What Led to the Discovery of the Source of the Nile


The British explorer John Hanning Speke (1827‒64) is famed for being the first European to visit Lake Victoria and to identify it as the source of the Nile. Speke undertook three African expeditions, the first two with the great explorer Richard Burton (1821‒90), like Speke an officer in the Indian Army. In early 1855 Speke accompanied Burton on a voyage from Aden to Somalia and then southwards into East Africa. The two men separated for part of the expedition; Speke explored the area south of Bunder Gori and Burton proceeded to Harrar. Following brief service in the Crimean War, Speke joined Burton on a second, much larger expedition to the Great Lakes region of Africa. The two men left Zanzibar (in present-day Tanzania) in June 1857 and reached Lake Tanganyika in February 1858. Both explorers were stricken with malaria, but Speke recovered sufficiently to proceed northward to the southern end of an enormous lake, which he named Victoria after the British queen. What Led to the Discovery of the Source of the Nile is Speke’s account, based on his journals, of these two expeditions. Originally serialized in Blackwood’s Magazine, the book is in two parts, each comprised of five chapters, “Journal of Adventures in Somali Land” and “Journal of a Cruise on the Tanganyika Lake.” Speke’s journal of August 3, 1858 recounts his first sight of the lake, whose enormous size he did not yet fully comprehend: "I no longer felt any doubt that the lake at my feet gave birth to that interesting river, the source of which has been the subject of so much speculation, and the object of so many explorers.” Speke undertook a third expedition, without Burton, aimed at proving his claim that Lake Victoria was the source of the Nile. Accompanied by 176 men, Speke set out from Zanzibar in September 1860. On July 28, 1862 he reached the point at which the Nile issues from Lake Victoria, which he named Ripon Falls. Speke returned to England via Cairo, and in December 1863 published Journal of the Discovery of the Source of the Nile. What Led to the Discovery of the Source of the Nile, published the following year, was intended in part to bolster Speke’s importance as an explorer and his claims to have found the source of the Nile, which were disputed by many, including Burton, with whom Speke had had a bitter falling out.

Last updated: May 2, 2017