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The Race to Find the Source of the Nile



Rob Hardy


By the nineteenth century, the greatest unsolved geographical riddle was: where does the Nile come from? It was an ancient question; Herodotus and Alexander the Great had pondered it. The mystery was that the river flowed through over a thousand miles of desert in which it got no inflow from any tributary. It was only through the often agonizing efforts of a few explorers that the answer became clear. It was a group effort made by Richard Burton, John Hanning Speke, David Livingstone, Henry Morton Stanley, and others, but there was competition and personal nastiness between them. The greatest conflict was between the once-partners Burton and Speke, and because of Burton's astonishing range of interests and influence, Speke's contribution has often been downgraded. Explorers of the Nile: The Triumph and Tragedy of a Great Victorian Adventure (Yale University Press) by Tim Jeal is revisionist, in that it seeks to place Speke in a far brighter light than before, and to rescue him from a reputation that Burton took the first steps to sully. Burton looks worse after reading this big, exciting, and surprising history, and Speke looks brighter, and the entire enterprise of all the explorers looks more heroic and optimistic. We can't do exploration the same way today, and Jeal helps us understand how the death-defying adventures of these men, which might seem to us perversely self-destructive, were in accord with Victorian ideals of chivalry and redemption though suffering. 




Jeal has written well-regarded biographies of Stanley and Livingstone, and it is good to have him center on clearing up the contributions of Burton and Speke. The two were badly matched. Burton was a brilliant blusterer, always conscious of his image. He had, for instance, made himself famous making an impersonation of a Muslim peddler on a trip to Mecca. It was a sensational journey, and his account of it was a bestseller, but he insisted he was the first westerner to make the hajj; in reality, a Swiss adventurer had preceded him by forty years. Speke was modest and easy-going, and had no reputation to keep up. The two had served together, and nearly died together, in Somaliland, and when Burton took the challenge of the Royal Geographical Society to find the Nile's source, he took young Speke with him. Speke was eager to go, even though he was furious about Burton's account of the Somali adventure, in which Burton wrote slightingly of Speke's accomplishments. By February 1858 their expedition had reached Lake Tanganyika, and they learned that there was a river at its north end. If it flowed out to the north, they had their source. Having paddled for weeks up the lake, Burton was told that the river flowed into the lake, not out. He stopped the expedition from going further which would have confirmed that Tanganyika was not the source of the Nile. 




Burton fell sick as all these explorers did from time to time; there was malaria, temporary blindness, leg ulceration, fungus, and smallpox, not to mention wounds from accident or from assault. (Many passages here include excruciating descriptions of such difficulties.) He had to be left to heal, and Speke pushed northwards on his own, discovering the lake he was to name Victoria. It was higher than Tanganyika, and Speke was convinced he had found the Nile's source. Burton thought this was "foolish speculation." If the two had not been so antagonistic, and if they were real partners in exploration, they could have solved the issue for certain with further expeditions, and taken deserved joint credit for the discovery; as it was, there was to be nothing but antagonism between them. The truth was that for all their troubles, neither Burton nor Speke knew the source of the Nile, because they had simply not followed their respective candidate rivers downstream. Livingstone detested Burton and vice versa, but both suspected that Tanganyika had some uncharted western course into the Nile. They were invited to confront Speke at a gathering of the British Society for the Advancement of Science on 27 September 1864. The whole idea of a debate to settle the issue, when what was needed was simply more data from the field, seems exceptionally foolish now. The confrontation never happened. The day before, Speke was shooting for birds, crossed a stone wall, and snagged his trigger on a twig. At least, this is how Jeal presents the incident; Burton, having heard of Speke's end, encouraged the view that Speke had shot himself to avoid being exposed as a fraud during their upcoming debate, and his view has affected how history has judged Speke. Jeal points out, however, that no one commits suicide by clambering over a wall in a way that would prevent a finger being on the trigger, resulting in a trajectory from the armpit into the thorax.  




The task of settling the issue fell to Livingstone, who was back in Africa in 1866 until his death in 1873. Livingstone had begun his explorations with the zeal of converting Africans to Christ (he was notably unsuccessful, for the one convert he made eventually backslid) or abolishing the Arab slave trade (but he failed in this, too, and sometimes had to seek refuge by accompanying Arab expeditions). He perished in the attempt to demonstrate that Tanganyika was the source. He had an agonizing and lonely death in present-day Zambia in 1873, but only a few days before had written in heroic understatement, "It is not all pleasure, this exploration." Then the confirmation was taken up by Stanley, who had famously gone out to find Livingstone, and had done so in 1871. Everyone knows that Stanley greeted the missionary with "Dr. Livingstone, I presume," but probably he didn't. It became a catch phrase at the time, and an exasperated Stanley back in London would be accosted by complete strangers who roared at him the witticism, "Stanley, I presume?" Stanley, who had never had a father figure, had found one in Livingstone. Thus it is ironic that Stanley would finally succeed in proving Livingstone (and Burton) wrong: Lake Victoria was the Nile's source, and Speke's hunch (lacking confirmation, it cannot be more than that) was right all along. 




In the final part of his book, Jeal puts the explorations into context. Foreign governments said they were going into the dark continent to extend protection over the oppressed races, but their interests were territorial rather than humanitarian. The explorers played a role in the "Scramble for Africa." Stanley was even duped by Leopold II in his horrendous exploitation for Belgium of the Congo. The opening of Africa in this way led to Idi Amin's appalling atrocities in Uganda and the current horrors in Darfur. If it had all been handled more sensibly, Africa would not have its current problems, but even the laudable goal of simply finding out where the Nile came from was not handled sensibly. There were enormous egos in the game, with eagerness to be the first and reluctance to share any prizes. One African chief was baffled by all the fuss; he told Livingstone, "It is only water." The great race to find out where the water came from, however, in Jeal's lengthy, comprehensive, and revisionist book is exciting reading both about the adventures in the field and about the clash of personalities. 




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