Speke and the Discovery of the Source of the Nile: An Introduction

John Hanning Speke was among the greatest British explorers of the Victorian era, whose greatest achievement was the discovery of the source of the White Nile – the holy grail of Victorian exploration. Following expeditions with Sir Richard Burton, Speke died in mysterious circumstances, at the age of 37.

In what is the only full-length biography of Speke, Alexander Maitland set out on an exploration of his own – of Speke the man, and his demise. First published in 1971, Maitland’s biography remains one of the most important books about Victorian exploration and for this reissue in Faber Finds he provides us with a new introduction.


An Introduction to Faber’s January 2010 reprint of the 1971 edition

John Hanning Speke (1827-1864) was among the greatest British explorers of the Victorian era. He was brought up in Somerset and served with the Bengal Native Infantry from 1844-1854. Aged 27 Speke joined an ill-fated expedition to Zanzibar led by Richard Francis Burton (1821-1890) and explored the Wadi Nogal region in Somaliland. In 1855, he was badly wounded when Issa warriors attacked Burton’s camp, at Berbera, on the Somali coast …

Speke accompanied Burton’s 1856-1859 expedition across Central Africa and on 3 August 1858 discovered Lake Victoria. This he felt convinced was the principal source of the White Nile – whose discovery had been, for centuries, the most coveted objective of African exploration.

Determined to prove his intuitive claim, Speke returned to Lake Victoria in 1860-1863, accompanied by James Augustus Grant (1827-1892). In July 1862, though he still lacked evidence connecting the Nile with Lake Victoria, Speke declared ‘the Nile is settled’. More than a decade after Speke’s death, Henry Morton Stanley (1841-1904) circumnavigated Lake Victoria in 1875 and verified Speke’s claim.

No less controversial than Speke’s alleged discovery of the Nile source, were the circumstances of his violent death in September 1864. The day before he and Burton were to stage a public debate on the Nile, Speke was killed while shooting partridges on his cousin’s Wiltshire estate. In February 1965 Alan Moorehead wrote urging me: ‘Do please try and find out whether or not he committed suicide. Everyone says no, but I have lingering doubts’.

It appears that Speke’s relatives destroyed his diaries and many letters. Their descendants likewise discouraged any attempt to investigate the explorer’s life. In March 1972 Elspeth Huxley confided that ‘years ago [she had] made a few vague enquiries and gathered that the material for a life just didn’t exist – no private letters or journals, and the surviving members of the family not anxious to co-operate’.

The idea of writing Speke’s biography was suggested to me in 1964 by Wilfred Thesiger. Sir Samuel Baker’s biographer, Dorothy Middleton, an authority on the leading African explorers, introduced me to Speke’s family and encouraged them to help. Mrs Middleton’s introduction, and enthusiastic support from Wilfred Thesiger and Alan Moorehead, made an enormous difference at this early stage when progress hung in the balance. No less important, Donald Simpson’s guidance led me to a fascinating unpublished archive of Speke’s letters in the National Library of Scotland. Donald Simpson also found for me an excellent copy of J. A. Grant’s scarce book, A Walk Across Africa.

From the beginning Quentin Keynes gave me every encouragement and unlimited access to his magnificent collection of letters, manuscripts and books (many of them annotated and inscribed), written by Speke, Burton, Grant, Sir Samuel Baker (1821-1893) and David Livingstone (1813-1873). As a generous spur to my efforts, Quentin gave me the 1893 two-volume Life of Burton by his wife, Isabel; Lady Burton’s presentation edition originally from Wardour Castle. Strange to say I never owned a copy of Speke’s Journal of the Discovery of the Source of Nile, published in 1863, or its sequel What Led to the Discovery of the Source of the Nile (1864).

The first edition of Speke published by Constable in 1971 was followed by the Victorian Book Club edition in 1973. It has been quoted by every Burton biographer since then as well as many writers on 19th-century African exploration. To this day, Speke still remains the only full-length biography of the explorer.

– Alexander Maitland, London 2009


Alexander Maitland is the author of many books including the authorized biography of Wilfred Thesiger. He also edited Thesiger’s My Life and Travels.

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