The Discovery of the Source of the Nile, by John Hanning Speke

Editor’s Note

John Hanning Speke was a man of thirty-six, when his Nile Journal appeared. He had entered the army in 1844, and completed ten years of service in India, serving through the Punjab Campaign. Already he had conceived the idea of exploring Africa, before his ten years were up, and on their conclusion he was appointed a member of the expedition preparing to start under Sir Richard (then Lieutenant Burton) for the Somali country. He was wounded by the Somalis, and returned to England on sick leave; the Crimean War then breaking out, he served through it, and later, December 1856, joined another expedition under Burton. Then it was that the possibility of the source of the Nile being traced to one of the inland lakes seems to have struck him.

Burton’s illness prevented him accompanying Speke on the latter’s visit to the lake now known as Victoria Nyanza. During this expedition Speke reached the most southerly point of the lake, and gave it its present name. Speke arrived back in England in the spring of 1859, Burton being left behind on account of his illness. The relations between the two had become strained, and this was accentuated by Speke’s hast to publish the account of his explorations. He was given the command of another expedition which left England in April 1860, in company with Captain James Augustus Grant, to ascertain still further if the Victoria Nyanza were indeed the source of the Nile. He met Sir Samuel Baker, to whom he gave valuable assistance, and who with his clue discovered the third lake, Albert Nyanza.

Speke telegraphed early in 1863, that the Nile source was traced. Returning to England that year he met with an ovation, and addressed a special meeting of the Geographical Society, and the same year, 1863, published his “Journal of the Discovery of the Nile.” Opposed in his statements by Burton and M’Queen (“The Nile Basin, 1864”), it was arranged that he and Burton should meet for a debate, when on the very day fixed, Speke accidentally shot himself while out partridge-shooting.

Sir R. Murchison, addressing the Royal Geographical Society that year, speaks of Speke’s discovery of the source of the Nile as solving the “problem of all ages.”

Only two books were published by Speke — the “Journal” of 1863, which follows, and its sequel —“What Led to the Discovery of the Source of the Nile,” which appeared in the year of his death, 1864.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00