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UNL professor part of 'Dr. Livingstone' documentary

UNL professor part of 'Dr. Livingstone' documentary

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In the United States, Adrian Wisnicki said, it’s pretty safe to say that the typical adult’s knowledge of 19th century explorer, missionary and abolitionist Dr. David Livingstone runs four words long: “Dr. Livingstone, I presume.”

The famous exchange -- or some variation of it -- took place in November of 1871, when journalist H.M. Stanley tracked Livingstone down in Africa. But there’s much more to the British doctor than a greeting, and Wisnicki, an assistant professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is the project director of an international team that used multispectral imaging to retrieve new information from the field diary he kept until his death in 1874.

What they found will be revealed on Wednesday when “The Lost Diary of Dr. Livingstone” episode on the PBS series “Secrets of the Dead” airs at 9 p.m. on NET Television (Time Warner Cable channels 12, 1012). It will air again at 7 p.m. Friday.

Wisnicki signed a contract with the documentary team behind the program preventing him from discussing their big findings until after the show airs in the United States, but releases about the episode hint that Livingstone wasn’t necessarily the hero he was made out to be.

“Unfortunately, I can’t tell you,” Wisnicki said.

But the professor can tell you all about Livingstone’s legacy, more widely known in the U.K. than the U.S. And he described the process of recovering the first draft of the field journal he kept during his extensive travels throughout Africa.

Livingstone was one of the most, if not the most, traveled explorers of his time, Wisnicki said. He spent about 30  years traveling Africa as a missionary and for the Royal Geographical Society. For the RGS, he mapped rivers and topography. He documented culture and linguistics. He did this nearly nonstop from 1841 to 1873, and during that time, he sought the same prize as other explorers of his time -- the source of the Nile River.

He went on a series of expeditions to find it, surviving disease, lack of supplies and other hardships on his journeys with native guides. When he was led to the Lualaba River, he thought he had found the prize. But the river that runs through the present-day Democratic Republic of the Congo flows into the River Congo instead.

But during a visit to the Lualaba River on July 15, 1871, Livingstone witnessed and documented a massacre that would influence him.

A staunch abolitionist, Livingstone was traveling with slave traders from Zanzibar along the river he thought was part of the Nile. About two-thirds of the way along their journey, the slave traders slaughtered hundreds of villagers. Out of supplies, Livingstone had cut a newspaper into pieces and used clothing dye to make a journal with the pages. In this diary, he chronicled the horror before abandoning the trip.

“When he sees this massacre, he decides he can’t go on,” Wisnicki said. He turned back and, in Ujiji, encountered Stanley, a reporter who had been sent to find Livingstone and report on his journey.

Instead, Livingstone relayed the story of the massacre to him, and the story would influence foreign policy -- Britain went on to enforce closure of the slave market in Zanzibar -- and help launch Stanley’s exploration career. He would be hired by Belgium’s King Leopold II to help establish the Congo Free State, and his corrupt reign there inspired Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.”

Stanley considered Africans on a lower rung of the human scale. Livingstone, Wisnicki said, held a humanistic view of Africans. He treated them like equals. And he abhorred slavery. In one diary entry, he wrote that he had twice experienced hell -- "once on the Shire where we had to clear the paddle wheels & chain cable of the dead every morning before we could start and the horrible scenes of crocodiles & carrion are unbearable to be even glanced at by the imagination again" -- and on the Kilwa slave route to Nyassa -- "[Then] the Hell scenes I dare not commit to paper or even think on … I drive them from my thoughts if even they intrude as intrude in part they will do on suddenly awaking at dead of night.”

But the field diary was never published. Wisnicki said Livingstone’s thoughts documented at the scene of the massacre were revised for a journal, then as a letter based on the journal, and finally as a book based on the journal. In these writings, he said, there are discrepancies.

To review the initial field journal, Wisnicki said, they scanned the newspaper pages, yellowed with age. Atop the pages were a series of colors that made Livingstone’s journal illegible to the human eye. Since he was forced to write these entries with an ink made from a tribe’s clothing dye, the once-red ink had become a faint orange. And it was scrawled atop black newspaper type.

Scientists scanned each page with a 39-megapixel spectral imaging system and produced variations of each page. They were able to mute the newspaper ink and reproduce Livingstone’s handwriting in a deep blue print.

The general goal with this method is to render 80 percent of the text legible. Wisnicki said they hit about 99 percent with the imaging system they used.

The one percent of the text they couldn’t read, Wisnicki said, was because of physical issues with the journal. He said he would find himself poring over a page from the journal that was more smudged than the others. And he would wonder why until he got to the end of the page to find that Livingstone explained it -- “a lot of rain today.”

Over the time spent reading, transcribing and comparing the field journal to Livingstone’s other works, Wisnicki said. He compared the process of rendering the journal legible and then analyzing the findings to an anthropologist who conducts field work for a year and then spends the next 20 writing it up.

“We made some major discoveries about some of the diary,” Wisnicki said.

Along with watching the documentary about the discoveries, there are other ways to learn more about the Livingstone diary -- reading the blog,, or on a Twitter feed, @livingstone13d.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7438 or On Twitter @LJSMatteson.


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Features editor

Jeff Korbelik is the features editor and covers dining, performing arts, TV and local media. Follow him at @LJSjeffkorbelik.

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