The result was that Speke hugged the discovery “to himself with the solicitude of a mother for its unborn babe”, suspecting that Burton would rob him of the major credits. Meanwhile Burton’s growing “scientific” scepticism was fuelled by a suppressed fear that he had made a fatal mistake himself.
True Tales of War, Adventure and Exploration tells how Britain had been a land of adventurers and explorers since the days of the first Elizabeth. It was the daring in search of fresh horizons who created the British Empire in the first place. The Empire itself provided later generations, still thirsting for wilder shores and lonelier uplands, with a world-wide obstacle course filled with romantic, dangerous challenges.
For some, the objectives were practical in nature for example to find a precious mineral, a new sea or overland route to some important objective. For many the challenge itself was the goal. To penetrate an untrodden jungle, cross an uncrossed desert, circumnavigate the globe or conquer a mountain peak - simply because “it is there” was reward enough.
RICHARD BURTON (Explorer) 1821 - 1890 In the middle of the 19th Century, the River Nile, one of the greatest remaining challenges for explorers, still had its origins behind a barrier of fetid swamps, fatal diseases and ferocious tribesmen. Its mystery was compounded by reports of fabulous lakes and mountains.
This challenge fired the imagination of an aggressively individualistic British explorer who went out on dangerous and fever-ridden expeditions to find the Source of the Nile. He did not want to open up the land for trade but only to accomplish the task because the river “was there”! This man was Richard Burton.
Burton was already known for his exploits in dangerous countries, although he had blighted his prospects in the Indian service by his bluntness, he was not yet the frighteningly controversial figure he was to become. His linguistic abilities, tested in company examinations, his grasp of eastern religious and social customs and his evident valour made him an obvious leader. Although Burton and Speke’s personalities were superficially so complimentary, they were in fact utterly incompatible and the history of Nile exploration for the next 25 years was to be effected by the conflict of two men brought close only by much shared suffering. The violent personal quarrel between Burton and Speke that followed the 1857 expedition saw armchair geographers taking bitterly opposed sides.
Richard Burton, the first son of an army officer, had an unconventional upbringing even for the profligate “Regency” period. Apart from an interlude in a kind of Dickensian “Dotheboys Hall” to which his father diverted him from entry to Eton, Richard and his brother and sister were coached by a series of ‘tutors’. From this strange education there emerged a faulty ‘classicist’ but a first rate swordsman. Burton believed his mothers story that he was descended ‘morganatically’ from Louis XIV of France.
This saturnine, red-headed, blue-eyed lad not only had the name of the Romany tribe of ’‘Burtons’ but looked like one; to complete the identification he learned the Romany tongue from a Gypsy ‘mistress’ in the course of the Burton’s travels on the continent. Languages were the precious tools with which to satisfy his insatiable curiosity about exotic peoples; with languages, intimate customs of little known tribes could be studied and once studied, defended against conventional opinion. He was self-confident, undisciplined and devoid of tact or even consideration.
In India Burton’s rapid mastering of Persian, Afghan, Hindi, Urdu and Arabic won him the friendship of Sir Charles Napier, conqueror of Sind, to whom he rendered superlative service as an intelligence officer. Burton decided to attempt a journey to the city of Mecca, the holy city of the Muslims, which infidels were forbidden to enter on pain of death,. In 1853, he left his clothes with a friend in London and donned an Arab personality so complete that he was able to pass among the most devout Muslims, letter perfect in his command of the language and the rituals of the religion of Allah. This trip was followed by the publication of a book “Pilgrimage to El Medinah and Mecca” which almost immediately made him world famous. One year later he followed up this feat by becoming the first European to enter the Abyssinian city of Harar, another place so holy to Muslims that no European had survived the trip, although at least 30 had made attempts.
At this point Burton was in Aden planning the expedition to the Nile when he found that he had to fill a sudden vacancy in the expedition’s ranks. By co-incidence there happened to be, in Aden, another Indian officer John Hanning Speke who was eager to join Burton. Together they decided to attempt to seize “the greatest geographical prize since the discovery of America” - the tracing of the Nile to its source. Each man later insisted that he was first with the idea of finding the source of the Nile by striking inland from the Somali coast. Perhaps both had it, but they concealed the plan from the authorities. Speke made up a cover story that he was on a hunting trip to Somalia for which he had saved his pay for years. Burton’s was his desire to repeat at Harar, his Mecca exploits. Neither explanation satisfied the suspicious British Governor of Aden and he sanctioned only a trip to Zanzibar.
Speke, as fair and charming as Burton was saturnine and sarcastic, came of a Somerset family whose origins went back to the conquest of 1066. Speke’s father had been an army officer but had left the service in 1830 and was content to run his estate as the local squire and enjoy his family. Like Burton, Speke preferred the outdoor life to study. Speke was a fanatic about personal fitness. At 17 he joined the Indian army, and found action in the Sikh Wars under General Sir Colin Campbell, while Burton who was anathema to his commander, was kept at his base.
Speke was invited by Burton to join his official “Lakes Expedition to Central Africa” in 1856. The invitation reached Speke in the Crimea, that meeting place of British notabilities in 1854 - 56. He travelled night and day to London to accept. Speke was determined to be associated with the Nile discovery. Perhaps since he doubted Burton’s single-mindedness to see it through, he foresaw an opportunity to advance his own ambitions. In 1857 the two partners embarked on a warship in Bombay, and landed at Zanzibar. From there they made an exploratory trip to Mombasa with the idea of acclimatizing themselves. Burton and Speke then considered marching inland to Kilamanjaro and exploring beyond; had they done so they would have visited Victoria, the largest lake, together. They were later criticized for the decision not to make this trip, but news of the depredations of the Masai warrior tribe, which held the country in thrall, had dissuaded them. to protect them and four servants.
Though Burton and Speke were the first Europeans to make the journey to the “Sea of Ujiji” as lake Tanganyika was called, the trail was not unknown; it had been a caravan route since 1824. When Burton overheard the Hindus telling each other that he would never get as far as Ugogo, not a third of the distance, whereupon they would seize all his belongings, he had a moment of despair. The column moved at its own pace; indiscipline was the rule, theft endemic, and desertions began as soon as the men marched from the coastal strip into the hot bush. When they reached Morogoro they were, Burton said, “physically and morally incapacitated for any exertion beyond balancing ourselves on donkeys”.
Faced with the prospect that Burton and Speke would soon die, and listening to rumours that dreaded Ngoni warriors ahead, the Balushi soldiers mutinied and had to be quelled by an emaciated Burton who faced them down with a revolver in hand.
By the time they reached Ugogo half the supplies intended to last a year had been consumed or stolen. This was serious because the local tax called hongo payable to chieftains over who’s land they passed, was rising progressively and had to be paid out of the supplies they carried. The travellers health improved as they reached the savannah country. Finally tattered and emaciated, the two Englishmen walked into Kazah (today - Tabora) on November 7th 1857. Speke was almost blind with opthalmia. There they recuperated for three weeks, and there Burton learned from the Arab inhabitants that the Erhardt map was wrong there was not one but three great lakes or seas, the Sea of Niassa“ to the south; the ”Sea of Ujiji” (Lake Tanganyika) just ahead; and the “Sea of Ukewere” (Lake Victoria) to the north. They pushed on hopefully but Burton again fell so ill that Speke had to take command temporarily. On December 14th they were in sight of Lake Tanganyika, but Speke could not see it and Burton had to be carried as his legs were paralysed. They gazed at it with “ wonder admiration and delight”. Helped by some Arabs the two men recuperated for a fortnight and then despite their disabilities attempted to explore the lake in a canoe, too small a craft for so large a body of water.
The most urgent task was to find what outlets there were from the lake and thus decide whether the Nile had its origin here. They were unable to reach the northern end of the lake but the natives assured them that there was a river there the Ruzizi that flowed into, not out of the lake. Which meant that it could not be the Nile source. Their position now appeared to be so desperate that Burton decided to return to Zanzibar with news of the discoveries thus far made. Speke later claimed that he suggested then that they should march north from Ujiji to the Sea of Ukerewe but Burton felt unable to do so. Had a further journey been possible, Burton would have discovered that Lake Tanganyika was 400 miles long not the mere 250 that he and Speke estimated.
The exhausted men set off back but were forced to halt at Kazah. Burton was still unable to walk and needed more rest before they could continue on the return journey to Zanzibar. Speke however, was irked by the time being wasted and persuaded Burton to allow him to take a small party on a three week trek to the reputed “Sea ” to the north. Burton agreed partly to get some relief from Spekes company and partly because he was contemptuous of Speke’s ability to achieve any useful results on his own.
Speke made a momentously successful foray northwards and three weeks later on August 3rd 1858, beheld the huge expanse of the Sea of Ukerewe which, with the descriptions of the Arabs and the Erhardt map in mind he decided in a flash of inspiration was at last the ‘source of the Nile’ . “This I maintain”, he wrote later, “was The discovery of the Nile”. He noted of the lake that it was so broad you could not see across it and so long that nobody knew its length“. He marched to the waters edge at what became known as ”Speke’s Gulf“ and hurried back to Burton to announce the great discoveries.
Burton at first, received the information coldly, then while acknowledging that Speke had found a lake, demanded what possible proof he had that it was THE lake. Of course in strict geographical logic Burton was right, but in other respects he was disastrously wrong. His forthright denigration of Speke’s achievement further antagonized his companion, and while his rejection of Speke’s suggestion that they should both go and investigate the lakes true extent was a gross tactical blunder.
Speke promised to say nothing on their discoveries until Burton rejoined him in London. But on the ship he met an old acquaintance, a journalist who quickly drew him out. On the journalists advice Speke went to Sir Roderick Murchison, President of the Royal Geographical Society to claim the Nile immediately the ship docked. When Burton arrived he found that his chance of a lifetime was gone for ever - “the ground was completely cut from beneath my feet”. Speke had been promised command of the new expedition. Burton received the Society’s coveted Gold Medal but Speke was the hero of the hour., the lion of the drawing rooms with his fresh boyish charm and shyness that was in such pleasant contrast to Burton’s erudition and contempt for conventions. Burton wrote his account “The Lake Regions of Central Africa”, which almost ignored Speke who told his own story with venom in Blackwoods Magazine
How Burton Received the News of Speke’s Discovery
Things get Worse and there is a Mutiny
No more was known of the source of the Nile than had been known to the geographer Ptolemy in AD150 . He had reported that the Nile originated in two lakes in central Africa about 10 degrees south This explanation had been incorporated in a map made by the Arab geographer Al Idrasi about AD1100. By 1856, The British Royal Geographical Society felt it was time to settle this matter once and for all and were inspired by a new map of Central Africa passed to them by a missionary from the East African Coast J.J.Erhardt. Within a short time after the Society received the map a swarthy, stern mustachioed man of 35, offered to take an expedition into the region to clear up all doubts. He was Lieutenant Richard Burton of the East India Company’s Bombay Light Infantry. The Society accepted his offer, sufficient money was raised, and the East India Co. granted him a leave to pursue the expedition. Burton selected as his companions, Lt. John Hanning Speke and Dr. John Steinhauser.
Both men contracted bad cases of malaria and returned to Zanzibar in worse condition than when they left. They made hasty preparations for the march inland from Bagamoyo. Already the Arab slavers and the Hindu merchants of Zanzibar were making difficulties about equipping the expedition, and Burton had to take 30 asses in stead of a full complement of porters. With the help of the British consul Burton and Speke assembled their party. It included 36 African porters, 10 gun-carrying slaves, 4 drivers a posse of Balushi soldiers
On the way back to Zanzibar the two men avoided the subject of the Nile and were barely on speaking terms, although when Speke became very ill and nearly died, Burton nursed him with great solicitude. Their only point of agreement was that, on their return to London, they should fit out a new expedition to test Speke’s theories. But they quarrelled yet again as soon as they reached the Indian Ocean on February 2nd 1859. When the explorers returned to Aden, their friendly relationship was merely a polite veneer covering profound hostility. They found a vessel to take them home immediately. Speke seized this piece of good luck. But Burton, in a pattern of behaviour often repeated, overlooked the importance of prompt public presentation of his claims, and dallied in Aden for some days.
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