At last - the source of the bile

The Sad Story of Burton, Speke, and the Nile; Or, Was John Hanning Speke a Cad?

June 9, 2006

This curious, small, but highly intelligent book by W. B. Carnochan, emeritus professor of the humanities at Stanford University, deals with the strained relationship between the two British adventurers Richard Burton (1821-90) and John Hanning Speke (18-64) in their legendary search for the source of the Nile. The book "attempts to redress the balance by examining the conflict as it was waged in a series of duelling texts by the protagonists". It is indeed a textual study, and the author has drawn his conclusions by studying the relevant texts, a veritable battle of competing stories, in minute detail.

The enigmatic climax was reached in 1858-59 after Speke claimed to have discovered the Nile's source in the lake he named after Queen Victoria. Burton, who for personal and hitherto unclear reasons refused to journey with Speke to the lake, rejected Speke's claim. He also accused Speke of violating a promise not to report his findings to the Royal Geographical Society until Burton joined him in London. After a second African expedition to confirm the Nile's source - led by Speke, this time accompanied by James Augustus Grant - Burton and Speke were scheduled to debate the question of the Nile's source at a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Bath in 1864. However, the day before the debate, Speke was found dead of a gunshot wound suffered while shooting partridge on his cousin's Somerset estate. Was it suicide?

The final conversation between Speke and Burton took place in Aden in March 1859. Although both were offered passages to England on the HMS Furious , Burton declined, claiming a fever. The two explorers exchanged a brief farewell. "I shall hurry up, Jack, as soon as I can," Burton said. And Speke replied: "Goodbye old fellow, you may be quite sure I shall not go up to the Royal Geographical Society until you come to the fore and we appear together. Make your mind quite easy about that." "They were the last words," Burton wrote, "Jack ever spoke to me on earth." By now the stuff of legend, these parting words are the foundation on which the belief in Speke's betrayal rests. For Speke in fact hastened to the Royal Geographical Society on his arrival in London in early May, where he claimed the discovery of the Nile's source for himself and gained Sir Roderick Murchison's support for a return expedition.

Carnochan questions the veracity of Burton's report of his last meeting with Speke. The famous conversation "was recorded - or composed - more than five years later than those parts of Burton's text that appear in his book The Lake Regions of Central Africa (1860) and in his wife Isabel's biography". Carnochan argues against the different accounts reported by Burton's best-known biographers, Byron Farwell, Fawn Brodie and Mary Lovell. Each, he states, assumes that Speke betrayed Burton on the basis of one piece of evidence only, supplied by Burton himself. But Carnochan cites Speke's own recently unearthed comments, privately printed in an eight-page section added to just three copies of his book What Led to the Discovery of the Source of the Nile (1864). These record Burton informing Speke of his intention to travel to Jerusalem rather than "hurrying" back to England.

There is therefore some suspicion that Burton may have lied, telling Speke he intended to go to Jerusalem but actually planning to take the next boat to London and perhaps beat Speke to the Royal Geographical Society himself while his erstwhile companion was in Somerset.

I have studied Speke's own copy of his book and one of the three copies with the eight-page section. This latter not only questions Burton's motives in Aden but charges him with incompetence, cowardice, malice and jealousy on their joint expedition in 1857-59. In addition, Speke's pencil corrections on his copy (obviously made in preparation for a possible second edition) show a page-heading changed from "Feeders of the Nyanza" to "First Sight of the Nyanza"; and a further tell-tale heavy circling of the word "Kagera", which we know now to be the main feeder river of Lake Victoria.

Carnochan's compelling arguments expose not only Burton's unusual sexual appetites, but the possibility that his research into sexual customs at Kazeh had been the chief reason why he sent Speke north on his own to find Lake Victoria. As for Speke, he had an "Anglo-Indian attitude toward those with darker skin; a love affair with the killing of beasts and a failure to credit others where credit was due". Carnochan also concurs with the coroner's verdict that Speke's death was an accident, but he suspects Speke's state of mind might have made it a purposeful accident. But the author admits that "a high degree of probability beyond reasonable doubt is all that can be achieved". Therefore, interesting though his theories are, it is doubtful if this book will change history or the attitudes of future biographers. Whatever Carnochan says, because of Speke's clearly opportunistic behaviour, it is harder to believe him than Burton. Yet many who have distrusted Burton over the years will welcome this new evidence in favour of Speke.

Modern geographical knowledge today, with ample proof, rejects Speke's claims and reveals that Lake Victoria, far from being the "source" of the Nile, is in fact one of the two great reservoirs, the other being Lake Albert. These reservoirs are fed by two mighty rivers - the Kagera, which drains the Burundi Highlands, and the Semliki, which drains the Ruwenzori Mountains. Nevertheless, the discovery of the source of the Nile is for ever Speke's prize, for which he will be remembered. In Burton's case, a thread of mystery will always run through his life story - compounded by the fact that his widow Isabel burnt all his journals and diaries conscientiously after her husband's death. What secrets went up in smoke? The enduring sadness and strangeness of these two great Victorian explorers lies in the pages of this slender volume.

Christopher Ondaatje is a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and the author of two books on Richard Burton, Sindh Revisited and Journey to the Source of the Nile .

The Sad Story of Burton, Speke, and the Nile; Or, Was John Hanning Speke a Cad?

Author - W. B. Carnochan
Publisher - Stanford University Press
Pages - 160
Price - £32.95 and £11.95
ISBN - 0 8047 5325 3 and 5571 X

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