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Explorers of the Nile

Jealousy, deceit, life-threatening illnesses, brutal spear attacks… Tim Jeal reveals the action-packed race to discover the source of the world's longest river

An 1860s coloured engraving of Lake Victoria’s outflow at the Ripon Falls, which John Speke discovered in 1862 and correctly declared to be the source of the Nile. (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)
Published: December 11, 2011 at 1:48 pm
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This article was first published in the December 2011 issue of BBC History Magazine


In April 1855, four Britons, including John Speke and Richard Burton, were encamped on the Somali coast, intending to head inland towards an unexplored lake that they believed might be the source of the White Nile. Unknown to them, local people believed they had come to spoil their profitable slave-trading activities.

At 2am, their camp was invaded by about 200 Somalis. “Hearing a rush of men, like a stormy wind,” Burton leapt from his bed and grabbed his sabre. From a neighbouring tent, Speke heard Burton rousing his colleagues, lieutenants Stroyan and Herne, and sprinted across. While doing the same, Stroyan was slashed with a sword and killed by a single spear-thrust to the heart.

Although Burton was a formidable swordsman, his sabre was useless against javelins and bullets. Herne’s powder was exhausted, so when Speke arrived, he had to defend the tent with his revolver. As he ducked down to get a clearer view, Burton roared: “Don’t step back, or they’ll think we are running.” Speke “stepped boldly to the front and fired into the first man before [him]”. Then he thrust his gun “against the breast of the largest man before him and pulled the trigger, but the cylinder would not rotate”. Someone clubbed him to the ground and a dozen Somalis fell on him.

As his tent was flattened, Burton struggled out and “a spearman stepped forward and left his javelin in my mouth”. The spear pierced Burton’s face, splitting his palate and smashing out two molars. Meanwhile, a pinned-down Speke felt fingers near his genitals. “My hair stood on end… [and] I feared… unmanly mutilations.” Luckily they were only checking whether a dagger was hidden in his trousers.

When Speke’s guard tried to stab him in the heart, he used his bound wrists to parry the thrust. The assailant then plunged his spear into Speke’s thigh, suggesting that he would be killed unless he fled. So he “ran towards the sea like wildfire… almost naked, and quite bare upon the feet”. Spears were thrown after him, but Speke reached the shoreline and safety.

Though they suffered horribly, Burton and Speke vowed to return when well enough to solve the planet’s most elusive secret. The location of the White Nile’s source was a mystery unsolved for thousands of years and still confounded the most eminent minds of the Victorian age. It was the planet’s greatest remaining challenge in the field of exploration.

Three years later, in 1858, Burton and Speke became the first Europeans to reach Lake Tanganyika, 700 miles inland from the east African coast. It wasn’t an easy expedition. Due to ophthalmia, Speke could not see the water, and Burton was travelling in a litter, having lost all sensation in his limbs 200 miles earlier. While exploring the western shores of the lake on his own, an insect burrowed deep into Speke’s right ear, making him deaf on that side.

The duo hoped to reach the northern end of the lake and find an outflowing river that might join the known Nile further north. As Burton wrote: “Everything – wealth, health and even life – was to be risked for this prize.” When they embarked in two dug-out canoes, he still could not walk and was suffering from mouth ulcers. Six hours south of their objective, the African chief, who owned the two dugouts they were in, ordered his paddlers to turn back to avoid being attacked by local Warundi whom Speke recorded as being “a boisterous, barbarous tribe”. Burton lacked the will to overrule him. They were then informed that the river at the lake’s tip flowed in, not out. Unsure whether to believe this dire news, Speke tried to get Burton to make a second attempt, but he replied he had “had enough of canoe travelling”.

Bigger than Tanganyika

On their way back to the coast, Speke volunteered to visit a large lake 200 miles to the north, reputed to be bigger than Tanganyika, itself more than 400 miles long and 40 miles wide. Although Burton had just been carried 200 miles and could have been stretchered the same distance to the new lake, he ruled this out. So Speke went alone, becoming the first white man to reach the lake he later called Victoria. Two islands partially blocked his view, but local people told him the lake was immense.

It was also due south of the known Nile and 3,720 feet above sea level, making a link perfectly possible. Yet Burton responded angrily when a returning Speke declared he had found the Nile’s source. Certainly he had not proved that ‘his’ lake had a north-flowing outlet, or was even a single sheet of water. But, secretly, Burton feared Speke was right and admitted this to the Royal Geographical Society (RGS) in a letter. In public, though, he fiercely opposed Speke’s claim.

Burton was too ill to travel on reaching the coast, so Speke sailed for England alone. The RGS later decided to send Speke to Africa with a new companion, James Grant, to explore the larger lake and find its outlet. Burton was outraged.

In 1862, Speke became the first white man to reach Uganda. He had been robbed of most of his trade goods along the way and had been so ill with a cough that he had to sleep sitting up. His left arm was paralysed and shooting pains extended from his shoulders to his liver. Grant, meanwhile, had been incapacitated by an ulcerated leg, which detained him en route for months.

Still companionless, Speke headed for Victoria’s northern outlet and declared that this unspectacular waterfall was the source of the Nile. In fact, he had not even proved that the lake was the same water he had visited four years earlier. There could still be several lakes. Indeed, until someone had investigated in a boat, the truth would remain unknown.

Back in England, Speke was welcomed as a hero – briefly, at least. Both in print and at meetings, Burton attacked Speke’s claim to have found the Nile’s source. And when Scottish explorer David Livingstone predicted the source lay south-west of Lake Tanganyika, Speke’s reputation collapsed. Just before he was to debate the issue with Burton at a national scientific event in Bath, he went out shooting birds with a cousin who lived nearby. Climbing over a wall, he used his shotgun as a stick, holding it by the barrel, and accidentally shot himself under the arm severing his coronary arteries. Although the position of the wound made suicide impossible, Burton uncharitably declared that Speke had killed himself out of fear that he would lose the Nile debate.

In 1863, while Speke had been coming down the Nile towards Egypt, he had met, near Juba (nowadays the capital of the newly formed Republic of South Sudan), a rich English acquaintance, Samuel Baker. Having hoped, if Speke had died, to go south and find the source himself, Baker asked sadly: “Does one leaf of the laurel remain for me?” Speke cheered him with news of an important lake north-east of Victoria. Though only 250 miles away, several Italian and French traders had died trying to reach it.

Accompanied by his mistress, Florence von Sass, whom he is said to have bought in a Bulgarian slave market, Baker was crossing a swamp bridged by aquatic plants, when he looked back and saw Florence “sinking gradually through the weeds, while her face was distorted and purple”. For four days, she lay unconscious. Baker even dug her grave. Amazingly, on the fifth day she opened her eyes and began to recover. They had no quinine and came close to death many times. But in March 1864 they reached the lake, which Baker was to name Albert. “The glory of our prize burst suddenly upon me,” wrote Baker. “England had won the sources of the Nile!” He would say in future that his lake was as important as Speke’s.

Before Baker came home, David Livingstone had been sent to Africa by the RGS to determine whether either Speke or Baker was right. He himself believed the source lay far to the south and in March 1870, after four years of suffering, he stood on the banks of a mighty river 250 miles west of Lake Tanganyika, 1,000 miles from any coast. His description was promising: “At least 3,000 yards broad, and always deep: it has many large islands”. This was the Nile, he was sure. But before he could buy canoes from local Arab slave-traders in which to navigate it, he witnessed a massacre of women and children by these men. Because his own porters refused to go on the river, and he could not endure travelling with Arabs, he was compelled to return to the town of Ujiji on the shores of Lake Tanganyika. Spears narrowly missed him on his journey and he fell ill. At journey’s end, Livingstone learned that all his stores had been stolen. It seemed the end of all his dreams.

But on a nearby hill, a 30-year-old Welsh journalist, masquerading as an American, was about to change everything. Born John Rowlands but now calling himself Henry Morton Stanley, his famous question "Dr Livingstone I presume?" was neither written into his diary, nor mentioned in Livingstone's letters. Stanley had had the brilliant idea of interviewing Livingstone for the New York Herald, this man seen by no European for five years. The doctor and he got on well and travelled together to the tip of Lake Tanganyika where they found that the river flowed in. (Though suspecting this would be so, Burton – to harm Speke's memory – had been saying it flowed out.)

Lake Tanganyika could not, then, feed the Nile – and the great river’s source must either be Speke’s Victoria or the southern marshes that fed Livingstone’s river, the Lualaba.

When Livingstone invited Stanley to come with him to the Lualaba to follow it north, he regretfully declined. His duty, he believed, was to bring the story of their meeting to the outside world. After four months together, Stanley left and Livingstone headed off to trace the Lualaba from its source to the known Nile. He died in May 1873, in the swamps of Lake Bangweulu, of blood loss and an obstructed colon.

With newspaper money, Stanley returned to Africa to complete Livingstone’s work and to solve the Nile mystery. Of his 228 men, only half would survive one of history’s greatest journeys. He circumnavigated Lake Victoria, proving that it was a single lake with one outlet – and, in doing so, vindicated Speke. He did the same with Lake Tanganyika. But only when he had followed the Lualaba north over rapids and past hostile tribes, and then west in a great arc to the Atlantic, had he proved that Livingstone had actually discovered the source of the Congo.

Speke had been correct all along. But even then, an embittered Burton would not admit just how unwarranted his long anti-Speke campaign had been.

Tim Jeal is author of acclaimed biographies of Livingstone, Baden-Powell and Stanley. His latest book, Explorers of the Nile: The Triumph and Tragedy of a Great Victorian Adventure, was published by Faber and Faber in September.

Jeal is also the author of Stanley: The Impossible Life of Africa's Greatest Explorer (Faber and Faber, 2008).

Look out for The Last Explorers, a new series on Scottish adventurers, on BBC One Scotland. It will also be available on BBC iPlayer.

The great explorers

Richard F Burton was born in 1821 to middle-class English parents. Addicted to travel, he joined the Indian army and became a brilliant linguist, swordsman, ethnologist and the writer of a staggering 50 books, including translations of works like the erotic masterpiece, the Kama Sutra. He first achieved fame by visiting Mecca disguised as a Muslim, and then for reaching Lake Tanganyika with John Speke in 1858.

John Speke was born in 1827 into an ancient family of stay-at-home Somerset squires. Athletic and fresh-faced, he preferred shooting and country pursuits to academic studies, and joined the Indian army, exploring in his vacations. He met Burton in Somalia, where he had gone to hunt wild game, and accompanied him to Lake Tanganyika before discovering Lake Victoria alone. He returned to Africa and in 1862 found the lake's only outlet. He died in a shooting accident in 1864.

Samuel White Baker, the son of a businessman, was born in 1821. A rich adventurer and hunter, in 1860 he went to Africa with a 19-year-old woman (whom he is said to have bought in a Bulgarian slave market) hoping to find the White Nile's source if Speke had failed to do so. Instead, he and 'Florence' reached the Nile's great secondary reservoir, Lake Albert, in 1864. Knighted on his return, he went back to Africa as governor-general of Egypt's Equatorial Province.

Henry Morton Stanley was born in Wales in 1841 as John Rowlands, the abandoned, illegitimate son of a barmaid. Dumped in the workhouse, he emigrated to the United States where he changed his name to Stanley, became a journalist and sold to the New York Herald the idea of finding Livingstone in Africa. His admiration for Livingstone led him to return to Africa to solve the Nile mystery after his death. Stanley's journey of 1874–77 proved that Speke's Lake Victoria was the source of the Nile and that Livingstone had found the source of the Congo river instead.

Dr David Livingstone was born in 1813 and grew up in a crowded Scottish tenement. A child factory worker, he saved enough to study medicine before training as a missionary. Reaching Africa in 1841, in ten years' missionary work, he made only a single convert, before devoting himself to opening unexplored Africa to Christian influence. Between 1854 and 1856, he completed the first crossing of Africa by a European. Largely responsible for the closure of Zanzibar's slave market, his quest for the Nile's source ended with his death in 1873.

The consequences: are the Nile explorers to blame for Africa’s woes?

Livingstone's sense of mission and his exposure of the Arab slave trade inspired many Christian missionaries and businessmen to informally enter Africa. These voluntary efforts ran in parallel to formal expeditions that were sent out by rulers under a cloak of philanthropy but really aimed to exploit the lands revealed by the Nile explorers. Samuel Baker was employed by the ruling Khedive of Egypt to expand his dominions and create, from southern Sudan and northern Uganda, a new Egyptian province: Equatoria.

The inhabitants lived harmoniously, but after Britain conquered fundamentalist Sudan in 1898, the Africans of northern Equatoria were shunted within the borders of Arab-dominated northern Sudan, while the people of southern Equatoria found themselves corralled into British Uganda – a country dominated by southern Bantu, like the Baganda.

These ethnic divisions sowed the seeds of bloody civil war in post-independence Uganda and Sudan for 50 years. If British explorers had not dominated the exploration of eastern and central Africa, Uganda and Sudan would not both have become British colonial possessions and their borders would have been internationally determined.

Henry Morton Stanley’s great journey inadvertently drew Leopold II of Belgium into Africa, with forced labour and a reign of terror on the Congo following, a decade after Stanley’s departure. Stanley had wanted the river left open to all traders and not just to Belgians; Livingstone and Speke envisaged future colonies being run by a few whites for the benefit of their indigenous inhabitants and not for European settlers.


Wars and disasters in Africa have been commonplace for so long that many suppose the explorers knowingly started a destructive process. This is unjust. The explorers opened Africa to western concern at a time when an expanding gun-andslave frontier was already causing devastation. The Cold War, AIDS, corrupt dictators and an unfair trade system cannot be laid at the door of explorers who had held high hopes for the areas they had revealed at such personal risk.


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