection of his personal commitment to Malawi.

Will my noble and learned friend consider whether Her Majesty’s Government, or indeed the Scottish Government, might make some contribution to the refurbishment of David Livingstone’s house in Zanzibar? I am in touch with friends in the devolved Government in Zanzibar and I am sure that a small contribution might enable them to provide some matching funds. At the moment the house is full of rather wilted press cuttings. Given the importance of that island in the slave trade which David Livingstone helped to abolish, it would be good if something could be done now.

My Lords, I understand that the house to which my noble friend refers was where David Livingstone stayed in Tanzania, in Zanzibar, prior to the start of his final expedition in 1866. There are no current plans for the United Kingdom Government to provide a contribution for the renovation of the building but I am aware of my noble friend’s interests in this matter and I will certainly ensure that his comments are drawn to the attention of the relevant department.

My Lords, we are prone to celebrate the more exploitative and squalid aspects of empire in the history of this country and many of its practitioners are celebrated in key points of our squares and roads in the centre of London. David Livingstone surely embodies the humanitarian and idealist strain that we ought to honour, so could we perhaps have a statue of him as well?

My Lords, I am not sure about a statue, but the noble Lord makes an important point. It is perhaps worthy of note that in post-colonial times, place names such as Blantyre in Malawi and Livingstone in Zambia have remained while other pre-independence names have been changed. That is a reflection of the esteem in which David Livingstone is held. Some of the themes that he focused on in his life—themes such as faith, education, medicine, the abolition of the slave trade and standing up for those who are exploited—are ones that we would do well to ponder. Maybe the best memorial that we can give him on the bicentenary of his birth is to take seriously the kind of issues that he took seriously in his lifetime.

My Lords, I am proud of this country’s history, warts and all. However, does the Minister agree that Dr Livingstone is a great model for the sort of person that this country needs today—a hero who is also a righteous person? That is why celebrating his birth is so important.

My Lords, I am glad that there seems to be such consensus across the Chamber on this. I reiterate the point that there are many positive aspects to the life, career and work of David Livingstone. I think that his bicentenary will give us all an opportunity across the United Kingdom—and, indeed, in Africa too—to reflect on these issues and to take from them what is really good, and to build on them.

My Lords, as it is important that our young people should be aware of the achievements of this very great man, should we not ask Mr Wiggins to cycle round the United Kingdom next year proclaiming David Livingstone’s virtues? Does this not give us an opportunity to congratulate Mr Wiggins on his recent triumph?

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend on his ingenuity in mentioning Mr Wiggins. He said it, but I am sure that I speak for the whole House in extending our warmest congratulations on an astounding sporting achievement.

Whether in his preparation to retain the Tour de France championship he has time to cycle round the whole of the United Kingdom, I do not know, but certainly the point about young people is well made. Those who are planning and involved in the work to commemorate this bicentenary will reflect on the importance to young people.

My Lords, getting back to the original Question, I am sure that my noble and learned friend has summed up the mood of the House in saying that there is widespread support for Dr Livingstone. I am also clear that the Scottish Government will do something about the bicentenary. However, as I leave here today, I will be equally clear that the British Government have no plans to do anything about it. If the Minister does not want me to leave with that understanding, will he explain why?

My Lords, I have already explained that the Scotland Office plans a commemorative event to be held here, in the Scotland Office. I have also indicated that my right honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State has already met representatives of the Scotland Malawi Partnership. We will also be working out how the United Kingdom Government might best be involved in these celebrations, not only with the partnership but also, as I indicated in my answer to the noble Lord, Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale, by involving our officials and Ministers in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development. We certainly take this intervention seriously, and we will be looking at ways in which we can, as a United Kingdom Government, make an appropriate contribution.

My Lords, I wonder if the noble and learned Lord could confirm whether the Scotland Office is part of the UK Government?

My Lords, for those who had not got the point, I am more than happy to confirm it. Indeed, the commemoration in the Scotland Office will be one by the United Kingdom Government.

My Lords, the Minister will be aware that a lot of Livingstone’s travels were on Lake Malawi, on the waterways of Malawi. Perhaps the British Government could support the training school for fishermen on Lake Malawi, where many die every year at the moment. That would be a good way of recognising him.