Geographical Heroes: John Hanning Speke

John Hanning Speke, a British explorer, and the first European to reach Lake Victoria in East Africa, and which he also correctly identified as the source of the Nile.

John served as an army officer in India, where he developed a passion for hunting that was to stay with him for the rest of his life. In 1854 he met Richard Burton, and embarked on an expedition under him to what is now Somalia and Ethiopia. A near scrape with death when they were attacked after landing on the Somalian coast did not deter Speke from joining Burton on another venture in 1856, sponsored by the Royal geographical society (RGS) to investigate the river systems of central Africa. They hoped to solve a matter that had flummoxed all previous European geographers:the whereabouts of the source of the Nile.

The two men spent six months in Zanzibar on the east coast, where Burton learnt Swahili. Finally they sailed to Tanzania in a naval ship loaned to them by the sultan of Zanzibar, and they set out into the interior. Five months and 600 miles later they learned of a great lakes to the West, and in February 1858 they finally reached Ujiji, Lake Tanganyika, the second largest lake in Africa; they were the first Europeans to see it. Speke explored the lake in a dugout canoe, while Burton recovered from a jaw infection but half blind from a fever himself, and deaf from an insect that clambered into his eardrum he as unable to circumnavigate it and prove it had an outlet to the Nile.They began their return journey to Zanzibar. however, halfway to the Indian coast, at the Arab slaving post of Tabora, they heard of a lake far bigger than Lake Tanganyika two weeks walk to the north. Speke set off without Burton who was not too ill with malaria to travel.

On August 1858 he came to what the locals called Lake Ukerewe, or he Nyanza, which he promptly called Victoria, after his own Queen. He was convinced, and rightly so, that it was the source of the Nile. On meeting with Burton again, Burton was adamant that the source lay in Lake Tanganyika, even though Speke had calculated that it was only ten feet higher than the Nile at Gondokoro, much further down in the Sudan. The two travellers patience with one another had already grown thin, but now a major rift developed between them  Their disagreement unresolved, Speke returned to England two weeks ahead of Burton, who stayed to Convalesce in Aden.

Although Speke had promised not to divulge the results of their endeavors until they were both home, he now, without waiting for Burton, related his findings to the RGS. Burton was furious, but gratified to find that, even without his vociferous lobbying, others were also skeptical of his rival’s claim, which was supported by no hard evidence. The RGS donated £2,500 for Speke to set out once more and resolve the matter. He left for Africa in 1860, with a former partner in India, the zoologist and painter James Augustus Grant.

This time, Speke found an outlet at what he named the Ripon falls (after the President of the Royal Geographical Society) and followed its course into present day Uganda, then onto Gondokoro in the Sudan; but because of tribal wars they had to make several detours, which allowed the possibility that they were not actually following the same rivers course all the way.

Routes of Exploration

Back in England, Speke’s, enemies – and especially Burton – were ready to pull his latest ‘findings’ apart. a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science was called to debate the matter, but the day before the meeting Speke shot himself in what seems to have been a freak hunting accident. It was not until twelve years later that the journalist Henry Morton Stanley provided that Speke had been right all along.

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