Nearly 140 years ago, famed explorer David Livingstone was stuck in a remote village in present-day Congo, suffering from a particularly nasty disease that consumed his flesh and skin. Most of his expedition had either died or deserted him, when he wrote a feverish letter to his friend Horace Weller.
Out of paper and ink, Livingstone tore pages from books and made his own ink from the seeds of a local berry. Now, using spectral imaging technique, researchers had teased out Livingstone's original text:
Researchers say that the letter — which required state of the art imaging techniques to decipher — helps round out the picture of a man traditionally cast as an intrepid Victorian hero, revealing the self-doubt that tormented the missionary-explorer in one of his darkest hours.
"I am terribly knocked up but this is for your own eye only," Livingstone wrote to close friend Horace Waller in the newly revealed correspondence. "Doubtful if I live to see you again."
Livingstone was a national hero when he set off to find the source of the River Nile in 1866, but by the time he composed his four-page missive he was at the lowest point in his professional life, according to Debbie Harrison, a researcher at Birkbeck University of London.
The explorer was stuck in the village of Bambarre, in present-day Congo, in February of 1871. He was a long way off from his intended goal, most of his expedition either died or deserted him, and he was still suffering the effects of pneumonia, fever, and tropical eating ulcers — a nasty condition that consumes skin and flesh.
Adding insult to injury, Livingstone, a crusading abolitionist, had been forced to seek help from Arab slave traders while he waited for outside support. Bedridden for weeks on end, Livingstone had read the Bible several times over and started hallucinating.
"He'd gone slightly mad by this point, to be honest," Harrison said.
Back home, Livingstone's supporters were going mad with worry. No one had heard from him in years, and as Livingstone recovered, search parties set out into the interior to discover his fate. He was eventually located near the eastern shore of the massive Lake Tanganyika by journalist Henry Morton Stanley, whose memorable quip, "Dr. Livingstone, I presume?" immortalized their encounter.