Explorers Of The Nile: Victorian Triumph & Tragedy

Africa was always dubbed ‘The Dark Continent’.  This sobriquet never referred to pigment  of skin, instead it referred to the impenetrable geography that immediately arises from the sands of both East and West Africa.  Prior to the invention of the railroad (steam) and the boring of hard steel (rifle), Africa remained the ‘Dark Continent’.  It was simply not available for exploration.  Certainly the Romans were familiar with the northern coast of Africa, given available references in numerous literature we can surmise Romanic understanding of Africa.

Given the Islamic irritant that was Spain and the success of its pincer movement up into both Hungary and France around 1200 A.D.  It fell to the Spanish and Henry the Navigator to find away around the sons of Ishmael.  Given new rigging of ships and the political motivation to outpace Islam, both Spain and Portugal set out to hug the west coast of Africa in search of what became of India, the Philippines and Japan.  How else to say it:  that Mediterranean Lake became a sideshow after the discovery of the Americas.

The Dark Continent would again capture the imagination of western Europeans in what became Victoria’s Empire.  The names of Livingstone, Henry Morton Stanley, Richard Burton are well known forerunners to our Lawrence of Arabia.  The two key decades of exploration into both Central African Congo and the search for the origins of the Nile are told by Tim Jeal in ‘Explorers of the Nile:  The triumph and tragedy of a great Victorian adventure.’

Exploring Central Africa from its Eastern border as well as going south to discover the origin of the Nile meant wading into and surviving the backdrop of torture, casual execution, disease, warfare, massacre, pillage and extortion almost impossible for contemporary people to imagine.

Tim Jeal is the biographer of both Livingstone and Henry Morton Stanley.  He begins with richard Burton and Speke’s journey to Lake Tanganyika (1856-9) and Speke’s ‘discovery’ of Lake Victoria.  Jeal ends with Stanley’s legendary trans-African crossing (1874-7) from Zanzibar in the east to the mouth of the Congo in the west, perhaps the greatest feats of exploration in the entire annals of history.

There are ten biographies of Burton, but only one of Speke.  Speke solved the world’s greatest mystery by discovering the source of the Nile.  In 1858 John Speke stood on the shore of a huge lake that was called Nyanza Ukerewe (renamed by Speke as ‘Victoria’), he instinctively sensed that this was the source of the Nile River flowing 4,230 miles north.  John Speke was right and Richard Burton had it wrong.  Burton claimed that the origin of the Nile was Lake Tanganykia.  Nevertheless, it was Burton who garnished the greatest acclaim, even being Knighted before his untimely death in 1890.

Here’s how Speke won:  In May of 1858, Speke, on his own inclination, left Burton’s Lake Tanganyika expedition (Burton was ill and could no longer travel) and journeyed with a few men 200 miles north to find Lake Ukerewe.  The sheer size of the body of water and its height above sea level (Speke’s calculation was 4,000 feet above sea level, considerable higher than Tanganyika) convinced him that here lay the headwaters for the Nile.  Speke returned in 1860-63 with James Grant to explore its shores and found the falls (Ripton Falls) where the Nile exited Lake Victoria to begin with its journey north into the Mediterranean.

Both Livingstone and Burton were violently against the ‘speculations’ of John Speke.  Given the flair that became of both it is obvious that they are burnished onto the British psyche.  But it was Speke who was right!  Not Burton or Livingstone.  As in our day, flair, charisma and drama overcome all other considerations.

It fell to Henry Morton Stanley in 1874 to circumnavigate the lake to vindicate Speke.

The question becomes, what accounts for the failure that was Speke’s untarnished reputation?

The answer is simple.  John Speke died in a horrible hunting accident exactly at the moment when the Nile Debate was at its feverish height, leaving the field clear for other competitors.

John Speke and Richard Burton were scheduled to debate each other at the Royal Geographical Society during the summer of 1864, arbitrated by Livingstone.  The day before the debate, Speke’s rifle accidently went off killing him immediately during a hunting trip.  The only witness was his cousin George Fuller, the gamekeeper was to far away to be of any real forensic assistance.  According to the only biography of John Speke (Alexander Maitland’s 1971 biography) Speke’s gun had an extremely light pull on the trigger, making it lethal for any user or circumstance to fire.

The best explanation is that Speke nervously cocked the hammer of one barrel so lightly that a jar on the stock would make it fire.  Having climbed a wall with his rifle jammed into his armpit, bringing the stock into violent contact with stone killed him instantly.

Thus ending a brilliant career of England’s best explorer.

The Victorian race to explore Africa cannot be understood outside explorational antipathies that were primarily intellectual.  We simply cannot ignore how Africa served as a great catalyst from which to expel personal demons and shape a life informed from passionate media.  Solitude, strangeness, danger and the lure of great wealth and fame propelled most Victorian explorers.  John Speke was different.

Speke was not motivated by stark contrasts, whether personal or not.  He just never fit the bill that served as a template for most:  the unending displays of petty bickering, petulance and self regard.  Speke found no room in his heart for such.  As such, the academics bane toward pedantic gesture was not for him.  The complicated eccentric psyches that propelled the Victorian explorers are all on display in this book, one simply cannot ignore the sheer weight of multiple neuroses that contributed the tremendous energy, personal stamina and courage required to master the Dark Continent.

Tim Jeal’s rehabilitation of John Speke is really long overdue.


About William Holland

Systematic Theologian/International Relations
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