- The Sad Story of Burton, Speke, and the Nile; or, was John Hanning Speke a Cad? Looking at the Evidence, and: The Highly Civilized Man: Richard Burton and the Victorian World
Burton v. Speke remains one of the most compelling controversies of the Victorian empire. During 1857–59, Richard Francis Burton and John Hanning Speke travelled to the lakes region of East Africa to find the source of the Nile. Speke returned to London before Burton to announce that he had discovered Lake Victoria Nyanza was the source of the river. They published competing accounts and Speke made a return journey to confirm his theory. In 1864, on the day before they were scheduled to debate the Nile’s source, Speke died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound while hunting. Speke’s tragic demise didn’t end the Burton v. Speke controversy but provided fodder for speculation, which has continued to fill many biographies, historical novels, and even Hollywood films. Two recent books provide insight into the changing ways in which this controversy might be understood.
Speke’s reputation has suffered over the years and The Sad Story of Burton, Speke and the Nile, by W.B. Carnochan, attempts to “redress the balance by examining the conflict as it was waged in a series of duelling texts by the protagonists.” This literary or textual method, he admits, harkens back to his earliest training in the 1950s “at a time when ‘close reading’ was all the rage.”(2) The Sad Story compares published accounts by Burton, Speke and their biographers to reconstruct disputes stretching from their first journey together and the search for the Nile to Speke’s second journey to the region. The book presumes much prior knowledge and jumps directly into the publication history. At its best, Carnochan’s textual reading offers rewarding insights, such as the contrast between Speke’s sunny Wordsworthian sentimentality and Burton’s measured descriptions and Gothic panoramas (40, 53). These literary contrasts could have been developed further as evidence for a broader cultural interpretation of the conflict between Speke and Burton, but instead are used to reinforce the personal incompatibility of the protagonists. Carnochan recounts his serendipitous discovery of an eight-page tailpiece written by Speke and bound into only a few copies of Speke’s book on the Nile. He longs for this tailpiece to result in an academic whodunit (71–75, 92-8), but its revelations are underwhelming and the discovery is used to counter claims that Speke was a “cad.” These claims originated during Speke’s lifetime and, Carnochan reports, circulated in recent internet discussions. Though he agrees with the conclusion of the internet chat that Speke was immature rather than “caddish,” Carnochan rightly decides this explanation itself requires an explanation. He tells his bibliographic story well and is almost painfully even-handed in his speculations. An elegant conclusion compares the conundrums left by Speke to the satire on truth-telling in Gulliver’s Travels. And yet, the issue of book might more fruitfully have been phrased as why do people still debate whether Speke was a cad?
The Highly Civilized Man, Dane Kennedy’s superb new biography of Richard Burton, is not framed in these terms but provides a more comprehensive treatment of such questions. Kennedy’s approach to the conflict between Burton and Speke exemplifies the strengths of the book by placing it in a wider context of Victorian attitudes toward difference. Burton and Speke’s journey to East Africa did not enter terra incognita but was in the style of an Arab trade caravan following existing trade routes. Both men tried to conform to the new ideal of the heroic explorer as a detached, scientific observer, but their achievements were disparaged by the genteel, armchair authorities at the Royal Geographical Society. Accusations of being a “cad,” which Burton also suffered for not paying the...