Five years into his third African expedition, David Livingstone found himself in the village of Bambarre, 150 miles west of Lake Tanganyika. Deserted by most of his followers, in very poor health, he was low in spirits.
But on 4 February 1871, a group of men arrived bringing supplies and letters from Zanzibar with the first news of the outside world that Livingstone had received for several years.
The next day, he began a letter to his friend Horace Waller, writing on the only material that was available: the printed pages of a proof copy of The Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society
from November 1869 which was among the documents that arrived from Zanzibar. These Proceedings actually included the text of letters Livingstone himself had written the year previously.
This letter still survives. It was purchased by the photographer Peter Beard in the 1960s, who recently made it available to a team of researchers led by Adrian S. Wisnicki of Fordham University. But there was a problem. The handwriting had faded or bled through the page, which meant parts of the letter were now illegible.
However, using new techniques of spectral imaging (first used extensively on the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1993), these scholars have managed to recover Livingstone’s words. You can now read them in an online critical edition
which includes enhanced images of the four pages of the letter, with a transcription and explanatory notes. You will also find technical information about the spectral imaging process, useful historical background and a critical bibliography.
This is a mere glimpse of a much larger digitization project that aims to produce a critical edition and multispectral image database of the diary Livingstone kept in 1870-1. The full research findings will eventually be published through Livingstone Online