Frederick Clarke's hotel at the Old Drift

Frederick Clarke’s hotel at the Old Drift

Livingstone City owes its existence to two main factors: it was the main point of entry into the copper fields of what was then North-Western Rhodesia, and it was close to the Victoria Falls.

Livingstone began as a small European settlement on the north bank of the ZambeziRiver about ten kilometres upriver of the Victoria Falls (now within the National Park). This site was a crossing place on the river at its narrowest point, known as Sekute’s Drift. Chief Sekute’s village was nearby and his people provided a canoe ferry service to travellers. At the drift it was possible for a team of oxen to walk or swim across the river with a wagon. A road had been cut from Bulawayo to Sekute’s Drift in 1898, and the Drift was used by traders, hunters, missionaries, and everyone going north. The British South Africa Company, which had been allowed by Lewanika, Paramount Chief of the Lozi people, to mine in his area and to administer an area they called North-Western Rhodesia, set up an administrative post near the mouth of the Maramba River in 1900.

Before the arrival of Europeans the local region had been inhabited for many centuries by the Leya people, under Chief Mukuni to the east of the Falls and Chief Sekute to the northwest.

The first settler at Sekute’s Drift was Frederick Clarke, known locally as ‘Mopane’, because he was said to be ‘tall and straight and has a heart like a mopane tree’. Clarke came in 1898 and started a transport service across the river. He imported boats and a steam launch as ferries. Consequently the Drift also became known as Clarke’s Drift. Clarke represented the Northern Copper Company and became the local forwarding agent for goods passing through to the north.

In 1898 the Paris Missionary Society began mission work among Chief Sekute’s people. The following year the Italian Rev Coisson and his wife built the first mission station at the Drift settlement. Soon more settlers began to arrive, as well as many travellers passing through and going on north.

In 1900 Mopane Clarke opened a hotel, constructed of mud and poles. He also had a bar and shop and a company called The Zambezi Trading Company. One Fred Mills later opened another hotel. George Smith began a butchery, and in 1904 Leopold Moore set up a chemist’s shop.

By 1903 the settlement was already being referred to as ‘Livingstone’, after David Livingstone. There were about 68 Europeans as well as many Africans, some of them servants to the Europeans. However, Chief Sekute had moved his people away to the northwest when many Europeans began to arrive in his area.

By 1905 the settlement at Sekute’s Drift, now popularly known as ‘Livingstone’, included more than 20 businesses or services. There were four European shops, twelve African shops, three hotels, one chemist, two butchers, one blacksmith, one mineral water plant, one cabinet maker, a barber, an import/export agency, a wagon transport service and a ferry service.

Most settlers built their houses out of mud and poles, with thatched roofs, while others lived in tents. Most of the shops were of wood or iron. There was not much to do except drink and gamble and there were few women and children.

Unfortunately, the area proved to be unhealthy. Being only a few feet above river level with reeds and marsh between the settlement and the river, it was a perfect breeding site for mosquitoes. Many of the settlers died of malaria or black-water fever (a complication of malaria) within a few years or even months of arrival.

In 1904 the railway from Bulawayo reached the Falls and the bridge across the gorge was completed in 1905. The British South Africa Company administration decided that the settlement site was unhealthy and far from the railway, and chose the sandy ridge ten kilometres to the north of the Falls as the site for the new town.

In 1904 the Administration surveyed the roads in the new town and marked out 204 stands. Some were for government buildings and others for settlers from the Drift, and the rest were auctioned. The people from the Drift did not want to move because they were afraid they would lose the tourist trade, since the new site was far from the Falls. But in 1905 the Administration gave them three months to move, threatening punishment if they did not. So they moved. The name chosen for the new town was Livingstone, and the Drift came to be known as the Old Drift or Old Livingstone.

Mopane Clarke moved his Zambezi Trading Company to the new town in 1905, together with his Zambezi Bar. The Trading Company later became Nanoo’s. This and the Zambezi Bar were still operating in the same place about 100 years later, opposite Mukuni Park, on the corner of Mosi-oa-Tunya Road and Zambezi Street. Clarke then built a hotel, which in 1907 was bought by the Administration and turned into Government House.

In 1909 he built another hotel, the North-Western Hotel, which still stands today at the bottom end of Zambezi Street, although it no longer operates as a hotel. In 1907 the Administration moved the capital of North-Western Rhodesia from Kalomo to Livingstone, and the town grew as a result. By the end of the same year the town had two hotels, a restaurant, two mineral water factories, at least eight clothing and general stores, two butcheries, four building contractors a chemist and a barber.

All that remains of the Old Drift settlement today is the cemetery, now within the National Park. Here a few headstones stand in memory of the many people who died at this small settlement, mostly from malaria. There is also a monument marking the actual drift or crossing site that brought so many European travellers and settlers to this part of the world and paved the way for more towns and developments to the north.

After Zambia attained independence from the British in 1964, most of the colonial names of the towns were changed to Zambian names. There was an attempt to change the name of Livingstone, but the people of the town resisted. David Livingstone was not a colonialist or settler, but a traveller, doctor and missionary who had been respected by the local people.

The name stuck and today, more than a hundred years later, the town still retains the name of the great explorer, and the nearby Victoria Falls, after more than a hundred years, still attract tourists from all over the world to Livingstone City.

From : The  Zambezi Traveller
By Clare Mateke