Papers of Richard Thornton

Scope and Content

The collection mainly covers Thornton's time in Africa but there are a few papers (included in the volume of letters) which are dated after his death (to September 1866) and one notebook from 1857 which contains notes of geological work in England.

The collection contains:

  • Letters from Thornton to his family concerning his voyage to East Africa and his subsequent explorations (1858-1863) together with other letters (1863-1866) dealing with Karl Klaus von der Decken's expedition (the letters are bound into 1 volume).
  • Notebooks, partly in diary form, August 1857 to March 1863 (19 volumes)
  • Journals, 1858-1862 (4 volumes)
  • Sketchbook (1 volume)
  • Native vocabulary (1 volume)
  • Copies of articles from scientific periodicals (1 volume)

Administrative / Biographical History

Richard Thornton was born on the 5 April 1838 in Yorkshire, England. He attended grammar school in Bradford before entering the Royal School of Mines, London, in October 1855. After 2 years he passed his examination with great distinction and won a Government prize and the De la Beche Medal for excellence in geological studies.

Sir Roderick Murchison was director of the Royal School of Mines; he was also a friend and patron of David Livingstone, to whom he recommended Thornton as geologist to the Zambezi Expedition. The appointment was confirmed early in 1858, and in March Thornton joined the Colonial Office steamer "Pearl" which was to take the Expedition from Liverpool to the Zambezi.

About 14 months after the Expedition reached the delta of the Zambezi, Livingstone discharged Thornton, accusing him of being idle and disobeying orders. These charges were brought by David Livingstone's brother Charles, also a member of the Expedition, and were accepted by Dr. Livingstone without verification. Thornton, however, was determined to continue his geological explorations in Africa. He proved to have a knack for making friends and received much help particularly from the Portuguese; one pioneering journey he made, soon after his dismissal by Livingstone, was with Portuguese traders up the Zambezi to Zumbo. In 1861 he accompanied the explorer Baron von der Decken (1833-1865) on his first attempt to climb Mount Kilimanjaro.

Returning to the Zambezi, Thornton was invited by Livingstone to rejoin the Expedition, and after some hesitation agreed to do so in an independent capacity. Nine months later, on the 21 April 1863, Thornton died on board the 'Pioneer' in the upper reaches of the Shire River. He was 25 years old.

Access Information

Bodleian reader's ticket required.


Collection level description created by Marion Lowman, Bodleian Library of Commonwealth and African Studies at Rhodes House.

Other Finding Aids

The library holds a card index of all manuscript collections in its reading room and a handlist is also available for this collection.

Listed as nos. 101-103 in Manuscript Collections of Africana in Rhodes House Library, Oxford, compiled by Louis B. Frewer (Oxford, Bodleian Library, 1968).

Conditions Governing Use

No reproduction or publication of personal papers without permission. Contact the library in the first instance.


Some of the papers were published in 1963 in The Zambezi Papers of Richard Thorntonedited by Edward C. Tabler.