Speke's Journal

Journal of the Discovery of the Source of the Nile
By John Hanning Speke
(1868; Dover, 1996)

Reviewed by Sean Redmond

The Journal of African Travel-Writing, Number 3, September 1997 (pp. 87-91).

1997 The Journal of African Travel-Writing

John Hanning Speke's career as an explorer began inauspiciously in 1855, when he and his commander, the swashbuckling Richard Burton, were nearly killed by marauders on the beaches of Somalia. Less than a decade later, and amidst a terrible public battle with Burton over the source of the Nile, Speke lay dead, the accidental or suicidal victim of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. However, for a few short years in between, he was held by most to be one of the greatest European explorers of Africa and one of the bravest sons of England. In a history dominated by Burton's prolific writings, the Journal of the Discovery of the Source of the Nile, now reprinted by Dover, offers a self-portrait of Speke during the pinnacle of his brief career--his own three-year voyage into the heart of the African continent.

In 1854, having gained fame as the first modern European to visit Mecca, Burton set out to explore Somalia, probably with an eye to finding the source of the Nile. At exactly that time, Speke was on furlough from the Forty-sixth Regiment of Bengal Native Infantry. An avid hunter who had already shot up the Himalayas, Speke thought he might make a two-year shooting expedition to the Mountains of the Moon, known from Ptolemy, and perhaps discover the source of the Nile along the way. When a member of Burton's expedition died unexpectedly, Speke was taken on as a replacement. He was first assigned the task of exploring, by himself, the Wadi Nogal, which he never reached. While Speke was engaged with this, Burton repeated his feat at Mecca by becoming the first Christian to enter the holy city of Harare, but got no further. After they met back up with the others at Berberah, their camp was attacked by some Somali. One member of the expedition was killed, both Speke and Burton were severely wounded, and their expedition thus ended.

In a spirit of goodwill and recompense for what Speke had suffered, Burton invited him on the second expedition to central Africa. Speke had planned to go shooting in the Caucasus, but he and Burton set out in June 1857 to investigate the truth about the Tanganyika, a reportedly huge lake in central Africa and perhaps the long-sought source of the Nile. This expedition, which lasted until the spring of 1859 and is described by Burton in The Lake Regions of Central Africa, was a failure as well. Hindered by expense, desertion, and illness, they were unable to explore Lake Tanganyika fully, and Burton was too ill to go to another lake they had heard of to the north. Speke went off by himself again, this time to discover the Victoria Nyanza. Burton describes the fateful day:

At length my companion had been successful, his "flying trip" had led him to the northern water, and he had found its dimensions surpassing our most sanguine expectations. We had scarcely, however, breakfasted, before he announced to me the startling fact that he had discovered the sources of the Nile. It was an inspiration perhaps: the moment he sighted the Nyanza he felt at once no doubt but that the "lake at his feet gave birth to that interesting river which has been subject of so much speculation and the object of so many explorers." The fortunate discoverer's conviction was strong; his reasons were weak. . . .
Thus began a bitter conflict that flared up in public when Speke returned home in May 1859, ahead of Burton. By the time Burton arrived in England, his erstwhile companion had already gotten backing from Sir Roderick Murchison, president of the Royal Geographic Society, for a return to Africa in order to strengthen his claims about the Nile. This time Speke traveled without Burton, choosing instead a young Captain James Grant, an acquaintance from India as unknown and untraveled as Speke himself had been on the original Somali expedition in 1855. In April 1860, less than a year after coming home, Speke set out again for Africa to explore the northern end of the Victoria Nyanza, confident of proving the truth of his "inspiration." He would then follow the river down to meet John Petherick, the ivory trader and vice-consul, coming up the Nile from Khartoum.

Speke's shortcomings as a geographer and explorer were many. Skeptics immediately noticed, for instance, that by his calculations the Nile flowed uphill. Nonetheless, he had discovered the source of the Nile. And though his Journal lacks the historical and anthropological detail of Burton's Lake Regions, its narrative is finally much more interesting because, to put it simply, more happened the second time around. The goal of the first expedition, the city of Ujiji on the eastern shore of Tanganyika, turned out to be a disappointingly shabby village seen through the haze of their illnesses. Burton and Speke had traveled on an ancient caravan route that passed through Kazeh, a settlement populated wholly and peacefully by Arabs. By contrast, when Speke returned to Kazeh the merchants were fighting their own colonial war against Manua Sera, a prince turned robber, "as fine a young man as I ever looked upon. . . . the very picture of a captain of the banditti of the romances." Speke had made friends with the previous sultan of Unyamwezi, and now Manua, his son, had been deposed by the Arabs for instituting taxation, which his father had never dared.

Because Speke wants to show his influence on the personalities around him, we get much better pictures of his fellow travelers and of the people he meets than in the writings of the misanthropic Burton. Speke prides himself, inexplicably, on his talent for command and diplomacy. He undertook the task of negotiating an end to the war at Kazeh--a war between two men he respected, Manua Sera and Snay bin Amir, an Arab under whose hospitality they lived in Unyamwezi. In the Journal we find recorded a long speech by Manua Sera about his deposition, demonstrating his injured pride ("the merchants were living on sufferance only in my country. I told them so, and defied them to interfere with my orders, for I was not a 'woman,' to be treated with contempt") as well as his frustrations and hopes ("I have been a wanderer since; and though I wish to make friends, they will not allow it, but do all they can to hunt me to death. Now, as you were a friend of my father, I do hope you will patch up this war for me, which you must think is unjust"). We can doubt the accuracy of Speke's report, but we do see the conflict on a human level, pride on both sides turned to arrogance, arrogance to violence. Speke failed at peacemaking, and Snay bin Amir would eventually die in the fighting.

Another member of the expedition who is treated more fully here than in Burton's writings is Sidi Mubarak Bombay. Though he accompanied both caravans, and later returned a third time with Stanley, Bombay is barely on stage in Burton's Lake Regions (the reader is in fact referred to Speke's portrait of him in Blackwood's). In the Journal he is a vivid and sympathetic character, and the rivalry between the faithful Bombay and his nemesis, the charismatic Baraka, runs like a leitmotif through most of the journey.

The best portrait, however, is of Speke himself. Utterly unselfconscious, he is almost a parody of a British officer and colonist. He often loses his patience with "nonsense," as when a chief gets troublesome over the matter of tribute: "I began seriously to consider whether I should have this chief shot, as a reward for his oppressive treachery, and a warning to others." Most unlike Burton, Speke in his pride prefers not to adopt the local customs: "Now I had made up my mind never to sit upon the ground as the natives and Arabs are obliged to do, nor to make my obeisance in any other manner than is customary in England." He even tells us a dream which he is too dull to comprehend:

during my sleep I had all sorts of absurd dreams: for instance, I planned a march across Africa with Sir Roderick Murchison; and I fancied some curious creatures, half men and half monkeys, came into my camp to inform me that Petherick was waiting in boats at the southwest corner of the N'yanza. . . .
The psychology is transparent. He did plan the march with Murchison. He was ever waiting for news of Petherick. The only discernible absurdity is Petherick's being too far south, for "half monkey" is a charitable way to put his opinion of most Africans.

If Burton introduced the word safari into English, Speke defined it. He writes that "a rich variety of small birds, as often happened, made me wish I had come on a shooting rather than on a long exploring expedition"; and "always eager to shoot something, either for science or the pot, I killed a bicornis rhinoceros . . . and I also shot a bitch fox of the genus Otocyon Lalandii. . . . This was rather tame sport; but the next day I had better fun." Then follow three pages and three engravings describing a buffalo hunt. Hunting is an obsession that overwhelms his purpose:

I found myself at once in view of the Nile on one hand and the long-heard-of Asua River on the other. . . . The bed of the Asua seemed very large, but, being far off, was not very distinct; nor did I care to go and see it then, for at that moment, straight in front of me, five buffaloes, five giraffes, two eland, and sundry other antelopes, were too strong a temptation.
Speke finds a soul-mate in Muteesa (spelled Mtesa by Speke), the sporting young king of Buganda, who loved to see the Englishman shoot and learned quite well himself. The king's cruelty is shocking to Speke. But the irony of giving Muteesa a gun as a gift is lost on him, even when, after a show of shooting cows, "The king now loaded one of the carbines I had given him with his own hands, and giving it full-cock to a page, told him to go out and shoot a man in the outer court."

With the Nile controversy long settled, this account of the kingdom of Buganda (which has given its name, in Swahili, to modern Uganda) is now the most important part of the book, for it is the earliest available eyewitness account of this country. It was, at that time, truly unknown to Europeans except for what Burton had learned second-hand from the Arabs. Snay bin Amir had visited the previous Kabaka (king), Ssuuna II, in 1852 but had not made much of an inroad. When Speke arrived there, Muteesa, the last and greatest Kabaka of Buganda, was just beginning his reign. Internal power struggles and the arrival of outsiders were about to change things forever.

Speke was less intent on learning the history of Buganda than on convincing the kings that they belonged to a different, aristocratic race, the Wahuma, originally from Abyssinia, and were descendants of King David, or possibly even "a small residue of the original European stock." The ruling Wahuma, he says, believed that the Europeans had come "to take back the country from them." It was an ideal justification for someone who believed that "They require a government like ours in India" and that they, as children of Israel, needed missionaries--though it was perhaps impious for this good Christian to tell Muteesa that the Baganda would count their years from the arrival of the first white man. Speke traces the ruling dynasty of Buganda back only eight generations, though the oral tradition records over thirty kings before Muteesa. Speke's account of their "paganism" is equally careless, and what religion he could discern is taken only as evidence of their fall from grace.

In four and a half months of living at the court, Speke did not learn Luganda, but relied on his Swahili and on interpreters. Thus he often misleads his readers on linguistic matters. You can discern the titles of Buganda's complex hierarchy in such names as "Mr. Pokino" and "Colonel Congow" (the Ppookino and Kangaawo, two of the Kabaka's sub-chiefs, who governed Buddu and Bulumezi respectively), but Speke constantly uses the nickname kamraviona (properly kamalabyonna) for the Katikkiro, the king's prime minister. In a rather significant blunder, he glosses the word mkavia as "monarch" when it is rather Muteesa's original name, Mukaabya. (He adopted "Muteesa," which means "he who governs," early in his reign).

Nevertheless, Speke provides a truly valuable, day-by-day account of life at an African royal court. Muteesa was in a tender period between his election and his coronation. Speke found himself in turn caught between Muteesa and the Namasole (the queen-mother, N'yamasore in Speke's spelling) as they maneuvered for prestige and power. The two were jealous of each other over Speke's company, so he favored now one, now the other, visiting them in turns, trying to cajole their permission to continue on to the Nile. Their personalities come alive in this rather novelistic triangle. What Speke's account lacks in history is made up for in the liveliness and spontaneity of his diary.

With a pang of loss, Muteesa let his visitor depart, and the expedition did finally reach the Nile. Speke spends barely a third of a paragraph describing the moment. The place seemed to him to have "the kind of effect aimed at in a highly-kept park." He made a characteristically shoddy survey and could not be bothered to follow the stream the entire way down. Instead he took shortcuts between sections of the river and thus gave his detractors enough ammunition to keep from him the full credit for his very real accomplishment.

The first expedition had gone nowhere that Arabs had not already established themselves. Arab merchants had even come into Buganda, but Speke alone managed to cross it and to march north across Buganda's hostile neighbor, Bunyoro, and eventually all the way to Alexandria. But, as always, Speke's greatest shortcoming was his personality. His carelessness mixed with self-assurance alienated first Burton, then the Royal Geographical Society, then even the mysterious Laurence Oliphant who had originally convinced Speke to betray Burton and take all the credit for what was arguably a shared discovery. Fortunately for us, though, his quick, unreflective pen gives us a portrait, more intimate than intended, of the life and mind of one British traveler in the heart of Africa.

This reprint is a sturdy paperback, like all Dover books, and even includes a fold-out map of Speke's voyages from the original. Dover has reproduced a posthumous American edition, published by Harper & Brothers in 1868. One of this edition's oddities is that it retains a map of central Africa "according to Hindu sources." The map had appeared in the first British edition, but was quickly discredited and removed from subsequent editions. This American edition not only retains the map, but also a footnote explaining the map's omission!