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The Triumph and Tragedy of a Great Victorian Adventure

by Tim Jeal

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-300-14935-7
Publisher: Yale Univ.

An account of the hardships, backstabbing and fierce determination of a group of British adventurers who explored the headwaters of the Nile River.

Jeal, the author of a well-received biography of the explorer Henry Morton Stanley (Stanley: the Impossible Life of Africa's Greatest Explorer, 2007 etc.) and an earlier biography of David Livingstone, here seeks to rescue the reputation of an earlier member of the tribe, John Hanning Speke. In the mid 19th century, Speke discovered the source of the river, “the planet's most elusive secret.” Speke was led by Richard Francis Burton, the British intelligence officer, travel writer and explorer most famous for his translation of The Arabian Nights. Jeal describes the friction that developed between the two men during their expedition, made worse by the travails of the journey, which included ulcers caused by parasites, malaria and, for Speke, a serious spear wound. After the two explorers discovered Lake Tanganyika, Burton was forced by illness to stop while Speke continued on to the southern shore of Lake Victoria, the actual source. Burton's efforts to discredit Speke's discovery included deliberate misrepresentation of water flows in the region, and it was Stanley who later confirmed the outflow from Lake Victoria to the Nile. Jeal offers rich descriptions of the African kingdoms in the region and the still-flourishing slave trade, and the larger-than life cast of characters includes Livingstone, Stanley and several lesser figures.

An enjoyable adventure story. For a broader scope, see Adam Hochschild's King Leopold's Ghost (1998).