Today is the birthday (1827) of John Hanning Speke, an English explorer and officer in the British Indian Army who made three exploratory expeditions to Africa. He is most associated with the search for the source of the Nile and was the first European to reach Lake Victoria. Speke traveled with Richard Burton on several occasions ( ) and an unpleasant rivalry developed between the two men, mostly spurred by Burton.
Speke was born in Orleigh Court, Buckland Brewer, near Bideford in North Devon. In 1844 he was commissioned into the British Army and posted to India, where he served under Sir Colin Campbell during the First Anglo-Sikh War. He spent his leave exploring the Himalayas and once crossed into Tibet. In 1854 he made his first voyage to Africa, first arriving in Aden to ask permission of the Political Resident of the British Outpost to cross the Gulf of Aden and collect specimens in Somaliland for his family’s natural history museum in Somerset. This was refused because Somaliland was considered dangerous (as he came to find out). Speke then asked to join an expedition about to leave for Somaliland led by the already famous Richard Burton who had Lt William Stroyan and Lt. Herne recruited to come along, but a recent death left the expedition one person short. Speke was accepted because he had traveled in remote regions alone before, had experience collecting and preserving natural history specimens and had done astronomical surveying. Initially the party split with Burton going to Harrar, Abyssinia, and Speke going to Wadi Nogal in Somaliland . During this trip Speke had trouble with the local guide who cheated him and after they returned to Aden, Burton, who had also returned, saw that the guide was jailed and executed. This incident probably led to larger troubles later on. Now all 4 men traveled to Berbera on the coast of Somaliland where they wanted to trek inland towards the Ogaden. While camped outside Berbera they were attacked at night by 200 spear wielding Somalis. During this raid Speke ducked under the flap of a tent to get a clearer view of the scene and Burton thought he was retreating and called for Speke to stand firm. Speke did so and then charged forward shooting several attackers. The misunderstanding of this incident laid the foundation of the disputes and dislikes between Speke and Burton later on. Stroyan was killed by a spear, Burton was seriously wounded by a spear impaling both cheeks and Speke was wounded, and the only one captured, Herne came away unwounded.
Speke was tied up and stabbed several times with spears, one thrust cutting through his thigh along his femur before exiting. Speke used his bound fists to give his attacker a facial punch which gave him the opportunity to escape, although he was followed by a group of Somalis and he had to dodge spears as he was running for his life. Rejoining Burton and Herne, the trio eventually managed to escape in a boat passing along the coast. The expedition was a severe financial loss and Speke’s natural history specimens from his earlier leg were used to make up for some of it. Speke handed Burton his diaries that Burton used as an appendix in his own book on his travels to Harrar. It seemed unlikely that the two would join up again and Burton believed that he would not lead an expedition to the interior of Africa after this failed journey, even though this was his fervent desire.
Despite the first failure, in 1856, Speke and Burton went to East Africa to find the Great Lakes, which were rumored to exist in the center of the continent. They were hoping that the expedition would locate the source of the Nile. The journey, which started from Zanzibar Island in June 1857, was extremely strenuous and both men fell ill from a variety of tropical diseases once they went inland. By 7th November 1857 they had traveled over 600 miles on foot and donkey and they reached Kazeh (Tabora), where they rested and recuperated among Arab slave traders who had a settlement there. In Kazeh, Burton became gravely ill and Speke went temporarily blind as they travelled further west. After an arduous journey, the two arrived in Ujiji in February 1858 and became the first Europeans to reach Lake Tanganyika (although Speke was partially blind at this point and could not properly see the lake). They decided to explore the lake but it was vast and they could get only small canoes from the locals. Burton was too ill to journey and thus Speke crossed the lake with a small crew and some canoes to try to rent a larger vessel from an Arab who, they were told, had a large boat and lived on the west side of the lake. (Lake Tanganyika is over 400 miles long on the north-south axis but only about 30 miles wide.) During this trip Speke was marooned on an island and suffered severely when he became temporarily deaf after a beetle crawled into his ear and he tried to remove it with a knife. Speke was notable to rent the larger vessel from the Arab and so returned. Because the pair were unable to explore Lake Tanganyika properly, they initially mistakenly thought that a river flowed out of it from the north side. A few weeks later Sidi Mubarak Bombay confirmed via locals that the river flowed into the lake, but because neither man actually saw this river, this remained a source of speculation.
They had also heard of a second lake to the north-east, and in May 1858, they decided to explore it on the way back to the coast. But Burton was too weak to make the trip and thus stayed in base camp when the main caravan halted again at Kazeh. Speke went on a 47-day side trip that was 452 miles up and down in which he took 34 men with Bombay and Mabruki as his captains, and on 30th July 1858 became the first European to see Lake Victoria and the first to map it. It was this lake that eventually proved to be the source of ther Nile. However, much of the expedition’s survey equipment had been lost at this point and thus vital questions about the height and extent of the lake could not be answered easily. Speke’s eyes were still bothering him and he only saw a small part of the southern end of the lake and his view was blocked by islands in the lake so he could not judge the size of the lake well. However, Speke did estimate the elevation of Lake Victoria at 4000 feet by observing the temperature at which water boiled at that level.
From the beginning, the relationship between Speke and Burton was one of opposites. Burton considered Speke to be an inferior linguist and a less experienced traveler in remote regions (which was partially true), but Burton also appears to have been jealous of Speke and far less able to relate to the safari caravan to keep the expedition motivated and moving (a vital factor as they were completely dependent on their safari crew). Speke enjoyed hunting and provided the caravan with meat, while Burton was not much interested in such pursuits. Burton was appointed the head of the expedition and considered Speke the second in command, although the pair seemed to have shared the hardships and labors of the journey pretty much evenly. Once it became clear that Speke might have found the source of the Nile the relationship deteriorated further. Why Burton did not journey back to Lake Victoria with Speke to reconnoiter the Lake better after Speke returned to base camp in Kazeh is unclear. Burton was incapacitated and had to be carried by bearers, but this had been true for a great deal of the trip.
While Speke and Burton were instrumental in bringing the source of the Nile to the wider world and were the first to record and map this section of Africa, the efforts and labors of Sidi Mubarak Bombay and Mabruki were instrumental in discovering the lake. Bombay was captured as a child near Lake Nyasa by slave traders and was sold to Indian merchants on the coast of Africa who took him to Sindh. Thus, he spoke Hindustani and after his master’s death he sailed back to Zanzibar where Speke and Burton met and hired him. Both spoke Hindustani, which greatly facilitated the travel in the interior as Bombay spoke several native languages beside Swahili. Speke was much attached to Bombay and spoke highly of his honesty and conscientiousness. Bombay’s efforts in dealing with hostile peoples, interpreting and keeping the safari crew on track was a great help to the expedition. Less is known of Mabruki, the other caravan leader, but he was later known as Mabruki Speke, and like Bombay became one of East Africa’s great caravan leaders and was also a Yao, like Bombay. Because of Speke’s recommendations both Bombay and Mabruki served on Henry Stanley’s 1871 expedition to find Livingstone.
On 26th September 1859 they began the return journey from Kazeh because the military leaves for both men were coming to an end. Again, Speke and Burton suffered from severe illnesses and had to be carried in litters by the porters some of the way. Once Speke and Burton were back on the coast they went by ship to Zanzibar and then traveled to Aden. When back at the coast Burton wrote a letter to Norton Shaw of the Royal Geographical Society (which had partially sponsored the journey) in which Burton enclosed a map of Lake Victoria made by Speke and wrote “there are grave reasons for believing it to be the source of the principal feeder of the White Nile.” Once in Aden, Burton was not granted a medical certificate to travel and thus Speke left on HMS Furious and arrived in England on 8th May 1859. Burton arrived on 21st May 1859.
New disagreements arose in England. Burton maintained that they had promised each other in Aden not to make public announcements until they were both back in England and Burton accused Speke of a breach of promise by publicly claiming they found the source of the Nile on their trip. Burton now turned against the theory that Lake Victoria was the source of the Nile (and now said the river flowing out of the north side of Lake Tanganyika was the source) and thus also reversing himself from the position he took in the letter to Norton Shaw. In that same letter to Shaw, Burton had also stated that Speke would present his findings to the RGS as he was prevented from traveling as he was in poor health and would be in England a short time after Speke. The jealousies and accusations between the two men increased, further inflamed by their respective circles of friends and people who stood to gain from the feud such as book publishers and newspapers. Burton was still extremely weak and once he appeared in front of a committee of the RGS he was not able to make a convincing case for his leading a second expedition to settle the outstanding matters about the Nile. The rift widened, and perhaps became irreversible, when Speke was chosen to lead a subsequent expedition instead of Burton. The two presented joint papers concerning the expedition to the RGS on 13th June 1859.
Together with James Augustus Grant, Speke left Portsmouth on 27th April 1860 and departed from Zanzibar in October 1860. The expedition approached the lake from the southwest, but Grant was often sick and was not able to travel with Speke much of the time. In this period of African history, Arab slave traders had created an atmosphere of great distrust towards any foreigners entering central Africa, and most African groups either fled or fought when encountering them, assuming all outsiders to be potential slavers. Lacking much in the way of guns and soldiers, the only thing the expedition could do was to make peace offerings to locals, and both men were severely delayed, and their supplies depleted by demands for gifts and fees of passage. After numerous months of delays Speke reached Lake Victoria on 28th July 1862, and then travelled on the west side around Lake Victoria but only seeing it from time to time. On the north side of the lake, Speke found the Nile flowing out of it and discovered the Ripon Falls. Whilst at the court of Muteesa I, the Kabaka (king) of Buganda, the local kingdom, who treated Speke with kindness, Speke was given two girls of about 12 and 18 out of the entourage of the Queen Mother. Speke took a serious liking to the elder, Meri, whom he fell in love with, according to his diaries (which were redacted when they were published as books later). While Meri proved loyal to Speke and fulfilled her task of being a “wife” as commanded by the Queen Mother, she showed no emotional attachment to Speke. Speke spent several months at the court of Mutesa and when he had given up winning Mere’s heart, tried to arrange a better relationship for Mere with another man, without success. Finally, given permission by Mutesa in June 1862 to leave, Speke then travelled down the Nile, now reunited with Grant.
Because of travel restrictions placed by the local chieftains, slave raiding parties, tribal wars and the difficulty of the terrain, Speke was not able to map the entire flow of the Nile from Lake Victoria north. By January 1863 Speke and Grant reached Gondokoro in Southern Sudan, where he met Samuel Baker and his “wife”. (Her name was Florence von Sass and she had been rescued by Baker from a slave market in Vidin during a hunting trip in Bulgaria.) Speke had expected to meet John Petherick and his wife Katherine at Gondokoro, as they had been sent by the RGS south along the Nile to meet Speke and Grant. However, the Pethericks were not there but on a side expedition to trade ivory, as they had run out of funds for their expedition. This caused some hard feelings between Pethrick and Speke, and Baker played into this so he could assume a greater role as an explorer and co-discoverer of the Nile. Speke, via Baker’s ship, then continued to Khartoum where he sent a celebrated telegram to London: “The Nile is settled.” Speke’s expedition did not resolve the issue, however. Burton claimed that because Speke had not followed the Nile from the place it flowed out of Lake Victoria to Gondokoro, he could not be sure they were the same river. Baker and Florence, meanwhile, stayed in Gondokoro and tried to settle the issue of the flow of the river from there to Lake Victoria by travelling south. They eventually, after tremendous hardships including being racked by fevers and held up by rulers for months on end, found Lake Albert and the Murchison Falls.
Speke and Grant now returned to England where they arrived in June 1863 and were welcomed as genuine heroes. This did not last long in Speke’s case however. Disputes with Burton, who was relentless in his criticisms and a very compelling public speaker and strong writer, left Speke’s discoveries in less than an ideal light. Speke had also committed to write a book for John Blackwood which he found difficult. He failed to give a good and full report to the RGS for many months and thus, in effect, failed to defend his positions concerning the Nile. In addition Speke had a public dispute with the Pethericks who had by and large acted according to their RGS instructions but Speke had felt they had not. All this led Roderick Murchison, president of the RGS, to take a dislike to Speke and was not inclined to fund a third expedition led by Speke. Just as Burton had overplayed his hand after the first trip Speke now did the same. The RGS asked that a public debate be held between Speke and Burton to try to settle questions concerning the source of the Nile.
The debate was planned between Speke and Burton before the geographical section of the British Association in Bath on 16th September 1864, but Speke died the previous afternoon from a self-inflicted gunshot wound while shooting at Neston Park in Wiltshire. A contemporary account of the events surrounding his death appeared in The Times:
Speke set out from his uncle’s house in company with his cousin, George Fuller, and a gamekeeper, Daniel Davis, for an afternoon’s shooting in Neston Park. He fired both barrels in the course of the afternoon and about 4 p.m. Davis was marking birds for the two guns who were about 60 yards apart. Speke was seen to climb on to a stone wall about 2 feet high: for the moment he was without his gun. A few seconds later there was a report and when George Fuller rushed up Speke’s gun was found behind the wall in the field into which Speke had jumped. The right barrel was at half-cock: only the left barrel was discharged. Speke who was bleeding seriously was sensible for a few minutes and said feebly, “Don’t move me.” George Fuller went for assistance leaving Davis to attend him; but Speke survived for only about 15 minutes, and when Mr. Snow, surgeon of Box, arrived he was already dead. There was a single wound in his left side such as would be made by a cartridge if the muzzle of the gun—a Lancaster breech-loader without a safety guard—were close to the body; the charge had passed upwards through the lungs dividing all the large blood vessels over the heart, though missing the heart itself.
An inquest concluded that the death was accidental, though the idea of suicide appealed to some. Given that the fatal wound was just below Speke’s armpit, suicide seems unlikely. Burton, however, could not set aside his own strong dislike of Speke and was vocal in spreading the idea of a suicide, claiming that Speke feared the debate. Speke was buried in Dowlish Wake, Somerset, five miles from the ancestral home of the Speke family.
Given that Speke, a noble Victorian, was deathly ill much of his time in central Africa, here is what Mrs Beeton would have prescribed. You can substitute gazelle or antelope for the mutton.
THE INVALID’S CUTLET.
- INGREDIENTS.—1 nice cutlet from a loin or neck of mutton, 2 teacupfuls of water, 1 very small stick of celery, pepper and salt to taste.
Mode.—Have the cutlet cut from a very nice loin or neck of mutton; take off all the fat; put it into a stewpan, with the other ingredients; stew very gently indeed for nearly 2 hours, and skim off every particle of fat that may rise to the surface from time to time. The celery should be cut into thin slices before it is added to the meat, and care must be taken not to put in too much of this ingredient, or the dish will not be good. If the water is allowed to boil fast, the cutlet will be hard.
Time.—2 hours’ very gentle stewing. Average cost, 6d.
Sufficient for 1 person. Seasonable at any time.