An English explorer of Africa, John Hanning Speke (1827-1864) solved the riddle of the Nile River by discovering its source during the course of an epic journey to and through the Great Lakes region of eastern Africa.
Ever since the time of Herodotus, men had sought and speculated about the fountains—the ultimate origins—of the river that provided Egypt's life-blood and sustained classical as well as modern civilizations throughout much of its length. Ptolemy had hinted at the Nile's beginning in equatorial Africa, but only the 19th-century search for the sources of the main, or White, Nile (in the late 18th century James Bruce had seen the Blue Nile flow from Lake Tana in Ethiopia) produced John Speke's confirmation.
John Speke was born at Jordans, Somersetshire, on May 4, 1827. He joined the Indian army in 1844 and saw considerable action in the Punjab campaign. He liked to fight but was bored by the longueurs between periods of combat. Appropriately, he spent his local leaves shooting game in Tibet.
In 1854 Speke obtained overseas leave in order to join Richard Burton in Somalia. While Burton was journeying to the "forbidden city" of Harar, Speke twice went eastward to Bunder Gori, a nearby Somali town. In an attack in 1855 by Somali on the British camp near Berbera, Speke almost died from wounds before he and Burton fled to Aden.
Speke served as a captain in a Turkish regiment at Kertch during the Crimean War (1855-1856) and then returned to Africa as second-in-command of Burton's expedition to the lakes of the eastern interior. The Royal Geographical Society was sponsoring this attempt to locate the rumored Sea of Ujiji and to ascertain the sources of the Nile.
Guided by Arabs and Africans, the expedition attained the Sea of Ujiji (modern Lake Tanganyika) in 1858. Speke's eyes were then too clouded with ophthalmia for him to see the waters of the lake, but he had already learned that Tanganyika was but one of the component lakes—Victoria and Nyasa being the others—of the Sea of Ujiji. He had also surmised or gathered that it was from Victoria that the Nile River flowed north to Egypt. Despite the opposition of Burton, he tested this hypothesis later in 1858.
From Tabora, Speke took a "flying trip" to the southern end of the lake along a route known but relatively little frequented by traders. Reaching the lake after several detours, he at last caught a murky glimpse of the southern waters of what he called Victoria Nyanza (Lake Victoria). With only the evidence of hearsay, Speke decided that this lake was in fact the source of the Nile.
Sources of the Nile
Two years later the Royal Geographical Society commissioned Speke to demonstrate his belief. Accompanied by James Augustus Grant, a colleague from the Indian army, Speke reached Tabora in 1861, and they set out around the western side of Victoria Nyanza to Buganda, the capital of which they reached early in 1862. After several months the kabaka, or king, Mutesa, gave Speke permission to travel to the Nile and then northward.
In July 1862 Speke stood above a point where the waters of the Victoria Nyanza cascaded down the White Nile on their way to Alexandria. "I saw," the exultant explorer wrote, "that old father Nile without any doubt [rose] in the Victoria Nyanza, and, as I had foretold, that [that] lake [was] the great source of the holy river which cradled the first expounder of our religious belief." Grant and Speke proceeded down the Nile, but they were inhibited from following its course, and from visiting other lakes of which they had heard rumor, by African warfare.
Even after Speke had seen the waters of Victoria coursing over Ripon Falls and down the Nile, however, there were some who remained unconvinced that Herodotus's fabled fountains had in fact been found. Burton was a leading critic: Speke had not, he said, followed the Nile the entire way from Victoria to Gondokoro. At a meeting of the august British Association for the Advancement of Science in September 1864, it was arranged that Burton and Speke present their theories. But on the day before the debate Speke went partridge shooting at Neston Park near Bath, mishandled a gun while crossing a stone wall, and fatally shot himself.
The effect of Speke's discoveries, which he embodied in two narratives—Journal of the Discovery of the Source of the Nile (1863) and What Led to the Discovery of the Source of the Nile (1864)—was to direct European interest to the peoples and regions near the headwaters of the Nile. Subsequent European enterprise, and the way in which Buganda was regarded as a prize at the time of the scramble for Africa, indicated the result of Speke's journey to the Nile for both Africans and Europeans.
Further Reading on John Hanning Speke
Speke's own journals contain the most detailed discussions of his activities in Africa. Alexander Maitland's Speke (1971) is the only biography. The best short study is Roy Charles Bridges, "John Hanning Speke: Negotiating a Way to the Nile," in Robert I. Rotberg, ed., Africa and Its Explorers (1970). Speke also figures prominently in two recent biographies of Sir Richard Burton: Byron Farwell, Burton (1963), and Fawn Brodie, The Devil Drives (1967). See also James A. Grant, A Walk across Africa (1864).